The rise and rise of “National Innovation Foundations”

Download a PDF of the report.

Stephen Ezell is the director of Global Innovation Policy at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. Frank Spring is a PS21 Global Fellow and an independent consultant for innovation, politics and security issues. He tweets at @frankspringKatarzyna Bitka is an economist, working on innovation policy within academic work and the assignments at DG Research and Innovation of the European Commission.

As the race for global innovation advantage accelerates, a growing number of countries are doing all they can to maximize innovation-based economic growth. In fact, at least 50 have now articulated national innovation strategies and have created special agencies or foundations to maximize the innovation output of their countries’ enterprises and organizations. This report assesses the roles these entities play and some of their successes to date. While some of the oldest innovation agencies, such as Finland’s SITRA, date back to the 1960s, most have actually been founded within the past 15 years, as an increasing number of nations have gotten serious about developing their national innovation systems and turbocharging their economies’ capacity to innovate. Today, national innovation foundations can be found in economies of all sizes and stages of development, from Colombia, Ghana, Kenya, and Uruguay to India, Indonesia, and Japan.

The organizational structure of countries’ national innovation agencies varies immensely. In some cases, these are government agencies (such as Uruguay’s National Research and Innovation Agency or the Danish Agency for Science, Technology, and Innovation), while others are autonomous or quasi-autonomous non-governmental organizations (such as the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology, Tekes, or the United Kingdom’s National Endowment for Science,Technology, and the Arts, “NESTA”).

Indeed, an initial survey shows a wide spectrum of budgets and organizational mandates, suggesting that the construction and direction of a national innovation foundation may still be as much art as science. Nevertheless, the best national innovation foundations and strategies are lean and nimble, able to shift their operations and priorities at the speed at which modern innovation and technological development unfolds.

Moreover, most national innovation foundations share a common, if not ubiquitous, set of goals—policy, SME support, research, and network development and management. To provide more context to the operations of countries’ national innovation agencies, this report undertakes five case studies, examining the charter and operations of national innovation foundations in five countries—Uruguay, Taiwan, Switzerland, Finland, and Poland.

These nations were chosen for the illustrative and disparate nature of their innovation entities. The report concludes by noting that the question for governments with such organizations—and, much more sharply, for governments, such as the United States, without them—is not whether they can afford to continue to invest in supporting such innovation entities; it is whether they can afford not to do so.

This piece was originally published by The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation on 13 April 2015. Republished with permission.

The Project for Study of the 21st Century is a non-national, non-ideological, non-partisan organization. All views expressed are the author’s own

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