Building a politics fit for innovation

If you believe in innovation as a cycle rather than as an event, it profoundly changes how you can plan for it. And getting that right might define which parts of the world prosper in the coming decades.

Once in a while, a NEXT session takes your mind off in a different direction than you ever expected. And, to be honest, I didn’t expect to walk out of Schmidts Tivoli thinking about economic management of supranational entities, to allow sustainable innovation cycles. But I did.

The word “innovation” has been used and used and used over the last two decades, to the point where it is in danger of being stripped of its meaning through overuse. People buzzword once useful words to death. But in Efosa Ojomo’s talk, deceptively gentle though his voice was, he brought laser focus back to what it actually means for companies, and thus for economies – and people’s lives. This was something so much deeper than the latest tech gadget puffery. This was a profound insight into the nature of our economies in a period of rapid change.

We’re clearly in a period of ongoing disruption – technological advances show no sign of slowing down, so people are having to adapt to that change at every level of society and politics. What interested me is that this talk presents us with a model that can be used both at a company level – which is what Martin explored – but at a structural level within societies and countries.

Feathering innovation’s nest

We can’t trigger the spark of inspiration that leads to innovation. We can create fertile grounds for that innovation to thrive in. But to do that, you need two things:

  1. A robust understanding of the innovation cycle.
  2. The will to plan for it over decades, not just years.

It is the nature of parliamentary democracies to struggle with long-term planning. Too often they fix their eyes on events only a few years away. But the most successful countries — and regions within those countries — will be those who can get a grip on the underlying idea of the innovation cycle that Ojomo outlines.

And, much as Martin suggested, the first stage is to know where you are in the cycle. This is going to be, inherently, a more complex process for a country than for a corporation. Businesses tend to “cluster” for a number of reasons – be it access to talent (often universities), or materials. These clusters are often unevenly distributed across countries, which suggests that most nations will have an equally uneven distribution of regional economies at different stages of the innovation cycle.

Planning for innovation cycles

Innovation needs to be managed at a national or aupranational level.

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

How does this information benefit you? Well, you’re paying attention mainly to stages one and three of the innovation cycle: the creation of disruptive innovation and efficiency innovation. Market-creating innovation requires capital, property and people. Efficiency innovation tends to release people and property in an area — but capital into the company. And you can’t guarantee that the company will reinvest that into a particular region.

So, step forward government. It can provide the resources to retrain the people and refurbish the property in a region when the innovation cycle is tending towards efficiency. This will, hopefully, attract the market-creators, with a pool of affordable property, and reskilled people.

On the surface, this looks simple. So many things look simple on the surface, don’t they?

Execution innovation needed.

The trick here is in the execution. This, in of itself, needs to be a sustainable cycle maintained over decades, not captured in the half-decade cycles of politics. That, in theory, is the role of the full-time civil servant, rather than the politician.

Once this ship is in motion, the politicians can adjust the course. But the machinery of government needs to be kept running. It needs to research, watch innovation trends, forecast and plan, even as those adjustments are made.

That’s an incredibly complex thing to do a national scale – and even more so at a supranational scale. But the regions that adapt to it most swiftly will be able to move their economies in an agile manner as the rapid cycles of innovation pass through.

Time to start lobbying…

Photo by Capturing the human heart. on Unsplash