A note from the Director: Innovation – our interpretation

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Now it’s the turn of Innovation, the third strand to our mission of enabling an economy that is innovative, growing, and inclusive. I talked about the latter two strands over the last two months, but this one is harder to articulate a clear line on. Like a lot of things, the ‘innovation’ word is used with different meanings. For us, I think it is important at a cultural and an ecosystem level.
Our original intention was for Engine Shed activity and cash to be used to nurture new areas of technology innovation – say in AI, fintech, robotics, Quantum, far-field communications, 5G etc. That is, to support an innovation ecosystem. In the end, we’ve not actually done much in that area – not least because these areas are all developing at their own pace and organically.
In a real “ecosystem”, where activity sustains with minimal intervention, this is great news, so we can stand back and watch it grow just like the grass seeds on my new lawn. Or should we?
What we have done is to reactively support emerging networks – be they in tech (such as Bristol & Bath Cyber network or BrisTech), or in other areas such as the recent Diversity in the Media event that we hosted and supported earlier this month.
My motto has always been to “Enhance & Better Connect” – bring people together and join networks/interest groups/communities of practice/activities together, which strengthens each of those in the process, and its people as ‘armies’ (for want of a better word) that achieve more than a bunch of disparate individuals. We have also seeded a couple of pieces of work, to get someone else to write bids for national projects, and to bring investment into the area. For example, last year, we invested £1000 in paid a consultant to put together a bid which resulted in £45,000 supporting the Internet of Things community.

At a cultural level, what does Innovation mean?

This is more interesting. Bristol & Bath has a reputation as being a ‘hotbed of innovation’ due to a plethora of things – number of patents filed, density of knowledge-based businesses, innovative music scene, innovative art-tech activity such as the global export, Playable City, and so on. I think that the culture of innovation we have (and I’m told that it’s unique – I’ve never worked anywhere else so I wouldn’t know) is not just down to something special in the water, it’s the diversity of people, cultures and industry sectors, together with a maturity and self confidence that enables people, organisations, businesses to collaborate.

Engine Shed supports that by being generous with our knowledge and work, and encouraging people to collaborate; sharing opportunities that arise rather than protecting our own interests. We hope that nurtures the collaborative, innovative, and independent spirit.

Competition is good, it encourages and incentivises innovation. In Bristol & Bath, I think we have a very grown-up sense of competition – working together to retain our market share of a bigger pie, so to speak. If competitors fight each other for market share, it’s unlikely the market – whatever it is – will ever grow, so there’ll always be winners and losers. Coopetition should only generate winners. Sounds easy when you write it down…
So what should we be doing to stimulate innovation at different levels? We’ll probably have a call for ideas later in the year, so get your thinking caps on.
Next month, I’ll dig into the investment space. We’re hosting a dinner with Sir Robin Saxby at the beginning of May to develop our thinking and explore options around increasing the amount of investment to fuel growth. I’m also co-chairing a developing conversation around a “City Fund” for Inclusive Employment – so it will be interesting to talk about (well I hope you’ll find it interesting!) how those two agendas can dovetail.
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