Universities will start to build new pipelines of public innovation, says Adam Price
Stanford built the world's first incubator for tech-based spin-outs from its university labs over sixty years ago. The science park has gone on to become a global fixture in innovation policy, the physical embodiment of the 'triple helix' of government-industry-university collaboration.
But could a formula that's worked for high-tech be applied to the growing field of public innovation? The public policy lab idea - not so much a think tank but an experimental workshop that prototypes new forms of public service delivery - has gone mainstream world-wide, from Nordic design thinkers MindLab and SITRA through Nesta's own Lab and the latest antipodean addition. Attention is already shifting to how to scale up these pipelines of public innovation.
If policy labs are the XEROX PARC of social innovation, where is its Silicon Valley? The Basque Country thinks it has the answer and is building Europe's first Social Innovation Park in Bilbao. SiPark aims to become home to a thousand problem-solvers working across the public, private and social enterprise sectors on socially useful and usable ideas. What this ambitious EU-baked project lacks perhaps is the hard-wired link to universities at the core of the science park concept. Universities, freed, or at least free-er, from the pressures of day-to-day delivery, are still the best places to conduct pure research - in the social just as much as the natural sciences. Yet we haven't built a public innovation system linking this research with its practical application.
There is one exception, Professor Jonathan Shepherd, a clinical scientist at Cardiff University, points out - the university medical school created a hundred years ago as a dedicated space for continuous learning between medical research and medical practice. Shepherd, himself an award-winning public innovator working across sectoral silos on violence reduction, developed the prototype community safety partnership from treating people with violence-related injuries. That made him wonder what the world might be like if other public services had practice-based, scientist-led research institutions producing a continuously evolving evidence base, for example, through randomised trials. That led to the creation of the UK's first University Police Institute. Shepherd plans something similar for Probation, forming the nucleus of what he terms the world's first "Public Services Research Park".
France scored Europe's first science park - with the UK a relatively late developer. Could we be world-leaders in public innovation? The NHS' Institute for Innovation on Warwick University's science park might have become an anchor for a broader public service focus but it's currently slated to close next year. Birmingham University, meanwhile, has recently announced its intention to create its own Secondary School, attached to a new teacher training institute. The school will be a unique environment to trial innovations in teaching methods and technology, complementing its existing University Hospital. The concept isn't entirely new - the LSE talked of creating a social science park in the 1990s, but the funding fell through. In a world of huge public service challenges crying out for evidence-based innovation, perhaps it's an idea whose time has finally come.