Innovation no longer just for techno-boffins

Louise Marston, director of innovation and economic growth at Nesta, says boffins alone can no longer drive economic growth


Once upon a time, innovation meant investing in new technology – the boffin who built the better mousetrap. But that’s changing. Turning an idea into a successful offering needs the input of every part of a business. This is especially true now and businesses that want to succeed need new ideas to better meet customers’ needs.

Innovation is about much more than R&D. As many British businesses with global ambitions will attest, innovation and growth happen when you fuse technology with other skills such as creativity, marketing and design. So much so that R&D investment makes up only 13 per cent of innovation investment in the UK. The rest comes from investment in skills, design, market research, software development and organisational development.

These significant downstream co-investments are essential to commercialise and profit from innovation, whether new ideas, products, processes or ways of doing things.

Digital entrepreneurs are increasingly showing the way and embracing experimentation and “design thinking” to build innovative new businesses and products. This is all about taking an iterative, lower-risk approach, developing a minimum viable product and then using early user-feedback to refine the offering into what users really want.

Meanwhile in the UK’s creative industries, which account for around 10 per cent of the economy, blending art and technology is a lynchpin for success and growth by fusing cross-sector knowledge and skill-sets. In visual effects, for example, maths, physics and technology are combined to chart exactly how a building would fall, with art and design skills to bring this to life realistically.
Although innovation arguably has creative roots, the key to success is testing and learning as you go, and using available data to help you do so. For businesses to make the most of data there has to be investment in skills and perhaps even reorganisation of the workplace, particularly through empowering employees to use data to make decisions.

But despite oodles of big and open data at our fingertips, fewer than 20 per cent of companies surveyed by Nesta last year said they are data-driven, and predominantly use data and analysis when attempting to grow sales figures. This fifth is a new breed of operator – the datavores – devouring online data and innovating by monitoring and acting on the results of analysing their data.

Yes, innovation still needs boffins. But it also needs artists, scientists, researchers, developers and so on… and with them the UK’s possibilities for innovation and growth are endless.