Who owns the future of innovation?

What are the trends, technologies and innovations shaping the next industrial revolution? Where does real power lie in the digital world? And how can we shape it in a way that will avoid replicating the offline mistakes we made during previous revolutions?

A fourteenth-century Tuscan monastery might not sound like the most obvious place to debate these questions. Yet this is where I found myself recently, taking part in the 24th annual Pontignano Conference, alongside Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and a host of other politicians, thinkers and researchers from Italy and the UK. The theme of this year’s conference was the rapid global transformations being driven by the digital revolution, and we were set an ambitious exam question of “Who owns the future?”.

“I don't know the future. I didn't come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it's going to begin...A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries. A world where anything is possible.” - Neo, The Matrix

My expectations of a Matrix-inspired debate about radical future trajectories were perhaps a little misplaced. Plenary sessions were rooted firmly in the political present, with much discussion of the implications of Brexit, the upcoming constitutional referendum in Italy and November’s Presidential elections in the United States. But there were also some interesting discussions about who will hold power in the emerging fourth industrial revolution that were relevant to an issue we’ve been thinking about at Nesta recently - the concept of ‘innovation diplomacy’.

The new players and dynamics of Industry 4.0

In previous industrial eras, power was concentrated in the hands of just a few nation states. Britain led the way in the 18th century, with the mechanisation of the textile industry and the creation of factories. Henry Ford’s development of the assembly line and the capacity for mass production in the early 20th century put the United States at the head of the second wave of industrial transformation. But the instigators and beneficiaries of the digital revolution include many more countries, organisations and individuals operating in ways that we are only just starting to understand.

As the internet breaks down the barriers to international cooperation and knowledge transfer, a host of new players are increasingly working together across borders to design, develop and distribute innovative technologies and services. This is being facilitated by - among other things - the increased availability of technologies and tools (such as 3D printers) that allow innovators to conduct the kind of research and development that used to be the preserve of big companies with lots of money, and by the emergence of new online and offline forums for collaboration. For example, in 2010 a group of US farmers and growers started an initiative called FarmHack, which is starting to develop into a global community of individuals interested in sharing and developing open source innovations for agricultural purposes.

The possibilities associated with this kind of open collaboration for innovation are exciting. Yet this is not the only way that cross-border research and development will happen in the future. Governments and big businesses may no longer have the monopoly on the generation of new innovations that they enjoyed in previous industrial eras, but they will still be pivotal in the process of facilitating and funding R&D. And as this web of connections becomes more dense and complex, we need to think more deeply about the principles, values and structures that should underpin the ‘diplomacy’ of innovation in the future.

Power sharing or power struggles?

There is a long history of international collaboration in the scientific realm. As observed by the Royal Society, governments have tended to use these relationships for one (or more) of the following purposes: strengthening the contribution of science to foreign policy objectives, improving international scientific cooperation, and using scientific collaborations to help improve diplomatic relations between countries.

Collaboration for the purpose of innovation often shares some of the same objectives. A recent example is the UK’s cross-government Newton Fund, which was established in large part to encourage the economic and social development of countries eligible for overseas development assistance through supporting science and innovation partnerships with UK researchers and businesses. At Nesta, we are currently delivering a Newton-funded initiative that is piloting a tailor-made development programme for innovation policymakers in the four countries of the Pacific Alliance: Colombia, Chile, Mexico and Peru.

Yet there are some important differences in the types of cross-border relationships and activities designed to encourage commercial innovations. Here, questions of power and ownership become a lot more pertinent, especially in partnerships where one country (or company) is much better placed to benefit from the results of the collaboration, or where there are competing approaches to intellectual property rights and protections.

Earlier this year, my colleague Kirsten Bound wrote an essay for the 2016 Global Innovation Index setting out some of the definitions and trends in innovation diplomacy, and suggesting next steps in developing our understanding of this phenomenon. Three priority actions should be:

  • Developing a better framework for identifying and analysing the key players involved in innovation diplomacy. As discussed above, governments and large companies are no longer the only actors involved - we need to think about the interests and motivations of these and other groups, including small and medium-sized businesses, individual entrepreneurs, philanthropies and other non-governmental organisations (such as Nesta itself!).
  • Identifying the range of tools and initiatives that can be used to achieve different innovation diplomacy objectives. While there has been considerable focus on creating the framework conditions that will allow innovation partnerships to flourish (such as legal or trade agreements), there has been relatively less concerted effort to understand and develop the ‘softer’ resources, capacities and skills required to make these partnerships mutually beneficial.
  • Collecting the data that will allow us to understand what is and isn’t working in these innovation partnerships. Innovation outcomes are often measured using metrics such as joint patents or publications. Yet these do not tell us the whole story (or the most up to date story) about effective methods for building trust and developing joint goals, or how these partnerships are working in real time. We need to invest more in understanding the qualitative aspects of innovation diplomacy, and to draw on newer quantitative tools and data (such as webscraping of social media) as well.

It is not yet possible to know who owns the future of innovation. But at Nesta we’re keen to think more about how that power could be shared more equitably and benefit larger numbers of people around the world. Do get in touch with your ideas and to continue the 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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