Can Scotland Do Innovation? …and what does success look like?

31st March 2016

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder; success is determined, defined and measured by whoever holds the yardstick. This was brought home to me by several meetings I’ve attended recently on the topics of innovation, enterprise and knowledge exchange.

Particularly timely are the emerging and developing discussions in Scotland in a range of enterprise/innovation-related fora, each considering what a Scottish Innovation Ecosystem, Framework or Landscape might look like, and organisation’s roles and contribution to it. From my experience these broadly inclusive conversations can be slow and whilst participants agree to work more closely with other organisations they tend to protect their own vested interests, and changes generally being applied to those absent from any meeting. On the up-side this encourages 100% participation and near 100% agreement; the downside is that they often achieve very little change.

In the present, slightly nervous economic environment, we should perhaps take a moment to celebrate those aspects of innovation & enterprise that 3rd parties say we are actually good at. From the Higher Education Institute (HEI) side these include research quality, outputs and impact (helped by competitive national & international research funding worn from a platform of underpinning government funding) effective handling of International Property Rights, and on a bang per R&D buck basis excellent performance in the formal licencing of technologies and the formation of technology-led spinout companies. There are also a range of well-founded intermediaries providing advice directly to businesses (Scottish Enterprise (SE)Highlands & Islands Enterprise (HIE)Scottish Development International (SDI)Business Gateway and Interface to name a few).

In World Economic Forum reports the UK performs well in its innovation support (normally in the top 5). However all this world-class expertise and professional support, backed-up with a plethora of government grants and agencies, cannot and does not compensate for a lack of business investment in innovation and enterprise across the Scottish economy. This appears fairly resistant to numerous initiatives and evidenced by continuing low level of Business Enterprise Research and Development in Scotland reported by successive Statistics Agency reports.

Based on that history I was excited to hear recently that ~45% of companies believe they are innovative, and from a survey of a cohort of 284 Scottish Enterprise account-managed companies that 45% had or were working with an HEI (in engagement priorities this is in 3rd place behind customers & suppliers and ahead of public agencies).

In the wider Scottish company base this translates to around 8% of companies working with HEIs. Whilst I don’t know the appropriate numbers for SE, HIE or Business Gateway, I think 8% a high percentage, particularly in view of the types of companies which make up the Scottish base. Whilst a veritable mountain of evidence indicates what we have all been doing doesn’t quite cut it, this recent SE data presents a different, positive story; when some of the publicity seems to point towards virtual extinction the fact remains that numerous beneficial partnerships exist between business and HEIs in Scotland.

In my personal Scottish innovation activity hierarchy, we are kings of strategy and policy, princesses of oversight, regulation, monitoring and reporting but mere subjects when it comes to the execution and delivery of growing competitive & innovative business enterprises. I also believe that if we continue to do what we are already doing we are likely to achieve similar results as before; so little change. In regard to individual enterprise & innovation and corporate growth & competitiveness only major change will improve our below average performance in Scotland, whatever numbers, metrics and case studies evidence short term improvements.

So what does success look like? More particularly, how do we achieve it?

A good place to start is not from where we are already and through filling in any gaps we find – that’s what I think we’ve been doing and it is analogous to software providers issuing patches to resolve programme errors. Whilst this approach works short to medium term for software, in the longer term there’s always a v2.0. So rather than more gap-filling patches we need to overhaul, re-programme and re-boot the Scottish innovation ecosystem and its constituent parts and come up with a fresh version.

Starting with the end in mind, from a vision of what we’d like the future to look like we should track back through a series of achievable steps to come up with a map, plan and resources designed to get from where we are now to that future. We might never reach our destination (success), but at least the journey would have true direction, waypoints (achievable goals) and with luck fellow-passengers sharing the journey and similarly motivated to achieve the objective (collective ambition).

Can Scotland do it? We have to, as we really need to be successful this time around if our entrepreneurs, SMEs and economy are to prosper.