By Sally Godson
Project Administrator, Innovation Caucus
After starting my role with the Innovation Caucus, a common question from curious friends and family was; ‘what’s a caucus?’. Fair question! If you’re not quite sure yourself, I promise to serve up a definition I’ve found helpful, but allow me first to show you what the Innovation Caucus means through the lens of one of our recent events.
In January we brought together many of the 80-strong group of social science academics who are at the heart of the Innovation Caucus. Our members’ expertise spans a fascinating range – from climate change policy to computational social science – but what unites all of the academics who give their time to work with us, is a deep understanding of innovation based on research-based social science insights. The purpose of our gathering in January was to celebrate new members joining and to discuss future plans.
To kick-off our meeting in Birmingham, the Caucus’ Academic lead, Professor Tim Vorley took us on a quick journey through the Caucus’ past – from its beginnings as 5 thought leaders who worked with Innovate UK to provide on-hand social science expertise – right through to the current ‘phase 3’ incarnation represented by the room full of engaged social science scholars.
Following Tim’s opener, we were delighted to hear from Geeta Nathan (Head of Economics & Insight, Innovate UK) and Dr Adam Luqmani (Senior Portfolio Manager, ESRC). The purpose of the Innovation Caucus is to provide the ESRC and Innovate UK with easy access to academically-rigorous, social science based, innovation insights. The collaboration works through Members’ provision of rapid responses, projects, and workshops, meeting needs as they emerge. Adam and Geeta, who both sit on our Management Group, shared with us how this relationship has contributed to past projects and how Members can play a part in future delivery plans.
Over the last year the Innovation Caucus has been working hard to mobilise social science capacity to meet the challenges set out in the Industrial Strategy. As part of this ongoing mission, ISCF Challenge Director, Gary Cutts, kindly joined us in Birmingham. Gary delved into his own Challenge area of ‘Future Flight’ and illustrated how social science insights can intertwine with technological challenges to create the new and innovative thinking that the UK government wants to see.
Perhaps the best representation of what the Caucus is all about came in the final part of our Members’ Event – a panel session with Maxine Adam (Head of Business Growth, Innovate UK), Melanie Knetsch (Deputy Director of Impact and Innovation, ESRC), Dr Emily Nott (Head of Diversity and Inclusion Programmes, Innovate UK) and Ben Peace (Head of Manufacturing, KTN). Each of the panel were able to share their experiences of integrating social science insights via the Caucus – such as a project looking at how to encourage participation in innovation from under-represented groups.
So, ‘what’s a caucus?’ Well, I promised a dictionary definition and Merriam-Webster’s “a group of people united to promote an agreed upon cause” certainly rings true. However, I hope I’ve left you with a richer picture of what the Innovation Caucus represents.
Dr. Rossella Salandra and Prof. Ammon Salter, School of Management, University of Bath
Innovate UK’s goal is to drive productivity and economic growth by supporting businesses to develop and realise the potential of new ideas. They both connect organisations to help turn ideas into commercially successful products, and service and fund business and research collaborations to accelerate innovation and drive business investment into R&D.
Through the funding process Innovate UK aims to support ideas delivered by individuals or teams with the highest potential to develop innovation, in order to allocate funding to the strongest projects.
Yet, the evaluation of innovation projects remains ‘more art than science’. Funding proposals cover a wide range of technological areas, and it can sometimes be difficult to assess the potential technical and business value of the ideas, even by experts in the field. Assessors will tend to rely on their experience to assess the quality of the proposal and the anticipated outcomes. They may also display a range of implicit biases that may favour some individuals or groups rather than others, leading to a sub-optimal allocation of funding.
An ongoing project for the Innovation Caucus, led by a research team including the two of us and members of staff at Innovate UK, seeks to help Innovate UK better understand the assessment process.
Building upon the work already done by Innovate UK, and their deep knowledge of the organisation of the funding system, the project seeks to develop insights about potential sources of bias and about the effectiveness of the assessment system.
To date, we have worked collaboratively with Innovate UK to access and organise data on Innovate UK applicants and assessors, collected from the Innovation Funding Service (IFS).
What are the characteristics of Innovate UK applicants?
We investigated the features of individual applications / applicants (e.g., gender), and of the applying organisations (e.g., location and size) in relation to the type of call, acceptance rates, and average assessors’ scores.
While most applications are led by men, there was no evidence that women-led applications had a lower success rate. In terms of the geography of applications, there was a strong concentration from England, especially London and the South East. Again, we found no evidence of geographical preference in selection, as the success rate for applications from different Home Nations in the UK was roughly similar. When looking at firm size, we found that small firms were responsible for a large share of applications, and they also had a lower success rate. However, this might have been expected, given the administrative capabilities of large and medium size firms to develop applications.
What are the features of Innovate UK assessors?
