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Network Effects

This research report reviews the innovation benefits for cities and subnational governments of international collaboration.

The UK is committed to ‘leveling up’ its innovation system between different cities and regions, as set out in the UK Government’s recently released R&D Roadmap. Building on The Missing £4 Billion and Innovation After Lockdown, this report explores how cities and subnational governments (SNGs) can improve their capabilities and capacity for innovation by expanding their networks internationally.

Based on a literature review, case studies from across the globe and interviews with experts in the field, this research presents an overview of the history of international collaboration between cities and SNGs, the current picture and the potential for these partnerships as a source of innovation.

It provides insights, models and recommendations both for UK cities and SNGs, and those around the world.


  • There are considerable opportunities for boosting innovation through more effective international collaboration at an SNG level - particularly in the COVID-19 era.
  • In recent decades, subnational international collaboration networks have become more widespread, more complex and have utilised a wider range of collaboration mechanisms.
  • For cities and SNGs seeking to maximise innovation from an international collaboration, the landscape is very complicated, and there has been little guidance on process or benefits.
  • Picking the right international collaboration opportunity to ensure the maximum benefit to an SNG’s innovation capability requires a clear understanding of the fast-moving landscape, as well as the choices and opportunity costs, and the future value proposition.
  • The opportunity for international collaboration isn’t just for major cities, there are effective ways of participating for second and third tier cities as well as regions and devolved nations too.


Subnational governments should:

  • Take a ‘whole of place’ approach to international engagement, by:
    • Understanding their existing international commitments, and regularly reassessing their value and objectives.
    • Taking a more integrated approach that looks beyond political boundaries, siloes and timescales.
    • Avoiding treating different collaboration networks as optional or interchangeable.
  • Concentrate on collaborations that are innovation-ready, by:
    • Ensuring credible leadership and expert facilitation to negotiate international differences and tease out innovation potential.
    • Setting clear shared objectives, commitments and responsibilities.
    • Creating the profile and appetite to engage a wider stakeholder base, including citizens, business, investors, universities and other levels of government.
  • Pursue national-level policy partnerships to unlock capacity for internationalisation, by:
    • Identifying the national players and resources that can enable a more systematic and innovation-focused collaboration agenda.
    • Connecting international collaboration to national strategies, for example: creating more centres of productivity which distribute innovation capacity.
    • Seeking to access personnel and development opportunities operating at a national level with specific international collaboration expertise.


Ellie Cosgrave

Associate Professor of Urban Innovation and Policy at University College London (UCL) and Director of the UCL’s Urban Innovation and Policy Laboratory within the Department of Science,…

Dr Tim Moonen

Managing Director at The Business of Cities, an urban research and intelligence group based at STEaPP, University College London.

Jake Nunley

Head of Research at The Business of Cities. His research primarily involves in-depth appraisal and peer review of city strategies, policies and tools.

Oliver Zanetti

Oliver Zanetti

Oliver Zanetti

Senior Mission Manager, sustainable future mission

Oliver Zanetti is mission manager for Nesta’s sustainable future mission, which focuses on home decarbonisation and economic recovery.

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