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Leadership / Innovation

Opinion: Our innovation economy is mighty but fragile. We must work together

To build back better, the UK must nurture collaboration in its innovation ecosystem, writes guest author Dr Maria Nelson, director of innovation practice at Digital Catapult

In a time of referendums, economic disparity and fake news, you’d be forgiven for feeling that modern society is somewhat polarised, and lacking in collaborative values. And yet, beneath all the misery of the past eighteen months, in many ways the coronavirus pandemic has helped to unite us all: not just in human experience, but also in our commercial ventures.

If you look closely, the pandemic has spawned countless examples of collaboration and ‘togetherness’ working as a breeding ground for groundbreaking innovation at pace. From joint investments to cross-sectoral learnings and rapid data sharing, I’ve been struck by the collegiate manner in which companies across industries have worked side by side to deliver against the clock.

A common goal

We’ve seen companies adapt commercial products like snorkel masks for oxygen, and others pivoting from producing whisky to mass-manufacturing hand gel – reaching out to other sectors for advice and best practice.

Then, despite some critical views on access and distribution one might have, the development and supply of the Covid-19 vaccines has been a real example of the brightest minds coming together on a global scale. Going it alone wasn’t going to get us where we needed to be – multiple parties had to be in it to win it. Countries like the UK, US and Israel helped collaborate and grow the vaccine development ecosystem, and their businesses and societies are reaping the rewards.

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But there were also examples where things didn’t go so well. Parts and equipment shortages showed us that the pandemic has accelerated pre-existing issues of fragmentation across our global supply chains. And until we find an equitable way to give people across the globe access to the vaccines, this challenge will keep haunting both the countries that already have relatively large-scale access and those that don’t, as the current situation with emerging variants is showing.

Cross-pollination

In this sense, Covid-19 has underscored both the potency and the fragility of our global, networked economy where players are fully interdependent. It has reminded us that working closely with supply chains, users, and even ‘competition’ can actually result in the best outcomes. This is true not just for individual companies’ bottom lines, but for the economy as a whole.

This much has always been the case for innovators large and small in the market: their individual commercial success depends on collaboration and cross-pollination of ideas, both in the supply chain and in the market that will adopt their innovations. Innovation can only come to full fruition if there’s an ecosystem of people working together, and this assumption is supported by the dramatic shift in global economic theory in the last 40 years: we no longer live in a world where only the dominant ‘sharks’ survive and thrive.

First doesn’t equal best

From businesses of all sizes, it’s difficult to predict what the secret ingredient is to a company outperforming its peers – but research has shown that a supportive environment can be critical to success. It may seem like a paradox, but organisations’ successes rely on adopting ‘ecosystem’ mindsets and working with other market players.

Innovation can only come to full fruition if there’s an ecosystem of people working together. We no longer live in a world where only the dominant ‘sharks’ survive and thrive.

Like Napster before Spotify, or Blackberry before the iPhone: some of the world’s finest global success stories have involved the ecosystem of market players building onto each other’s ideas. While lead users and early adopters are the ones paving the ground and may reap significant benefits, early followers can learn from early mistakes, build on previous innovations and make them into something that works for their customers, and often the wider market.

Often we can’t predict who will be successful, the disruptive leaders and the early followers, so developing a continuous, cultural mindset of pushing for the new and collaborating well beyond business boundaries is crucial.

Nurturing the UK innovation ecosystem

What can corporate innovation teams learn from this? The path to more game-changing and successful products and services involves working as part of an ‘ecosystem’ –- this includes start-ups, academic institutions and policymakers, as much as a business’ existing supply chain, buyers, and even competitors, to jointly accelerate innovation (both R&D and commercialisation).

While the biological analogy might not be fully adequate, this ‘ecosystem’ is a way of expressing that companies and stakeholders need to think about their positions in relation to other players around them: just like a biological ecosystem, they are part of an interrelated network, in which capabilities grow together, sometimes cooperatively, sometimes competitively.

Whether or not they like it, their ability to develop and successfully bring to market new products and services depends on the joint health and vitality of this network. So an individual company’s success is much more dependent on others in the ecosystem than one might conventionally think. Being a lone wolf rarely works out.

If it’s earlier stage R&D, or more close-to-market innovation, bringing together different expertise and ways of working can lead to stronger outcomes. From boosting productivity in industrial settings to improving care quality, some of society’s biggest challenges can be solved by bringing businesses of different sizes and people of different backgrounds to collaborate.

Building back better

Innovation will be more important than ever as we build back from the crisis. And it will only thrive when ideas, insights, data and capabilities are developed and shared across projects, supply chains and communities – from small businesses to industry titans, kit providers to governments and regulators.

As we navigate an economic slump, and leaders look at future-proofing their businesses, it’s worth bearing this in mind: now is not the time to close off. The UK may be an island, but just as no person is an island, neither is an organisation. We need each other to survive and thrive.

Home page image by Zoran Milosavljevic/Shutterstock

Dr Maria Nelson is director of innovation practice at Digital Catapult, the UK's advanced digital technology innovation centre.