We then considered various assessors-level factors, such as their gender and location. The assessors’ pool was found to mirror the imbalances in the applicants’ pool, with an over-representation of men and assessors from the South of England. Despite this, we found little evidence of bias against women-led applications. We also found that non-London based applications were scored more highly than London-based applications by London based assessors. This would suggest the current imbalances in the assessor population are not leading to any structural disadvantages for women or for applications from outside London.
The research opens up a range of questions that could spur further investigation. For example, at the level of the applicants, the current analysis focuses only on lead applicants. It would be interesting to examine the role of the entire application team and their characteristics. At the level of the assessors, accessing information on the workload of the assessors, and the timing of their assessments might provide insights into how assessments are shaped by other parts of the selection process.
Altogether, greater understanding of the evaluators and the factors that shape their assessment might help to develop richer and more refined approaches for the treatment of R&D grant applications.
Imagine a school with 500 pupils sitting at their desks and keen to learn. However, only 2 of the 500 pupils are taught maths; 50 of the 500 pupils are taught English and 125 are taught languages. Faced with this scenario you might consider what you could do to ensure that all pupils had access to the maths teacher and are taught maths, as well as English and languages. Your motive to intervene being to increase the knowledge sharing from the teacher to the pupils and also to ensure that all had access to the learning and development that this would provide.
While this scenario is highly unlikely in the real world, the parallel with university knowledge sharing with businesses in the UK is very real. A (slightly dated) report published in 2013-14 on knowledge exchange between English universities and small and medium sized businesses (SMEs with 5 to 250 employees) found that only 1 in 231 SMEs were engaged with universities for contract research; 1 in 9 were engaged in consultancy with universities; and 1 in 28 accessed university facilities and equipment. Similar proportions to the hypothetical scenario of pupils’ access to education!
This leads to the question: ‘Does it matter if businesses engage with universities?’. The short answer is ‘Yes’! The basic reason being that universities – like the teacher in our scenario – provide a valuable source of knowledge that can directly benefit business innovation and in turn, growth and productivity.
Partnering for innovation stimulates creativity, reduces risk in the innovation process, accelerates or upgrades the quality of the innovations made and signals the quality of firms’ innovation activities. Innovation partnerships may also increase firms’ access to technology developed elsewhere and their ability to appropriate the returns from innovation.
Yet, despite the apparent advantages, collaborating with universities for innovation is not easy for smaller firms. Indeed, we consistently find that only around 12 percent of firms that are ‘innovating’ cooperate with a university as part of this. Explanations as to why university-business co-operation rates are so low include: limited managerial resources in SMEs to identify appropriate partners; a restricted ability to absorb external ideas and technology; and even a cultural clash between the logics and priorities of businesses and universities – something which has been referred to as the ‘two-worlds’ paradox.
If the proportion of businesses collaborating with universities is to increase, then we need to look at the fundamental steps in the process of collaboration. Kim et. al., (2010), suggest that there are four stages in forming a collaborative partnership. These are: (i) identifying strategic needs; (ii) assessing and selecting a partner; (iii) implementing a partnership; and, (iv) re-assessing and re-shaping the partnership. Stages (ii) and (iii) are a particular problem in the UK, with limited information on the expertise in universities often meaning that businesses are unable to identify the best partners. As a result, they either partner with the wrong universities or more likely, do not collaborate at all.
This lack of information on the expertise in the university sector, along with a lack of understanding of the different channels through which universities and businesses can collaborate can be viewed as a ‘market failure’. Recognising this, UKRI and the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) developed konfer. Konfer is an innovation brokerage platform created through data mining and machine learning, that enables businesses to understand better with whom they might cooperate.
The Innovation Caucus, working alongside konfer, also recognised that for smaller businesses in particular, unless they understand how they can work with a university – in other words, the channels for collaboration – then it is difficult to identify partners with whom to cooperate. A better understanding of the different channels for collaboration, also helps businesses to identify their strategic needs – stage (i) in the partnership formation process.
These different channels for collaboration span interactive relationships that characterise collaborative research between both partners. This includes contract research and consultancy where businesses are more likely to commission a university to undertake a research project. Other channels for collaboration may also include: the use of university facilities and equipment; access to and collaboration with universities to support PhD research; placements for Doctoral students; Knowledge Transfer Partnerships; or the acquisition of university-generated Intellectual Property through patents and licenses, etc.
Each of these channels for collaboration provides different resources and capabilities to a business and in turn requires different levels of engagement from the business. Similarly, each channel has different timelines for the benefit to be achieved and different costs, with some being eligible for grants or other forms of public funding support. The innovation and competitive benefits of each channel will also vary considerably, and some channels may be more suitable for larger than for smaller businesses.
Ultimately, the konfer brokerage platform helps to find the ‘right’ partners but, more fundamentally, shaped by the work of the Innovation Caucus, the platform also helps businesses to consider why and how they might collaborate with universities. If businesses can think more strategically about the different channels through which collaboration can occur and at the same time, understand the implications of each channel, then with support to find the right partner, we can hope to see the proportion of innovating firms collaborating with universities increasing from the current low level of 12 percent.
