How can we make innovation policies more inclusive?

Governments around the world are starting to acknowledge that new technologies bring risks as well as rewards, and will have a huge impact on the lives and wellbeing of citizens. Yet the policies and regulations that support the development of these technologies rarely have mechanisms for substantively involving citizens in their design or governance. Few of them explicitly consider how to identify and manage potential tradeoffs between the range of social, economic and technological goals for innovation policy. Below, we set out some ideas about what a more inclusive approach to innovation policy could look like.

This week, the Chancellor used his speech to the Conservative Party Conference to set out his thoughts on the UK’s economic trajectory. For Hammond, it is not Brexit but ‘technological transformation’ - Artificial Intelligence, self-driving cars, personalised medicine, virtual reality, and advanced robotics - that will have the biggest impact on the future, bringing benefits such as reduced pollution, improved health outcomes, and increased choice and convenience for consumers.

He acknowledged that these developments carry risks of disruption and negative change, too, and that the views of those developing driverless cars would not necessarily be shared by those who currently earn their living as taxi drivers. However, there were few suggestions as to how these risks could be prevented or managed. The emphasis was on explaining to those who are worried about new technologies that the benefits and changes they bring will address their concerns rather than making them worse.

But is reassurance all that is needed? A recent Centre for Cities report found that Cambridge, Oxford and London are the most unequal cities in the UK, even though they are also the most innovative regions. Other evidence from around the world shows that the benefits of innovation are not automatically trickling down to workers, and that there are significant inequalities in terms of who is able to participate in innovation processes. In short, it is not clear that innovation is always good - it can create value for some while destroying it for others.

The Chancellor’s approach treats citizens as passive consumers of innovation, rather than active participants capable of driving and shaping it. In order to encourage the development of more ‘good’ innovations whose benefits are widely distributed, the stories of workers and others who are affected by innovation should play a bigger role in influencing policymaking priorities and activities in this area.

A more inclusive approach to innovation policymaking

Nesta’s work is broadly focused on how innovation can better serve the needs of society. As part of this, we’ve been thinking about what this means for the design and delivery of innovation policies, and how they could contribute to more inclusive social outcomes.

To ensure that the benefits of innovation are more equally shared, we propose that innovation policy should:

  1. Be based on a good understanding of whose needs are currently met by innovation and how excluded groups could be better served by emerging technologies. For example, Nesta’s Flying High challenge is currently investigating how drone technology (originally developed for military and commercial purposes) can be applied to address urgent social needs such as the transport of medical supplies or surveying for urban regeneration.
  2. Enable much broader participation in innovation, so that it is not the preserve of the most privileged people and places. This will require a recognition that some social groups, sectors and regions need more support to innovate than others, and will involve tackling structural economic and societal problems holding back innovative potential across society.
  3. Democratise decision-making processes and governance systems that shape the future of work and technology. Here, innovation policymakers should explore more creative and open approaches to systematic public engagement, and develop regulatory frameworks that can take account of the social as well as the economic impacts of innovation.

Later this month we’ll be publishing a working paper setting out more of our ideas on this subject, drawing on emerging thinking and literature in this space as well as a comparative review of the innovation policy strategies of ten countries around the world. We’ll also be releasing a report on the regulation of emerging technologies, which will consider how to regulate technology for societal benefit. Keep a look out for these, and in the meantime please do get in touch with your thoughts and ideas on these issues.


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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