Innovation and agility vital as we face future
Karen Cherrett, of PA Consulting, looks at the opportunities for the Welsh economy once the pandemic crisis has passed
CORONAVIRUS has dominated media coverage and societal conversations for months. Prior to lockdown, we withstood a period in waiting, hoping and believing it wouldn’t impact on life in the UK too harshly. Two months in and talk has turned to the UK potentially facing the highest death toll in Europe.
Fortunately, the economic impact may be lesser than other nations, partly because the UK economy was showing stronger signs of recovery pre-virus, but also because our ability to adapt and innovate is globally respected.
At the recent Wales Policy Forum webinar, members of the academic, industrial and commercial worlds in Wales discussed the opportunity potential for Wales coming out of crisis. The first half of the webinar focused on skills and capacity for science including data sciences; the second half considered the legacy potential of industrial, scientific and academic collaboration witnessed through the lockdown. The speakers included former panellists involved in the authorship of the Welsh Government’s report Review of Digital Innovation for the Economy and Future of Work in Wales.
Speakers reflected on what the review considered is required of the Welsh Government to develop Welsh capacity, capability and ambition to become a “digital nation”. Importantly, they recognised that the lockdown has accelerated the adoption of digital solutions in many care and health settings – for example, enabling GP online consultations, deploying devices to help older people stay in touch and enabling online learning for all ages.
Interest peaked when discussing how governments across the world have facilitated cross-sector collaboration to adapt, innovate and invent digital and scientific solutions to the demands of Covid-19. The question deliberated upon, and now facing Counsel General Jeremy Miles, is how to sustain momentum and collaboration through recovery to deliver a step-change in Wales’ journey towards “Wales 4.0”.
The discussion cited successive European and national initiatives to develop collaborative working between academia and industry, and consistently settled on three areas that we have learned practically unlock the potential:
■ Purpose, pace and productive output are necessary to bridge the divide between academia and industry. Covid-19 presented a problem to solve, a clear need to solve it (and quickly) and a focus on specific health outcomes. All sectors have been galvanised into action and quickly transcended organisational boundaries and even commercial terms and usual restrictions of intellectual property rights and trials before licence. Our own experience in running innovation and technology services proves that delivering design, prototyping and even progression to manufacture at scale can be achieved in weeks and months – as PA did with the ORA kitchen towel and more recently scaling and coordinating UK manufacturers’ response to the ventilator challenge.
This offers great experience for academic researchers and PhD students, but not over a period of a three-year programme. How do we instil agility when academia wants to study over three years but commerce needs a solution in three months?
■ Knowledge-exchange processes are vital but only effective when they ensure that the right knowledge gets to the place where it can be deployed, tested and used with impact. Many past EU-funded initiatives have been shown to focus on the intended outcome through funding call and inception stages, but quickly revert to the simpler process of monitoring and managing resource expenditure and use than actual impact.
Sharing through communities of practice are also great ideas but only if they are formed and facilitated as part of the requirements of the funded programme and explicitly hold a benefit for the community of users.
■ Understanding the academic offer and business need facilitates an early conversation that needs to continue often and in the same language of mutually beneficial imperatives. Only 5% of the SMEs progressing through the Accelerated Growth Programme are taking advantage of the various business-focused initiatives being offered by universities in Wales. This is not due to lack of interest by business nor engagement by universities. It is more a matter of awareness, accessibility and basic understanding.
A programme of support specifically designed for SMEs needs to recognise that SMEs may be one or two individuals working flat-out to get product innovation off the ground. Seeking to engage the business lead on campus to fill out forms, showcase facilities and meet the team is just too long a process when the time could alternatively be spent with an online mentor or business angel offering feedback on proof of concept or funding.
Covid-19 has proved that the right scale and need for collaboration can and will draw sectors, communities and even competitors together for the greater good. If Wales is to use the learning and experiences from this crisis to support development of the pathway to Wales 4.0, we must also look at how we did things before now, how we have had to adapt and show agility in relationships needs and responses to demand, and then build future systems to replicate and build upon the momentum we have experienced to deliver better and more agile outcomes.