Professor of Innovation Management & Policy and Head of Queen’s Management School,
Queen’s University Belfast
Innovation Caucus Internship
Within a month of submitting our applications to work with the Innovation Caucus, Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), and Innovate UK, we kicked off the project with a meeting in London. Unlike our PhDs, which involve a long journey over the course of three to four years, things can move fast in UK Research & Innovation (UKRI), the UK’s funding body for research and innovation.
For the next three months we were tasked with dissecting the use of artificial intelligence and data technologies in the services sector, with a particular emphasis on professional services such as advertising agencies, architecture, urban planning, logistics, and hospitality to name a few examples. As this might suggest, the project was open ended. But we were supported by regular (usually bi-weekly) meetings and access to a vast array of resources which could help us get up to speed with the state-of-the-art technologies, ideas of future development, and the UK position in different services.
Soon it became clear that for such cutting-edge, practical applications academic literature was of limited use. The normal publishing cycles of journals – with often more than a year between the end of research projects and publication – were simply too long. So we had to look further.
Certain types of websites, such as trade associations and consultancy reports, proved particularly rich sources of information. But nothing could be taken at face value: AI is such a buzzword that we found practically anything can be given this label. What might have been a simple classifier ten years ago is now rebranded as ‘artificial intelligence’ and tied into all the hopes and dreams attached to it – and if everything is AI, then nothing is AI!
Besides such obvious challenges, others were a bit more surprising. Have you ever tried to find something on the ‘use of AI in the recruiting industry’ on the UK’s most popular search engine? Finding useful information could involve sifting through job adverts, repeated (and often out-of-date) news stories, and unsubstantiated claims and predictions. As helpful as search engines may normally be, in this case it was a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack.
While researching the various uses of AI, we were conscious of the need to focus on what would be useful for UKRI, so that our work would help to identify future funding opportunities in the Next Generation Services project. How can PhD students be useful for supporting policy and practice in innovation funding? This is something we wondered about ourselves, and the answers we came up with are: using their research skills to provide lots of relevant information; offering a diversity of perspectives, and not getting disheartened if others come to different conclusions.
One thing we needed to keep in mind was the purpose of the funding call, which is concerned with the economic impact of innovation more than the innovation as such. For us, this raised questions: ‘If one company benefits at the expense of another, is that good?’; ‘If one company makes the same profits with fewer workers, is that good?’; ‘If one company makes more profits through monetising people’s data or additional surveillance, is that good?’. Answering these questions was beyond the scope of the project. Nonetheless, we were able to raise these questions and highlight concerns as part of our recommendations. We hope that our work will feed into decisions made over the coming months – and this is where the real impact of our work will be seen.
After the 60-plus page report was finished and the work handed over, we ended our research project with a visit to the ESRC. Meeting people, figuring out what our line managers do in their daily work, and where our funding comes from.
Looking back at the project it is clear that we learnt a lot. Coming into the project, neither of us were experts in AI, nor in the service economy, so we had to quickly get to grips with the field. Not only did this involve learning all about the conversations happening in the field, it also meant learning how to cut the jargon to make the report accessible to a wide range of audiences.
It was also a refreshing change of pace to work as part of a team. Keeping things on track required good communication. And while co-authoring meant sharing the workload, it didn’t necessarily mean things were done twice as fast. We quickly found that our different backgrounds and interpretations could pull us in different directions, and that at times it was important to take a step back from the report and get everyone on the same page.
Working with ESRC was an incredible opportunity that provided a valuable insight into different ways of working. Going forward, the experience has prepared us for working on projects that extend beyond academia, notably by adding an emphasis on the potential policy and economic impacts our work might create.
Malte Roedl, Research Associate – Sustainable Consumption Institute and Alliance Manchester Business School
Eliott Rooke, Doctoral Researcher – University of Exeter, College of Life and Environmental Sciences
Innovation Caucus Internship – Chris Dimos, University of Bath
Governments around the world seek to incentivise Research and Development (R&D) of the private sector as a means of boosting innovation, fostering productivity and promoting national competitiveness. In the United Kingdom, the Industrial Strategy aims to establish the UK as the world’s most innovative economy and increase investment in R&D to 2.4 per cent of GDP by 2027. To achieve this ambitious goal, a series of incentives are necessary to encourage more investment in private sector R&D.
A reason why companies underinvest in R&D is that they often cannot fully appropriate the benefits of the outcomes of their R&D activities. Competitors can often copy the new products or processes developed by a certain company’s R&D. This means that R&D, apart from benefits to the R&D conducting company – i.e. private returns, can also give rise to wider benefits accruing to the wider industry, economy and society – i.e. social returns. The greater the “gap” between social and private returns, the greater the unwillingness of a company to invest in R&D.
