Four ideas to build more inclusive innovation systems

In 2016, Innovate UK - the UK’s innovation agency - launched the Women In Innovation Awards. This was prompted by research showing that only one in seven applications for Innovate UK funding was coming from a female-led business, even though there was no difference in the quality of applications received from women and men.

The competition awards promising female entrepreneurs with grants of £50,000, along with mentoring and other tailored support to help them develop their business. It has also been supported by a public campaign and a series of networking events designed to inspire and build connections between innovative women.

After two funding rounds, the early results of this experiment are promising. Innovate UK reports that the proportion of women registering for support has risen by 70 per cent. However, it will take more than small-scale or one off programmes for whole systems to change, and for policies supporting innovation to become inclusive in both their design and their outcomes.

So what do more inclusive innovation policies look like? And how can innovation systems change in order to be able to deliver these kinds of policies?

Sharing the benefits and the risks of innovation more fairly

As set out in a recent Nesta working paper, we believe that inclusive innovation policies are those which aim to ensure that the benefits and the risks of innovation are more equally shared. They actively consider the direction of policy in terms of whose needs are met by innovation and how excluded social groups could be better served; focus on initiatives that promote broad participation in innovation; and take a democratic and participatory approach to priority-setting and the governance of innovation.

From this definition, we have constructed a framework to help policymakers think about how their innovation policies are currently supporting inclusive processes and outcomes; the ways in which they might be contributing to exclusion or inequalities; and how they could increase inclusion across the three dimensions of direction, participation and governance.

For example, Israel’s national innovation agency established a Societal Challenges division a few years ago, alongside other programmes focusing on growth and high-tech startups. It supports the development of public services and technologies that meet the needs of those who are not as well served by innovation - such as the disabled community - and creates incentives for startups run by ethnic minorities in Israel, including the country’s Arab population. In many ways, this initiative is a good example of how to direct innovation policy towards more inclusive outcomes. However, the amount of budget allocated to this programme is very small, compared to other Israel Innovation Authority divisions. What would it take to flip the balance and what is currently preventing this from happening?

To explore questions like this further, we recently tested our framework out with around 150 innovation policymakers from across South East Asia, as part of a regional conference for the Global Innovation Policy Accelerator - Nesta’s pioneering development programme for senior innovation policymakers. We were encouraged by the ideas and conversations it sparked, and struck by the different challenges being discussed across the group. In the Philippines, for example, it was thought that a ‘Women In Innovation’-style programme wouldn’t be necessary, as there are already high levels of female-led startups. But regulatory challenges were seen as a key barrier to achieving more inclusive forms of innovation, and an area that required focus.

Our aim is now to turn the framework into a practical tool for policymakers, so that it can be used to assess existing processes and policies, and guide future discussions about how to make them more inclusive. Do get in touch if this is of interest - we’d love to hear from governments and agencies that want to experiment in this space.

Inclusive innovation policies require inclusive innovation systems

Crucially, we also need to think about the systemic changes that are needed in order to put this agenda into practice. Below are four ideas for where to start:

1. Make collaboration the rule, rather than the exception

There has been a clear shift in the past few years towards addressing ambitious societal ‘missions’. At the global level, this is evident in initiatives like the Sustainable Development Goals and the European Union’s new Horizon Europe strategy. Missions are also driving the development of national innovation strategies. For example, a set of specific thematic missions have been launched as part of the UK’s Industrial Strategy - such as ensuring that ‘people can enjoy at least five extra healthy, independent years of life by 2035, while narrowing the gap between the experience of the richest and poorest’. Achieving these broad and inclusive missions will require new and sustainable collaborations across different policy areas within government and with a broad range of non-governmental partners.

We are used to hearing about how difficult it is to overcome silos in government, but there are innovative models of practice to draw on. One example is the Global Innovation Policy Accelerator, which Nesta is running with the support of Innovate UK. This year-long programme brings together small teams of policymakers and partners from across a national innovation system to design and run a policy project, working collaboratively and experimentally, and drawing on design principles to focus on the needs of beneficiaries. There is huge scope to expand and embed this approach, so that collaboration for inclusive innovation becomes the norm.

2. Develop better ways to measure inclusive innovation

As the old saying goes, what gets measured gets managed. There is a lack of good evidence on how inclusive - or exclusive - innovation currently is, and we are still in the early stages of developing robust ways of measuring this. However, new methods of innovation mapping and new sources of data open up possibilities for creating a better picture of whose needs are not currently being served well by innovation, and the policy interventions that could make a difference. Nesta’s Innovation Mapping team is already working with European partners and with the Scottish government to develop a clearer set of inclusive innovation indicators. Later this year we will be holding an event and publishing a piece on metrics for inclusive innovation, with an aim of launching more data pilots in this space.

3. Involve citizens in decision-making processes in transparent ways

Efforts to involve citizens in setting priorities for innovation policy are becoming more common. In 2018, the European Commission ran a citizen engagement exercise to gather feedback and ideas on science and innovation missions for Horizon Europe. Many national governments have also run consultations or developed structures to inform the development of their innovation policy strategies. Germany’s Futurium, opening in September 2019, could be an interesting model of how to involve citizens in a more sustained conversation about innovation policy principles and priorities. It is a physical space for ‘all those who are interested in the future and want to take an active role in shaping it’, and will run workshops, labs and debates involving people from across politics, science and business, as well as the public. However, it is located in the capital city of Berlin - how inclusive is this in terms of encouraging the widest range of voices to be heard? And how does government intend to use the ideas that come out of this space?

The inclusion of citizens and other representative groups in setting priorities for and monitoring the outcomes of innovation policies should be more than just a tick box exercise if it is to add real value to the policymaking process. New models of co-production and creative online and offline engagement methodologies can offer inspiration and guidance here.

4. Bring diverse skills, experiences, and capabilities into innovation policymaking processes

If we want a more inclusive and diverse innovation system, then we need to ensure that the backgrounds and skills of decision-makers within these systems are also diverse. For example, a quick look at the board of UK Research and Innovation shows that only four out of 15 full-time members are women, and just three have a non-white background. Most of them work for companies or organisations based in London and the South East of England. It is important for innovation policy institutions to hold up a mirror to their own cultures and structures, and ensure that these are as inclusive as the policies they aim to design.

First steps on a long road

Creating inclusive innovation systems is a long-term project, and the ideas outlined above will not all be quick or straightforward to implement. However, focusing on these key areas of collaboration, better measurement, transparent citizen involvement, and diversifying the policymaking community will help shape the landscape of innovation policy: as we better understand these geographies, policymakers will be more fully equipped to map and build the roads which lead us to a more inclusive future.


Alex Glennie

Alex Glennie

Alex Glennie

Senior Policy Manager

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

View profile