Freesteel Blog » InnovateUK doesn’t think innovation is a normal part of your daily job

InnovateUK doesn’t think innovation is a normal part of your daily job

Tuesday, February 6th, 2018 at 8:18 pm Written by:

Don’t get me wrong; innovation is an important thing, and it should be undertaken by every person in every organization at every hour of the day. There are reasonable economic theories that say it is one of the important components of productivity. And productivity can be a good thing if it means we get to do more work in less time, and spend our remaining hours doing things that really matter to us. (On the other hand, it’s not such a great deal if we end up working the same amount for the same pay, and all that happens is the boss of the company makes more money.)

Being as Innovation can be important for the public good, the Government thinks there should be more of it, and have funded an organization called InnovateUK staffed by people who have no clue and exactly zero intellectual curiosity as to what innovation is and what are the causes of innovation.

They simply treat it as a word without meaning or measure, as though it were a prayer to a nonexistent God, or a claim of piety. Is person X more innovative in his job than person Y? Well, let’s see if he has appointed himself Head of the Innovation Department in his company.

And InnovateUK has a lot of money. Who are they going to give it to? Well, there are entire industries who are very innovative at extracting free money from suckers by spinning ridiculous stories, like: “Us private sector companies are run by managers who are simply too incompetent to work out that innovation is part of our job and will make us money, so we need to be bribed by the government to innovate.” (If you happen to find yourself within one of these companies fabricating such bollocks, and you have any scruples, you will be told to shut up and play along, because it’s free money, and that’s what the business is about.)

Of course, a more intellectually curious organization would have learnt the story that regulation can massively stimulate innovation, and would know that the industry managers will always advise against it because it means they’ll actually have to do some work instead of sitting on their backsides raking in profits.

How can I be so hard on InnovateUK? Well, here’s my evidence.

Unlike a lot of people with sense, I don’t always delete the surveys from this organization when I get them. I go through the questions because they reveal so much about what they are thinking.

On 12 January 2018, the email from InnovateUK containing the following statements:

Understanding your business needs – share your thoughts

As you have previously applied to Innovate UK for some form of business support, I am writing to you to request you to take part in our survey. The survey aims to gather feedback from UK firms to help improve the support provided for innovations.

BMG Research Ltd. conducting this survey on behalf of Innovate UK

Innovate UK has commissioned an independent research provider – BMG Research Ltd – to conduct an independent survey of former applicants to our business support programmes in order to learn more about the innovation activities and needs of UK firms. This survey is aimed at all applicants irrespective of whether you ultimately received support or not.

Your feedback will help to improve efforts to support innovations

A representative of BMG research may therefore contact you in the next few weeks to complete the survey. We very much hope that you will be willing to support this research and provide a response.

Your responses will help to improve efforts to support innovation by providing basic information on your business and innovation activities. The survey takes approximately ten minutes to complete.

Here’s how it began:

I’ll just blockquote all the questions right here:

Q1: How many years has your business been trading?
Q2: Does your business have a parent company or are you part of a group of linked enterprises?
Q3: What is the principal activity of your business?
Q3a: How many employees do you have?
Q5: Approximately how much gross profit or loss did your business make in the last 12 months?
Q8a: Within the last 12 months, approximately what amount did your business spend on innovation activities?
Q11: Within the last 12 months, with how many of each of the following types of external partners did your business have a formal relationship? This refers to any of your innovation activities, including ongoing relationships.

Boxes are: University, Technical consultancies, IP advisers, Design advisers, Trade associations, Chambers of Commerce, Knowledge brokers, Another business in your group, Suppliers of equipment, End users

Q11a: How many of these relationships involved multiple interactions in the last 12 months?
Q11b: How many of these relationships were with partners that you only started working with in the last 12 months, and had not worked with previously?
Q12: Within the last 12 months, what proportion of your innovation activities was conducted with the help of external partners (as defined in the previous three questions)?
Q13: Within the last 12 months, indicate the number of the following outcomes that have occurred for your business?

Boxes are: Prototypes introduced, New products introduced, New services introduced, New patent applications, New trademark applications, New design rights applications, New internal processes introduced, Applications for innovation vouchers, Awards for your firm’s innovations, Published articles about your firm’s innovations, Accelerators/incubators your firm participated in, VC/angel investors that invested in your firm, Newly formed joint ventures.

Q14: Within the last 12 months, have you done any of the following:

Entered new markets in the UK.
Established an innovation department.
Entered new export markets.

