Are we there yet?

The words “innovation” and “platform” are in everyday use.  They have even been used together before, but we are beginning to realise that the “innovation platforms” which we have been working on for the last few years have acquired a brand cachet, and many aspire to “have” an innovation platform in their area.  How did this come about?  And how should we develop this concept?

The basic idea was born at a meeting of the (then advisory) Technology Strategy Board in the Summer of 2005.  The concept of the Board had been announced in the Innovation Review of late 2003, but it had not actually got going until late 2004.  The original members were keen to help the then Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) make its investments wisely and started the dialogue that fused business attitudes and civil service sensibilities. 

An “away day” in July 2005 gave all those involved more time to think through the challenges and opportunities.  They were looking for a way to predict markets.  All those from business knew that developing new products and services took time and, for success, they needed to be aimed at markets large enough to pay off the investment required to carry out that development. 

They were also eyeing the £150bn or so that Government actually spent as a whole on procurement. Even allowing for major projects, this dwarfed the DTI’s science and innovation budget and offered the opportunity for innovation to be driven by real commerce, rather than simply supported with grants. 

The logic which led the Board to the innovation platforms idea was simple.  Governments exist to address societal challenges.  Government “policies” are simply statements of what success would look like and the “policy levers” – procurement, regulations, standards and fiscal measures – are all ways to influence a market to move towards their idea of success.  So if we could understand where individual policies were heading, we could use that to drive innovation in that market sector. 

We started carefully – using Government programmes that seemed to be aimed at procurement opportunities.  We learned much about dealing with Government departments.  We discovered a lot about how business viewed potential Government contracts.  We made mistakes, but each one only once. 

When we got a chance to start the next phase of the work, we took a more measured, industrial-strength process.  We ran the equivalent of a Stage-Gate approach, starting a large number of projects, appraising them after a month or two of work and only allowing the stronger projects to proceed.  We also learned to take our time – that preparation made for greater success later on.  We found that societal challenges were complex, multidisciplinary and extremely difficult to define – and that without that definition it was possible to find wrong paths, evolutionary backwaters and all sorts of ways to waste resource.  The Board members, who were about to transition from an advisory role to that of a strategic Governing Board for the new organisation, encouraged planning and using data to drive decisions.  Because of this guidance, when we launched our second phase of Innovation Platforms they could be seen as an integral part of the Government enactment of policy. 

We now have a route to identify, define and appraise potential Innovation Platforms. It asks difficult questions and it takes time, but it delivers integrated programmes which address the needs of society and the goals of Government, using the methods of business. What we have realised is that this approach is not just limited to societal challenges that Government has chosen to prioritise and address.  After all, it is not our goal to answer these societal challenges – that is the role of the Government departments we work with – but to ensure that UK based companies can drive and profit from the innovation needed to answer them.

As we rolled out our plans, we have found that the multidisciplinary nature of these challenges makes for a rich, and sometime uncomfortable, environment.  We quickly took on board the whole range of science and engineering.  We discovered and embraced psychology and sociology – it should have been obvious that “societal” challenges would need these disciplines, but…... J  We started to understand the importance of building design into the development process early on.  We learned to differentiate between design for use and design for aesthetics.  All this was accomplished with the help of an increasing number of partners.  Our traditional partnership with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) quickly expanded to include all the research councils – albeit in some cases in an exploratory manner – so that we could access their understanding of, and links to, the world-class expertise in the UK’s knowledge base.  We are now building a partnership with the Design Council so that we can access the skills of the design community at all stages of our activities.  Each new facet of the challenges we explored asked questions of our existing processes and expanded our palette of tools with which to support innovation.

We have also found new companies and ways to support them.  When we started, the Knowledge Transfer Networks had about 20,000 members and were only loosely associated with our activities.  Now there are over 50,000 members and the recent optimisation process has them more closely aligned with what we do in the rest of the Technology Strategy Board.  What we have found is that many of these new companies bring new insights and approaches to meeting the challenges we have taken from Government or derived from our own analysis.

However, it is also true that the market that really needs these challenges to be addressed is wider than this (formidable) array of expertise.  As with many before us, we are beginning to think about ways of engaging with the wider public.  In the end it is they who are the arbiters of whether a product or service is successful – whether it is developed in answer to a societal challenge or for purely market reasons.  What is not yet clear is how best to do this, and to what extent.  Any engagement should not be merely a process of preaching what we know.  Neither should it be purely receptive, where we just listen to whoever will talk to us.  We would need to find a way to explain what we have understood from everyone, and to have a real dialogue on what really matters.  I wonder how we are going to do it?


Last updated on Friday 24 February 2012 at 10:32

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