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Innovate UK

Collective innovation 

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Innovation starts with thinking differently or at least quicker than everyone else.  But where we must overcome immense challenges, bring novel ideas to market, or move entire sectors collective innovation might be needed. 

Collective innovation can allow sectors to cooperate and trust to be created, and can even spur focused competition while increasing market size. Collective innovation focuses on commercialisation and bringing about economic, social and environmental impact.

Collective innovation is based on the consensus of a diverse set of stakeholders representing everyone’s interests. 

Consensus knowledge shared through standards

Consensus knowledge (expressed here by agreeing knowledge and sharing it through standards) is just one type of tool an innovator can use to navigate a path to market. It sits in the toolbox alongside intellectual property (securing and protecting knowledge with a patent) and metrology (measuring and defining scientific knowledge). Developing a standard allows knowledge to be declared, understood, applied and trusted widely and effectively. 

After my first 180 days as Head of Innovation Policy at BSI, I’d like to reflect on three insights gained through applying standards as a tool for innovators and collective innovation. 

Serving responsible innovation 

The diverse participation and inclusive conversation that the consensus approach demands serves and promotes innovation in a responsible manner. For me this has two meanings, both with benefits: 

Responsible innovation is when societal, environmental and economic impacts are considered. Increasingly innovators are considering the full “triple bottom line”, rather than looking solely to maximise profit. Innovations that address these responsible benefits and hazards are more likely to deliver sustainable economic returns. 

Innovating responsibility is when the innovator develops in ways that support being inclusive, that address bias and that deal with the unintended consequences of their innovation. This too delivers economic benefit, can reduce risks which might kill an idea, and it improves investment opportunities. 

guide to Responsible Innovation (PAS 440, sponsored by Innovate UK) was created to help organisations to innovate quickly and responsibly and explores this further.  

Underpinning the formation of markets 

Cars are the dominant form of transport in the UK, clocking up over 80% of passenger kilometres travelled in 20171. Cars are a great example of the power of consensus and agreement. Despite their engineering complexity and design variety, a minimally trained and licensed driver is generally able to operate most of the 38 million cars in the UK.

This is because of agreement and conformity with a fairly small number of essential central concepts (for example, the right pedal moves forward, the middle pedal stops, turn signal lights are amber, and so on). The incremental development of these surface cues (and the processes and rules which underpin those visible elements) has had been tested and proven over time through the collective innovation of the industry. The large number of small steps taken together and in agreement have made driver experience more consistent and the industry stronger as a whole. 

Now the two main challenges facing the automotive industry are to make vehicles cleaner – transport is the UK’s largest contributor to emissions and cars are twice as polluting as aviation (in absolute terms) – and to make them safer and more comfortable through automation. 

As we start to see driverless cars on our roads, what we may not see are the standards in the background making this happen and making it happen safely. Automated vehicles could reduce driver error and related accidents. But the risk of rushing these systems onto roads before the technology is stable poses a threat to the reputation of the industry and confidence of consumers.  

BSI is working closely with government, vehicle and system developers, and the wider automotive sector, including end users, to ensure trials of these technologies are underpinned by robust consensus in order to aid the transition to commercialisation and enable ongoing development.

A series of standards and resources draws upon experience of vehicle trials to promote safety, common taxonomy and a quicker route to market. These standards are also an asset that supports the UK lead in this space, which can support investment, future exports, and increased safety around the world. 

Enabling collective innovation - Flex 

My final insight is a reflection on a new approach that BSI is using to support innovation in fast changing fields. A common misconception is that the right time to standardise is when technology is stable and established. However, the speed of advancement, the complexity of technology, and the scale of challenges we face are so great that early alignment and sector agreement is essential. Speed is also needed to overcome intense international competition and enable UK market leadership. 

Within BSI we have innovated our own processes to produce BSI Flex, an approach to consensus that allows for incremental, dynamic and up-to-date knowledge to be shared and built upon. 

One example of this new approach is our publication on Covid-19 Safe working practices, which as of this writing is on its third iteration and has had almost 16,000 downloads. The scope and pace of each iteration was driven by changes in science, policy, law and the developing knowledge of best practices – in addition to the committee, there has been over 270 public contributions.

BSI Flex enables dynamic standards to evolve to meet the changing needs of the market and complements the existing routes to standardisation of PASs and British Standards. This new approach is already being applied in the sectors of transport and built environment, and is available to support the development of knowledge and best practices in other fast-changing areas. 

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