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Is innovation a privilege?

Dr. Lucy Mason
23 Mar 2023

The UK’s Innovation Strategy sets out a bold vision for the UK as an Innovation Nation, detailing how the UK can reinvent itself as a driving force for global innovation – even placing innovation in the role of a new national purpose.

These strategies and reports tend to focus on innovation as a system, or an ecosystem – something where external forces and organizations drive change. But far too little attention is paid to how unequal innovation is at the individual level, at every stage: from those who participate in innovation and entrepreneurship; to those who can access and benefit from innovation. I argue that without this lens, innovation risks entrenching pre-existing inequalities, failing to benefit from the full breadth of diverse perspectives, and will suffer from patchy adoption.

Who are the innovators?

Research into the characteristics of innovators has identified certain personality traits that seem associated with the kinds of people who like to self-identify as innovative: “creative people tend to be better at identifying (rather than solving) problems, they are passionate and sensitive, and, above all, they tend to have a hungry mind: they are open to new experiences, nonconformist, and curious.” The idea that innovation is linked to intelligence, or genius, has been pretty roundly disproved – or the evidence is inconclusive, at best. Anyone can have a great idea. And now, more than ever before, globalization and the internet have lowered the barriers to innovation: pretty much anyone can access the tools to build a new piece of software, an app, find a like-minded community, and apply for seed funding to get an idea off the ground. The UK is one of the best places in the world to launch a start up. Levels of UK Venture Capital investment is third in the world, hitting a record high of £29.4bn in 2021 mainly in ICT, biotech, and healthcare.

So, why is the typical profile of a UK entrepreneur white, male, degree educated, in their forties, and living in the South East? Evidence shows that women, people from a minority ethnic background and those from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds face systematic disadvantage in founding businesses, raising investment and finding success – and intersectionality is important, with female entrepreneurs from ethnic minority backgrounds experiencing the biggest disadvantage. Between 2009 – 2019 in the UK, all-ethnic teams received an average of 1.7% of VC investment (despite being 14% of the population), while only 2.87% went to all-female teams – however 42.72% of VC cash went to founding teams with at least one member from an ‘elite educational background’ (Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Stanford). These patterns of unequal access to investment may be partly explained by the findings that roughly 3% of VC investors in the UK are Black, and 5% are of Mixed Heritage, with very few being partners or having decision-making seniority in their firms.

What’s preventing us from benefitting from more diverse innovators?

It seems undeniable that factors such as lack of access to finance, deprivation, poor education, lack of time and support, and being under-represented in senior decision-making roles limits the ability of some people to become innovators, even if they have a great idea. Socioeconomic inequalities can make aspiring entrepreneurs less able to access funding from friends and family, with no personal wealth to fall back on when times get tough, and less access to capital assets – factors compounded by traditional caring gender expectations, which may prevent some women from putting in the 24/7 hours entrepreneurship tends to demand. Having less of a financial safety net might ensure that underprivileged entrepreneurs are first to go bust in turbulent financial waters, whilst, as we have seen, they are less able to access private equity investment.

And in supposedly innovative organizations, too, the people who are granted the permission to innovate, and invited to lead and join internal innovation teams, may be disproportionately white, male, educated, and middle aged – in the image of their start up counterparts. Partly, this could be down to unconscious stereotypical role models of successful entrepreneurs – Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk – and a kind of ‘innovation theater’ that has become common currency for a certain type of confident, articulate maverick who benefits from the prestige of being an influential thought-leader. This style over substance has become a lazy stand-in for truly innovative ideas and people, who may be neurodiverse or otherwise seen as ‘difficult’ or non-conformist in ways less easily forgiven by corporate hierarchies, and who are given less of a voice.

Some evidence suggests that while women are equally as innovative in generating new ideas as men, their ideas are less frequently implemented within their organizations. Organizational innovators may fail to receive promotion for being ‘disruptive’, leading to them becoming frustrated and leaving, or feeling they are not listened to or supported. It’s a rare line manager who can see the individual’s potential and be willing to put their reputation on the line to protect a disruptive, perhaps pushy, innovator.

Why do we need to tackle systematic disadvantages?

For the individual themselves, the unique lived experiences that have shaped their personality and attitude may make them more, or less, inclined to be innovative – characteristics such as self-belief, confidence, skills, and knowledge.  It is possible that people wired a certain way who crave novelty and change are more likely to spot and go after opportunities (which may account for supposedly higher rates of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) among business founders) – but may be less adept at the follow-through and consistent hard graft over the years needed to deliver and scale the idea. Those who missed out on formal education may have less expertise to draw upon and lack some of the skills to research, analyze, and judge good ideas. People with fewer social and communication skills and without family connections may struggle to build and maintain the networks needed to land a good idea and find first customers. People who repeatedly experience pushback and failure are less inclined to keep pushing. Women may tend to be more risk-averse – or, perhaps, more alert to consequences – and might be perceived as less effective in leading innovation teams, while nonetheless having many key characteristics that are crucial for successful innovation, such as resilience and different viewpoints, which can help an idea find traction.

