Tech innovation hubs: A way forward towards policy engagement and co-creation
Let’s start with the punchline from Results for Development’s MAVC-sponsored research on tech innovation hubs and policy co-creation:
"The full potential of tech innovation hubs to contribute to a more vibrant local policy ecosystem is yet to be achieved".
This blog is the third in a series of three. In the first, we explained why this potential matters for delivering locally-relevant, innovative impact on pressing social challenges. In the second post, on the Open Government Partnership’s blog, we offered examples of how tech hubs can be open government actors in order to deliver this social impact.
Here, we share some ideas for the changes in attitude, strategic outlook and partnership-building that are required for tech hubs, funders and policy-makers to jointly solve the problems they all care about. Such co-creation efforts are often tedious, usually frustrating and sometimes risky. But the work needed to address social challenges requires a renegotiation of power dynamics between duty-bearers and the people facing those challenges. We hope that the following ideas can help ease this process.
Lessons for hubs
1. Tell your stories.
Tech innovation hubs, and the new models of innovation they represent, are gaining funders’ and policy-makers’ attention. Stories capturing the work taking place in these hubs can be leveraged and packaged as evidence of impact, or to showcase challenges and opportunities for funder or policy-maker intervention. Most hubs, of course, already understand this need. But it is a question of prioritising the measurement and communication of impact.
2. Engaging at subnational level could be a good first strategy.
The majority of the tech innovation hubs that reported success in policy engagement was achieved by targeting local governments or specific agencies, not national governments, which were reported to be difficult to penetrate directly. Local governments also seem more likely to engage in healthy competition amongst themselves, wanting to be considered the most innovative, open or tech-savvy. This competition can present a great opportunity to deepen policy engagement and spread hubs’ innovations.
3. Don’t do only one thing well. But also, don’t try to do everything.
This lesson emerged from conversations on the (in)efficiency of hubs’ specific innovation ecosystems, as depicted in ideal form in the chart below, born out of one of the research’s interviews with Jumanne Mtambalike.
Many of the hubs we interviewed had started operating at one particular point in their ecosystem, but had begun to shift and take on additional activities – often because the preceding or following step was missing from their ecosystem. But hubs must critically consider when they have stretched their capacities too thin.
4. Get policy-makers into your space, and identify champions.
Finding ways to attract policy-makers into tech innovation hubs’ physical spaces is a very useful starting point for cultivating relationships. Informal visits seemed especially powerful. With high-profile government officials in particular, their presence may at first appear to yield little more than photo opportunities, absorbing valuable time and resources and generating risks whereby politicians claim credit where none is due. Yet, the experience of several hubs where such individuals came through their doors and saw the great ideas, solutions, products and services being created show. this can be key to getting policy-makers to understand the hubs’ work and how to support it. According to Femi Longe from ccHub, “The best way to influence policy is to show policy-makers what works … policy-makers are less likely to listen when you tell them what to do; rather, show them what you’re doing.” Drawing in policy-makers can help identify champions who help broadcast the hub’s successes to a larger audience and broaden their base of support.
5. Explore policy engagement as a collective.
Tech innovation hubs in the same country could explore engaging in policy as a collective to help mitigate some of the perceived risks of individual engagement, and to make policy asks with a stronger, unified voice. Potential shared benefits of collaboration include information aggregation, cost-sharing, client access and branding bonuses for less well-recognised hubs.
6. Engage on your own terms.
Deciding how to engage with policy-makers without jeopardising hub independence or being exploited requires some tactful approaches. Engaging only on your own terms, with a specific, single ask, and refusing larger support with strings attached, offers one way to mitigate risk. Already having a strong value proposition before engaging, with evidence of impact and a plan for how to attain sustainability, also allows for engaging from a position of leverage and confidence. This could help inoculate hubs from being co-opted into political agendas, or from having their mission forcibly shifted.
Lessons for funders
Much of tech innovation hubs’ success over the years is attributable to the support of philanthropic funders from various backgrounds. Many of these funders, like the Indigo Trust, offer this support “with the aim of having a catalytic effect on the number and quality of [tech innovation] projects being developed in-country”, because they believe such projects “have the potential to dramatically impact upon all spheres of development.” For hubs to achieve these goals means that they will need to engage in negotiating – or renegotiating – power relationships, and co-creating public sector policy solutions. Therefore, as the hub space matures, those that support hubs should also evolve to support policy engagement. Below are some specific ideas to help guide this evolution.
1. Hubs are critical nodes for social impact.
Social impact and social innovation are strong, recurrent values underpinning the missions, visions and activities of hubs. This makes them great partners for meeting important social challenges and training and imparting knowledge to local change agents. However, this potential can only be achieved through structuring funder support to accommodate longer-term processes, not just one-off events or ultra-short-term projects lacking sustainability plans. The ideas offered for hubs will only come to fruition if the funders that support hubs also support those new ideas.
2. Hubs are excellent sources of local solutions.
Most successful hubs emerged organically, and have factored in their local context in every step of their evolution. As a result, the solutions devised by hubs and the entrepreneurs and innovators that comprise them are necessarily local solutions to local problems. Therefore, funders seeking to help solve societal challenges in one context should support innovations from that context, rather than imposing solutions devised elsewhere. For example, “looking to Silicon Valley for food security partners” may be inefficient and even counterproductive when ground-truthed, context-specific solutions can be formulated locally.
Lessons for policy-makers
1. Support the organic innovation clusters already emerging, rather than creating artificial tech districts.
As many developing countries seek to create science and technology parks or cities, it is worth assessing where organic clusters of innovation are already emerging and exist. The enthusiasm and infrastructure improvements comprising these tech city projects could, in many cases, be much more impactful if deployed around existing hubs. For maximum benefit, governments should even include tech innovation hubs as co-creators or partners of these projects, on an even playing field with more traditional technological heavyweight firms. In addition, to avoid ‘white elephant’ projects, policy-makers should only seek to create distant tech zones far from existing innovation spaces if the new districts will provide new and strong incentives for the organic clusters to migrate or replicate there.
2. Be willing to explore and engage in partnership.
Policy-makers tackling innovation and entrepreneurship need to be willing to explore the practical evidence emerging from technology innovation hubs. Attending hub events or visiting the hubs to see their innovators at work are great ways to engage and better understand what they do, and what the role of policy and policy-making is in supporting it. Further, agreeing to physically work from the hub’s space is a potentially transformative innovation in itself that policy-makers can consider.
3. Hubs are a roadmap for innovation and entrepreneurship in action.
As more governments undertake specific national programmes and strategies to support innovation and entrepreneurship, tech innovation hubs cannot be overlooked. In fact, much of what they currently do could be viewed as something of a roadmap, and at the very least inviting them to participate in co-creating such strategies would harness key local innovation experts. As Dr Mshinda of COSTECH noted in his interview for the research, “we cannot just talk about innovation; we need conduits to facilitate innovation towards entrepreneurship.” Tech innovation hubs can indeed be these conduits.
About the authorPreston Whitt is a senior program associate at Results for Development, working on governance and social accountability. Previously, he spent three years as a research associate at the Open Government Partnership supporting fact-based evaluations of transparency, accountability and civic participation commitments.
About this blogThis blog expands on some of the findings covered in an original post by the author on the Results for Development blog.
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