How to Change a Country

Achieving impact at scale is the holy grail of innovation – whether it’s the startup that becomes a game-changing behemoth or a social innovation that results in system-wide change.  It’s an obsession because truth be told we are not very good at it.  Most of us are at best micro-innovators, working on this or that project in disconnected pods of enthusiasm. And then we get frustrated at our lack of progress in our plan to change the world. 

Part of the answer perhaps – argues John Kao, founder of the Institute of Large-scale Innovation – lies in focusing our efforts at the right scale, that of the city, the region or the  nation.  Small nations, in particular, like the Baltics or the Nordics , are really adept at applying themselves to the kinds of ‘wicked problems’ that larger countries fail at.  This is a theme we’ll highlight in a report we’ll be publishing next month on innovation in small nations.

One nation in particular has excelled at country-scale change over the last thirty years.  The Basques says Kao have embraced ‘innovation as a driving force that has shown sophistication in seeing innovation not just as science and technology but as a social and cultural phenomenon as well’.  At the start of the 1980s the Basque Country was in economic freefall as its staple industries of shipbuilding and steel collapsed in the face of global competition.  By 2011 the Basque Country had a GDP per capita 30% higher than the EU average – which if it were an independent country – would make it second only to Luxembourg in the prosperity stakes.

In Bilbao or San Sebastian you’ll meet plenty of impressive individuals – and one of them, the former President Juan José Ibarretxe – the Bill Clinton of the Basque Country – is Nesta’s guest speaker at this year’s Hay Festival in a special master-class on how to change a country.  A theme that he really warms to is that the real secret of Basque success is not so much individual brilliance, but their capacity for collaborative innovation, rooted in their sense of identity and foundational values of social solidarity.  The Basques have learnt, to translate Robert Putnam’s famous metaphor, that the road to success, lies not in bowling alone but in playing pelota together.  So it should come as no surprise perhaps that the Basques top the league in Europe for the UN’s Human Development Index.   

Large-scale innovation is where culture, technology and politics collide.  Navigating those choppy seas requires strong skills of adaptive leadership at the helm.  But it also requires innovation in form and not just in content.  New circuits of collaboration – InnoBasque, for example, the innovation network that represents more than 1000 public and private institutions, companies and research centres, Euskaltel, the innovative  public-private telco or the Mondragon Corporation established under the shadow of fascism – are the organisational arteries through which Basque innovation flows. We are hoping to take that capacity to innovate for mutually beneficial ends one stage further this week as we begin a dialogue between Basque leaders, including senior figures from Innobasque and Euskaltel and Ibarretxe's thinktank the Agirre Center,  and leading counterparts in Wales.  Small countries tend to have big ideas so it’s a conversation we at Nesta are really pleased to facilitate.       


Adam Price

Adam Price

Adam Price

Senior Programme Manager

Adam Price was a Senior Programme Manager in the Innovation Lab, working on public service innovation and innovation spaces.    His report, co-authored with Matthew Gatehouse, State of…

View profile