The notion that successful innovators are simply more driven, more persistent, more resilient, and more energetic than their less successful counterparts (and, by implication, others will succeed if they just try harder) is a harmful narrative that fails to consider the different starting points people have, and the differential opportunities available. That is the very essence of privilege: failing to recognize and tackle these systematic disadvantages means entrenching inequality and can ultimately lead to groupthink, which may prevent the innovation from becoming generally adopted – so not good for the bottom line!

Who benefits from innovation?

Apart from the unequal access to participating in innovating, the diffusion and adoption of innovation is also greatly impacted by a lack of consideration of diversity, and systematic inequality. Early adopters of innovative ideas and technologies are those most like the entrepreneurs themselves – usually with greater access to wealth than average, degree educated, younger, and more risk-taking. But many innovations fail to bridge ‘the chasm’ between ‘early adopters’ and the ‘early majority’, and never become adopted by the majority of the potential customer base. Many reasons have been cited for the uptake, or not, of innovation (which is undoubtedly a complex and not always logical process) – ranging from supply chain problems/ failure to scale, high initial costs, too complex, lack of awareness, failing to solve a real-world problem, lack of resource, lack of skills, organizational culture, and active resistance by some parts of the population. What has been less well understood is how sociological and individual factors in the modern world can prevent innovation adoption.

It is natural that innovations being developed for profit will focus on the needs and problems of affluent potential consumers – excluding almost by definition sectors of the community who will not afford the innovation. The profit driver underlies most of the technology transfer, market research, and VC investment activity that makes up a large proportion of ‘visible’ innovation, such as new products.

What about innovation for the public good?

However, much public sector innovation has less well-defined goals, such as making people’s lives better, healthier, or safer, creating desirable social change, sustainability, and more efficient and effective public services – these more invisible innovations should absolutely concern themselves more with accessibility, disadvantage and ensuring that vulnerable members of society can benefit in the same way as everyone else. Arguably, any public investment which supports profit-driven innovation with the aim of creating economic prosperity and jobs should also ensure that principles of inclusivity and accessibility are designed in from the outset (as has been the case with Government Digital Services).

Even for profit-driven product innovation, considering the factors that may encourage someone to use or not use their product will benefit from having diverse perspectives – receiving feedback from someone who experiences the product differently in their lives could alter the design, for example, or even change the end use of the idea by applying it in ways not initially intended. Having a wider range of people who see how an innovation will benefit them and spread the word to their peers – given that personal recommendation from a trusted source is the most effective way to spread new ways of doing things – means it is more likely an innovation will become widespread. It is important as well to be aware early on of cultural, social norms, or individual barriers that might inhibit adoption. Indeed, failing to understand a cultural nuance can sink a product launch in its tracks, close off entire market segments, or expose the company to public ridicule.

Innovation usually means doing things differently, taking a risk, or trying something new, which can be psychologically challenging for people who are resistant to change. Most leaders will have experienced resistance from those who seem deeply opposed to proposed change – most viscerally when it is felt to impact on their status, identity, or beliefs. People may distrust the product, or the maker, or are transferring poor previous experiences, or are loyal to another way of doing things out of habit, or inertia (‘that’s not how things are done here’). That is why – despite change management encouraging people to see change as something done ‘with’ people rather than ‘to’ them – most change initiatives fail, something often written off by optimistic innovators as the idea being ‘ahead of its time’ where the conditions were just not right, even though the benefits were (to them) obvious.

Failing to understand how privilege, inequality and difference plays out in the diffusion and adoption of innovation leads to deepening inequalities in society – in access to digital tools and skills that can make lives easier, to jobs and career progression, in the disadvantaging of vulnerable people and to poorer life chances for too many.

So, what should we do?

Equality, diversity, and inclusion should be seen as fundamental to innovation policy at every level – from Government to organization to start up. Diversity is key to successful innovation. It makes it more likely that the right products and services are developed that meet the needs of the many, not the few, and with fewer barriers to adoption. Historically, innovation and technology change has disproportionately benefitted the wealthy elite, which are more able to take advantage of it, over generations: this needs to change if innovation is to become a driver of social change and economic prosperity.

As a society, we need to find ways to support more people to become engaged in and benefit from innovation – as creators, participants, and users – and find better ways to recognize and reward innovative individuals, whatever their background or style. We need to widen the view of who and what innovators are, and value a wider range of innovation skillsets than merely those of having the idea: implementing innovation is a team sport which benefits from having people who can complement and challenge one another.

We need to consciously create a multidisciplinary approach to innovation: one that incorporates social, behavioral science and psychological insights and theory to view innovation through the social and individual lenses, as well as the economic and technical lenses more usually applied. If we get this right, the UK can benefit not only from a world-leading R&D base but also from the diverse, multicultural society we have, to truly become a global world leader in innovation.


Dr. Lucy Mason

Innovation Lead, Capgemini Invent Public Sector
“Innovation is key to the future of public sector organizations. I’m passionate about helping them get there, to keep people safe and secure and to build a people-centered, technology-enabled world together. We need to build innovation cultures, upskill people in how to innovate effectively – how to apply great ideas successfully – and leverage rapidly evolving technologies, such as quantum and AI, for the public good.”