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Challenge-led innovation

A key element of the Technology Strategy Board's approach focuses on 'challenge-led' innovation. Heidi Lovelock, Head of Innovation Platforms, explains this idea, the organisation's work in this area and what it means for business

When the Technology Strategy Board was established in 2007 as a stand-alone body from government, we were given a leadership role in stimulating technologyenabled innovation for the benefit of the UK economy.

This was an exciting ambition and, at the same time, seemed rather daunting. The ?landscape? of innovation is huge and rather fragmented. Many companies located here are already world leaders in R&D. Yet, at the same time, every corner of industry and business offers potential for innovation to make a difference.

We were building on a foundation of good work done by the former DTI, but we knew that, given our finite size and budget, we would have to work fast to understand where our efforts could make most difference, where we should focus, and how we could bring in partners and co-ordinate resources from elsewhere to make the biggest impact possible on this vital agenda.

As well as maintaining and developing the existing programmes of R&D investment that we inherited, and taking into our portfolio other established programmes such as the Knowledge Transfer Networks and Knowledge Transfer Partnerships, we set about thinking hard about our strategic focus. In this process the concept of challenge-led innovation clearly ?floated to the top?, and has turned out to have a fundamental role in what we do and our future strategy.

To us, challenge-led innovation means the process by which societal needs, market demands or economic challenges tend to pull new products and services from basic research, through development towards commercialisation. We draw a distinction between this and ?technology-inspired? innovation, which is driven by scientific advance or technological achievement. Britain has great strengths and is an acknowledged leader in many sectors. Areas such as aerospace or pharmaceuticals are traditional powerhouses. We also have a deep well of invention and enterprise, with innovation stemming from brilliant ideas and technological breakthroughs over hundreds of years.

We coined the term ?technology-inspired? for this valuable stream of innovation. Our strategic review made it clear that this would continue to be important to the UK?s economic future and we had to continue support in this area. We also knew that there was work to be done in fostering a climate of innovation in the UK. The Knowledge Transfer Networks and Knowledge Transfer Partnerships were performing a valuable function, but were not yet pervasive in business. There was great scope to increase the country?s appetite for and belief in innovation.

But it was in the challenge-led area ? encompassing both market needs and major societal issues ? that we knew we could gain most dramatically, with need and demand as powerful mechanisms for pulling innovation through to commercial reality. In the strategy we published in May 2008, we stated that while we would maintain support for technology- inspired innovation and that we would work to foster an innovation climate, challenge-led innovation would grow significantly in terms of where we invested our resources.

We identified a number of broad application areas on which to focus. These include medicines and healthcare; energy generation and supply; transport; environmental sustainability; the built environment; creative industries; and high-value services.

We recognised that these challenges are a major force for innovation. This is not a new idea ? the phrase ?necessity is the mother of invention? is hardly recent. But making challenge-led innovation a key strategic focus for the Technology Strategy Board has proved a powerful way to express our goals, highlight the benefits for business of innovation and engage others in making it happen. To accelerate innovation in these varied areas, we have a range of different tools at our disposal.

One is the Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI). This is a process by which innovative companies can bid for contracts (not grants) with government departments or public bodies to research, develop and eventually supply new solutions to some of their pressing problems. Relaunched in 2008, the new SBRI scheme has already seen over 250 contracts awarded as a result of competitions in areas from defence to healthcare, resulting in a boost for many businesses. Examples include competitions for companies to find solutions to issues such as hand-transmitted infection in the healthcare sector, and the weight of equipment carried by soldiers.

Some challenges ? including major societal issues of our day ? stand out above others. This is where our innovation platforms approach comes into its own. An innovation platform, an idea developed by the Technology Strategy Board, is an approach to innovation that starts with one of these major challenges ? an issue pressing enough for government to take action to address it. Examples include the ageing population, with larger numbers of people needing help to remain independent; the increasing problems of network security in an online world; or growing transport congestion and the problems of integrating transport systems.

Such imperatives to act will create future markets ? but for products and services which may not yet exist. Under an innovation platform we bring government, researchers and the business community together to work on the issues, understand the future market needs and think about how to generate the innovative solutions that may be required. We would then bring a variety of tools to bear, depending on the circumstances, to help make this innovation happen ? faster and with greater business benefit to the UK.

We may use a ?sand-pit? ? a technique in which a group of key people with different perspectives on the problem spend an intensive week together, to understand the issue deeply and work out where and how to focus innovation to make a difference. We may invest in research and development, or fund demonstration programmes to break log-jams and improve markets by testing the practicality of solutions. And we will usually bring on board key partners, such as research councils, government departments or regional development agencies, who have an interest or can help to fund solutions, creating a much greater critical mass to address the problem.

Innovation platform development

In late 2005, the Technology Strategy Board announced its first innovation platforms. These first two pilots focused on how to develop a more sustainable transport system and how to guarantee personal and information security in the new Internet age. Under the titles of Intelligent Transport Systems and Services (ITSS) and Network Security, they involve the Technology Strategy Board working with the Department for Transport and the Home Office respectively to address these challenges.

The ITSS Innovation Platform helps UK businesses develop innovative products and services in response to new market opportunities that may result from government interventions in developing a sustainable transport system. Traffic congestion is a specific challenge because of its impact on the economy, climate change and quality of life. We take a broad view of congestion, and are exploring the wider issues around the mobility of people and the transport of goods by asking: ?How can we move people and goods more intelligently??

Through a series of strategic interventions, we will encourage private-sector R&D with the potential to improve efficiencies in the overall transport network and/ or promote lower-carbon travel choices. We believe that two approaches are needed to achieve this. First, taking a user-led systems approach, we need to identify and address the gaps in the UK?s current use of available technologies and services. Second, we should analyse human behaviours and attitudes in this context, and find how to influence people?s decision-making by providing them with the appropriate tools and information.

