PUBLIC ATTITUDES TO INNOVATION IN THE UK

As many economists will inform you, innovation is a key foundation to any successful and competitive country and the development of new technologies, products, processes and services can make a real economic difference to local, regional and national economies. 

Despite this, there have been criticisms that innovation in the UK is limited to being driven by a small number of individuals and organisations and that the public feels generally disengaged from the process.

That is why a recent survey from the innovation body NESTA on public attitudes to innovation and technology is valuable in not only showing current public perceptions but also where the priorities in shaping future policies towards the Welsh economy and wider society should be.

The study, which interviewed over a thousand adults, demonstrates that there is not only uncertainty in Wales about the future but a sense of disempowerment in shaping it going forward with half stating that they often felt the world was changing too quickly. 

Two thirds of the Welsh population are not only negative about the long-term future of the UK but say there is little to no agreement around the long-term vision for the country. This should not be surprising given that the survey was undertaken in November during a general election campaign when the whole issue of disconnection was the main debating point and, it could be argued, the matter which led to the eighty seat majority for the new UK Government. 

The fact that 50% of people in Wales believe that under the current system, only people who are well-off and influential can get involved in shaping innovation also underlines the disenchantment that many have had with politicians and policymakers over the last decade not only in this area but many others.

Nevertheless, the study does show that people in Wales have a strong desire for innovation and change with two thirds believing that allowing people to take risks and fail is what drives society forward. In addition, over half believe that change in culture and society is usually a good thing, with this being higher amongst 25-34 year olds in particular.

What is of interest is that whilst people in Wales tend to associate innovation with new ideas, creativity, tackling challenges and ‘thinking outside the box’, this is not limited to the economy or the business world. 

In fact, addressing the causes of climate change, making the UK’s population healthier, improving education, and making the UK safer, all rated higher for innovation than improving the UK economy.

Whilst all of these areas should also be priorities for the future, it is clear that the Welsh population would overwhelmingly like to see innovation benefit a large number of people even if the comparative benefit they experience from this is small. 

In particular, over seven in ten respondents say that the Government should invest in innovations which solve social problems without any economic benefit. This suggests that the accepted wisdom of “it’s the economy stupid” may have changed considerably over the last few years.

A similar number also believe that when investing in innovation, the government should focus on making everywhere in the country more prosperous, even if this means that the progress in better-off areas is slower than it might have been otherwise. Again, this seems to reflect the economic divide between the richer and poorer parts of the UK, an issue that clearly had a significant impact during the last general election.

But who should be driving innovation within the economy? According to the survey, there are some interesting results regarding devolution with two thirds likely to feel that it should be the UK Government making decisions around innovation as compared to 48% who believe it should be the Welsh Parliament.  This suggests that despite calls for the funding of Innovate UK to be devolved to Wales, the majority still believe decisions on innovation should be taken in London and not Cardiff Bay.

It is also worth noting that there is a perception that private firms - which are responsible for 56% of R&D within the Welsh economy - are seen to have far more decision-making power than they should. Nevertheless, there is a majority who believe that it is business that should be responsible for developing new ideas, manufacturing goods, and delivering services whilst Government should be responsible for planning for the future. 

Therefore, the good news is that this report from NESTA does show the value that the general public in Wales places on innovation in addressing some of the key economic and societal challenges going forward. 

Surprisingly, perhaps, the most striking findings from the survey are those that are not limited to innovation alone and, yet again, emphasise the divide within the country between the richer and poorer parts of our economy and society, an issue which the UK Government has said will be its main priority over the next five years.




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