Taking back control of the innovation economy
by Isaac Stanley
A fairer innovation economy won’t come as a gift from the powers that be. This week we launch a new phase of our Everyone Makes Innovation Policy programme, in partnership with Citizens UK, to create pressure for change from below.
“Together, we’re working towards a new way of thinking, a better way of doing, and a seamless path to exciting, collaborative opportunities that change the way we live and work.” The mission statement of ‘Here East’, a vast technology hub located in East London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park (built for the 2012 games on previously industrial land), is nothing if not all-embracing. But just how seamless will this path to a brave new collaborative world be?
‘Here East’ certainly seems to be growing fast; it’s now also home to the Plexal innovation hub, and will soon also feature the £13.5 million London Cyber Innovation Centre. Just a few minutes walk beyond the edge of the Olympic Park, however, lie some of the most deprived districts in the UK, where more than half the child population lives in poverty. How much is the arrival of the innovation economy on their doorstep promising to improve their lives?
The same underlying question emerges everywhere that the creed of innovation-led growth leaves its mark: who is really benefiting from all this? The evidence from the cradle of high-tech capitalism is not reassuring. A study of recent US data found that the presence of high-tech, high-profit firms in an area increases income inequality; almost all of the associated gains accrue to the top 10 per cent of earners. Innovation doesn’t seem like the solution here; it seems like the problem.
What would it take for innovation and technology to address social needs and increase our collective social well being, rather than undermining it? One solution, increasingly reached for by policy makers, is more public engagement. The closed institutions of innovation policy should open their doors, and the wider public should come in and have their say, to ensure that technological progress does not inadvertently take a dangerous path.
Innovation doesn’t seem like the solution here; it seems like the problem.
There are some limits to the ‘engagement’ solution. It is certainly true that innovation policy is dominated by a narrow scientific and business elite, and that it needs instead to be the subject of a wider conversation. However, much depends on the terms on which this conversation is held. Imaginative crowdsourcing methods and experimental forms of deliberation may harvest a wealth of data, which may provide rich insight into the priorities of the citizenry. But what pressure is there to make policymakers take these priorities into account? As one review of the evidence on public accountability initiatives concludes, programs which aim to give citizens a “voice” rarely change anything on their own: “‘voice’ needs ‘teeth’ to have ‘bite’”.
It’s for this reason that for the second wave of our Everyone Makes Innovation Policy programme, officially launched this week, Nesta is trying something different. Rather than funding experimentation in citizen engagement from the top down, for this project we’ve formed a strategic partnership with Citizens UK to create pressure for change from the bottom-up.
Citizens UK is the leading British exponent of broad-based community organising, a distinctive model of civil society-led political action that emerged in 1930s Chicago. At its heart is the weaving of alliances between existing civil society organisations in a given borough, city, or region. Local alliances are typically a diverse mix, consisting of education institutions (schools, colleges, universities), faith organisations (churches, mosques, synagogues), residents associations, migrant community groups, and trade union branches. A key orchestrating role is played by a professional “community organiser”, who is responsible for training member institutions to carry out ‘listening campaigns’ to identify tangible issues of common concern.
These issues become the focus of campaigns to put local or national decision makers – for example, local government actors or employers – under pressure to make changes which will ameliorate them. Campaigns frequently tie into the political calendar and take the form of “accountability assemblies”, where rival political candidates at election time are publicly presented with a local citizens manifesto, and asked whether, if elected, they will commit to working with the local alliance to deliver it. “Asks” are often illustrated through storytelling based on personal experience of the problems being addressed, for example a low paid worker who worships at member mosque, or a student from a member school who is worried about knife crime.
Citizens UK has enjoyed considerable success in its short history, and today, place-based alliances exist in 12 cities and regions across England and Wales, comprising over 450 member institutions. As a result of Citizens UK campaigns, over 5000 employers have become accredited Living Wage employers, putting over £1 billion pounds back in the pockets of low-paid workers. Other examples include successful demands for Community Land Trusts, leading to pledges of over 1000 permanently affordable homes in London, and successfully achieving a cap on the cost of consumer credit (notably payday lenders).
The focus of Citizens UK has historically been on bread-and-butter issues of clear concern to the members of local civil society organisations, such as low pay and inadequate housing. But what would it look like if the model was applied to less ‘obvious’ but increasingly looming issues around the innovation economy, which have enormous ramifications on the ability of ordinary people to live and thrive in their neighbourhoods?
It this question that Nesta and Citizens UK will be exploring together over the next 9 months. Nesta will be working specifically with local Citizens UK alliances in East London and Birmingham, providing financial support for dedicated organising time around innovation economy issues.
Wins will depend on shifting political circumstances and sharp political acumen, rather than well-designed participatory processes.
The focus of organising efforts will vary across the two locations. In East London, the target is likely to be the innovation economy activities taking place in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park alluded to earlier. How might these activities be reshaped so that ordinary citizens have greater opportunities to influence them, and enjoy more of the benefits of them? Opportunities include campaigns for greater articulation with local education and skills providers, greater opportunities to shape the direction or theme of innovative activity, and stronger linkages with other parts of the local economy.
In Birmingham, efforts are likely to focus on contesting the priorities of local industrial strategies, and in particular, which sectors receive attention. Small migrant-owned businesses are both an important source of employment and vital hubs of human interaction, integral to the social fabric of the city; but they are often excluded from mainstream business support activities and networks. The local alliance has already carried out listening campaigns among local migrant entrepreneurs, and potential campaign ‘asks’ could address the provision of support programmes to more systematically build the innovation capabilities in this part of the local economy. They are likely to be presented at an Assembly being organised with the candidates of the West Midlands 2020 Mayoral Election, in front of 1000 ordinary citizens.
It’s impossible to predict exactly what will result from these campaigns. The ‘wins’ alliances in East London and Birmingham are able to secure will depend on shifting political circumstances and sharp political acumen, rather than well-designed participatory processes. What is for certain, however, is that much will be learned about the practical possibilities and challenges of democratising innovation policy. For a foundation like Nesta, the project constitutes a step away from the comfort zone of public engagement, into a more openly political (though non-partisan) realm of contestation and conflict. For Citizens UK, tackling innovation policy involves ‘moving upstream’ from the bread-and-butter issues that traditionally dominate the community organising agenda. The rich lessons that will inevitably emerge will be captured in an evaluation that is being commissioned to run alongside the project.
At its best, the innovation economy brings the power of the human imagination to the heart of the production process. For the lucky few that are employed in it, it provides creative and fulfilling work. But while the vast majority are excluded from participating in it or shaping its direction, their dignity and potential is denied. A fairer and more human economy is within reach – if citizens are enabled to take back control and shape it. This project is a step in that direction, and we’re excited to see what comes next.
If you’d like to find out more, or join forces in our mission to democratise the innovation economy, get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org
This was originally posted on the NESTA blog on 22nd January 2020.