In order to shed more light into private and social returns of R&D and its implications for policy, Innovate UK and the Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN) have launched a project that aims to measure and model R&D returns. I am currently working with both organisations to meet the project’s objectives. More specifically, the project aspires to develop a Return on Investment (ROI) tool for measuring the impact of publicly funded R&D on the UK economy by taking into account: (i) private and social returns of R&D at the firm-level; (ii) the effectiveness of public funding in inducing additional private R&D spending; and (iii) R&D investment in the long-term by modelling depreciation of R&D and discounting. The impact on the UK economy is measured in terms of Gross Value Added (GVA), employment and income.
The aim of this tool is to better inform innovation policy. Innovate UK can use it to better channel public funding towards those types of companies able to yield large R&D returns (private and/or social). Its network partner, the Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN), can also use the tool to better foster business collaboration to grow the UK economy. The tool will also be helpful to companies allowing them to evaluate the returns they might receive on their contribution to the funded project. Companies have many competing opportunities to direct their internal resources and it is not always easy to decide which is the most rewarding.
Innovate UK and the KTN strive to help companies grow by funding R&D, linking new ideas and opportunities with expertise, markets and finance through their network of businesses, universities, funders and investors. The project, aligned to the mission of both organisations, will enable Innovate UK to maximise private and social returns of publicly funded R&D and the KTN to foster collaborations and make companies grow towards a more innovative and stronger UK economy.
As we embark on the next phase of the Innovation Caucus through to the end of August 2021, we’re looking to recruit new members. We’re inviting Expressions of Interest from academics with a broad range of disciplinary expertise across the social sciences, who will enable the Innovation Caucus to extend its activities and impact. The call for Expressions of Interest for new members is now live on the ESRC website.
Membership of the Innovation Caucus provides opportunities to engage with and impact Innovate UK and the ESRC on a real time basis, shaping their thinking and informing their strategy, as well as the opportunity to influence innovation policy, practice and programmes. A number of members have also contributed to the development of different thematic areas under the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF).
The Innovation Caucus provides the opportunity to be part of a networked community of academics and offers a valuable form of external recognition, as well as demonstrating professional standing and addressing the wider engagement criteria of the academic career pathways framework. Members of the Innovation Caucus also have opportunities to apply for commissioned projects in their areas of expertise.
We’re looking to appoint engaged academics from across the social sciences, with expertise in different fields of innovation research, from a variety of backgrounds and with different research specialisms. We’re keen to ensure equality and diversity within the membership and to include a diverse range of expertise, talent and perspectives.
- To be based in the Faculty of Social Sciences (or equivalent) of a UK Higher Education institution
- A strong track record of research relevant to innovation policy or practice
- A commitment to collaborative working within and beyond academia
- Experience of knowledge exchange, working in a user-focused role, and/or translating research outputs for non-academic audiences.
It would also be an advantage to have an interdisciplinary approach and broad expertise in how social science research can inform policy and practice.
The deadline for submitting the short Expressions of Interest form is: 17:00 on Friday 18 October 2019.
Applications are invited from highly motivated PhD students to undertake a three month, full time internship (or up to 6 months part time), developing a stream of work to establish the challenges and opportunities of supporting innovators to scale up the manufacturing of prototype hardware products. The internship will be hosted by the Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN), which is Innovate UK’s network partner, with support from the Innovation Caucus. The Innovation Caucus is an initiative funded by Innovate UK and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), which are both part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). A key aim of the Innovation Caucus is to support innovation-led growth and promote greater engagement between the social sciences and businesses.
UKRI and others invest significantly in getting many businesses to prototype stage. This challenge has been described as a ‘valley of death’. However, a ‘second valley of death’ occurs when innovators look to move from prototype to full manufacturing. By identifying the key challenges and gaps in the current support landscape, the intern will help develop intervention strategies aimed at ensuring that innovations are commercialised and, where possible, manufacturing is retained in the UK and full value is realised. This internship is part of a larger programme of work, aimed at assisting the KTN to establish the most effective means of helping innovators to manufacture.
The internship will have the following key deliverables:
- A literature review providing context for the main challenge themes in the context of hardware commercialisation and scaling-up manufacturing (Design for Manufacture; manufacturing strategy, including production scale up; supply networks; investment; regulation and standards; culture and leadership).
- Mapping the support currently available in this area. This will include support from academics, Research and Technology Organisations (RTOs) (e.g. High Value Manufacturing Catapult centres), consultancies and support agencies (KTN, Innovate UK, Scottish Enterprise, Invest NI, etc.).
- Conduct some qualitative interviews with innovators in order to identify their support needs. Mapping challenges faced by innovators (identified through the literature review and interviews) against the existing suite of tools, expertise, support, funding, resources, etc. available. Prioritise and identify where the gaps are.
