Response to the Draft Innovation Strategy for Northern Ireland - Part 1

Andrew Bolster

Senior R&D Manager (Data Science) at Synopsys Software Integrity Group and Treasurer @ Bsides Belfast and NI OpenGovernment Network

Introduction to my Critique

Last month DETI announced a Consultation on their (i.e. Arlenes) Strategy to make Northern Ireland “into one of the most innovative regions with the UK”. I’m known to rant and rave about the use of the word “innovation” at the best of times, so I’ll just put that attitude on the shelf and highlight a few of what I think are the “ok” points and the decidedly questionable points in the strategy. First off as a general comment that I’d otherwise repeat over and over again going through the draft, other than the words “Northern Ireland”, and excluding some of the case-studies, this could be an innovation strategy for any region in the world. The stated “Barriers to innovation” read like they’re straight out of a Business Studies textbook, and in general, the (lengthy) exposition around this ideal of “innovation” is little more than a 34 page definition of what DETI considers innovation. (It’s a loaded word and everyone is entitled to have an opinion on what it means. I guess we know DETI’s now at least). Speaking of repeating, this does repeat itself over and over again, just take my word for it here and I won’t raise it individually…

The Ministerial Foreword

The very first word I scribbled on my copy of this document was “No”. That “No” was in reference to the very first sentence in the document.

Innovation can mean many things to many people but in an economic context it is about the successful generation and exploitation of new ideas.

I personally disagree with this attitude as it puts innovation into a corner with economics. Arlene already has 92 pages of blurb that I don’t feel qualified to comment on on Economic Strategy, but surely if you’re going to have a wider discussion about ‘Innovation’, it shouldn’t just be under an economic context? The second sentence also irked me…

Companies who are innovative have seen their employment and sales grow twice as fast as their non-innovating competitors and are also significantly more productive

Innovative as defined (and assessed by) who? When I filled out a survey sent out earlier in the year by DETI to loads of companies across this province on behalf of Farset Labs, it looked to me like they essentially asked “Are you innovative/Do you see yourself as innovative?”. That doesn’t test innovation, that tests how good whoever is answering the question at your company at spin (although later in the document, this style of “marketing” is classed as a form of innovation too, so there you go…) Also, if I was summarising that sentence, it could be encapsulated in “Good businesses do better”. On a whim, I put the ministerial foreward into TextTeaser and got this out:

  • Companies who are innovative have seen their employment and sales grow twice as fast as their non-innovating competitors and they are also significantly more productive.
  • During challenging global economic conditions the need for innovation is even greater, as it allows firms to stay ahead of their competitors and position themselves to exploit growth during recovery.
  • From the wider economy perspective, the level of innovation in a region is an important factor in attracting inward investment.
  • This draft Strategy identifies the key actions necessary to support Northern Ireland companies to become more innovative.
  • We need to build on this success and see more local companies engaging in both innovation and exporting activities.

… On the strength of that performance, I think I’ll do that for each section…. I was very happy to see one paragraph (funnily enough didn’t make it into the TextTeaser summary.

Innovation does not happen in isolation and it is not just about R&D and high tech firms. Instead, it is also about skills, design, and collaboration - collaboration between sectors and collaboration internationally.  That is why this draft Strategy aligns fully with the Skills Strategy, the Higher Education Strategy, the Access to Finance Strategy and of course the Economic Strategy.

Can’t actually argue with that too much. (Don’t look so surprised!)

DETI’s Innovation Vision

Giving TextTeaser another shot at bat;

  • Innovation enables firms to stay ahead of competitors, and with global economic conditions remaining challenging, the focus on innovation is now more important than ever.
  • Innovation Vision If innovation is to play its full part in realising the vision of our Economic Strategy then Northern Ireland needs a complete step change in its culture, priority and performance in respect of innovation.
  • This Innovation Strategy sets out the key long term actions necessary to make that transformation and so ensure that innovation plays its full part in realising the vision of our Economic Strategy.
  • Innovation in its Widest Sense There is a frequent misconception that innovation means scientists and R&D.
  • Barriers to Innovation To realise our vision, this Strategy needs to address the main barriers to innovation.

Ok, so TT isn’t perfect, but if you squint a bit, it actually does sum up my interpretation of the message put across in 5 odd pages. Right off the bat (well, 4 paragraphs in) what is nearly my “QOTD” is in here.