Information security is a major growth area, and one where the UK is well placed to become a global leader. The Network Security Innovation Platform (NSIP) was created to respond to this challenge. The NSIP is concerned with the confidentiality, integrity and availability of a network communications infrastructure, the information being transmitted across that network and the systems that use it to communicate. This will inevitably include the people using the network. The Innovation Platform aims to help provide a more secure environment for all of us ? an environment in which we can take full advantage of the digital economy and use information technology and network-based services with confidence, knowing that our information is protected and secure.

UK organisations depend upon reliable and accurate electronic information to make critical decisions about almost every aspect of their business. Dependence on these systems is greater than it has ever been and will only increase in the coming years. These critical services may, for example, constitute key information systems for transport, healthcare, financial-sector communication gateways or consumer broadband connectivity. It is vital that these services continue to operate in a reliable and secure way ? they underpin the economic well-being of the UK and may, in some cases, affect national security.

The UK government takes the security of information very seriously and, as such, many government departments have significant interest in the risks that information may be subjected to. However, the real challenge that faces the NSIP is to bring together key government departments, academia and business to identify where innovation could be used to solve specific problems.

This collaborative approach has resulted in research programmes in Trust Economics, Privacy and Consent and the protection of information infrastructure, and ?designing out crime? for hot products such as mobile phones. Future work will focus on issues such as trusted services, secure software development and converged security. The UK knowledge economy has a unique opportunity to influence the global market and for UK companies to exploit the opportunities on offer.

The challenge of low carbon

Two innovation platforms are currently focused very clearly on regulatory drives to mitigate climate change. Taking as its cue the requirement for all new domestic buildings to be zero carbon by 2016, with non-domestic following by 2019, the Low Impact Buildings Innovation Platform was established in May 2008 with an initial budget of £30m over three years. It has identified key areas as design for future climate change, design tools and user-centred design, management and operation of buildings, innovation in the build process and better materials and components. In addition to programmes under these themes, a major SBRI programme called Retrofit for the Future is working with social landlords to stimulate new solutions to the challenge of making the existing housing stock perform better in environmental terms.

Road transport contributes a quarter of all UK carbon dioxide emissions, so road vehicles will have to be part of the solution in reaching our national commitment to reduce emissions. The Low Carbon Vehicles Innovation Platform is the government?s main channel for delivering innovation in this area. It launched its first competition in 2007 and projects already well developed include Jaguar Land-Rover?s Limo-Green and a fuel-cell taxi project led by Intelligent Energy.

This year, the Innovation Platform launched the Low Carbon Vehicle Demonstrator programme, the largest coordinated trial of electric and hybrid vehicles ever to take place in Europe. With £25m of public funding matched by the equivalent amount from business, over 340 vehicles from a wide variety of manufacturers will be trialled in seven areas around the UK to demonstrate how they perform in real-world conditions. Co-funders include the Department for Transport, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, One North East, Advantage West Midlands and the South East of England Development Agency. In partnership with local authorities, power companies and infrastructure companies over 500 charging points will be installed, and universities will analyse the data. With companies such as Ford, Nissan, Mitsubishi, Mercedes-Benz and BMW Group on board, this represents an important step on the long journey towards mass-market adoption of low-carbon vehicles.

The launch of the Ultra Low Carbon Vehicles Demonstrator Programme in June

Health and ageing

People are living longer, which is a cause for celebration and a testimony to healthcare and technology advances during the last 50 years. However the number who will have long-term conditions, and who as they grow old will become frail, is set to increase. At the same time, the number of economically active people who can finance health and social care is falling. Today?s care models are unsustainable and this is a major concern for the social care and health services in the UK.

Innovation and technology will have to be part of the solution. Any 21st century health and social-care service will have to make greater use of technology, deliver care closer to, and sometimes in, the home and make increasing use of a person?s capacity to ?self-care? by supporting them appropriately.

Through the Assisted Living Innovation Platform, the Technology Strategy Board is working with the Department of Health, the National Health Service, primary care trusts, research councils, local authorities, and with academia, industry and third-sector organisations, to develop technologies and services that will enable individuals to receive support at home.

Its work includes encouraging user-centred design of home-based telecare systems, looking at the social and behavioural aspects and the business and economic models for assisted living, and encouraging companies to work on the digital communications, portability and interoperability aspects.

The newest innovation platform, established in 2009, is focused on the detection and identification of infectious agents. This is another area where technology solutions hold great promise and where the potential benefits to both society and business are significant. Further developments in this area will be announced soon. The innovation platform concept is relatively new and is still under development, but we are seeing great advantages in the combination of intense focus and flexibility that this approach offers. The Technology Strategy Board is investigating a number of other areas where innovation platforms could have a powerful part to play.


The challenges that I have mentioned will not go away. Whatever the economic circumstances ? and we know that the business climate is not easy at the moment ? we persist in seeing them as the triggers for innovative businesses to construct a future for themselves, through the development and application of great ideas.

The above is only a snapshot of all we are doing. I invite companies of all sizes and types, as well as researchers and policymakers, to keep abreast of the Technology Strategy Board?s challenge-led innovation programmes and look to where you could become involved, as we bring partners and funding together in purposeful, productive relationships which will make a real difference to the prosperity of the UK as well as to future quality of life.

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Added the 03 October 2009 in category Innovation UK Vol5-2

Related elements :

Innovation UK Vol5-1
Innovation: at the heart of economic recovery
It is now more vital than ever to focus on investment in innovation, explains Allyson Reed, Director of Strategy and Communications, the Technology Strategy Board

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