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Innovation strategy needs a plan to equal its ambition


Mission-oriented approach could bring huge benefits—but implementation will be crucial, says Olivier Usher

It’s been four years since the government published its Industrial Strategy. It has since been stripped for parts, tweaked and scattered piecemeal across different departmental strategies.

Whereas that Industrial Strategy was packed with operational detail, the Innovation Strategy published on 22 July looks on the surface to be more of an aspirational signal than a detailed blueprint. It was announced last week to much less fanfare than its predecessor, without a hard hat or hi-vis jacket in sight.

While it might not carry the political weight of the Industrial Strategy, the Innovation Strategy leaves the door open to a more diverse, risk-tolerant model for funding innovation. There is a welcome focus on taking risks, accepting failure and moving beyond measuring value in purely monetary terms.

We will have to wait to see, however, whether bold words will translate into bold actions. 

The strategy stops short of detailing how its ethos might translate into actual funded programmes, leaving enormous blanks when it comes to devising, implementing and driving forward new ways of working.

To make the strategy a success, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and its constituent bodies must rise to meet two challenges. The first is to put together an audacious and credible plan to fulfil the strategy’s ambitions. The second, even bigger, will be to bring colleagues in other departments on board and embed new ways of working throughout Whitehall and Westminster.

Without an immense internal lobbying effort driven by passionate ministers and civil servants, the Innovation Strategy risks becoming another document that ends up at the bottom of the drawer, gathering dust.

Even if its ambitions can be realised, the strategy’s lack of specificity leaves a lot of room for interpretation. To a pessimist, the document could be seen as a collection of buzzwords that provides cover for business as usual. I am optimistic, though, that it leaves open doors to drive forward innovation in the UK.

Potential catalyst

The strategy promises a mission- and challenge-based approach to innovation funding, which could be a real catalyst for innovation if done right. Yet while it uses the word ‘challenge’ 74 times and ‘mission’ makes 67 appearances, exactly how this will be achieved remains elusive. It would be disappointing if the strategy came to replicate the grant-funding approach taken by the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund.

The Innovation Missions are perhaps the most interesting and tangible parts of the strategy. Done right, these could hit the twin goals of economic development and solving ‘wicked’ societal problems. So how do you do them right?

When looking to solve a problem, it’s crucial to involve those who own it. For government policy, this will mean working closely with other departments. The new strategic approach will amount to little if it can’t penetrate beyond BEIS.

Challenges should be genuinely strategic initiatives that combine resources and expertise from BEIS with experts from departments such as health, transport or agriculture. Departments with a problem to solve should be able to direct innovation funding and have access to expert support to deploy, manage and evaluate projects.

A diverse range of funding mechanisms will be essential to identifying and supporting innovative solutions to different challenges. Traditional grant-giving schemes have their place, but they should be complemented by ring-fenced funding for a range of tools that reach different innovators and support a broader range of objectives. For example, flagship challenge prizes can drive innovation and galvanise support, exemplifying the strategy’s bold ambitions. Nesta Challenges was set up with BEIS funding in 2012, and would be happy to lend its expertise in this area.

Finally, this is a huge opportunity to rigorously evaluate different funding programmes and build a stronger evidence base on what works best. Decisions on what to fund currently rely more on educated guesswork than is ideal.

The strategy talks a lot about outcomes, but you also need to measure how your funding actually contributes to these. This is an opportunity to settle once and for all what works best for each situation, using rigorous research, randomised controlled trials, measurement and experiments. With every round of funding we can learn more and make the next round more impactful.

With bold leadership in implementing and evaluating the innovation missions, the benefits could be enormous. If the strategy can be translated into reality, there is a real opportunity to accelerate progress towards key goals, such as reaching net-zero emissions before 2050 and levelling up the economy across the country. 

Olivier Usher is head of research and evaluation at Nesta Challenges

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight