This week I have had numerous informal discussions with different business leaders about the digital potential of Guernsey in the context of a COVID world. It got me thinking.
What are the key ingredients of an efficient digital and innovation ecosystem? What are the key pillars? If I was Digital Tzar for a day, what would I focus on?
I immediately thought back to my own entrepreneurial journey starting in 2011 in Shoreditch (London) when I left Accenture Consulting & co-founded The Social Experiences Club, one of the first European experiences and activities marketplaces. Along the way and following an exit I have advised, mentored, coached and consulted to many other entrepreneurs, VCs and corporates on everything from new venture development to business models to fundraising to hiring and firing.
Below I have provided a list of some key ‘ingredients’ to an efficient innovation and digital ecosystem. They are like pieces of a puzzle. There can’t be one without the other. Whilst there are wider factors required for success (e.g. smart, collaborative and decisive government), these are not the focus here.
Key Ingredients Of An Efficient Digital and Innovation Ecosystem:
- Innovation-I think the focus on ‘digital’ is too narrow. Perhaps the better conversation is around how to foster new ways of thinking, working and investing (in technologies, skills, institutions etc), and how to provide the right infrastructure for anyone or any organisation to be able to build new solutions and deliver benefit, value and prosperity for consumers/citizens.
- Commitment + Vision – As with anything in business or life, a strong vision and commitment to that vision is required to create impact and make change happen. For the public-sector, having a strong technology and innovation policy is critical, and was the foundation of Estonia’s e-Government transformation Even with such intent and will execution will be hard enough, but without this and appropriate support, resources and political capital, nothing will change.
- IT Infrastructure – The pandemic has shown how strategic this asset class is to the future prosperity of nations – and will continue to be – which may require regulators to rethink approaches to regulation and competition. Without reliable and quality connectivity and access for all people at a fair price today or in the near future (e.g. 5G, fibre etc), economic and social growth could suffer and could lead to catastrophic long-term consequences. On regulation, balancing the strategic interests of nations and the telecom providers (who all have very different corporate strategies, business models and operating structures) is no doubt a difficult but critical balancing act, especially in light of COVID’s acceleration of digital services, access and inequality issues, and continued and future investments in next generation infrastructure (e.g. 5G).
- Centralised Governance – A centralised market-focused unit as the knowledge and resource ‘hub’ responsible for digital activity can provide benefits for an emerging innovation ecosystem, especially where aspects of the infrastructure might be lacking. London had TechCity, although it was arguably overshadowed by the power of the entrenched historic networks of the wider ecosystem in terms of universities, commerce, government, and investment community.
- Incentives – Smart technology and innovation tax policies is critical to facilitate a more efficient and attractive market to build the wider entrepreneurship and corporate innovation ecosystem.
Support for business R&D can help to foster innovation and boost productivity. Investment in new technologies can also be supported through more generous depreciation deductions or immediate expensing – OECD Report (2018) – Tax Policies for Inclusive Growth in a Changing World
Incentives (whether EIS, SEIS, tax-breaks or otherwise) can encourage and unlock local (and overseas) private and corporate capital flows into start-ups/scale-ups. In 2011 when I was raising funds for a start-up in London in 2011, everywhere we went investors, accountants and lawyers would immediately ask the same question: are you EIS compliant? Clearly the years following the 2009/09 Financial Crisis was a massive boon for innovation with a huge supply of entrepreneurs choosing new paths and supported by an abundance of capital.
Since its inception in 1993 the Enterprise Investment Scheme (EIS) has enabled UK companies to raise over £16 billion in investments. Of the 3,470 companies benefitting from the EIS Scheme in 2015/16 alone, 1,645 companies were raising funds for the first time, between them generating £997 million of investment – Thomas Jenner LLP
On the supply-side, facilitating a more efficient is needed to generate an increasing supply of entrepreneurs able to access capital (plus ‘smart’ capital) especially at early stages. For companies, encouraging the development of in-house IP via R&D tax credits (or similar) (UK HMRC policy is here) could also have downstream benefits such as up skilling (depending on the policy), and can be aligned with any national Digital Vision.
- e-Government – For smaller nations, it is especially critical to invest in citizen-facing automation (e.g. paper-less) and improved customer experience opportunities across social security, ID, e-voting, e-health, data, e-signatures, and EdTech. Often government is the largest employer in smaller communities hence these investments can have outsized impacts and benefits. It also ‘opens’ the government up to being more accessible, transparent, and helpful in working with and facilitating the wider ecosystem.
