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Crowdsourcing policy

It was good to see the Economist exploring the idea of public involvement in innovation, with its recent piece on crowdfunding science. But this doesn't go far enough.

In Plan I we pointed out that innovation is an area of public policy that has been particularly short of public engagement.  In the 20th century it was dominated by big government and big business, with governments generally favouring state interest over the public interest (and yes, they're not always the same). In the US and UK half of all public funding goes to the military.  Otherwise the big winners have typically been well-connected sectors like pharmaceuticals.  That the allocations of spending are fairly similar in democracies, autocracies and dictatorships could be a sign that democracy hasn't intruded much here.

So how could the public be more involved? I wouldn't favour R&D grants being determined by how many 'likes' the bidders get on Facebook.  Any field that involves radical ideas, risk and creativity needs some insulation from day to day democracy. The crowd isn't always wise. But regular public engagement could and should influence which fields of innovation are treated as a priority. 

One format would be citizen juries that provide time for representative groups - of anything from 30-60 people - to identify priority broad areas, and discuss the relative priority of more innovations in fields such as car transport, dementia care, carbon reduction or crime prevention.  The discussions would focus on where people feel their lives could be most enhanced by innovations, informed by some inputs on which fields of underlying research are showing most promise.  This would give broad brush pointers, and would almost certainly point in a different direction from the peer influence of scientists, politicians or business. 

At a more granular level there would then be scope for staged discussion of specific challenges, some of which could be turned into inducement prizes or open funds.  Both of these moves would open up the opaque processes of fund allocation. They are the mirror to opening up the process of creative innovation to the public - through such tools as crowd-sourcing, which could offer matched public funds for projects or programmes that can elicit significant numbers of small donations from the public.  None of these is yet mature enough to claim more than a slice of innovation activity.  But the time is right to redress the balance.  Billions of pounds of public money go into innovation - it's only right that the public should play a role in deciding where it goes.

Author

Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Chief Executive Officer

Geoff Mulgan has been Chief Executive of Nesta since 2011. Nesta is the UK's innovation foundation and runs a wide range of activities in investment, practical innovation and research.

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