- Report with recommendations for how best KTN can provide support in future (e.g. using a SWOT analysis or similar to collate findings and distil some potential strategies).
The intern will need to have:
- the ability to work with academics and engage with academic debates to identify insights and make connections across research and policy;
- a broad understanding of the social sciences, and appreciation of how the social sciences can contribute to the economy and society;
- an interest in how social science disciplines can be applied to generate insights for businesses and innovation.
- an interest in the challenges relating to commercialising hardware and scaling up manufacturing.
It is also desirable that the candidate will have:
- an interest in and/or experience of conducting previous research into the impact of innovation activities;
- the ability to synthesize research findings into outputs for non-academic audiences, e.g. using infographics;
- excellent communication skills and the ability to work in a client-focused role.
Dates of Internship
By agreement, but we are aiming for a start date of 1st September 2019 and ideally to complete the internship by 31st December 2019.
KTN’s main office is in London, but there is scope to work remotely from the PhD student’s home institution and to accommodate flexible working arrangements. The intern will be expected to attend meetings in London (and potentially in Swindon and Sheffield) on an ad hoc basis.
Funding and time commitment
A total of £4,500 will be paid in equal monthly instalments over the agreed duration of the internship (e.g. a £1,500 per month stipend for 3 months, if working on the internship on a full-time basis). The flexibility to undertake the internship on a part time basis is designed to accommodate restrictions on working hours for international students with a Tier 4 student visa. International applicants will need to be registered for their studies with a UK institution. Travel to meetings and other agreed expenses will be reimbursed in addition to the stipend. The funds will be transferred to the university at which the PhD student is registered, and the stipend and travel expenses will be paid by the PhD student’s home institution.
Please send a letter of application, outlining your interest in the project and position as a PhD intern with the Innovation Caucus, and details of how your skills and experience make you well suited to undertake the internship.
Applications should be sent to email@example.com by Friday 19th July at 17:00.
Please ensure that the university at which you are registered agrees to support your application.
Shortlisted candidates will be invited to an interview, which may be conducted online. Interviews will take place during the week commencing 12th August.
For informal enquiries about the technical requirements for this internship, please contact Professor Tim Vorley, firstname.lastname@example.org. For enquiries about the application process, please contact Dr Katy Wing, email@example.com.
Opening keynote: ISCF & the Social Sciences in Wave 3 – Dan Hodges, Deputy Director, Strategy – Innovate UK
After opening the event and introducing the Innovation Caucus, Tim Vorley welcomed to the stage Dan Hodges, Deputy Director – Strategy at Innovate UK, to deliver the first keynote speech. Dan set the scene by providing an overview of UKRI, Innovate UK and the Industrial Strategy landscape. He explained that there are opportunities for social scientists to contribute across all four Industrial Strategy Grand Challenges, including looking at cultural change, business models, diffusion and adoption, as well as potential negative social impacts and how these can be mitigated.
Dan explained that the government’s Industrial Strategy aims to boost productivity by focusing on five foundations: ‘Ideas’; ‘People’; ‘Infrastructure’; ‘Business Environment’; and ‘Places’. Innovate UK works across these five foundations and all are key to the ISCF challenges. Dan believes that social scientists have the potential to play an important role in advancing our understanding of all of these. Dan presented the ISCF challenges in waves 1, 2 and 3 and set the tone for the rest of the day by explaining the vital role of social science in implementing the Industrial Strategy:
“If the social sciences haven’t been embedded into the ISCF challenges, then they haven’t been set up right to achieve societal impact”.
Dan’s speech was accompanied by lots of positive tweets and followed by questions from the floor. Dan’s presentation slides are available here.
Panel 1: How the Social Sciences can add value
We had a fantastic line-up of speakers for our first panel session, expertly chaired by Melanie Knetsch, Deputy Director of Innovation and Impact at the ESRC. Mel was joined by panel members, Rob Saunders, Industrial Strategy Challenge Director (Energy Revolution) from Innovate UK; Sarah Hodgetts, Deputy Director at BEIS; Ed Hobson, Head of Design & Innovation at the Knowledge Transfer Network; and Adam Luqmani, Senior Portfolio Manager from the ESRC.
Rob Saunders talked about the Energy Revolution and the potential role of social science in advancing our thinking about the ‘complex system’. This challenge involves developing future smart energy, providing cleaner, cheaper, more resilient energy systems and demonstrating their use at scale.
Sarah Hodgetts referred to the role of the Industrial Strategy Council, chaired by Andy Haldane, which has been set up to assess progress on delivering the Industrial Strategy. Sarah also emphasized the importance of the social sciences in solving the UK’s ‘productivity puzzle’.
Ed Hobson talked about the potential for social scientists to help develop better design solutions and how a social science perspective can change how people think about and address Industrial Strategy challenges.
