Innovation or bust - Northern Ireland needs to move with the times

11 Dec 2015 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 30 Jul 2018

Geoff Mulgan speaking at the innovation conference

Funding is tight. Without innovation, services in Northern Ireland will stagnate - and if you are not improving you are declining. Scope looks at former Downing Street Policy Director Geoff Mulgan's address on innovation in Belfast this week.

Doing more with less is the cliché of the last five years.

However, dog-eared sentiments might lose their immediate impact without ever becoming any less true.

Government spending has and will continue to decline in real terms. Public services, and those parts of the third and private sectors that rely on central funds, will either have to adapt or decline.

Innovation is the word; adapting and evolving current practice or even revolutionising your processes to achieve better outcomes.

NICVA held its AGM this week alongside a conference on innovation, where its keynote speaker was Geoff Mulgan CBE, former Downing Street director of Policy under Tony Blair and founder of thinktank Demos, currently the Chief Executive of the National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts (NESTA) and a specialist in innovation.

Despite the conference being “set against the backdrop of austerity” - per NICVA CEO Seamus McAleavey - Mr Mulgan hit an unerringly positive tone, outlining the potential power of improving models.

He also said that innovations requires three key aspects in order to take place: optimism, an openness to new ideas and experiences, and paranoia.

Northern Ireland cynics might say that two out of three ain’t bad, but one out of three might be. They might also question the positive impacts of paranoia – but Mr Mulgan’s explanation is simply that places which don’t feel the need to innovate are much less likely to do so, so a bit of worry can do the world of good.

During his talk he also noted that the hotbeds of innovative practice are often smaller countries, as opposed to the big clunking beasts of the world economy – places that don’t feel as secure about their place in the world or their prosperity, and which embrace the speculator’s spirit through necessity.

Estonia has a slightly smaller population than Northern Ireland and is no stranger to the visit of geopolitical strife.

However, with “Soviet technology and Scandinavian management” it is currently embracing many new ways of thinking – such as teaching five-year-olds coding in schools, and allowing anyone in the world to become an “e-citizen” – in a search for greater health and prosperity.

NESTA itself published a report on the quality of innovation in small nations earlier this year.

There’s hope for our wee country yet.

Innovation in general

Mr Mulgan was keen to scotch the image of innovation as something that happens in a silicon palace, with “hugely complex labs and men in white coats, like something out of a James Bond film”.

One of the facts he brought forward was that 67% of economic growth in the UK comes from innovation – and that, in general, innovation looks the same across all sectors, including community and voluntary organisations and even statutory settings.

“If you don’t innovate in the public sector and don’t have lots of money to throw in then you will stagnate and people will not experience flat services but deteriorating services over time.

“In the private sector not only are firms that innovate do better, they are also crucial for creating jobs. Usually about five or six percent of firms are creating almost 50% of all new jobs and they tend to be innovative firms.

“It’s not about supporting everything because it’s the nature of a market economy that much of the growth will only come from a few places.”

To be innovative you need to be willing to make mistakes – and, almost certainly, will need to actually make some mistakes.

By corollary, a culture has to be fostered which is miles away from the do-nothing, overcautious can’t-do caricature of Northern Irish civic life.

“One good example is Michael Bloomberg, the former Mayor of New York. If officials took some risks and something failed - and it failed not because of mismanagement, it just failed, i.e. a good risk – he would take the relevant manager out for dinner and made sure that it was very, very visible, within the system, that they were being rewarded.

“Only way of getting the right culture within the system – though it helps if you are a multi-billionaire – very few politicians have that kind of confidence to go that far because they assume all failures will be on the news.”

Also on the conference podium was Kelly Wilson, Director of the Strategic Policy and Reform Division within DFP, who also talked up the need to take risks and try new things.

She was speaking in place of Arlene Foster, who was called to an Executive meeting.

For this to happen our politicians, media and the public will have to take a much more temperate view of policy punts, accept that some things won’t work, and judge mistakes honestly and with a keen eye on original intentions.

None of that sounds much like our public political discourse at the minute, with its dynamic of covering up one’s own mistakes by rabidly attacking your rivals. How likely is that to change? This presents probably the biggest obstacle to any thriving innovation locally.

Shrouded optimism

One cannot escape the limited nature of any discussion on innovation. Examples can be cited, of course, but a general discussion will deal in abstractions rather than any clear path to specific improvements.

And, as Mr Mulgan said: “Everything I tell you is a bit provisional because one of the things about innovation is that it’s not science, it’s a craft - and it’s also a craft that changes quite often.

“There’s very misleading view about it all being out of the box creativity. Far more important is taking other people’s ideas.

“For example, Steve Jobs was brilliant at stealing other people’s ideas and making them a little bit better. I don’t mean that as a criticism, it’s more a lesson.”

However, that is the point: innovation’s nature is to sit in some potential future. It takes a bit of courage – and optimism, openness and, of course, paranoia – creativity and clear thinking to capture that potential.

What is clear is that it can be done. Therein lies the hopeful message.

Join the Conversation...

We'd love to know your thoughts on this article.
Join us on Twitter and join the conversation today.

Join Our Newsletter

Get the latest edition of ScopeNI delivered to your inbox.