Reflections on why transforming innovation is crucial for Brexit Britain

Nicky Wunderlich |

Article 50 has now been invoked for the UK to leave the EU. The reverberations will shape not only the UK but Europe and the World. The challenge clearly for Prime Minister May’s Government is to tackle the consequences of Brexit by guiding the economy and society through these unchartered waters. However, the even greater challenge is to shape new policies and strategies to address what created ‘Brexit Britain’ and prevent the causes damaging further. How can the field of Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) help alleviate, and not exacerbate, the problems? The causes were lack of investment and inequality in society driven by a political elite found lacking in its engagement with the wider public and business on the urgent need to alter our governing systems in energy, healthcare, mobility and food systems to make them sustainable. Without addressing inequality, these perennial problems will continue to manifest more perilously within Brexit Britain.

The message from Prime Minister May is that the agenda is now on social justice. This sits alongside the creation of the new industrial strategy. This combination of opportunity creates the onus for Government to purposely direct STI policy towards tackling issues that have far-reaching effects on the economy and society. The direction of STI policy should be decided based on how it can solve these central societal ills. Reading the current UK Industrial Strategy shows that it is still based on another approach, notably a UK-first, ‘orthodox’ economic approach to growth and innovation. The debate (and therefore policy) looks like being dominated by ‘traditional’ economic ideas around increasing national competitiveness for the ‘public’ good. Not, alas, around creating transformative innovation policy and strategy that could transform our current approach and offer solutions to sustainability, inequality and ultimately the democratic deficit.

We need innovation policy that redefines progress, aims for sustainable development and addresses inequality – many governments and peoples across the world echo this desire. This central aim formed the crux of the debate at Science Policy Research Unit’s (SPRU) 50th anniversary conference last year and it continues to resonate widely. The conference’s overarching theme was ‘Transforming Innovation’ to directly address economic, and social and environmental issues. At the conference, we announced the formation of the – Transformative Innovation Policy Consortium (TIPC). Member partners pledged to join a research and action programme that explores the opportunities and constraints of transformative innovation policies. We are now in the second phase of TIPC, examining project case studies that demonstrate elements of TIP. Further in my Spring newsletter you can find reference to the first results and plans for the coming months. We have an exciting program ahead of us with growing interest from a range of agencies and countries as well as international organisations.

Disadvantageous as it is for the UK to leave the EU club, we should not conflate the EU as being Europe. Now that the so-called ‘quiet revolution’ has taken place, we have had placed upon us the opportunity and requirement for greater vision. New initiatives can still be European, since the EU is not Europe (as analysed in my book Writing the Rules for Europe), but should also be global. The causes of Brexit are a shared challenge across the world. The history of Europe and the role of science, technology and innovation in it has developed over the last decades with the book series, ‘Making Europe’, and the digital museum, ‘Inventing Europe’. It was deeply gratifying to receive an honorary degree from the Nova University of Lisbon for this work. Upon this occasion, we also presented the fifth volume in the series entitled ‘Globalising Europe’ co-authored by Diogo and Laak.

My hope for the future is this – Brexit Britain is a symptom of a national, European, and global inability to address the world in transition. It may, unintentionally, harness research and policy results – through fresh ideas and thinking – that provide the antidote. I am looking forward to participating in the journey.

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