It was great to hear from Adam Luqmani about how he is advocating social science in the wave 3 business cases, embedding it into the DNA of the ISCF. Social scientists need to work out how to ‘sell’ themselves to businesses and other partners to take advantage of these opportunities. Adam said:
“We need to get the acceptance and adoption piece right. This is where we need to see social science led projects”.
A key message from the first #CatchingTheWave panel was that social scientists need to recognise the valuable insights they can bring to the Industrial Strategy and identify how best to promote their unique capabilities to businesses and other stakeholders.
Round table discussions: What might the Social Science offer look like & how can it be articulated?
Of course, the value of attending events is not just from listening to expert speakers and panel members, but also from interacting with other attendees. This session incorporated round table discussions, with the opportunity for delegates to focus on the Grand Challenge of most interest to them (AI & data, Ageing Society, Clean Growth, or Future of Mobility). Round table discussions were interspersed with polling questions, conducted as a plenary, to gather live audience feedback. This session worked really well, balancing quick fire polling questions with more in-depth interaction. Professor Katherine Runswick-Cole tweeted: “Loving the use of pollev.com to capture disciplines and institutions represented here”.
Delegates comprised mostly social science academics, but also included circa 25% knowledge exchange professionals. Around 50 different disciplines / specialisms were identified as being present in the room, including: business / management; innovation / entrepreneurship; economics; sociology; political economy; psychology; information systems; geography; design; law; construction management; town planning; engineering; and advanced manufacturing.
The majority of delegates reported feeling relatively confident about relating to the ISCF priorities and drivers, with only 21% “still unsure”. Almost half were already engaging with other disciplines than their own, either with other social scientists or with non-social science disciplines. In terms of non-academic partners, public sector engagement came out higher than engagement with businesses or third sector partners. “Conceptual” knowledge came out top, in terms of what delegates could primarily bring to the ISCF (47%), followed by “Empirical” knowledge (27%) and “Methodological” knowledge (24%), with only 2% answering “None really”.
The top skills that social scientists could bring were felt to be “Analytical” (32%), followed by “Problem-solving” (22%) and “Boundary-spanning” (20%) (with “Visionary” and “Others” each on 13%).
This level of engagement and interdisciplinary working was felt to be very encouraging. Tim Vorley tweeted “The world’s problems do not divide up along disciplinary boundaries”; and “If @CSkidmoreUK was in #Sheffield today I’m sure he’d be impressed by the engagement and commitment of #SocialScientists with the #IndustrialStrategy and #ISCF”.
Final keynote: Business Engagement Vision – Social Science as the Golden Thread – Melanie Knetsch, Deputy Director, Impact & Innovation – ESRC
Tim welcomed Mel back to the stage to give our final keynote speech. Mel shared her vision and insights about social science engagement with business and about moving from research on and about business to research with business (i.e. collaboration). She discussed the opportunities for social science in relation to the ISCF, emphasizing that “It isn’t all about new technologies!”. Social scientists can help to frame problems in new ways, by asking challenging questions and rethinking assumptions. Mel highlighted some of the key ways in which social scientists can contribute, including:
- Understanding the role of industry in driving growth and understanding regional variation (place)
- How to ensure adoption of new ideas, technologies, services and approaches, including ethical considerations
- New skills that are needed by companies
- How business models can be evolved to capture more value and make companies fit for the future
- How customers can drive product innovation
- How businesses can develop new methods
- How they can design better products, services, processes, methods and practices
- How workforces can engage with change
- Identifying new ways of measuring the hard-to-measure – e.g. productivity, business-to-business partnerships, impact
- Offering excellent understanding of data and digital innovations
- Helping to understand bias, ethics, employees, managers, and customers
- Working closely with regulators, government and policymakers.
There were lots of positive comments on Twitter, for example, Dr Vicki Belt from the Enterprise Research Centre tweeted: “Insightful talk by @Mel_Knetsch of @ESRC on #SocialScience and business engagement. Barriers exist but there are so many benefits”. Mel’s presentation slides are available here.
Panel 2: Experiences of ISCF & the Industrial Strategy
Our final panel was very ably chaired by James Wilsdon, Professor of Research Policy in the Department of Politics at the University of Sheffield. James was joined on the stage by: Professor Jacqueline Glass (UCL); Professor Lucy Kimbell (UAL); Professor Simon Collinson (University of Birmingham); and Professor Katy Mason (Lancaster University).
This was a practical conversation, involving academics sharing their experiences from the coal face on issues such as finding partners, developing and implementing proposals. A few highlights and top tips from panellists included:
Jacqui Glass advised that the Transforming Construction Challenge is massive and academics are seen as a conduit. “It’s a rewarding space but stakeholder engagement is key”. Also, “Don’t underestimate your hours! You have to accept the short timescales – these are dense programmes of work, but these investments are not about reaching end points: they’re part of a trajectory”.
