Making innovation and growth policy more experimental: The first year of IGL

By Albert Bravo-Biosca on Friday, 23 October 2015.

365 days ago IGL was born. We launched IGL with the aim of contributing to make innovation and growth policy much more experimental. A question many people ask is why this is important (and what we are doing about it).

Why we need more experimentation

Our answer is twofold.

Governments typically introduce large new interventions without prior small-scale testing. They rarely trial them out at a small scale, evaluate the different options rigorously, and then scale up those that work.

The result is that we invest billions in schemes to support innovation, entrepreneurship and growth, yet we don’t know what works and what doesn’t. We are probably wasting resources on ineffective schemes while depriving of funding those that would make a difference.

Becoming more experimental is also important in an ever-changing world. We cannot assume that the same old instruments continue to be the best tools to support innovation and growth, if they ever were. The environment keeps changing. New challenges emerge. But also new opportunities for tackling them.

We need to take advantage of these to try out new ways to support innovation and growth, whether testing small tweaks to existing programmes or experimenting with radically novel types of schemes.  

Ultimately, innovating in the design of the programmes and institutions that help make our countries more innovative and entrepreneurial is crucial to increasing economic growth and addressing the societal challenges that we face.

What we’ve been doing

From the outset, we’ve known that we needed to work collaboratively to deliver on this mission. This is why we set up IGL as a global collaboration, bringing together researchers and private and public organisations to develop and test different approaches to support innovation, entrepreneurship and growth.

The Kauffman Foundation was the first partner to join Nesta on this adventure, and during this last year we’ve been busy growing our network of partners to twelve organisations from around the world (Tekes, the Finnish innovation agency, being the most recent joiner).

We believe that good ideas for experimental pilots can come from everywhere. This is why we’ve been supporting 16 trials through the IGL Grants programme, with the last round of the programme closing this last week. These are just a few examples:

  • Exploring how to best design research labs to encourage collaboration.
  • Trialling different instruments to increase business-university links and tech transfer.
  • Studying how to incentivise employees to contribute new ideas.
  • Testing several interventions to support high-growth entrepreneurs, including training, co-working spaces, mentoring and coaching.

Learning what works is of little use if this knowledge is not easily accessible by those making decisions. Because of this, during this year we have launched a new online database with information on all the randomised trials related to innovation, high-growth entrepreneurship and business growth that we could find, whether completed or on-going (if you notice that a trial is missing or not up-to-date, please let us know).

We hope the database will become a useful resource for policy makers and researchers alike, and provide examples that showcase the potential and feasibility of using trials in this space.

Much of our work during this last year has been under the radar, working with our partners to understand their challenges and develop new trials, linking trial opportunities to researchers in our network, and promoting the experimentation agenda in different policy forums.

Last but not least, we’ve grown our team to 5 people. We now have a multi-disciplinary team uniquely specialised in randomised trials on innovation and growth policy, and passionate about tackling the many challenges ahead of us.

Our plans looking ahead

Making innovation and growth policy more experimental requires many different ingredients. One of them is giving policy makers the tools and the skills they need to know when and how to develop randomised trials. Therefore, in the spring we will be launching a new online toolkit to help address this, as part of a wider range of activities to increase capabilities in this area.

In May 2016 we will host the first IGL global conference in London (please hold the week of May 23th). We will be looking at some of the new trends in innovation and growth policy, discussing the role that experimentation can play in this space, and collectively developing new trial ideas as well as the connections and partnerships required to make them happen.

The programme will include a main day of debates and discussions bringing together policy makers and researchers, but also separate days targeted to each specific audience (including a research workshop discussing new academic research as well as a practitioner workshop looking at the practical challenges faced by policy makers and practitioners developing policies and programmes in this space).

These are only two of the many activities we will be working on in the next 12 months. Some will focus on consolidating what we have achieved, but we will also be looking to expand the reach of our activities in different areas, including:

  • Building new partnerships to advance this agenda globally, not only at the national level but also at the regional and city level (so get in touch if you are interested in finding out more).
  • Growing the range of activities we undertake with our partners in order to facilitate mutual learning and expand the evidence base.  
  • Strengthening and enlarging our research network, building an active research community and increasing the support we provide (in terms of trial opportunities, funding, advice and dissemination).
  • Promoting policies that support increased experimentation and better evidence, including putting forward a new proposal for a European Experimentation Fund for Innovation and Growth.
  • Developing new experimental pilots to tackle some of the key policy challenges in this area, from making the most of the knowledge that is generated in universities to making it easier for intangible-rich firms to access finance.

We cannot do it alone

We are only at the beginning of the journey. There is a long road ahead until experimental approaches become part of the mainstream in innovation and growth policy.

We are not claiming that randomised trials are the answer to everything (they are not), but rather that they are part of the answer. And a very much underutilised one which, if adopted more widely, would lead to more effective policies to accelerate innovation, entrepreneurship and growth.

So please contact us if you are interested in exploring how we can collaborate to push this agenda forward, and join our mailing list to be kept up to date.