10: Innovation is everybody’s responsibility

Innovation is not just for private firms, large and small. In different ways, it is also for nations, public sector organisations, and for other, ‘third sector’ bodies.

If innovation is for every substantial body in society, it is not for everyone, sadly enough. After all, science and technology require specialisation, so that not every person can be an innovator.

Anyway, innovation is, as we have said, bigger than science and technology alone. It encompasses changes in organisation. It can include changes in design.

The ‘who’ of innovation

It might appear obvious that innovation is a task for national economies, but critics of the ‘national innovation systems’ approach to innovation now prefer to present innovation in the terms of Manuel Castells – as a global flow, something easily dipped into. According to the London think tank Demos,

‘It may be that innovation is becoming global first and supported by national innovation systems second….

‘National competition might not have the relevance it once had. We are entering an age of global interdependence of innovation.’ [1]

Well, yes and no. Lawyers and intelligence services exist to prevent the flow of particular kinds of science, and quite a lot of technology, around the world.

Of course, Demos feels that ‘a national pride in innovation is admirable’. [2] We don’t agree – but it is too early to conclude that the nation state has been superceded as a force for innovation.

One of the reasons for this is the size of the public sector, even in the US. There, innovation can be as weak, if not weaker, than it is in the private sector. In Britain, the now-defunct Department of Industry, Universities and Skills (DIUS) made much of the fact that it committed a princely £525,000 in 2008/9 to the development of innovation in the UK public sector. [3] Perhaps that gives some hint of why, over 1997 to 2007, the productivity of UK public services fell by 3.4 per cent, an annual average of 0.3 per cent. [4]

Innovation is, finally, a matter for voluntary organisations. Even a text which maintains that US non-profit organisations are innovative, that foundations are ‘founts’ of innovation, and that fundraising in the past couple of year has seen aq lot of innovation, is forced to concede that the potential ‘to meet the needs of the underclass’ is matched by ‘the formidable challenges of delivering’. [5]

Innovation as new organisation

With technological innovations in process come changes in organisation. Yet as Alfred Sloan of General Motors showed in the 1920s, with his annual model change and the divisionalisation of GM, changes in organisation can go ahead even in the absence of radical new technologies. [6] Yet for all the ceaseless changes in Britain’s public sector bureaucracy over the past 10 years, real progress in organisation, with or without technology, has been largely absent.

In the public sector, innovation is now supposed to be about co-production, or delivering public services ‘in an equal and reciprocal relationship between professionals, people using services, their families and their neighbours’. [7] In cultural institutions, which often rely on public funds, the same recipe obtains: what is called for is ‘a focus away from product-centric towards experience-centric innovation’ – that is, innovation in which value is created through ‘co-created experiences in which the operator (eg a museum), the visitor and the community of visitors take part’. [8]

Here organisational innovations to achieve increased efficiency are irrelevant, because efficiency ‘isn’t effective’. [9] Well: it is indeed an ABC of management that efficiency (doing things right) is not the same as effectiveness (doing the right things). But when it is learned that radical innovation in the public sector means ‘reducing demand for expensive critical services’, [10] perhaps a few old-fashioned efficiencies, based on new ways of organising, would not be such a bad idea after all.

The role of design and branding

Design and even clear branding, as a means of signposting the world, have their place in innovation. It’s true that an innovatory chair, for example, can be based purely on an ingenious new design, and not on new materials or production techniques. It’s also true that the provision of a new railway service need not necessarily rely on new technology – though information design will be needed as part of the package.

The role of design and branding, however, is not to engage in special pleading that would make them a substitute for new technology. They should stop wringing their hands about involving users and saving the planet, and instead start taking seriously their role as the humanising handmaidens of technological innovation.

[1] Kirsten Bound and others, The New Geography of Innovation: India, Finland, Science and Technology, Sitra Reports 71, 2006, p15, on http://www.sitra.fi/julkaisut/raportti71.pdf

[2] Ibid.

[3] DIUS, Annual Innovation Report 2008, December 2008, p49, on http://www.dius.gov.uk/innovation/innovation_nation/~/media/publications/2/21390%20AIR%20Report%20AW%20Complete

[4] Office for National Statistics, Total Public Service Output and Productivity, 9 June 2009, as corrected on 14 August 2009, on http://www.statistics.gov.uk/articles/nojournal/TotalPublicServiceFinalv5.pdf

[5] Steven H Goldberg, Billions of Drops in Millions of Buckets: Why Philanthropy Doesn’t Advance Social Progress, Wiley, 2009, pages xxviii, 99, 103.

[6] See Alfred Sloan, My Years with General Motors (1963).

[7] David Boyle and Michael Harris, The Challenge of Co-Production, NESTA and the New Economics Foundation, December 2009, p11, on http://www.nesta.org.uk/library/documents/Co-production-report.pdf

[8] Hasan Bakhshi and David Throsby, Innovation in Arts and Cultural Organisations, NESTA interim research report, December 2009, on http://www.nesta.org.uk/library/documents/Innovation-in-arts-and-cultural-interim.pdf

[9] Boyle and Harris, op cit, p9.

[10] Ibid.


2 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Hi Maxine,
    2015 and nothing has changed, a glimpse at the .gov.uk website funding by Innovate UK shows that they have almost eliminated SMEs & micro businesses from support in favour of global giants and academics sometimes disguised as spin-outs which disappear after the funding runs out.
    Lone inventors like myself cannot have an idea even considered for funding even with working models and proof of concept.
    Strangely SMEs make up 99.6% of all businesses and 49% of the GDP, but their taxes are used to line the coffers of the rich and powerful. Sad.

  2. Innovation whether incremental, revolutionary or disruptive requires a degree of risk. Government doesn’t take risks.

    Start-ups and micro-sized companies and a % of SME’s are far more open to risk or even driven by it, but the UK government innovation support structure does not provide financial support to start-ups, inventors, designers or micro-sized firms beyond ‘mentor’ schemes they have paid millions to large management consultancies and intermediaries to administer.

    Any funding available for technology innovation or any type of innovation is directed predominently at Universities, large SME’s and Corporate firms – whilst funding of their research & propositions some might result in a level of innovation and job creation, the majority of funds, by and large, subsidise corporate R & D budgets and Universities research budgets

    The innovators, inventors, start-ups and micro-firms who arguably are the fountain of innovative propositions, are left unsupported due to a perception once again of ‘high risk’.

    So until Goverments and Innovation Intermediaries embrace and manage risk, and genuinely support the grass roots innovation generators, the UK will struggle to build an innovation-led economy, create jobs and growth.

    There exists an entire inbalance of innovation funding and a complete avoidance of risk.

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