Governments invest hundreds of billions annually to stimulate innovation and growth. Yet there is not enough debate about the kind of innovation that results from this investment, and whether it is good for everyone. In a new paper, Nesta sets out a framework to shape the development of more inclusive innovation policies.
Innovation policy is often directed towards goals or missions that will generate new sources of national economic competitiveness, but not always towards solving societal problems that disproportionately affect those who are economically or socially excluded. Opportunities to participate in innovative processes or be employed in innovative sectors are not equally distributed across different social groups. There are also concerns that innovation can exacerbate inequalities, and destroy value for some, even as it creates it for others. For example, Cambridge is simultaneously the most innovative and the most unequal city in the UK. Are these outcomes an inevitability of the innovation process, or is there another way?
Traditionally, national innovation policies have been fairly agnostic on questions of distribution. Established frames of innovation policy thinking suggest that even if innovation creates some losers as well as winners, then it is the role of other areas of policy - such as welfare, education and employment - to pick up the pieces. Yet this view is increasingly being challenged by calls for innovation to become more ‘inclusive’. In other words, to take societal needs into account and to create opportunities and capabilities for those on the lowest incomes, as well as those who are already well able to participate in the innovative economy.
So, how inclusive is innovation policy currently?
And what can it do to ensure that the benefits and the risks that innovation creates are more evenly shared? These are questions we’ve been exploring over the past year at Nesta, from a number of different angles. Our Exposure to Innovation project is looking at the role of education and exposure to innovation in early years in encouraging those from more diverse backgrounds to become inventors and innovators. We are also thinking about ways in which the public can be more effectively engaged in debating and helping set the priorities for innovation policy. At the end of the year we will be profiling the achievements of our Everyone Makes Innovation Policy grantees, who have been testing out creative methods of public engagement on innovation policy in different locations around the UK.
To understand the policy context in which the ideas emerging from these projects are situated, we’ve also been looking across the high-level innovation policy strategies of a selected group of countries around the world. Our aim has been to develop a framework to analyse the ways in which innovation policies can be inclusive, and then to find out how far and in what ways these countries address these aspects of inclusion in their overall approach to policy. Our new report - How inclusive is innovation policy? Insights from an international comparison - sets out the findings from this analysis.
Drawing on other research in this space (we’ve been particularly inspired by the OECD’s work on inclusive innovation policies, the concept of transformative innovation policy and the framework of distribution-sensitive innovation policies developed by Dan Breznitz and colleagues) we propose that innovation policies may be inclusive if they are concerned with:
We’ve turned these into a framework that we hope will help governments to assess the ways in which their innovation policies could be directed towards more inclusive outcomes and processes (we’d love feedback on this, as well as suggestions for improvement or application).
More detail on the findings of our comparative study can be found in the full report. But our main takeaway from this research is that while governments around the world are starting to think more systematically about the range of impacts that innovation may have on society, they do not yet have a clear idea about how to implement an inclusive innovation policy agenda effectively. Tradeoffs between objectives of innovation policy are not adequately addressed within policy statements, and opportunities to create inclusive innovation processes and outcomes are not fully exploited.
Some implications for policy
In the UK there is currently a great opportunity to start putting some of these ideas into practice. The recent establishment of UK Research and Innovation - a new body bringing together funding and support for research and innovation across the country - marks a significant shift in how the UK’s innovation policy is designed and delivered. UKRI’s mandate includes a commitment to creating social and cultural impact that will support society to become ‘enriched, healthier more resilient and sustainable’. To do this, we argue that there should be a clearer focus on directing policy towards goals that meet the needs of everyone in society, on encouraging more participation both in innovative processes and sectors, and on creating opportunities for more people to be involved in discussing, debating and shaping science, technology and innovation policy.
Here are a few ideas on where to start: