One of the flagship announcements in the UK’s 2020 budget was confirmation of plans to create a British version of the U.S. Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). The lauded American agency, known as DARPA since 1972, when the “defence” imperative was added, is famous for its non-bureaucratic approach and its development of major technological breakthroughs, including the internet and GPS. The DARPA model is well worth studying. It is unique in its both its approach and outputs to innovation. But it is also worth looking to emerging models beyond the American one, that are being developed in, and for, the 21st century context. By looking beyond Western models from the 20th century, the UK government could be a forerunner in the promotion of innovation that is more socially-motivated, and innovation that benefits more of society. We could be a world-leader in purpose-driven innovation.
Deepening our engagement with inclusive innovation
The UK government has already been working to support more inclusive forms of innovation for more than a decade. Despite this interest, there remains insufficient efforts directed at systematically encouraging inclusive innovation. Budgets for inclusive innovation are modest, and programs are run on a siloed basis, separate from the thrust of national innovation policy that remains focused on advancing the technological frontier, without attention to who is involved, and for what societal aim.
We believe there are lessons to learn about the support of “inclusive innovation” from emerging economies. Over the last year, we have been working with the UNDP’s Regional Innovation Centre to look for emerging models of inclusive innovation across South-East Asia. Building on Nesta’s inclusive innovation policy framework, our aim was to identify emerging models of inclusive innovation to serve as inspiration and guidance for policymakers.
Our findings - published jointly by Nesta and UNDP - have relevance beyond the region. We were particularly struck by the richness of the notion of inclusive innovation in the emerging economies we focused on (Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Vietnam). This led us to the question - what can countries like the UK learn? Below, we share three insights.
Widening the definition of ‘inclusion’ in innovation
As in many advanced economies, inclusive innovation policies in the UK primarily focus on gender, such as programmes that encourage women as entrepreneurs and innovators. For example, Innovate UK’s Women in Innovation programme supports female entrepreneurs in building their business, by boosting their personal networks and facilitating mentoring relationships with women who are already successfully established in the sector. The four countries we looked at in our research appeared to take a wider view of who should be encouraged to participate in the innovation process, including people with disabilities, disadvantaged socio-economic populations, and rural communities. We saw this particularly in the work of socially-oriented startups, who are taking an approach we describe as “Technology should save us”.
For example, in Vietnam, startups like Vulcan Augmetics are increasing the ability of people with disabilities to work. Vulcan is focused on amputees, who as a group suffer from lower education and employment outcomes. To help integrate amputees into society Vulcan’s innovation is the creation of specialised prosthetic modules that are highly customisable (for completing particular tasks) and affordable. Other companies, like EnableCode, also help to bring the most vulnerable into productive work, but in a different way. EnableCode is employing and training people with disabilities to work as freelance developers, coders, web designers and experts in AI business processes.
A policy lesson for the UK: earmark more government R&D funding for innovations that improve the productive livelihoods of more of society (as Vulcan does) and offer incentives for companies that explicitly upskill underrepresented groups, as EnableCode is doing.
A broader perspective on the spatial aspects of innovation
The UK’s innovation policies have historically focused on developing a small number of centres of innovation excellence (notably in London, Oxford and Cambridge), although there are signs that this is changing. For example, the UK’s Tech Nation network for UK tech entrepreneurs is promoting startup clusters beyond London, in cities like Manchester, York and Leeds. In some of our South-East Asian case studies, we observed a different approach to supporting regional innovation. This strategy, which we describe as “Innovation, everywhere”, involves governments linking innovation support to a project of national development where high-value activities are regionally distributed and the aim is to get as many people and sectors possible involved as innovators.
For example, a key aspect of the Indonesian government’s current innovation strategy has been the encouragement of regional innovation activity through a Regional Innovation Clusters programme. This programme brings together regional governments, research institutions, industry and local communities to establish specialisations in high-value regional products. Funding is provided to research institutions to work with local industry and farmers’ groups to develop and transfer innovative products based on existing local resources. The government of the Philippines is similarly setting up a network of Regional Inclusive Innovation Centres to support the spread of innovation capabilities across rural areas.
A policy lesson for the UK: Use local industrial strategies as an opportunity to spread innovative management practices and technologies into non-technology dominated sectors and regions. To go beyond cities, support of agriculture and other rural activities can be particularly salient.
Spreading innovation to the foundations
The UK’s recently updated industrial strategy seeks to ‘level up’ the economy, through an ambitious programme of ‘one nation’ investment. However, as a recent Nesta report on the foundational economy observes, its focus on frontier sectors risks failing to address the challenge of raising pay, dignity and quality in sectors of the economy that shape crucial aspects of our everyday lives, such as social care.
Our research uncovered examples of initiatives to improve workplace technologies, processes and institutions to support greater productivity and higher incomes, or upgrade the infrastructure of people’s daily lives in order to enable a richer experience, be that via access to employment, or through better health. We describe this approach as “Innovation for the foundations”. For example, Proximity Designs is a design company and NGO in Myanmar that helps farmers and agricultural workers access better technology. They develop affordable products for rural workers, involving them in the design process to make sure they meet user needs.
A policy lesson for the UK: Experiment with involving those who use foundational services, those who provide them, social movements and other civil society actors in the process of innovating these services, in collaboration with local authorities, employers and researchers.
A thought to take away
If the “mission” underpinning innovation policy is one of wider societal advance, the UK should be looking beyond ‘peer’ economies for inspiration and policy lessons that can be adapted to our context. If we only study models of innovation promotion that are obsessed with national security and technical breakthroughs, we miss the long-term point of innovation, and in fact, the basis upon which innovation happens. The point, we argue, is about prioritising innovation to address societal challenges, that strive for diversity and inclusion, and that harness the benefits of technological advance, while simultaneously working to limit the resulting inequalities.
We’d love to hear your thoughts on these ideas, and the full report. Do get in touch directly, or join us online for a ‘live digital report launch’ and conversation with UNDP’s Regional Innovation Centre in Bangkok, taking place on Thursday 26 March. You can register your interest here.