Lucy Kimbell highlighted the potential of conducting design-led, co-produced research and shared her experiences in relation Next Generation Services, exploring the potential of AI in relation to business models, data and ethics. Lucy’s top tips were to “Pick partners who are different; be open to learning and therefore transformation. Go out of your comfort zone!”.
Simon Collinson talked about his experiences as Director of City-REDI, emphasizing that we need to continue to demonstrate legitimacy and the added value of social sciences. He advised that “These aren’t quick fixes and early wins: you need to look at pathways to different forms of impacts”.
Katy Mason discussed some of the challenges of ”learning by doing” as a researcher and bringing innovation to the research process as it takes place. Gantt charts are helpful, but flexibility is needed around challenges and to respond to new opportunities as they arise. “Evaluation frameworks need to be iterative and re-looked at over the lifetime of projects.” Katy also offered this positive note on which to end: “There’s an opportunity to have real fun again with research – the thrill of being out there dealing with real research problems is really exciting”.
Following the Panel 2 Q&As, it only remained for Tim to thank everyone for attending and for their contributions – especially our speakers, panellists and facilitators, for sharing their insights and stimulating lots of thought-provoking discussions throughout the day.
Professor Palie Smart and Dr Sara Holmes (University of Bristol) and Professor Miranda Wolpert (UCL) have completed a scoping study examining criteria by which Innovate UK can assess funding priorities according to social impact. The project contributes to the commitment of Innovate UK to deliver economic and social impact through its investments. Following a review of social impact measures, the project developed a framework based on the Sustainable Development Goals to help inform the prioritisation of future funding programmes. Whereas Innovate UK has historically evaluated funding priorities based on four economic criteria, this work will inform ongoing efforts to incorporate social, societal and environmental impact into future assessments.
The framework is underpinned by the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a set of 17 interconnected objectives aimed at tackling global social and environmental issues. Agreed by world leaders in 2015, they are part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. All signatories to the SDGs are expected to contribute to them internationally and deliver them domestically. The project identified 6 priority SDGs for Innovate UK based on a content analysis of the most recently available Annual Report and Delivery Plan. The 6 priority SDGs are those which Innovate UK activities impact most directly and can be used as a starting point for societal impact evaluation. These are:
- End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture
- Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages
- Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all
- Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all
- Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive & sustainable industrialization and foster innovation
- Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
The project also identified a set of societal impact evaluation criteria which could enable Innovate UK to examine the potential social, societal and environmental impacts of future programmes in greater detail. These criteria were drawn from the Impact Management Project, a multi-stakeholder initiative convened by four recognised bodies in impact investing: the Global Impact Investing Network; Global Reporting Initiative; Global Steering Group for Impact Investment; and the International Finance Organisation. This project consulted widely with stakeholders to develop a common framework which could be used and understood by organisations in all parts of the impact investment ecosystem. A summary version of the suggested evaluation criteria is below.
Categories Dimensions of evaluation Evaluation criteria
Scale of impact Numbers of people affected Few ↔ Many
Depth of impact Extent of societal impact Limited ↔ Extensive
Timescale Time expected to take effect Short term ↔ Long term
Societal attention How well addressed issues are Under-served ↔ Well-served
These components can be incorporated into a 2 stage evaluation template. The first stage involves identifying the potential applications of an innovation or technology research area and aligning these with priority SDGs. The second stage involves applying the above societal impact evaluation criteria. All SDGs have an associated set of more specific, measurable targets. Therefore the second stage of the evaluation process could consider whether the application can be related to delivering a specific SDG related target.
A potential next step would be to trial the proposed framework against a sample of emerging technologies that might receive future Innovate UK funding.
Research Aims and Focus
This pilot research for Innovate UK examined the role played by knowledge transfer and knowledge absorption mechanisms as processes in understanding rates of innovation activity in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), by place and economic sector. Pilot research was undertaken on SMEs in 3 economic sectors (manufacturing, high tech and services) based in 4 locations representing different types of local economies: Cornwall; Cumbria and North Lancashire; Edinburgh; and Essex including parts of East Anglia.
Research Questions and Methods
The study focused on 3 key research questions:
- What role does knowledge management and absorptive capacity play in innovation activity within SMEs?
- To what extent does innovation activity vary across different places and economic sectors?
- How does our understanding of variations in innovation activity by place and economic sector help contribute to a more targeted innovation policy for SMEs?
This study investigated SMEs for 3 key reasons: (i) limited coverage of SMEs in knowledge transfer and innovation research (ii) private sector predominance of SMEs in all places (iii) SMEs are a key focus of business development policies, including the Industrial Strategy. This exploratory study compared the ability of micro businesses and SMEs to recognise knowledge, capture it and successfully absorb it into their business models.
The research used two survey instruments: a questionnaire followed by in-depth interviews. The questionnaire was designed to capture a range of information about knowledge transfer and knowledge absorption. Focusing on examples from participants’ own experiences of implementing innovation in their companies, the interviews provided a follow up to the survey and explored 4 stages of absorptive capacity: (i) acquisition, (ii) assimilation, (iii) transformation and (iv) exploitation.
