The June 2019 Independent Commission for Aid Impact review of the UK government's international science-technology and innovation collaboration fund, the Newton Fund, criticises it for failing to focus sufficiently on capability development for developing country innovation systems. But it doesn't acknowledge the role of the Innovate-UK commissioned and Nesta-led Global Innovation Policy Accelerator programme within the Fund. Here I indicate why programmes like the Policy Accelerator can be a crucial blueprint for activities for the Newton Fund in the future.
Launched in 2014, The Newton Fund (‘Newton’) is a major £735 million-over-7-years UK Government programme for both tackling developing country challenges through science, technology and innovation (STI), and for building links and collaboration between the UK and (in 2019) 18 developing countries on STI. The money for the Newton Fund is ‘Official Development Assistance’, part of a budget that is set by the UK government’s commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on aid annually.
Last Friday the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (established by the UK government as a ‘watchdog’ on all Official Development Assistance spending by the UK) released a review of the Newton Fund’s work so far. ICAI’s overall conclusion is sharply critical (reflecting its general concern about what are called ‘dual purpose’ aid funds; those which are “designed both to promote international development and to support UK national interests”), but here I wanted to engage with one particular conclusion of ICAI’s - that there was not enough focus by the Newton Fund on capability development and capacity building of the developing country systems it works with.
Because, although - disappointingly - it doesn’t get a mention in the ICAI report, for the last four years Nesta has led a ground-breaking Newton-Funded collaborative capability development programme for senior innovation policymakers: the Global Innovation Policy Accelerator, funded by the Innovate UK tranche of Newton. This team-based, nine month programme is driven by the challenges and needs of developing country innovation systems, and is focused on harnessing cutting-edge innovation policy approaches to accelerate the pace of development for developing country innovation policy systems. It has worked with, to-date, 17 teams of innovation policy directors drawn from 70 agency and ministries from 11 developing countries, reaching over 1,000 people on three continents, and is connected to officials from over 40 UK innovation policy institutions and organisations.
Although - disappointingly - it doesn’t get a mention in the ICAI report, for the last four years Nesta has led a ground-breaking Newton-Funded collaborative capability development programme for senior innovation policymakers: the Global Innovation Policy Accelerator.
We believe the Policy Accelerator offers a blueprint for how to effectively deploy the innovation policy expertise of the UK - or other developed nation systems - to strengthen the target country STI systems and begin to tackle longer-term social challenges. It does so partly by drawing together diverse innovation policy expertise from across the UK system from Nesta, the University of Manchester Institute of Innovation Research, and from specialist international consultancies Oxentia, 100%Open and FutureGov. More than that, we believe such programmes are an important ‘piece of the puzzle’ for large-scale funds like the Newton Fund in linking system capacity building with effective research collaboration.
Below I indicate five ways which the Global Innovation Policy Accelerator is building the capability of the developing country innovation policy systems it works with, and creating the conditions for tackling poverty through economic and social development. I offer five short recommendations for taking it forward in the future.
Work to develop stronger innovation policy systems can directly focus on ensuring outcomes for the poorest in society as well as the indirect advantage of countries’ development. Many approaches to innovation policy now explicitly examine how they can be ‘inclusive’: focusing on how both the process and benefits of innovation policy can be more inclusive across economies and societies.
While responding to the direct demands and challenges of each country or regional innovation policy system it works with, the Policy Accelerator also encourages an explicitly inclusive approach to innovation policy.
New collaborative innovation policy projects can work across systems to embed new approaches and focus on inclusive benefits. Projects completed by Global Innovation Policy Accelerator teams which have aimed for a long term impact would include in Chile, boosting the quality of entrepreneurship education in technical colleges, in Indonesia, accelerating the regulatory approval process of innovative new rice strains, and in the Philippines, piloting a new platform for sharing innovative agriculture research with local innovation policymakers and industry.
The Policy Accelerator produces direct policy system changes projects which have targeted beneficiaries across developing country societies, and built examples of policy collaboration that others can learn from.
Innovation policy is increasingly tasked with tackling global challenges. International collaboration on STI needs to balance collaboration at the research level with ‘system to system leadership’ connections. Nesta research identifies huge challenges for developing country innovation policy systems to effectively learn from each other and more developed innovation ecosystems - with poor mechanisms and insufficiently experimental approaches at the policy level often hampering effective collaboration at the research level. For example, ministries’ inflexibility on rules for funding programmes - around IP, deployment of funds, and commercialisation - can hamper innovation in structures and approaches to research collaboration projects.
The Policy Accelerator brings together teams from several ministries, agencies and geographies to address system and coordination failures at the same time as sharing the latest methods, evidence and approaches on how to most effectively support innovation
While poverty reduction is a compelling goal for STI collaboration funds, work that focuses on immediate relief needs to be balanced with long-term support for transforming the governance and institutions of the developing country innovation ecosystems. In some areas of international development - for example reducing corruption or stronger democratic governance - it has long been recognised that encouraging changes in structures and approaches at the top is required for longer-term impact. To have a long-lasting effect on the innovation systems of developing countries large-scale STI collaboration funds like Newton need to fully engage at the strategic level of the system to embed approaches and techniques for systems change.
The Policy Accelerator focuses on embedding approaches and techniques for innovation policy at the strategic level.
The capacity of an innovation policy system relies - in both developed and developing countries - to a large extent on its institutional capabilities. As Nesta research shows, the role of innovation agencies (and even what are called innovation agencies) has shifted to tackle broader, more inclusive policy challenges, and new capabilities are required to tackle those challenges at both the individual and institutional levels.
The Global Innovation Policy Accelerator has formed ‘policy entrepreneur’ teams from across innovation policy systems to strengthen collaboration between leaders and institutions within a system and extend their capabilities.
Going forward, there are huge opportunities to focus the Newton Fund on a wide range of innovation policymaker and innovation policy system capability development programmes - and doing so would help the strategic focus of the accompanying research collaborations as well. Such programmes could take many delivery structures, but would be needed to be underpinned by a core set of principles - for example:
If - as is often claimed - STI policy is becoming more ‘mission-oriented’, then better system collaboration and structured, action-focused capability development programmes with principles and effective learning design like the Global Innovation Policy Accelerator can also help shape, define and focus those collaborations on the missions of development aid.