It’s easy to overlook relationships when it comes to building innovation networks.
Internationally, the UK’s relationships have been characterised by conflict over Horizon and collaboration to build alternatives. In universities we deeply understand the structures which underpin competition and we can collaborate on bids and projects.
However, the role of intra-personal relationships in research innovation within our places is rarely thought about at best and misunderstood at worse. Although successful partnerships, networks and collaborations, rely on structures, contracts, the right partners in the right room, and the like, they also depend on how people work together.
The human side of the network is critically overlooked.
Trust is a critical success factor in supporting innovation, but it is a characteristic that is absent from the literature, funding eligibility and policy formulation. As a result, key questions we would ask anyone who supports or wants to foster innovation in their local ecosystem through the use of networks is are you trusted? Do you trust your partners? And how will you maintain and build trust in the future?
As the UK increasingly focuses on partnership based interventions – such as Research England’s Connecting Capability Fund and the ESRC’s Local Policy Innovation Partnerships – in the context of regional ‘levelling up’, thinking through how to evaluate, create and maintain social capital is a critical ingredient for supporting local innovation. Put simply, place based innovation cannot succeed without trust from key partners.
Our work in Alberta took a novel approach to understanding how innovation systems can succeed with trust at their heart; with significant implications for UK universities and policy makers.
For over a generation the provincial Government of Alberta invested in research and innovation (R&I) as a long-term strategy to diversify the economy and foster a vibrant society. Key to this investment strategy is the recognition that Alberta needs to be responsive to global challenges such as achieving net zero. In 2016 Alberta Innovates (AI) was formed through a consolidation of four existing agencies: Bio Solutions; Energy and Environment Solutions; Health Solutions and Technology Futures. The mission is to drive long-term economic growth and whilst diversifying the economy beyond oil and other natural resources; enhance environmental, health and social prosperity for Albertans; and improve the effectiveness and efficiency of Alberta’s R&I ecosystem. AI supports innovation through a range of interventions including grants, technical advice, training, coaching as well as accelerators and networks.
Alberta Innovates established the Regional Innovation Networks in 2011 as part of its strategy to strengthen the local entrepreneurial ecosystem and drive economic prosperity. There are eight networks to date and one of these networks, the Regional Innovation Network of Southern Alberta (RINSA), was initially funded as a business incubator in the town of Lethbridge. AI at the time required that a partnership be formed between Economic Development Lethbridge, the University of Lethbridge and the Lethbridge College. The network adopted a client service model, whereby it assists start-ups and small businesses to successfully navigate the commercialization system through programs, services, and resources.
Last year AI completed an impact assessment of RINSA to understand how the network is making a difference to the local community. This was driven by the need to evidence the impact and value of investments using a mixed methods approach. Through an in-depth retrospective case study we examined its impact over the 10 years since it started up. Critically, and rather unusually for such assessments, we employed a ‘realist’ framing which focused as much on the ‘how’ things occurred as to the ‘what’. The majority of research assessments – including the UK’s Research Excellence Framework (REF) – follow an implicit logic model that traces the flow of funding through to outputs (e.g. publications), outcomes (patents, citations on clinical guidelines) to impacts (improvement in people’s lives). Whilst this approach works well for summative assessments such as REF, it does not provide a formative view on ‘what works, under what conditions for whom’ in R&I funding and support.
What was interesting in evaluating RINSA over a 10-year time frame is that we were able to demonstrate a range of impacts but also developed an understanding as to the “softer” or hidden aspects of innovation that proved very useful in thinking about future funding models.
The traditional assessment clearly demonstrated a significant economic return from the original investments made by Alberta Innovates and others. For example, RINSA contributed to a GDP impact of $3.09 per $1.00 invested. Similarly, we undertook a network analysis which, although limited by the lack of historical data, did illustrate that the network in Southern Alberta not only grew but was strengthened over the ten years.
But perhaps the most interesting insight related to the ‘how’ question and the formation of social capital throughout the RINSA. There were a number of findings but three are worth highlighting:
- The personal relationships that were formed at the outset of RINSA being established were hugely important. There was clearly a trusted founding group – that included representatives of local government, commerce, and further and higher education providers – that was willing to leave institutional egos behind and come together in the common interest of supporting innovation in the region. Moreover, this group was relatively stable over the 10-year period allowing for those relationships to deepen creating a virtuous cycle.
- It was essential to focus on equity diversity and inclusion. From its early days RINSA has a focus on entrepreneurs within the Indigenous Canadian population and then subsequently women and more recently immigrant communities. For all these groups, interviewees commented on RINSA’s commitment but also the fact that it took time to, again, be trusted by these different communities.
- Small amounts of (unaccountable) funding can really made a difference. For example, RINSA has a budget that allows for paying for a meal for an innovator to meet a potential customer, to develop websites and cover ad hoc travel expenses. The use of the word ‘unaccountable’ is in itself deliberately provocative as both the advisors and beneficiaries were trusted to use this money to support innovation in the region.
These lessons emerged in Alberta but we believe have significant implications for policymakers, universities, funders, and industrial and civic partners both in the UK and across the globe.