The changing role of innovation agencies and an emerging agenda for collaboration

Over three days in the middle of May, more than two thousand innovators, policymakers, researchers and funders from around the world gathered in Manchester for the EUREKA Global Innovation Summit. It was an opportunity for innovative businesses and others to network with potential investors, and for all attendees to debate new ideas and future priorities for generating economic growth. UK Science Minister Chris Skidmore used the occasion to launch a new International Research and Innovation Strategy for the UK. In his remarks, he noted that global challenges can only be successfully tackled through global collaborations between governments, scientists, researchers, innovators, entrepreneurs, businesses and societies.

I was at the summit to keynote a parallel meeting of leaders from more than 40 innovation agencies - government funded or managed bodies that aim to stimulate innovation, entrepreneurship and growth. It was a great opportunity to share ideas from Nesta’s work with innovation agencies over the past five years, and to reflect as a group on how these organisations can develop a shared agenda for action.

Here are some of the key ideas from my presentation and the discussions over the course of the day, which will soon be published as a short Nesta briefing paper.

Taking the lead in solving global challenges

Using innovation to address global challenges is a hot topic in the innovation policy world right now. The concept of mission-oriented innovation isn’t new, but it has had a revival in recent years in response to fresh academic thinking and practical initiatives like the Sustainable Development Goals, the European Commission’s new mission-oriented approach to supporting research and innovation and the clean energy Mission Innovation programme. These aim to bring together different actors to solve some of the biggest challenges we face as a global or national community – such as climate change, poverty and inequality.

Innovation agencies sit in the intersection between government, the research community, innovative businesses and other innovation support intermediaries, and are often responsible for making connections between them. This means that they are well placed to drive the coordination of these missions. Some already do – for example, Innovate UK plays a key role in delivering the UK’s industrial strategy.

There’s a possible tension between trying to address large-scale missions while also providing practical day-to-day support to innovators to help them grow and scale. But there could also be opportunities to bring these things together, and for innovation agencies to direct their support towards businesses and others that seek to solve big challenges facing society.

Putting inclusion and diversity at the heart of innovation policy

Innovation policy has traditionally focused on generating economic growth and competitiveness. Yet there are increasing demands for it to be mindful of the kind of growth it is creating, and to recognise that not everyone is equally well placed to benefit from innovation, to participate in the innovative economy, or to shape the priorities for policy.

The EUREKA summit had a welcome focus on diversity and inclusion, and new thinking is emerging on how to create more inclusive innovation policies, but there are also tradeoffs that come with this. For example, many funding bodies currently take an ‘excellence-led’ approach, supporting innovative people and places that are likely to be successful and with the highest growth potential. Yet these tend to be the individuals, regions and sectors that already benefit from structural advantages and opportunities.

There are opportunities for innovation agencies to help to spread the benefits of innovation more widely, and to create opportunities for innovators from a more diverse range of backgrounds to contribute to the innovative economy. Innovate UK’s Women in Innovation programme was highlighted at the summit and other similar initiatives were described at the leaders’ meeting. Gathering and sharing more examples of best practice would help to move this agenda forwards.

Developing new models of collaboration

There are intergovernmental bodies - like the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank and the European Commission - that work with innovation agencies in individual countries. There are regional organisations - like ASEAN, EUREKA and the TAFTIE network of European innovation agencies - which focus on bringing agencies together from different geographic areas. There are also non-governmental networks and programmes - like Nesta’s Innovation Growth Lab or the MIT REAP programme - which bring together agencies around key themes or methodologies. Yet these different groups are often disconnected, and don’t always know how to learn from each other.

The EUREKA summit offered a vision of how this could change in the future, with representatives of all of these types of groups present in one place, as well as a diverse collection of innovation agencies themselves. In a global network of innovation agencies - whatever form that might take - cross-agency teams could emerge to collaborate on issues where there would be benefits in learning and developing ideas together, such as how to make innovation systems more inclusive. We’ve tested this approach within national innovation systems through Nesta’s pioneering Global Innovation Policy Accelerator programme, and there are exciting opportunities to experiment with making this work on a cross-national scale as well.

A senior Mexican innovation policymaker who took part in our first Policy Accelerator programme in Latin America observed that collaboration is simultaneously one of the hardest things to get right, and the most important thing we can do to solve the problems and harness the opportunities that face us all. With so much at stake for the future of society and the global economy, now is the moment for innovation policy institutions and funders to work together in more imaginative and innovative ways.


Alex Glennie

Alex Glennie

Alex Glennie

Senior Policy Manager

Alex is a Senior Policy Manager in the Innovation Growth Lab (IGL).

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