This month, NESTA, one of the UK’s largest innovation foundations, released a report entitled Speaking to the Innovation Population. It is free to download here, makes interesting reading, and gives an insight into the British public’s views on innovation, as well as making some communication policy recommendations.
The authors of this report point out that very little research is conducted to find out how the general public feels about innovation. It is generally taken that innovation is a good thing, this is not a point that I wholeheartedly agree with, and it seems I am not alone. It depends on the type of innovation and its social effect. The results of the research that is presented in the report show that there is a group of people in the UK who are enthusiastic about innovation and new technologies for their own sake. However, this group is relatively small – one in five people – and disproportionately affluent and male. Two-thirds of the population clustered into three segments who were enthusiastic about technology and innovation, as long as its benefits, especially in social terms, could be clearly articulated.
The research also showed these groups had clear questions about the downsides of innovation, such as the impact of the Internet on social life, or the environmental impact of our superabundance of gadgets. The research also identified around one in six people – who were much more concerned than enthusiastic about innovation. They were disproportionately female and less affluent, and feared for the impact of technology on their wellbeing and on society. Stian Westlake, Executive Director, Policy & Research makes this extremely interesting observation in the Executive Summary:
The findings carry a message for policymakers that generally goes unheard. For decades, innovation policy has been the domain of technocrats and of party-political consensus.
This has delivered some important benefits, such as the maintenance of a relatively good spending settlement for scientific research over two governments, and the establishment of bodies like the Technology Strategy Board.
The flip side of technocratic consensus is that innovation has never been high on the party political agenda.
To the extent that British politicians talk about innovation, they almost always talk to that small group who hold innovation to be self-evidently worthwhile. Innovation is not part of any national narrative in the way that education, healthcare or even transport have been. In a democracy, this carries the risk that while innovation funding will be safe from partisan point-scoring, it will never be in line for the significant funding that more popular policy areas receive.
An implication for this research for those who believe that the government should fund more innovation is that politicians need to start talking about innovation to bigger audiences, not just the one in five who are innovation enthusiasts. And that to do so, they need to talk not just about innovation for its own sake, but about the benefits that it brings for consumer, for society and even the world”.
The report describes how incremental innovation is easier to understand and discuss than radical innovation, offering some examples of how these types of debates could be framed, with the issue of risk ever present and running through the questions raised and data produced.
The report is well presented in concise graph format, and can be read easily. I have just taken a few pieces of data below that I feel might be of interest to the IX community:
Improving quality of life is most widely chosen as an important benefit that new ideas and technologies should bring to society, followed by job creation and making processes more efficient. The main drawbacks of new ideas and technologies in British society are perceived to be losing jobs to technology, loss of social skills, and throwing things away too often.
However the biggest risks of failing to innovate are perceived to be losing business to other countries, loss of jobs, and not preparing our children for the future. Healthcare is generally seen as the most important field for innovation. The role of government is then discussed, followed by a description of how Britons see their position in the world. In many of the categories chosen they see India as excelling, with Britain only seen as the best in product manufacturing and the US at adapting to change.
The defending innovation section looks at how spending attacks upon innovation can be rebutted, while the Communicating Innovation Policy that follows involves mock speech testing in the hope of classifying which political comments about innovation are viewed as the most important. The population is then classified into groups ranging from one defined as futurists to another of skeptics, and the authors go on to suggest how innovation policy can be communicated in a way that takes into account the interests and concerns of each group.
The final question before the methodology section address the issue of advantage for society. It is very telling that The World Wide Web and keyhole surgery are overwhelmingly regarded as having a positive effect on society, but that genetically modified food is seen in a rather poor light.
On a personal note: I would very much like to see such a survey conducted in other countries. I have recently spent 3 years in the USA and I think the results would be very different, as I found a lot less caution and more bravado involving innovation than I’ve come across in Europe. In Europe, government spending on innovation is very much linked to the military budget, and therefore off-limits to questioning, and ideas such as the precautionary principle are routinely overlooked.
Question: how interesting would China or India be?
image credit: allthatisinteresting.com
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Jonny Hankins is the Foreign Correspondent for Bassetti Foundation for Responsible Innovation. He serves on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Responsible Innovation, participates in the Virtual Institute for Responsible Innovation, and is the Responsible Innovation Editor for Innovation Excellence. Trained as a sociologist at the Victoria University of Manchester UK, his interests range from innovation in the renewable energy sector, bio and medical ethics and the role of politics in innovation, to questions of ethical and moral responsibility. He lives in Boston, MA where he is also a musician, actor and street performer.