Whitehall changes need to be more than just a distraction
Will the new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology kickstart an innovation revolution in the UK?
Changes to the machinery of government can be seen as cumbersome and bureaucratic, but they can also realign the national focus. The UK has a long history of world-leading innovation and new ideas. The bigger challenge is how to move from generating the ideas to getting them out there in the commercial world. So, what does the new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology need to do to meet that challenge?
Its creation provides a welcome statement of intent that the UK is willing to back more ambitious innovation to bring wider benefits for individuals and society. Yet as The Economist recently put it: Britain is a great place to start a company, but a bad one to scale it up. To address that problem, the right national apparatus and mindset needs to be in place to scale innovation and technology at a national level, and beyond. There are a number of specific actions the new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology can take to bring that about.
That starts by understanding that innovation typically relies on an ‘ecosystem’ – a complex network of relationships – from which new ideas can emerge and then be supported and developed. The UK system is currently highly fragmented and complex, with over 150 universities and more than 200 R&D organisations, plus business support and bridging institutions such as Accelerators and Catapults.
Across this network, each player has different drivers and goals. As a result, this ecosystem can be confusing to navigate, both for innovators and tech start-ups as well as for the private sector when it is looking for new ideas to stimulate its productivity and growth. This lack of clarity makes an often-complex process of getting ideas off the ground even more difficult.
Better co-ordination of these disparate functions and the bureaucracy will bring real benefits. Progress has already been made by government, with the UKRI now home to seven research councils and Innovate UK. A new department can accelerate this progress and provide a platform to support a greater ambition around innovation. However, the reality is that many businesses – particularly SMEs – still find working with government on innovation hard to navigate, slow and bureaucratic.
The new department can start to address this by moving away from the long timescales and excessive focus on process found in research departments and embrace the rapid decision-making and focused actions that are key to leveraging the value of innovation to drive business growth.
While there’s no shortage of national innovation challenges, what is needed is a single, clear mission to galvanise and inspire the UK supply chain around specific opportunities. In particular, the new department has the chance to bring clarity to the government’s top priorities for science and technology opportunities and to be clear about what particular problems need solving. Once government has set that direction it can inspire people to collectively address them in an open and inclusive way, with freedom to experiment. That will be the best way to ensure we get a return on our annual £22bn investment in science and innovation.
There are useful lessons to be drawn from how other countries set top-down direction and prioritise in a way that provides clarity but also enables bottom-up ideas to flourish. For example, South Korea responded to the way that Asian financial crisis limited cultural imports from Japan by focusing on exporting its own popular culture. As a result, the K-Pop phenomenon and the rise of Korean film have spread worldwide, cementing the national brand as a global cultural influence. This has also brought innovation around the gaming industry including new technology and developments in virtual reality.
Finally, some parts of government still regard the private sector with suspicion, keeping it at arm’s length, rather than seeing it as offering access to new ways of thinking and critical skills. The new department could help change that mindset and embrace the value it can bring through a better understanding and greater focus on the commercialisation and the development element of R&D.
Against a backdrop of increased economic uncertainty, urgent sustainability imperatives, and rapidly evolving global threats, how the UK scales up its innovation and new technology is more important than ever. The new department can be more than just a distracting Whitehall restructure if it truly embraces its role of putting science, innovation and ingenuity at the heart of the UK.