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Dear Innovation Policymakers: please be less boring

Something struck me the other day about innovation policy. I was writing a short newspaper article about innovation, and I thought “this would be a great place to mention SBRI”. If you’re an innovation policy aficionado, you’ll know that SBRI is a promising government scheme to spend small amounts of money buying novel stuff from innovative businesses.

But if you’re anyone else, you’ll have no clue what SBRI is. You wouldn’t be much the wiser if I spelled it out: the Small Business Research Initiative could mean almost anything. And there isn’t really space to explain the policy in a 500-word article. So I didn’t mention it.

This got me thinking about the way innovation policy is branded and talked about. SBRI is certainly not the only example of an underwhelming and under-communicated name. Take what was until very recently the name of our main innovation promotion body: the Technology Strategy Board. It starts well: “Technology” is pretty interesting after all, and most people know what it is. But then it goes off the boil. As a way of describing what the organisation does, “Strategy” is both unevocative and inaccurate about what the TSB does. You could day it provides funding, it supports innovators, or that it helps ideas become reality – but “strategy” makes me think of Powerpoint and 2x2 matrices. And as for “Board”, well, apparent from its unfortunate homophonic connotations of boredom, who ever got excited by a Board?* As Chesteron put it, “I’ve been to all the parks in all the cities/And found no statues to committees.”**

This might seem nit-picky. It’s just a name, you might say, a name they recently ditched (I’m guessing the demerger of Lloyds TSB forced this on SEO grounds if nothing else). But names matter, and they speak to a broader question of culture, communications and purpose.

The problem with having technocratic, technical names for innovation policies is that it makes it harder to talk to non-experts about them - as I found out when writing my article. This is more than just a superficial PR issue: it has serious costs.

First of all, it makes it harder to build a political case for government investment in innovation policy. Nesta’s Innovation Population research looked at British attitudes to different ways of talking about innovation and innovation policy. Only one in five people responded well to what you might call a techie WIRED-magazine pitch, based on the idea that innovation was good for its own sake and that government should back it. But if you framed innovation policy in terms of its practical benefits to addressing serious challenges, over half the population supported it.

The second problem with disengagement is the kind of policy it leads to. If only insiders can follow the innovation debate, they’ll be more likely to control the agenda. And while there’s a role for technocrats in technology policy, it’s hard to believe that getting more people involved – whether that’s by resurrecting proposals like Community Science Resource Councils or through the public vote that kicked off the 300th Anniversary Longitude prize - would improve decision-making and accountability. But getting people involved is hard if you speak in hieroglyphs.

So if we can’t talk engagingly about innovation policy, fewer people will support it, and what there is will be dominated by insiders. More starkly: there’ll be less of it and it’ll be worse.

So next time you’re struggling to remember the difference between a KTN and a KTP, or between EMI and EIS, reflect that the problem may not be with you, but with our broader approach to innovation policy. And if you’re a politician, think about how we might build a visionary, moral case for innovation and talk about it widely and appealingly.

* Or consider the Catapult centres – the name of which seems to have been something of an afterthought, decided on long after the centres had been proposed and designed, during which period they’d been named “Clerk Maxwell Centres”, “Technology and Innovation Centres”, and no doubt other things.

** (Of course, there is one excellent statue to a committee, Rodin’s Les Bourgeois de Calais, but since the committee members have nooses around their necks, perhaps this exception proves the rule.)

Listings image: JOSHUA COLEMAN on Unsplash


Stian Westlake

Stian Westlake

Stian Westlake

Executive Director of Policy and Research

Stian led Nesta's Policy and Research team. His research interests included the measurement of innovation and its effects on productivity, the role of high-growth businesses in the e...

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