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Report looks at the public perception of innovation


I’ve written previously about the apparent dichotomy surrounding innovation.  It has seldom been more popular for executives to trumpet the virtues of innovative thoughts and deeds, yet significant volumes of research reveal that innovators are seldom very popular within their organizations.  As Machiavelli famously said in The Prince:

There is no more delicate matter to take in hand, nor more dangerous to conduct, nor more doubtful in its success, than to be a leader in the introduction of changes.  For he who innovates will have for enemies all those who are well off under the old order of things, and only lukewarm supporters in those who might be better off under the new.

So it’s clear that there is a disconnect on an organizational level between what we like to think about innovators, and what we often actually do.  Whether the same applies on a societal level is a question answered by a recent report published by NESTA, the UK innovation charity.  It’s report, Speaking to the Innovation Population, set out to explore the views the British public hold on innovation.

The results of their survey were intriguingly inconsistent.  For instance, it emerged that people would, generally speaking, be supportive of innovation as a concept.  There are however, a much smaller number (~20%) who are actively enthusiastic about innovation.  This group tends to be disproportionately wealthy and male.  The report identified three broadly supportive types of group that people tend to fall into when it comes to their views on innovation:

  • Innovation Futurists – these are the aforementioned 19% who are supportive and encouraging towards all innovation.  They tend to take a longer term view of things, both in terms of society as a whole and also their own lives.
  • Innovation Romantics – are a much smaller section of the population, but find innovation exciting.  They tend to take a romantic view of innovation as something that defines a society, yet are very unlikely to actually do any themselves.
  • Innovation Creatives - they tend to be younger than average, and tend to be least cautious about trying new things.
  • Innovation Realists – 34% of the population were classified as innovation realists, who tend to be more female than male, and whilst they appreciate innovation, it isn’t something that excites them.
  • Innovation Sceptics – 16% of the population fall into the least optimistic group.  They are characterised as being concerned about the pace of change brought about by innovation, and in particular how new technologies might impact jobs (their own in particular).  Interestingly, this group is disproportionally female.

In a policy making context, the report is invaluable, as innovation policy can often fall into the trap of preaching to the converted, and failing therefore to talk appropriately to those who have real concerns about what innovation will do for them.  Just as in the internal environment, the report highlights how incremental improvements are not only easier to deliver than their revolutionary peers, but also much easier for the public to digest and understand.

Nowhere is the dichotomy around innovation starker than on the impact of innovation on jobs.  On one hand, people expressed concern at how new technologies might remove jobs from the economy, but on the other, they expressed an equal concern that if innovation does not occur, then jobs will be lost to overseas economies.

It’s an interesting report that provides a good overview of how the British public tend to regard innovation.  The five personas identified by NESTA provide a nice contrast to the four innovation personality types I outlined earlier this month.  It would be interesting to see how other countries would fare under similar analysis.

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