Innovation is so often linked to technical inventions and discoveries. But should we be focussing less on technological developments, and more on multi-sector collaboration as a source of innovation?
At Nesta, as an innovation foundation, we are constantly thinking about, practicing and teaching people about innovation. Across our teams, we develop different innovation methods and approaches; we travel the world teaching innovation skills; we engage in projects such as innovation mapping; and we think deeply about what we can do to make innovation more inclusive.
In short, innovation is at the core of who we are as an organisation, which is why a book called “Collaborative Innovation in the Public Sector” by Jacob Torfing caught our eye, despite not having yet made it on to the bestseller list!
The book argues that many innovation enthusiasts rely too heavily (or even exclusively) on technical inventions and scientific discoveries to drive change. Torfing argues that new technologies themselves do not drive innovation; rather, innovation happens when people choose to use these technologies to develop, test, and ultimately implement new ideas that work. Nesta’s Eddie Copeland has made a similar argument here.
Torfing suggests that we should focus less on innovations triggered by technological developments, and focus more attention on multi-actor collaboration to promote innovation in the public sector.
Torfing suggests that collaboration drives innovation for the following five reasons:
Torfing also highlights that effective collaboration does not require complete harmony. In fact - to the contrary - he argues that collaborative arrangements often lead to innovation precisely because of the constructive friction which emerges when actors from different sectors work together.
The Inclusive Economy Partnership (IEP) is a case study in collaborative innovation. Announced just over a year ago, it is a new initiative being run by HM Government, in partnership with Nesta, which brings government, business and civil society together to work collaboratively to tackle three challenge areas: financial inclusion and capability; transition to work for young people; and mental health.
The IEP fosters collaboration in two ways:
At the core of the IEP is the belief that when government collaborates with social entrepreneurs, big business and civil society, we see more robust, creative and innovative solutions emerging, for the reasons that Torfing outlines. And it is not just government and academia who share this belief. The corporate sector and civil society appear to be recognising the power of multi-actor collaboration as a way of driving social innovation too.
While it is still early days, here are some of the innovations that we’ve seen emerging as a result of IEP partnerships:
We are excited to see what other innovations might emerge as a result of these collaborations and hope that the IEP can contribute to the learning around how and why collaboration leads to innovation in the public sector, and beyond.