Can We Innovate?

We seem to hear a lot about innovation. An example is in our most recent economic ‘strategy’, the 10X Economy, which described itself as ‘the economic vision for a decade of innovation’. However it was produced before Stormont reconvened and is actually a wish list not a strategy – and did not elaborate on what it meant by ‘innovation’ or how it was to be delivered, writes Prof Simon Bridge.

Is it a piece of classic simplistic thinking? If we belief that our economy is not as strong as we would wish it to be and if received wisdom tells us that innovation strengthens economies – have we concluded that we need to add ‘innovation’ to our business mix? But, if that is so, why don’t we have it already? 10X seems to advocate innovation as a new solution whereas it had been part of our prescribed economic cure for some time. Unfortunately, however, the system does not appear to be able to deliver it.

Innovation has been described as ’the successful exploitation of new ideas’ – for which both new ideas and the process of exploitation are needed. But, for the advocates of 10X, was it perceived to be a sort of magic potion which, if simply named and applied to our economy, could revitalise it?

Innovation involves a different way of doing things and stepping outside the accustomed paradigm. Therefore it is also facilitated by exchanging and recombining views from the perspectives of different cultures – summarised memorably as “ideas having sex”.

A campaign some time ago portrayed innovation as the link between R&D and competitiveness. R&D, backed by science and technology, can produce new ideas – but so also can other thought processes. Those ideas can be of new or improved products, services or methods of operating but business competitiveness requires the production of products or services which are bought by customers at prices which yield a profit – and converting ideas into products which the market wants to buy is neither automatic nor necessarily easy.

The process called ‘trial and error’ is often the best ways to find out what works and what doesn’t work well – so that the latter can be improved. ‘Lean start-up’ is a version of that which involves trying out prototypes on real customers as soon (and as cheaply) as possible to find out which features they like and which they don’t like – again so that changes can be made before the product is finalised. The advocates of lean start-up point out that market likes and dislikes are not obvious to everyone – and market research may not help. Real market reactions can be surprising – as Coca-Cola found out nearly 40 years ago when they launched ‘New’ Coke which taste tests said customers would prefer.

Therefore innovation requires a number of attributes including ingenuity, faith and perseverance – plus understanding and insight: an understanding of the current methods or outputs but also the insight to see how they could be done differently. It also needs a readiness to engage in the ‘trial and error’ developing a new but workable approach requires. Did 10X understand that and, if it did, why hasn’t the economy department (and the rest of the public sector) followed that advice and innovated? Or do they think innovation doesn’t apply to them? Does the lack of innovation in the public sector shows why just calling for more of it is not the answer – and what we should seek instead is a change in mindset?

I can remember Invest NI’s innovation week in 2006 during which participants were given a mug and a note book to encourage them to make a coffee and then sit and think as if that was all that was needed. It did not suggest getting out to meet other people with different perspectives: the connections which can actually fuel innovation.

The view that many in government circles seem to hold is that what we already have is working or, if a change is required, we should look for accepted international best practice. But when, from an objective view point, there is no proven successful best practice to follow and a new approach is needed, how should we react?

Could those who prescribe innovation, and especially those who have called for a decade of it, not just advocate innovation, but understand and practice it for the benefits it can bring? Or must we settle for the status quo because that is what their working environment, their culture and reward system, encourages?


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