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Building collaborative innovation policy capability through the UK's Newton Fund

by Dr Benjamin Reid, Head of International Innovation at Nesta (UK)

Some 20-30 years ago, many governments around the world could cover 'innovation policy' simply with some direct funding of science for academic publications on the one hand, and some entrepreneurship subsidies on the other. Fast forward to 2019 and issues as large and complex as climate change, inequality and public health are seen as challenges that can – and should – be tackled directly through innovation policy. Today, institutions need to work together far more effectively, to learn from the latest trends, ideas and methods from around the world, and to be able to deploy a much larger range of tools, policies and programmes to help achieve their aims. The Global Innovation Policy Accelerator (GIPA) was created to help them do that.

GIPA is a ground-breaking collaborative capability development programme for senior innovation policymakers, funded by the Newton Fund through Innovate UK. For the last four years global innovation foundation Nesta has led the design and delivery of GIPA as a team-based, nine-month programme driven by the challenges and needs of developing country innovation systems, and harnessing cutting-edge innovation policy approaches to accelerate the pace of development. It has worked with, to-date, 17 teams of innovation policy directors drawn from 70 agencies and ministries across 11 developing countries. It has reached over 1,000 people on three continents, and connected to officials from over 40 UK innovation policy institutions and organisations.

I strongly believe GIPA offers a blueprint for how to effectively deploy the innovation policy expertise of the UK – or other developed nation systems – for three related aims: 1) strengthening target country STI systems, 2) building connections between the UK and other ‘emerging powers’ countries’ innovation systems  and 3) tackling longer-term social challenges through innovation together. GIPA does so partly by drawing together diverse innovation policy expertise from across the UK system from Nesta, the University of Manchester Institute of Innovation Research, and from specialist international consultancies Oxentia, 100%Open and FutureGov. More than that, such programmes are an important 'piece of the puzzle' for large-scale funds like the Newton Fund in linking system capacity building and policy engagement with effective research collaboration.

Nesta's Dr Harry Armstrong facilitates a GIPA session on futures methods with senior Malaysian innovation policymakers.

Developing new system capabilities through GIPA

GIPA supports small teams of senior innovation policymakers as they develop a single ‘policy entrepreneurship’ project which directly addresses a national innovation policy challenge or priority. For example: 

Chile: A team drawn from the economics, innovation and education ministries worked with UK experts to research, prototype and select a pedagogy approach embedding entrepreneurship and innovation skills training into the curriculum of a new generation of nationally mandated technical colleges. They used connections to the UK’s RSA to help deliver their project.

Indonesia: A collaboration between the science and innovation ministry, the agriculture ministry, regulators and government science institutions was supported to accelerate the approval process of new strains of rice for commercial use. They were assisted by a connection to an Innovate UK-supported seed agritech organisation in the UK. 

The Philippines: A collaboration between the ministries piloting a new platform for sharing innovative agriculture research with local innovation policymakers and industry. They were inspired by work by the UK’s Konfer platform, developed by the UK’s National Council for Universities and Business

By supporting 'policy entrepreneurship' projects like these GIPA is building the capability of developing country innovation policy systems, and creating the conditions for tackling poverty through economic and social development.

The strength of the GIPA model

1. Innovation policy can and should be 'inclusive'

GIPA encourages an explicitly inclusive approach. Work to develop stronger innovation policy systems can directly focus on ensuring outcomes for the poorest in society as well as the indirect advantage of other countries’ development. Many approaches to innovation policy now examine how they can be ‘inclusive’ across economies and societies. 

2. Connecting at the level of system leadership – not just individuals

GIPA brings together teams from several ministries, agencies and geographies to address system and coordination failures at the same time as sharing the latest methods, evidence and approaches on how to most effectively support innovation. This is important because Nesta research identifies huge challenges for developing country innovation policy systems to effectively learn from each other and more developed innovation ecosystems.

3. Changing the policy system to achieve longer term development goals

GIPA focuses on embedding approaches and techniques for innovation policy at the strategic level. Development work that focuses on immediate relief needs to be balanced with long-term support for transforming the governance and institutions of developing country innovation ecosystems. Large-scale STI collaboration funds like Newton need to fully engage at the system level to embed approaches and techniques for long-lasting change.

4. Institutional capability

Bringing together teams from across innovation policy systems strengthens collaboration between leaders and institutions within a system and extends their capabilities. As Nesta research shows, the role of innovation agencies has shifted to tackle broader, more inclusive policy challenges, and new capabilities are required to tackle those challenges at both the individual and institutional levels.

Going forward, there are huge opportunities to focus the Newton Fund on a wide range of innovation policy capability development programmes – and doing so would help the strategic focus of the accompanying research collaborations as well. Such programmes could take many delivery structures, but should be underpinned by a core set of principles:

  1. Be led by the concerns of partner countries

  2. Actively shape the social value of science and innovation alongside spurring economic growth

  3. Support and grow the capacity of institutions and systems alongside individuals

  4. Address coordination and systems failures that can prevent new knowledge and promising ideas from being successfully applied and scaled

  5. Mix structured programmes with ongoing development of effective networks for long-term impact

If – as is often claimed – STI policy is becoming more ‘mission-oriented’, then better system collaboration and structured, principle-led and action-focused capability development programmes like the Global Innovation Policy Accelerator can also help shape, define and focus those agendas from within collaboration programmes like the Newton Fund.


Benjamin is head of the International Innovation team within Nesta's Policy and Research division, examining new global trends and practices in innovation, with an emphasis on emerging economies such as China, India, Brazil and Malaysia. 

Benjamin now leads on the new Nesta-led executive development programme for innovation policymakers, the Global Innovation Policy Accelerator, funded by the Newton Fund through Innovate UK.

Find Benjamin on Twitter @DrBenjaminReid

A version of this blog was published on the Nesta website on 12 June 2019. The views expressed in this blog represent the views of the author.

Find out more about Newton Fund and GCRF capacity development