- Ecosystem – One of the key reasons why London has been able to become a global leader in innovation (especially FinTech) has been due to the infrastructure and network effects facilitated by a number of key factors. In particular, within a 1hour train ride you have leading universities (e.g. Oxbridge, LSE, UCL, Imperial etc), commerce, and government. It creates enormous opportunities for creativity and collaboration to flourish, share knowledge, and build relationships with every piece of the start-up puzzle, from enterprise clients, to talent, to regulators and so on. As a start-up co-founder in Shoreditch in 2011, you could easily do nothing but network and attend amazing events, meet ups, hackathons, talks, pitch competitions etc every night. Whilst not every city or small community can replicate that, the principles and practices are there to be examined and implemented within whatever your specific context is.
“We are witnessing a rapid changing of the guard for global investment in innovation centers. The US and Europe have traditionally been viewed as dominant forces in innovation and technology but Asia could soon surpass the US for number of innovation centers built and operated. Moreover it is clear that funding alone is not enough — the success or failure of any innovation center hinges on how effectively it taps into the surrounding ecosystem, and the role it plays in driving a broader corporate innovation strategy – Eric Turkington, Director at Fahrenheit 212, part of the Capgemini Group
- Talent/Skills – Education is critical for the future of innovation in a society. At K-12, schools need to be offering introductory (and advanced) knowledge-based and/or practical courses on digital topics whether entrepreneurship, digital marketing, Excel/Google Spreadsheets, coding, design thinking, or analytics. This creates opportunities for ‘start-up clubs’ and business idea/pitch competitions aligned with industry, which can provide pathways for hiring and investors. Businesses should also prioritise up skilling which includes investing in softer skills (e.g. communication, creativity, collaboration, empathy).
“Twenty years from now, if you are a coder, you might be out of a job,” Cuban predicted. “Because it’s just math and so, whatever we’re defining the A.I. to do, someone’s got to know the topic. If you’re doing an A.I. to emulate Shakespeare, somebody better know Shakespeare”. – Mark Cuban
In addition, it is critical to learn new ways of working and thinking (e.g. agile, lean, design), and how to significantly improve inclusivity and diversity initiatives for existing talent (and future hires). At the higher education level, it is no surprise that some of the best known ecosystems (from Hollywood to Silicon Valley) have top-tier universities in close proximity. A centralised knowledge, teaching and research centre for technology and related skills and excellence must be a high-priority for any region without this. Also, making it easier or more flexible to hire overseas talent and plug skill-gaps in high-priority areas – whether software, analytics, UX or engineering – should also be considered, especially as this removes the friction for individuals or companies to pursue innovation.
- Specialism – It certainly helps to be known and famous for a certain speciality. London has done well to intentionally (or accidentally) carve out a ‘brand’ around FinTech which leverages the reputation, expertise and talent in that sector, although it is still active in many other sectors. This helps with the halo effect to build an ecosystem around that which then flows out into other areas.
- Examples – The halo effect above also extends to when there has been one or more successful start-ups and entrepreneurs who have moved though the start-up stages i.e. idea to exit. In a similar way that we celebrate sports stars and use them as aspirational icons for children and others, this can be used to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs. If the right examples exist, we need to profile them and start holding them up examples of what can be possible (and using them as mentors).
- Intellectual Property – Historically patents have been used a measure of R&D and innovation – and hence subject to tax breaks – but since 2000s software development has become a critical focus. Incentivising corporate investment into building out in-house IP vs using an overseas agency/service provider may provide local benefits and stimulate the local digital skills ecosystem.
- Pathways – Programmes for potential entrepreneurs whether at school or higher-education or post-university to educate prospective entrepreneurs. To be effective it requires all of these initiatives to be in place or in-flight
- Collaboration – A critical digital ‘soft-skill’, without a collaborative approach and mindset amongst key participants – coupled with the strongest of commitments from smart government – attempts to develop and execute on a digital vision will struggle. This needs to be baked into any refreshed governance supported by strong top-down commitment.
- Experimentation – Modern start-up development relies on many small experiments: start with a small hypothesis, test, learn, iterate, build, repeat. Government therefore needs to be more comfortable with this way of working to ensure progress is made versus spending years analysing and/or smothering creativity with bureaucratic processes which ultimately delivers nothing or very little. In the midst of an ongoing pandemic, unprecedented government spending, and a reduction in tax revenues, the Government must work differently and smarter in order to be more accountable to taxpayers and deliver benefit, value and sustainable progress for citizens.