In the media

The demand dynamic: Innovating with the market in mind

David Rees

By David Rees

Civil Service World

23 November 2023

One of my favourite PA events is our annual Raspberry Pi competition. We invite teams of primary- and secondary-schoolchildren to come up with solutions to specific challenges. Using engineering and coding skills, and a Raspberry Pi microcomputer, young people put their ingenuity to the test. And they never fail to impress.

This year we’ve challenged 8–18 year-olds to invent products that will help individuals improve their health and well-being. Given that previous challenges have seen them design sensors to manage energy use within a school, and a system to make domestic and industrial solar panels more efficient, I’m excited to see what the students come up with.

What’s significant is that the students are not just inventing things for invention’s sake. Each year, we ask them to respond to a need, such as a care issue that a family member lives with. Right now, in the ‘grown-up’ world, I see a disconnect between supply-side activity and the demand-side need. There is all manner of health apps, for example, that exist just because they can, rather than to meet real needs. I believe investing in bridging the gap will bring better adoption and better returns on the government’s annual £24 billion spend on innovation.

Thinking scale up, not start up

One of the most common misconceptions about innovation is that it’s a linear progress, from idea to reality. What I’m advocating for is a focus on the desired outcomes to generate the initial ideas. Ideas that will then necessarily pay off. That means putting an emphasis on mission-led, place- and citizen-based, targeted innovation. Success requires getting better at identifying the right challenges, involving the right people, and taking advantage of early engagement.

Understand real-world challenges and define priorities

While the challenges we set in our Raspberry Pi competition are broad, they reflect the kind of issues that could well be an overall mission for a government department. Sense-checking or identifying those wider goals can be done by broadening horizon-scanning – looking beyond what the next tech is going to be will bring issues that will resonate into focus.

I’d also argue that government and the civil service could make better use of behavioural data to work out specific problems that need addressing. And if you’re concentrating on a specific geographic sphere, you can leverage local knowledge to see the pain points or the opportunities. Take, for instance, the Bristol One City approach, where hundreds of public, private, voluntary, and third sector partners are working together to reduce inequalities and deliver on shared goals, At the centre of the initiative is Bristol City Office, a small team funded by, but run distinctly from, Bristol City Council.

Involve the target audience – but mix things up

Your end users will have helped you identify the right priorities, and they should then be involved in developing the product or service you’ve decided on. To maximise long-term take-up, it's especially important to engage the unusual suspects and find inspiration from unexpected places. Sceptics can become your strongest advocates if they are actively engaged on their views.

Diverse teams are essential in any project, and diversity is especially powerful when it comes to innovation. And when you’ve prescribed a very specific problem or opportunity, you have more freedom to involve ‘unlikely’ parties. We often see that the best ideas can come from unexpected sources. Another programme PA runs, Springboard, involves clients ‘commissioning’ solutions, from 17- and 18-year-olds of all backgrounds, to issues they’re grappling with related to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. These ideas have included a business accelerator to tackle unemployment in Iraq, a ceramic water filtration device, and creating and distributing more nutrient- and protein-packed infant formulas to decrease child mortality. Clients regularly take forward the ideas generated through the scheme. Elsewhere, our work with Essex County Council saw us take inspiration from wearable technology used in the sports and healthy lifestyles industries, and apply it to help tackle the risk of falling – a challenge which costs over £2.3 billion nationally.

Capitalise on early engagement

Taking a demand-led approach means your market is already ‘warm’, and you’ll have thought about and cleared barriers to adoption. It also allows for improved procurement. When the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) realised that its mattress turnover was the equivalent of sending 31 double-decker buses to landfill each year, it sought to procure a new, more environmentally sustainable version. By advertising this ‘unmet need’, the MoJ encouraged industry to develop more environmentally friendly products – and put the problem to bed.

Having a clear end from the outset also makes it easier to establish effective and mutually beneficial partnerships with SMEs or start-ups. For instance, Plymouth and South Devon Freeport has established an asset register to understand the innovation capabilities on offer across the region, helping both SMEs and multi-nationals connect for mutual benefit.

Time to grow down?

So, when it comes to your next innovation programme, think of the principles above to overcome the demand disconnect. In short, think like the great children who we see innovate each and every year.

Putting too much emphasis on tech for tech’s sake when it comes to innovation keeps budget-holders awake. It’s time to move away from that. For example, commissioners at Hampshire County Council have worked with a local care provider to look at the use of 'Cobots' (wearable robotic technology). Despite being a ‘first’ in UK social care, the results saw an improvement in care workers’ wellbeing (by reducing the risks of muscular-skeletal injury), and a financial benefit to the Council.

The civil service is ideally placed to take this demand-led approach, bring parties together, and put our three recommendations into practice. Regulators, for example, are often already aware of specific needs, gaps, and opportunities – they could push that knowledge out to encourage private sector interest. In any event, you might just find you don’t need something brand-new, because there could be existing solutions you can adapt to solve the problems in your field. Then things will be better for everyone sooner – and you’ll see a better ROI ahead of time.

Find out more about PA's Raspberry Pi competition and how to get involved.

This article was first published in Civil Service World.

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