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Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

How can innovation policy get better at delivering social benefit?

We’re used to thinking about innovation policy as a set of programmes, incentives and regulations designed to encourage economic activity. The primary purpose of Innovate UK - the UK’s innovation agency - is ‘to drive productivity and growth by supporting businesses to realise the potential of new technologies, develop ideas and make them a commercial success’. Similar mission statements can be seen in innovation agencies around the world.

But what if the fundamental objective of innovation policy was to promote benefits for society? What issues would governments prioritise instead? How would policymaking processes change, and who would be involved in them? What goals would be set, and how would policymakers know if they were having an impact?

This is more than just an interesting thought experiment. Policy is increasingly being called on to deliver solutions to complex challenges facing wide cross-sections of society, linked to inequality, health, poverty, and climate change. Yet innovation policy is lagging behind practice when it comes to delivering on these social goals. Over the last decade, we have seen an explosion in the number of new methods and approaches being taken to support innovation for social good, across both the public and private sectors. There has been a particular growth in digital social innovation initiatives across the fields of health, education, civic participation, transport, housing and the environment.

In contrast, innovation policy to date has largely been focused on supporting the development of technologies and other innovations used by defence and business. According to the ONS, between 2009 and 2016, three of the largest areas of UK business R&D spending were in pharmaceuticals (over £4 billion), motor vehicles and parts (nearly £3.4 billion) and aerospace (just under £2 billion). Defence accounts for 15 per cent of the government’s total expenditure on science, engineering and technology. And despite setting out a number of ‘grand challenge’ areas it wants to address, the UK’s new industrial strategy has largely prioritised the development of infrastructure and the productivity of different sectors and high-potential businesses.

Embedding social goals and processes in innovation policy

This is not to say that innovation policy should stop trying to stimulate economic growth. However, at Nesta we are keen to see it become more inclusive and socially-driven in both its means and its ends. By this, we mean we are interested in seeing three key shifts:

First, for the design of innovation policy to become a more open process, and encourage participation from a far wider group of people who will be affected by its implementation. For example, the industrial strategy states that the UK should aim to be at the forefront of the artificial intelligence and data revolution. So why not meaningfully involve the public in shaping how this research and investment agenda develops?

Second, for the benefits of innovation policy to be spread to communities who need them the most. For example, there has been some analysis of how European science, technology and innovation policies could be better oriented towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Inclusive innovation policy might also, for example, focus on improving productivity in lower-performing regions or sectors, regulating thoughtfully to make sure new technologies benefit the widest range of people, and working to make sure that concentrations of innovative companies don’t drive up inequality in cities.

Third, for innovation policy to be more explicitly targeted at solving social challenges and meeting the needs of underserved or marginalised groups, rather than this being seen as a byproduct of solving economic challenges. In many (particularly wealthier) countries, innovation policy rarely considers the question of whose needs are being addressed. For example, despite a clear need for innovation to tackle the ‘poverty premium’ there are (to our knowledge) no mainstream innovation policy initiatives in the UK targeting low-income populations. Inclusive innovation policy would explore ways to channel innovation investment and activity towards the needs of people who aren’t well served by mainstream innovation.

We are starting to see these goals reflected in a number of high-level innovation policy statements around the world. Strategic commitments like Sweden’s 2015 Lund Declaration have identified the need for innovation to promote social, environmental and redistributive goals. Horizon 2020, the world’s biggest research and innovation funding programme, devotes the largest part of its resources towards ‘societal challenges’. Germany’s new High Tech Strategy seeks to make innovation social as well as technological - tackling six priority areas by repositioning society as a central player. Chile’s most recent national strategy directs innovation towards sustainable and inclusive development.

Individual innovation agencies are also thinking more explicitly about how their programmes might be directed towards social ends. The new umbrella body UK Research and Innovation has stated that it aims to create benefits in three areas: knowledge, economy, and society.

But what does it really mean to make innovation policy that promotes social outcomes? While academics have begun to make the case for new forms of innovation policy, there are relatively few actionable insights for policymakers who want to know what, in practice, we can do to shape innovation policies that promote wider social benefits.

This is a key focus for Nesta’s research on inclusive innovation policy over the next six months, and we’ll be investigating the following questions:

  • How far, and in what ways, are social goals expressed in high-level innovation policies?

  • What specific initiatives and programmes have innovation policymakers put in place to implement strategies for social impact, if any?

  • How much innovation funding is being directed towards projects with explicit aims to create social impact?

Our aim is to generate useful policy insights in this space, and we’d love to hear from others working on related issues, both in the UK and more widely. Please do get in touch with Alex Glennie and Madeleine Gabriel to start a conversation.


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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Madeleine Gabriel

Madeleine Gabriel

Madeleine Gabriel

Mission Director, sustainable future mission

Madeleine leads Nesta’s mission to create a sustainable future, which focuses on decarbonisation and economic recovery.

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