‘Unlocking talent’ to produce the ‘Innovation Nation’…a case of words, words, words, or…?

Last week, John Denham, Secretary for State for the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS), launched Innovation Nation (IN), a White Paper intended to boost competitiveness and productivity in the UK. Upbeat in style, lofty in ambition, and packed full of strategies, Innovation Nation promises to “unlock the talents of all of its people” to realize the 2007 Sainsbury Report’s challenge – to win the race to top.

The Government’s aim is the make the UK the leading place in the world to be an innovative business, third sector organization, or public service. We aim to build an Innovation Nation in which innovation thrives at all levels – individuals, communities, cities and regions – recognizing the distinctiveness of the four UK nations’ governance and responsibilities.

Innovation Nation is DIUS’s first major policy since it was established as a new department in 2007, following Gordon Brown’s accession to the top job of Prime Minister in the UK. It is also only one amongst a flurry of papers produced by the UK government and allied think-tanks over the past year or two aimed at giving strategic direction to the realisation of a globally competitive, service-based knowledge economy. innovation-nation-2.jpg

GlobalHigherEd has been tracking and commenting on these developments, for they give us an insight into how national governments, like the UK (for other examples, see Singapore, Malaysia, Australia), envision the nature of the global challenges, and how higher education sectors are being mobilized to realize this vision.

Nothing, it seems, is exempt from the government’s Innovation Nation agenda – whether it is in the supply of goods and services, or the demand for them (procurement, commissioned research). And, if the White Paper has its way, innovation (creativity, partnership, knowledge exchange) will be the only game in town.

The Innovation Nation White Paper aims to

  • give around 1000 firms an innovation voucher worth £ 3000 (US$6000) to engage in innovation activity;
  • establish new apprenticeships in the creative industries;
  • facilitate the development of an Innovation Index to be operational by 2010 to measure the UK’s performance as an Innovation Nation;
  • establish a new Innovation Research Centre on innovation knowledge;
  • boost government funding for research in line with the EU’s Lisbon objective of 3% of GDP;
  • encourage Regional Development Boards to capture and capitalize on the unique histories of their regions in ways that are economically productive; and
  • establish a number of new universities.

To realise this new creative economy imaginary, universities will be encouraged

  • to broaden their traditional knowledge bases, to include new disciplines;
  • participate in widening the knowledge exchange agenda in ways that bring the arts and humanities into dialogue with the creative industries;
  • participate in local “partnerships for innovation” with business and venture capitalists to develop local solutions to “local and regional challenges”;
  • make use of model Intellectual Property (IP) agreements to help streamline IP transactions;
  • participate in regionally based enterprise networks, and
  • promote greater take-up of science, technology and mathematics (STEM) studies.

Now the big question here is whether the White Paper will be more than ‘words, words, words’, and impinge upon and transform the current work of universities and their academics? The answer to this question, of course, cannot yet be known for sure. However we can have a pretty good idea of the challenges and the obstacles the government is facing. innovation-nation-3.jpg

Universities and their academics are likely to welcome the Report’s recognition of innovation as more than science and technology, and that new knowledge and inventions are typically not the consequence of one single individual. This wider view has the potential, then, to embrace the larger mandate of universities and the range of disciplines/knowledges it houses. It is thus capable of recognizing the value of transformations in wider systems and practices, and to also value them in the process.

However, despite gesturing at the importance of a wider view of innovation, the White Paper constantly veers in the direction of seeing the ‘value’ of innovation in narrow economic terms (for example, knowledge transfer to industry, partnership schemes with industry, creating higher education as an export industry, spin-out companies, patents, and so on). Academics are therefore right to ask: what about a university’s engagement with those other spheres of life–the cultural, political and social–that do not make a direct contribution to the economy, but which benefit societies in profoundly important ways? DIUS needs to be able to talk about value, not only in ‘use’ or ‘exchange’ terms but also in ways that signal it values those knowledges which generate questions about what it means to be human, how to create societies that are less precarious, how to generate the conditions for dignity, and so on.

Many academics are also likely to take issue with the very limited way in which DIUS intends to measure innovation within the academy – as citations in international journals (largely US, science based journals) which are also being used to generate rankings in League Tables (see our interview with Simon Marginson on this topic). This is a deeply problematic way of measuring and talking about innovation and creativity and one that is unlikely to unlock the talents of the academy for the economy. Why? Because these governance strategies do not encourage risk. Rather, they encourage more conservative and self-preserving strategies, rather than more creative knowledge-building activity.

The DIUS report makes a great deal of inter-disciplinarity to generate new knowledge (see also GlobalHigherEd‘s various contributions this this topic here and here). However, unless things radically change in universities, the current organization of university life tends to reinforce strict disciplinary boundaries rather than to weaken them. Take for instance the Research Assessment Exercises (RAEs) in the UK. Academics had to submit their publications to the relevant ‘discipline/field’ panels for judging. The lists of esteemed journals which would more likely generate a higher score also reinforced disciplinary boundaries and disciplinary parochialism. So, while the sentiment of the White Paper is laudable, to generate new knowledge through creatively working across disciplinary boundaries, there are other structures and processes that will need unpicking if we are to create the conditions for more multi/trans/post discipline-based work.

Finally, if DIUS is serious about advancing the “Unlocking Talent” agenda, it will need to: be sufficiently reflexive about the weaknesses in this White Paper; work out how to bring all academics with them; overhaul those structures and processes that impinge on current efforts to produce post disciplinary knowledges; and offer a genuinely wider view of innovation and creativity for society.

Susan Robertson