Getting the system right for innovation

The government is trying all kinds of radical ideas to kick start innovation - Amanda Lamb recommends starting with an understanding of how innovation has been shown to work already.

Amanda Lamb is Chief Operating Officer of the Pandemic Institute

Current UK science and innovation policy is focussed on establishing the UK as a science superpower.

The Minister for Science, Research and Innovation has advocated for an innovation led economy with a vision for the UK to be a global hub. There are a number of routes to achieve this ambition which currently revolve around increased core funding through UKRI, ARIA (supporting high-risk research), and investment in research clusters.

Excellence everywhere

The recent REF exercise has shown that the UK research base is both broad and deep.

Although public funding is vital to the 2.4 per cent of GDP research investment ambition, excellence is not confined to the locations which receive the largest proportion of this pot. For example, the Midlands and northern England have clusters of excellence and a track record in leveraging private funding. Research clusters have been steadily growing in strength facilitated by regionally focussed networks such as the NHSA, MedCity and HIRANI for Health and Life sciences. Public and private partnerships are promising if uneven in their development.

The lack of attention to this phenomenon means the potential for improving the research system is undervalued. This is the task – to improve the interactions between people, processes, funding, places, and the context in which they operate, to support adoption of technologies, innovations, and ways of working, across organisational and disciplinary boundaries.

Removing inertia from the system

The translation of research into social goods can be a painfully slow process. The often quoted 17 years to turn available data into actionable impact is still the reality for many. This level of inertia in our systems is something that can be addressed. Investment is obviously one part of the solution, but only part of it. The route to a more capable and robust innovation systems is to understand them better from the inside. Only then can we fix the parts that are broken, missing or unnecessary and subsequently adapt them.

The Connected Health Cities (CHC) initiative which worked across academia, industry and public services did exactly this; enabled by an investment directly from central government in 2015 that is very similar to the proposed ARIA programme – with a reduced bureaucracy, appropriate freedoms to operate and measures of success that were relevant.

Taking a place-based approach combined with a specific focus on the co-development of interventions to improve health, CHC was able to uncover common challenges that when tackled, enabled a faster route to innovation impact.

Three key challenges

  1. Understand the context: organisational settings have a direct impact on the context of a system. In any system the key role of leaders is to identify opportunities to transform and improve operations without disrupting key services. This contextual insight is invaluable to the design process of new innovations and will enable increased uptake and spread, reducing the chances of failure within other settings.
  2. Understand the complexity of the system: individual elements within a system may well perform suitably well when initiated separately, but when interacting in a dynamic system they can cause friction. The best way to understand this interplay is to construct, and value, a multidisciplinary team with expertise across multiple domains. Provide clear routes for facilitated communication and empower teams to act. The know-how of a system is essential to prevent future waste through shiny new technologies.
  3. Understand the perceptions of both system users and systems developers: the most useful system is one that has been co-designed, or improved, with a wide variety of stakeholders. Uncovering the everyday reality of the system. Think about a hospital setting that is fully digital but requires staff to log into multiple systems several times a day because the interoperability wasn’t thought about. A meaningful, well designed qualitative evaluation will support this process but needs to be followed up with actions to improve and a community to implement changes.

Enabling innovation

Fundamentally, a high-performing innovation system should de-risk the routes to the adoption of innovation, enable scalability and support sustainability. So, what part can the higher education sector play in supporting the innovation system?

Within our organisations we need to provide the time, space, and resources to enable our research and innovation workforce to collaborate across traditional boundaries. We need to recognise that not all innovation comes from those on academic contracts; research software engineers are a very good example. We need to think about implementing convenor models alongside traditional principal investigator modes of operating. We need to think about the quality of our bureaucracy. We need to think about our next generation of innovators and routes to support them into leadership so that they can help us build systems that will increase the impact of all our teaching, research, and knowledge exchange.

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