If innovation is to play its full part in realising the vision of our Economic Strategy then Northern Ireland needs a complete step change in its culture, priority and performance in respect to innovation

My sentiment is quite simple…

[256621-funny-gifs-citizen-kane-clapping]This sentiment was slightly tarnished by a little post-word for this section…

Where reference is made to “we” in the strategy that should be read as the NI Executive in partnership with relevant stakeholders

Awwww, come on guys, you were so close to having a strong collective message to give to the populace. Unfortunately that means that the original powerful prose can be re-read (assuming the “we” substitution equally applies to the plural posessive) …

If innovation is to play its full part in realising the machinations of Stormont then yous’uns need to wise up in respect to our ideas of innovation

However it could equally have been written (using their parlance)

If innovation is to play its full part in realising the vision of our Economic Strategy then we as the Northern Ireland Executive along with our relevant partners in industry, and academia need a complete step change in culture, priority and performance in respect to innovation

If only government could be so candid… Anyway, I still liked the original message so will probably quote it at some point in the future. I had a slight issue with the use of the word “hub” in this quote (original emphasis)

Northern Ireland, by 2025, will be recognised as an innovation hub and will be one of the UK’s leading high-growth, knowledge-based regions which embraces creativity and innovation at all levels of society

I don’t want to split hairs but the most performant areas of the planet aren’t “hubs” (“Silicon Roundabout” doesn’t count), centrally controlled networks of arbitration and delay, but are instead “clusters” of cooperating, complementary, collaborative mashups of sectors and industries. The draft then goes on to talk about “Barriers to Innovation”. Now, in terms of my background on this subject, I sat on one of the the NISP Connect KEI consultation boards for Culture, and this was a major discussion point at the time, which I was bitterly disappointed to see watered down to unambitious, in-actionable fluff despite the best efforts of myself, Matt Johnson, Tim Brundle and others on that particular panel. I was equally disappointed reading this section.

**CLARIFICATION [24/10/13]: **I’ve been called out for banging the Tiger Teams (rightly), so wanted to add a slight clarification my position. The “unambitions in-actionable fluff” is what everyone in the room agreed with. Some of the ideas in the room were brilliant, and even some of the ones I argued against, because everyone in the room has an agenda and the only things that we can all agree on are generic answers, the simple ‘people pleasing’ answers such as “better education” or “more childcare support” or “make stem cool”. These ARE actions to foster innovation but they’re sticking plasters on a broken leg, and without ambitious large scale targets (that NISP CONNECT ably provide with their 2030 targeting with Oxford Economics), people continue to try to buff out the problems with the current system. On a final, personal note, I was asked why if I had greivances against the Tiger Teams why didn’t I say before? That’s because I didn’t; I may have disagreed with the outputs of the Tiger Teams, but I was there to see both the process of the teams and the synthesis done by the report-writers and honestly had no real argument with the process. I simply was disappointed by the “Wisdom of Crowds” leading my specific Tiger Team to settle on easy answers.

One thing that raised an eyebrow however was this.

To successfully overcome these barriers, particularly for our SME’s and micro businesses, support from the public sector is critical and delivery of the action within this strategy will therefore overwhelmingly fall to the public sector

I think this can be read a few ways. First, maybe I was being a bit too judgemental about the whole “yous’uns” thing. Or possibly (and more likely), this is a statement that will continue InvestNI’s dominance in the sector. That then raised the question of what innovations were going to be put in place in InvestNI to make them able custodians of this mission from above?… I don’t think I found a satisfactory answer to that in this document… Another nice little misdirect is the discussion about the NESTA Neighbourhood Challenge Initiative where the buck is partially passed to the third sector (i.e. free/cheap labour) to improve policy. Basically, according to this section, the Executive has no part in being a Barrier to Innovation and it’s everyone else’s fault. Apart from some hints at ‘innovation is also required in the public sector’, there’s no culpability from local government to say “yup, we’re part of the problem too and we need to change as well, we’re in this together lads”. But the cracker is the breakdown of the “Barriers to Innovation”

  • *Knowledge - *Absorptive capacity, trust, IP, user knowledge, lack of communication, lack of information
  • *Access to Capital - *Availability of finance, cost of finance
  • Incentives Lack of competition, lack of inducements, lack of ambition
  • *Markets - *Identifying opportunities, understanding opportunities, regulation, standardisation, access to markets, and language barriers
  • *Skills - *Leadership, technological, R&D,  creative thinking
  • *Cultural Changes - *Risk aversion, entrepreneurship, understanding innovation, managing change

I suppose in some spirit this is supposed to be a generalised document, but to me this is a shopping list of generic limitations to business. The only ones that are really “impactful” to embracing innovation are the “Cultural Changes”. The rest are problems with investors/granters/policymakers not understanding the operation of innovation as a large number of risky ‘experiments’ (and by the law of large numbers, mostly failing with a few standout successes) that should be encouraged to start quick, iterate, and fail quickly.

End of Part 1

This is taking longer than I expected so I’ll take this up after TEDx Belfast tomorrow, but my impression so far is that this strategy doesn’t have any meat yet, and is not proposing the kind of sweeping revolutionary (rather than evolutionary) policy and attitudinal changes needed needed. This is the low hanging fruit of the “innovation” buzzword. It’s boxticking and incremental adjustment. The past 30 years of public sector economic reliance aren’t going to be fixed with public sector thinking…

Part 2 Continues the Ramble

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