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Crafting an EU Innovation policy

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The EU launched a new website last week as part of an online debate to discuss new ideas for future innovation policy. The site aims to gather proposals on how to stimulate and promote innovation throughout the EU. This debate, and the ideas it generates, will then feed into a final report to the European Commission on how to shape the future innovation strategy of the EU.

The site is centered around ideas and proposals from a business panel established to provide inputs on the economic priorities for an innovation policy. This panel includes representatives from manufacturing companies such as Kone, financial institutions such as the Czech bank CSOB, as well as technology companies such as Cisco. They are due to provide a final report to the Commission in early Autumn, which is intended to provide a major input to the European Innovation Plan.

Initial consultation notes prepared by the panel discuss many of the shortcomings of current EU policy. They note that while Innovation has been a central EU priority over the last decade:

Europe has not achieved its full goal of being the most competitive global knowledge economy and is not investing effectively or appropriately in the infrastructure, competences, creative environments and businesses needed for 21st century innovation.

The panel believes the EU needs an innovation policy which is “decentralised, self renewing, and connected; and which builds on the unique diversity of an enlarged Union in an increasingly competitive globalised world.” They emphasise how building a knowledge society is not enough, and rather Europe must create an innovation society “where knowledge is utilised rapidly and powerfully for societal benefit and development”. Establishing such a society requires a:

systematic transformation from fragmented, single issue, closed approaches favouring large incumbents to networked, flexible and open approaches favouring new entrants and ideas.

Innovation ideas

The current proposals developed by the panel center around five main areas. These include:

  1. Broadening the concept of InnovationFrom business to social innovation
  2. Speed and synchronisation From fragmented bureaucracies to flexible partnerships, from better regulation to pro-innovation regulation
  3. Invest in future infrastructure and unlock its potential – From bridges to fiber optic, from control to open access
  4. Innovative financing models – From public vs private to public private partnerships
  5. New places for new types of collaboration – From closed processes to the power of networks

The site is currently seeking new proposals and ideas from the public to enhance and build on these concepts. Google and others have already submitted proposals as part of this consultation. Google notes, however, that some issues have not been fully discussed by the panel. For example, there is no discussion of Copyright, and Intellectual property is only briefly mentioned. Also, there’s little discussion on new forms of grass-roots innovation funding (think 4IP/Social Innovation Camp, Social Innovation Funds etc), with the panel acknowledging public financing is frequently “directed to incumbents in mature industries”.

In order to gather together the innovative ideas necessary to make the EU’s fifth freedom (the free movement of knowledge) a reality, proposals from diverse interests need to be debated on the site. The issues currently absent from the panel proposals, represent significant hurdles to the innovation society the EU seeks to create. Ideas on new education models, sustainability and fundamental rights should be allowed to flourish and garner support on the site. Unfortunately, the current incarnation of the initiative does not allow for such focused debate.

Consultation implementation

Many of the ideas outlined in the consultation, such as Changing public procurement to support innovation, Opening up Government owned data and Improving broadband infrastructure, have been discussed at at length at conferences such as RebootBritain and in reports such as Digital Britain. In this vein, the ideas (e.g. as setout in the RebootBritain essays) and recommendations already progressed to enhance innovation, should be more visible throughout the site. Much detailed work has already been done on these topics throughout various EU countries, however, these recommendations are not highlighted in the current consultation.

David Osimo highlights the lack of Web 2.0 functionality throughout the site, and makes some good points about their means of ‘publishing ideas’. There is no facility available in which users of the site can publish their ideas and have these rated and commented on. Instead, ideas are sent to the panel for deliberation. The use of platforms such as Uservoice would provide a more user-friendly and democratic means for the dissemination of ideas. It has been used successfully to brainstorm ideas on how EU governments can use the Internet to transform public services, and would have been a useful addition to the site.

The UK Government has experimented with many different tools (e.g. Netvibes, Twitter, Commentpress) to encourage greater participation during consultations. Steph Grey from the UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has outlined ideas on how to improve online discussions about policy. One of the important characteristics is to enable the community to improve on, and enhance ideas submitted by others. This requires openness and transparency in how consultation ideas are published, so as to encourage a debate about the merits of different suggestions.

A Collaborative approach to developing government policy

This consultation would have benefited from a more structured approach like that taken by the Whitehouse. The mandate for their open government initiative was to be:

fully transparent in our work, participatory in soliciting your ideas and expertise, and collaborative in how we experiment together to use new tools and techniques for developing open government policy.

As such, they created a 3-phase process, with which to inform the crafting of an open government policy. This involved:

  • Phase 1: Brainstorm – Ideas were shared and voted on using an Innovation management and Crowdsourcing application (http://opengov.ideascale.com)
  • Phase 2: Discuss – The results of the brainstorm were discussed and distilled into topics to focus on in the third phase
  • Phase 3: Draft – During this phase the public was invited to collaborate on crafting proposals originating from the discussion phase. This was done using a wiki at http://www.mixedink.com/OpenGov

This approached experimented with new and innovative tools to engage with the public, and allow for mass collaboration in the drafting of policy. While this approach generated some comments which needed to be deleted (and others seriously off topic e.g. UFO, birth certificate questions), these should not detract from the many excellent ideas it generated. The process would have suffered significantly were the ideas of the public simply solicited using traditional means, and not published in commentable format.

While I welcome the emphasis on soliciting ideas and comments from the public, the execution of the initiative has not exemplified the nature of the policy discussion. Crafting an Innovation policy deserves the utilisation of the most innovative tools appropriate. In this regard, the EU has fallen short.

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