Innovation flourishes at the edges

Two business people wearing virtual reality headset superimposed over a cityscape

Challenges are solved better through collaboration, bringing together different skills and experiences to address a problem in a more rounded and robust way.

When we think about innovation, the assumption is often to think about innovation in ‘stuff’. Creating shiny new physical kit that brings us closer to the sort of futuristic hi-tech utopias we see in popular culture. That is important, and Innovate UK plays a critical central role in delivering it, but it is not the whole picture, or all that we do.

About the urban team

The urban team at Innovate UK was formed relatively recently, eight years ago, and it differs from many of the other teams by not being technology or single system led. We don’t just focus on transport technologies, for instance, or energy, or health but instead on how life is improved by creating better links between them all.

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The role of the urban team

Our role is to help places use innovation to be more resilient and responsive to changing circumstances, and to better meet the needs of their citizens. Technology undoubtedly plays a role in that, but so do other, softer types of innovation. For instance, innovation in:

  • how you help places better define their challenges, and break them down into actionable elements that the market may be able to address
  • how you engage with people to understand them better, and how you engage with sectors of society that often have less of a voice
  • user design or business models that allow that new technology to be more widely deployed by working with the real needs of people, not the assumed ones
  • procurement that helps places to work with the small businesses that have the solutions to their challenges
  • how to link ideas across places to help businesses collaborate and learn from one another, creating new and more robust solutions.

Improving lives

We do our share of technology innovation, but all of it is driven by the understanding that people are at the heart of all we do. It is also driven by the understanding that we are here to make peoples’ lives better by understanding and improving the world they live in. If we fail we are in danger of developing solutions for which there is no demand.

As well as doing innovation in places as many of our colleagues do, the importance of helping places be more innovative has never been greater. This will give them the resilience skills they need as we move to level up the country equitably and sustainably whilst pursuing a just transition to a net zero future.

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Domestic programme

Most of our work is here in the UK. We operate right across the change spectrum, beginning with working with places to understand challenges and help better articulate them in a way business can respond to. However, knowing what is needed is a long way from being able to procure and deploy it.

There are still many operational (financial, language, and cultural) barriers to city authorities and small and medium-sized enterprises collaborating. So, we also support innovation activities that help break down some of the blockages between places with problems and the businesses that might help them solve them.

Finally, we also do what we are perhaps best known for. Funding the development and deployment of new innovations through competitions tackling widespread common challenges that places face.

Video credit: Innovate UK
On-screen captions and an autogenerated transcript are available on YouTube.

International programme

As with the domestic programme, problems are solved better, and faster, through collaborating. In our international work this collaboration sits in three interlinked strands, woven together:

  • we support work that links international cities with UK ones. Forming supportive relationships based on innovation twining, underpinned with a rigorous assessment of why particular places should work together for success (not simply that places have a well-known football team!)
  • having helped surface challenges, we also link cities with businesses that can solve them. This often involves supporting cohorts of UK entrepreneurs to visit and work in global markets where their solutions can make a tangible difference
  • finally, we link UK businesses with business collaborators in other markets, co-evolving more successful solutions through the combination of their approaches that can be deployed around the globe.

Video credit: Innovate UK
On-screen captions and an autogenerated transcript are available on YouTube.

Places are where the most people and their many problems collide. As we look to level up across the UK, and beyond, and to address complex global challenges such as net zero, place-based work is going to become ever-more important.

If you are interested in this work, we would love to hear from you.

Further information

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