Summary of Key Findings
- Conceptualising innovation: many study participants, particularly those in the ‘high tech’ sector, chose to focus the discussion on product development and new technology. Some also interpreted innovation to be about service innovation. A small number of respondents, particularly micro-businesses, viewed innovation very broadly, relating it to their business model to ‘do things better’ and as essential for business sustainability.
- Acquisition: firms acquire knowledge mainly through collaborations and communications with external partners and some via internal creative capacity development. Study participants identified a wide range of sources of knowledge including: customers, suppliers, internal team members and industry networks. The use of more formal networks and groups was mentioned by several participants and a few had acquired knowledge from universities.
- Assimilation: knowledge assimilation appears to be an inclusive process, with evaluation and decision making about new knowledge being carried out by internal employees. Medium sized firms adopt more formal procedures describing a ‘stage and gate’ process, looking at the fit with company product portfolio. Micro and smaller sized firms preferred informal processes to assimilate new knowledge. Many described a need to be inclusive in this process, involving a range of stakeholders, including customer consultations to obtain feedback on early ideas.
- Transformation: knowledge is transformed either through trial, error and experimentation, or by adopting a systematic approach. Product development in high tech companies was often based on a structured process of prototyping, testing and experimentation. Two businesses noted help from universities at this stage as either a follow-up to knowledge acquisition or to access new specialist resources. In a small number of cases, participants indicated that the knowledge transformation process was not needed as the knowledge was already in a usable form.
- Exploitation: success in going through the other three stages of absorptive capacity leads to effective exploitation. Participants in all the SMEs reported largely positive outcomes, namely: (i) objectives were achieved (e.g. new product or service launched and profitable); (ii) outcomes not yet achieved, had been modified or the project had changed direction; and (iii) successful and there were further unintended benefits.
- Perceived aids to innovation: a number of success factors were identified that enabled innovation, combining informal stakeholder relationships with formal development processes. Other innovation enablers included: good engagement with customers and knowledge of the market; an innovation culture that accepts failure and risk-taking; and clear decision-making and accountability structures.
- Perceived barriers to innovation: obstacles included: time constraints, competing priorities, and being distracted by customer suggestions that do not ‘fit their roadmap’. Application processes for grant programmes were often perceived to be difficult and bureaucratic. This was noted as a key barrier in accessing funding for innovation.
- Place-based innovation: unique resources linked to specific geographical locations can be beneficial for innovation. In this study, the location of the business was of less importance to high tech and manufacturing businesses, which tended to collaborate internationally more than locally. In rural areas, access to skills was cited as an important issue. Many companies in rural areas had chosen their location for social reasons (e.g. quality of life, closeness to family, etc.). Some of these companies deliberately constructed their business around available rural assets.
- Sector and place in the Industrial Strategy: the study found that sector plays a more important role than place in explaining the innovation output of the firms in our sample set. Service sector firms are relatively less innovative than those in the manufacturing and high-tech sectors. There was recognition by certain companies that the regional environment constrained growth, with some unable to access resources, skills and knowledge within their locality. Establishing a business in a specific location or region is therefore not sufficient to produce innovations: instead sectoral activity plays a critical role.
- Factors explaining innovation capacity: employees’ training has no statistically significant impact on the number of innovations. Instead, mechanisms that encourage employees’ participation in knowledge creation and sharing activities make a substantial contribution to innovation output. These mechanisms differ significantly among the four regions. Implementation of policies and procedures (to codify, absorb and redeploy the external knowledge) notably contribute to the innovation output.
- Knowledge absorption across regions: there were no major differences across regions in this regard, except for the participatory mechanisms of employees. This is due to firms with higher knowledge management and absorption capabilities being able to understand, assimilate and utilise knowledge, regardless of their location. Absorption from sources outside the regional boundaries (including global market influences) compensates for the regional disparity, triggering higher innovative performance in some firms.
Conclusion and Future Research
The intention of this study was to undertake pilot research to explore attitudes to innovation, knowledge transfer and absorption in SMEs, to investigate differences in sectors, regional variations and types of place (rural or urban). More innovative firms are better able to acquire, assimilate, transform and exploit knowledge. Industry structure plays a crucial role, since different industries provide different opportunities and challenges for growth and innovations. Hence industrial policy should focus on the role of industry structure alongside place in the growth of a local economy. This study begins to understand those SMEs which are ‘innovation followers’ and those with a sustainability orientation. There is scope to examine the questions in much more depth, with a more comprehensive study, using these preliminary findings as a basis for further discussion with funders and policy makers.
This research was led by: G. Shaw, with support from A. Marshall, D. Murphy, A. Rosiello and V. Sena and research assistance from C. Carr, O. Golra and S. Hickman.