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Has Wales got what it takes to be an innovation nation?

By Karen Cherrett, PA government expert

Wales has ambition to be an ‘innovation nation’ – to be a country where new ideas emerge, take shape and change the world. It undoubtedly has pockets of talent like Baglan Bay’s renewables centre, the National Software Academy and the life sciences sector. And it has inspirational ideas and true leadership – within business, community and the public sector. 

What’s stopping us?

Much of the country is consumed by the challenges of a tight fiscal climate, the decline of traditional industries and the challenges of being a small-nation economy which is a net beneficiary from Europe. That makes it difficult to find time, let alone capacity, for cross-sector discussion or developing a cohesive nationwide innovation strategy. 

It doesn’t help that we’re an intrinsically self-effacing nation. We love to back the outsider –remember the Euros this year? But we’re quick to knock them whether they win or lose – witness the roller-coaster of emotions around our rugby team’s international fortunes. 

And it doesn’t help that ‘Innovation’ is an over-used and poorly understood term. Its use rarely excites or inspires; instead it confuses or generates scorn. We need to create a common language and pride in innovation, if it is to take its place in the Welsh economy and act as a spark for growth and jobs. Without this it is difficult to engage business and public leaders so that they empower those who can and want to innovate. 

We know that schemes that are practically based and pragmatically applied are far more effective than grants that offer funds but without the mentoring and ‘been there, done that’ support to turn ideas into action and then into industry. 

What stops innovation?

Our Business as Unusual campaign focusing on the theme “Innovation is a Culture that starts at the top,” highlighted that many organisations are too risk averse to invest boldly in ground-breaking ideas. Innovation dies because:

  • It’s considered too risky: why add costs to the business when it is doing okay? (It could be doing brilliantly!)
  • It’s easy to say and not so easy to do: it takes focus and energy and the day-to-day pull of priorities often burns out the energy of an idea
  • Making ideas pay takes time and relies on commercial skills many organisations (and especially SMEs) don’t have in-depth: you can’t expect a start-up of one person to be legal, financial and commercial expert alongside having the passion and technical brilliance of the idea
  • It’s hard to measure: the bigger issue is knowing when as well as what to measure. Setting traditional measures and targets too early simply stifles the momentum
  • It requires a balance of creative, cautious and curious resources: getting buy-in to a nebulous and intangible idea is difficult until we can see and touch its potential – by then it’s often too late.  

What do you think?

We want to know what will create the right environment for Wales to be a hub for innovation – and one the world knows about. Before you come along to the GovCamp event we’d like you to take part in a short survey so we can report back to you on the next steps for innovation in Wales. We’ll send a free copy of the report to anyone who registers for the event and takes part in the survey. 

Finally, we are not just talking about innovation, as an innovation provider ourselves and our clients, at PA we are confident that we know how to inspire and drive an innovation culture to facilitate delivery of commercial opportunity. That’s why we’re delighted to sponsor GovCamp 2016. It celebrates what we do and supports what we know: innovation drives and sustains economic prosperity and keeps a business – or a country – ahead of the competition. We look forward to meeting you there.  

Find out more about the author Karen Cherrett and PA's Devolution agenda.

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