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Innovation strategy is a turning point for UK policy

Government, business and research can unite to build prosperity and wellbeing, says Hayaatun Sillem

On Thursday, the government published the UK’s first national Innovation Strategy in 15 years. For me, it was a moment to savour.

An innovation strategy of high ambition that arrives between fiscal events—and thus without major new spending commitments—is bound to come in for some criticism. But I have worked on innovation policy for 20 years, not least at the Royal Academy of Engineering, and this is the first time I have seen our government take a systemic view of innovation in this way.

As chair of the government’s Innovation Expert Group, I had a ringside seat during the strategy’s development. Members of the group drew on their diverse networks to convene a wide-ranging consultation that engaged more than 400 entities.

That included businesses of all sizes, from every sector and part of the UK, as well as research and innovation organisations, the investment community and academics. The appetite for engagement was striking: we were left in no doubt about the UK’s innovation potential, or the role the strategy could play in unlocking it.

Global hub

The strategy sets an overarching goal of making the UK a global hub for innovation by 2035, placing innovation at the centre of everything the nation does. It is structured around four pillars: unleashing business; people; institutions and places; and missions and technologies.

Crucially, while the strategy is led by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, it will reach across the whole of government, to embrace opportunities that range from using procurement to drive innovation, to a package of commitments focused on improving innovation finance.

The strategy has been crafted with a business audience in mind. The private sector carries out the lion’s share of innovation activity, yet while our academic research base is the envy of the world, business investment in R&D in the UK continues to lag behind our peers.

Some of the strategy is aimed at tackling longstanding weaknesses. For example, the commitment to develop a finance and innovation hub jointly between Innovate UK and the British Business Bank and to simplify the business interfaces at UK Research and Innovation promise to reduce the much-maligned complexity of business support.

Clearer priorities

The programmes for innovation missions and seven strategic "technology families" help to clarify the government’s priorities. This should engender confidence in businesses and encourage long-term co-investment in these areas. Innovate UK is given a stronger, clearer and expanded mandate to serve as the national innovation agency, including in the vital but oft-neglected areas of innovation adoption and skills; the spending review must ensure that it is resourced accordingly.

There are nods towards the importance of innovation for levelling up different parts of the country through, for example, the Strength in Places fund. We can expect further thinking on this topic to emerge over the autumn.

The strategy also identifies a number of areas for follow-on consultation, such as pro-innovation regulation and competition frameworks. A particularly interesting topic earmarked for future consultation is so-called ‘cyber-physical’ infrastructure, which is already being deployed in sectors such as manufacturing and energy. It may sound esoteric, but connected digital-physical infrastructure could be critical to our future innovation capability and competitiveness.

Another welcome action is the creation of a Business Innovation Forum, which I am looking forward to chairing. This will ensure that momentum is maintained on implementing the strategy, as well as providing a platform for ongoing engagement with business.

Over the past year, we’ve all felt the power of innovation to touch our lives—from the mind-blowing developments in vaccine technology and manufacturing, to the rapid adoption of digital platforms that enabled so many aspects of lockdown living, to the social innovation that helped to maintain access to food and essential services for the most vulnerable. But innovation was driving human progress long before that, and it will be an equally potent force post-pandemic, including in our pursuit of an inclusive, resilient, net-zero economy.

This is a strategy that deserves to succeed, and whether it does is not solely in the hands of government. All of us in the innovation ecosystem can be part of ensuring that this is an inflexion point for the UK that results in greater prosperity and wellbeing for all.

Hayaatun Sillem is chief executive of the Royal Academy of Engineering