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Thomas Spencer

Public sector innovation: Lessons from science

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Einstein said “To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science.” This is exactly what Prof Donald Ingber and his team at the Wyss Institute in Harvard are busy doing and they are changing the world. During a wide ranging lecture last week (hosted by Institute of Bioengineering and the Life Sciences Initiative at Queen Mary University of London), Prof Ingber spoke about organs on microchips; programmable nanomaterials; targeted delivery of vascular therapeutics and even wearable shoe inserts that improve balance (an exciting development for those of us working in adult social care).

The content was a heady mix of innovation, inspiration and, at times, confusion but what struck me most was the creativity and desire to challenge the status quo that is at the heart of the institute’s work. In particular, he raised three key points that are relevant to the public sector:

  1. New ways of thinking: The Einstein quote cited above could just as easily be applied to the public sector as to science. There is a clear need to raise new questions and new possibilities if we are going to tackle the challenges faced by the public sector because the old ways of thinking and working aren’t delivering the results required.
  2. Collaboration: One of the key drivers of innovation at the Wyss institute has been Prof Ingber’s ability to bring people together from different disciplines, backgrounds and perspectives to support their mission to “improve lives and protect the planet”. The Wyss Community includes, biochemists, statisticians, venture capitalists, engineers, designers and artists. If the public sector is to succeed then it needs to look at problems from different angles to truly tackle them.
  3. Looking beyond our own spheres of influence: If the public sector is going to learn it needs to listen effectively. People need to look outside their own spheres of influence to understand how other people – in industry, science, the arts – are tackling problems and think about how they can work with them do the same. I am aware of the challenge this poses having worked in organisations where getting teams in the same department to work together has been hard and working across organisations to tackle problems (health and adult social care being the best example of this) was seen as a step too far. “We’re not ready yet” and “we need to get our own house in order” are common messages we hear from clients.

Prof Ingber said last week that “Science isn’t about learning facts; it is about having ideas.” It is time for the public sector to stop pointing at historical facts and truths about who should be doing what and analysing how ready they are for change. It is time think more like scientists – to open up and be brave about finding the new ideas that will really make the difference.

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