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Developing Innovation Policy: Reflections from Wales

28 November 2022


Both Welsh and Scottish Governments are currently revisiting and refreshing their Innovation Strategies and the Centre for Innovation Policy Research at Cardiff University has been contributing to these activities, including conducting around 50 interviews with stakeholders in Wales’s ecosystem and hosting a number of roundtables with the Learned Society of Wales.

Here, Professor Rick Delbridge, co-convenor of the centre, summarises CIPR’s findings, delivered in a recent talk as part of ‘An Innovation Strategy for Scotland’ event held at the University of Strathclyde and hosted by the Foundation for Science and Technology.

“In examining the innovation ecosystem and identifying how Wales might learn from others, we’ve been convening roundtable discussions with invited speakers, including one from Scotland as an example of the innovative small nations we were interested in learning from. Another was from the Basque Country, which provides a great example of government, academia and industry working collaboratively together. So it was a pleasure to ‘return the favour’ and contribute to a discussion in Scotland and how they are addressing similar issues.

I was able to highlight our work for Welsh Government and also the work we are doing with the Cardiff Capital Region – one of the four city growth deals in Wales – whose activity at the subnational level is crucial from moving from big picture ambitions around ‘missions and moonshots’ to mobilising innovative activity a scale and scope people can grasp and see themselves within.

We made six recommendations in our initial report centred on a new innovation strategy for Wales. First, the question of narrative – capturing a level of ambition that is founded on something true and legitimate. And working in a timeline that is not too close but looks to the middle distance – a ten-year period that is disruptively ambitious. It was interesting that in the panel discussions in Glasgow this idea of a narrative attracted a lot of attention.

Second, we examined how well universities respond to the innovation agenda specifically? One of our contributors to our report in Wales commented that universities were more interested in research-led innovation than innovation-led research. In other words, research tended to drive the agenda across the innovation space. We agree that this is an area where universities can improve, and developments like sbarc|spark in Cardiff are designed with exactly this in mind. Future innovation policy should do more to encourage universities to develop their translational research activities to bridge the gap between research and innovation.

The third and fourth points I made are framed around how we broaden from policies focused only clusters of perceived competitive advantage. It’s important that innovation strategies identify, support, and lever those key clusters of world-leading activity but it is risky to put all the eggs in a small number of baskets.

In Wales, where we are not burdened with a huge number of choices to take around world-leading activity, we need to ensure what comes next in terms of Wales innovation strategy will continue to support SMEs and the nascent, future clustering of research activity. If you do not invest in the ‘innovation commons’ then you are limiting the likelihood of future innovation emerging.

Alongside recognition of the importance of the ‘ingredients’ of innovation, the innovation agenda needs to take a more capacious socio-ecological view to engage with challenges around climate or around health: we have been working with the Cardiff Capital Region on a Challenge Fund to engage the public sector to create innovation opportunities, for instance around public sector procurement.

In the panel, I make two more points about Wales that also speak to Scotland around an increasingly complex polity: Wales has four city deals in the process of becoming economic regions, and the articulation of them and the funding they get from UK and Welsh Governments is proving challenging, so there are issues to be considered here in how that is managed.

There is clearly a role for tailoring interventions to support specific clusters selected based on place and sector. What we are beginning to wonder aloud is whether we need to review our institutions and agencies – and whether an innovation body might merit further discussion.

There is increasing academic evidence that points to clear issues around successful policy design and questions of policy deployment or implementation.

It is common in Wales to hear talk of failing to turn great policies into practices that are delivering for our citizens – that ‘policy implementation gap.’ This is also a key issue for consideration when developing innovation policy. What does implementation mean when we adopt a mission approach? We need to identify the appropriate scale of implementation for activities.

Hugely ambitious and disruptive mission objectives are great at scale: business as usual won’t get us to where we want to be – we need to work in interdisciplinary, cross-sectoral ways to turn hugely ambitious headline objectives into real, granular activities and practices.

In our work on innovation policy with the Cardiff Capital Region, we are very keen on taking a place-based and innovation ecosystem perspective and thinking about the kind of components in a mission approach to innovation.

We have begun to talk about the 4Cs of innovation strategy: clusters are vital in an innovation strategy, identifying and developing bespoke support for the leading sectors and technologies in the region. But alongside this we feel it is vital to acknowledge the importance of the ‘commons’ or the raw materials that are crucial to new innovative activity. The Challenge Fund we have developed in partnership with the CCR is an example of ‘catalytic intervention’ in the ecosystem – an attempt to energise and nurture innovative activity, particularly in the public sector. The final C is the capacity or capability of those in the region to be innovative.

We have been reflecting on our own capacity to deliver, so the sister programme to the Challenge Fund is a European funded programme of capability development for public sector employees in the region – a programme called InFuse, where employees are introduced to data, adoption and adaption of innovation and the whole challenge-oriented innovation approach.

We need to be mindful when shaping clusters of the training, skills and capability needed not just by the clusters, but that they spill over and have a wider effect.

Finally, to summarise, we face issues around the articulation of the national and sub-national, the challenges in this multi-level polity of accessing research and innovation funds in a post-EU context, with emphasis on a place-based inclusive approach to innovation which builds on clusters and identifies challenges and micro-ambitions.

We need to think about what capacity are we lacking to deliver on our agenda: the ingredients include collaboration and coordination. Most importantly, a narrative that is founded on something legitimate and aspirational, where people recognise themselves on a journey in that story, and whether our institutions are fit for purpose.”

Rick Delbridge is Professor of Organizational Analysis at Cardiff Business School and co-convenor of the Centre for Innovation Policy (CIPR). He is currently the university lead for the design and delivery of the Cardiff Capital Region Challenge Fund (CCR CF) in partnership with Y Lab and the Cardiff Capital Region.

CIPR is a member of SPARK – a collective of 11 social science research groups working together to  develop innovative solutions to societal problems through collaborative research activity. Social Science Research Park – Cardiff University.

A full record of the Foundation for Science and Technology event can be found by clicking here.

Speakers included Professor Julie Fitzpatrick OBE, Chief Scientific Adviser for Scotland, and Professor Sir Jim McDonald, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Strathclyde.