June 15, 2020

Innovating Out of the Corona Crisis – The Role of Policy

Written by Dermot O’Doherty. Dermot is a Guest Contributor to the Centre for Cross Border Studies’ Research Platform

The coronavirus pandemic has brought about an acute shock to the global economy. The immediate challenge for governments is to start the process of economic recovery while protecting the health of citizens. The pandemic also poses fundamental longer-term questions about what societies across the world most value, how they should prepare for future public health shocks, and what should be the future social contract between governments and citizens.

Add to this a possible no trade agreement Brexit and the impact of climate change and you have ‘a perfect storm’. Advances in science and technology, such as artificial intelligence and the digital economy, offer both threats (e.g. unemployment) and opportunities (e.g. new services and better jobs) in this difficult societal context.

How are we on the island of Ireland going to address these economic and social threats and opportunities? One of the key factors that has been identified by individual countries as well as international organisations such as the EU and the OECD, is the capacity to innovate out of the crisis.

A Holistic Innovation Approach

Innovation policy in its most comprehensive form has recently been given the title: ‘Holistic Innovation’. A holistic innovation policy is one ‘that integrates all public actions that influence or may influence innovation processes’. This is an approach that involves all aspects of government in addressing ‘systems-wide’ issues. In the past, national, regional, and local governments have sought to foster innovation through a range of initiatives that have tended to be very diverse in nature and aimed at different goals. Some areas like basic research have received a relatively large amount of attention, while other issues that are absolutely key for fostering innovation have received less attention—for example, the link between skills formation and innovation performance, or the role of prototyping and demonstration. Most government initiatives have dealt with ‘the supply side’ – looking at the provision of specific technological capacities. It is only very recently that ‘the demand side’ has received attention – focusing on private and public consumption patterns and procurement policies.

Another key dimension of innovation policy – and now of ‘the holistic approach’ in particular – is the participation of stakeholders in the policy-making process. In most OECD countries, this takes the form of a representative ‘Council’ or ‘Board’ that advises on or makes direct proposals for innovation policy and/or specific issues regarding science/research and technology. These bodies are appointed by the Government, with members usually drawn from industry, academia and the public service. The Swedish National Innovation Council, for example, which has adopted the holistic approach, was created and is personally chaired by the Swedish Prime Minister himself, is representative of this ‘Triple Helix’ and has a remit across the overall innovation system.

An Innovation Island

In addressing urgent innovation issues on the island of Ireland, innovateNI – Innovation Strategy for Northern Ireland 2014-2025 is already in place. For political and other reasons, much of this remains unimplemented – particularly its commitment ‘to establish a Northern Ireland Innovation Council, chaired by the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (now Economy), to include senior representatives from business, the public sector including local government, the third sector and academia to oversee implementation’. The strategy has many elements of a ‘holistic’ approach, including a strong emphasis on ‘culture and creativity’. A renewed commitment to its objectives and a new Council to carry it forward would be highly apposite.

‘Innovation 2020’, covering the period since 2015, is currently under review by the Irish Government. A representative Advisory Council on Science, Technology & Innovation had existed from 1967 until 2014 but was absent in the I2020 strategy, partly at least as a result of a crude effort to reduce the number of public bodies. Again, an Innovation Council on the Swedish model would have much to recommend it at this time of crisis and the need for an overarching approach.

A fascinating prospect would be an All Island Innovation Council. The logic and practicality of this is brought nearer when one considers that New Decade, New Approach, which formed the basis for the return of the NI Assembly & Executive earlier in 2020, includes a commitment from the Irish Government ‘to developing proposals for an enhanced North/South programme of research and innovation, in cooperation with the NI Executive’. InterTradeIreland, with its All Island Innovation Programme and well-established schemes such as Fusion, is already a significant player in the field of innovation.

Need for Foresight

In the current critical context, an urgent task for any such Council (whether jurisdictional or All Island) would be to undertake one or more Foresight exercises  – defined as ‘systemic, participatory, future-intelligence gathering and medium-to-long term vision building process aimed at assisting decision-making and mobilising joint actions’. These could be undertaken on any or all of the following levels: NI/Ireland/All Island/Border Zone.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Centre for Cross Border Studies.

About the Author

Dermot was Senior Innovation Adviser in InterTradeIreland and Forfás as well as Manager, Strategic Planning, in Eolas, the Irish Science & Technology Agency. He is currently Hon. Secretary of the Irish Association for Cultural, Economic & Social Relations (www.Irish-Association.org). He writes here in a private capacity.