Q15: Within the last 12 months did your business receive any of the following types of support for your innovation activities?

Boxes are: Business process consultancy, Cybersecurity audit, Design advice, Field testing, IP advice, IT consultancy, Lab testing, Literature review, Manufacture of prototype, Market assessment, R&D advice

Q16: Please consider the total amount your firm spend on innovation activities within the last 12 months. What amount of spending for these innovation activities came from each of the following sources:

Boxes are: Your own business funds, Funds from related companies, Funds from other enterprises, Funds from financial companies, Funds from government organizations, Funds from supranational organizations.

Q18: Were you offered an innovation voucher by InnovateUK in the past four years?
Q20: Did you execute the project that was the reason for applying for innovation vouchers?
Q21: What was the total cost of the project?
Q22: How was the project funded?

Boxes are: Your own business funds, Funds from related companies, Funds from other enterprises, Funds from financial companies, Funds from government organizations, Funds from supranational organizations.

Q23: What type of external partner did you work with?

Boxes are: University, Technical consultancies, IP advisers, Design advisers, Trade associations, Chambers of Commerce, Knowledge brokers, Another business in your group, Suppliers of equipment, End users

And that’s it!

We have an old saying in computer science: Garbage in, garbage out, and it’s easy to tell that this survey is designed to allow only garbage in. Therefore the output will be garbage.

But what’s this garbage program they have which requires to be fed with this garbage data?

Funny you should ask. While I have discovered the bogus evaluation framework for University Enterprise Zones (based on how much excess GDP is created by companies that rent their building space), I can’t find the same for Innovation vouchers. But I can find the Catapult program evaluation framework which I believe is no less full of horrors.

I don’t have much time, but here is a clue about the motivation from that evaluation report:

Evaluations will use surveys, namely beneficiary surveys, to obtain data from businesses that have received support. These surveys will collect standardised information across all respondents. The data will be used to estimate the economic impact of a Catapult and make comparisons about how the programme is impacting on different beneficiary groups.

For some Catapults, a non-beneficiary survey will also be carried out, alongside or instead of datalinking, to provide a counterfactual group and help assess additionality. Non-beneficiary firms are identified as those firms which are similar to the beneficiary firms but have not interacted with a Catapult. Their reported business outcomes can be compared to beneficiary firms to estimate the extent to which a Catapult has delivered additional benefits.

Survey findings will help to explain the contribution of a Catapult towards achieving economic impacts and in assessing the theory of change. They can also be valuable in identifying spillover impacts which affect organisations not directly engaged with the Catapults. A key rationale for the Government investing in Catapults is to accelerate the commercialisation of research and innovative projects, which create spillovers and wider impacts.

In short, they are going to feed my responses into an extremely dodgy calculation of correlation and come up with a positive number relating to how much better businesses do economically when they receive an innovation voucher compared to when they do not. (Of course, an amazing innovation that improves everyone’s lives, but doesn’t generate profit for one company counts negatively in their world.)

And absolutely nothing useful can come of this. And I mean it.

If InnovateUK (or any organization) cared about what they were doing, they would instead be searching for ways in which their processes are catastrophically failing and investigating their dire institutional shortcomings– no matter how amazing and shiny things look on the surface.

This is how improvement is made, and how innovation happens — when organizations are hungry for knowledge about what isn’t working. Because that is exactly where improvements can be made.

As you can tell, I’m pretty fed up with this. Why can’t any of the people involved exhibit the slightest imagination and self-awareness that all of these numbers might be an edifice of junk. Do they never have any doubts that there is any point in going to work? Or does the excuse always have to be: As long as the money is flowing into salaries and organizations, we have no choice but to act like it all makes perfect sense.

Then why bother having a brain?

Last Friday I nearly mowed down some sheep while landing my beautiful hang-glider.


  • 1. aaron replies at 7th February 2018, 9:30 pm :

    It’s a splendid pic—I particularly like the
    presence of the shadows of the attentive sheep,
    the bodacious hang-glider, and its pilot with
    legs hanging free of the tail of his cocoon.

  • 2. Philip Sargent replies at 12th February 2018, 9:27 pm :

    Those surveys are almost invariably produced by a consultancy hired to to the survey and to package the results back to the agency in understandable form. So it reveals more about the mind of the consultants than it does about InnovateUK people (who are former consultants and academics usually).

    I do like this “as though it were a prayer to a nonexistent God, or a claim of piety”: I’ll tell my mate Ian who is currently head of innovation in BEIS/Energy. I’m sure he’d agree.

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