What is Innovation?

By Alan Welby, Innovation Director at the North East Local Enterprise Partnership

For many people, when they hear the word innovation, they think about the Perseverance rover landing on Mars, self-driving cars, or SpaceX. And they’d be right; they are all excellent examples of innovation.

But innovation doesn’t have to be a huge step into the unknown. In fact, we’re all innovators – we just might not know it.

Innovation – in very simple terms – is working out a new, better way of doing something. Anyone who has ever made even the smallest of changes to a product or process for competitive advantage – that’s innovation. Anyone who has come up with a new product or service – that’s innovation too.

Businesses across our region are doing this all the time and I never tire of hearing their stories – from how one simple change turned a business around to how an idea for a new product led to a multi-million-pound business.  Innovation really does come in many shapes and sizes.

If each and every business in our region embraced the power of innovation by improving how we do things, or looking at a new opportunities or markets, then together we can build a stronger, more efficient, and more successful economy.

That’s precisely why innovation is a core theme in the North East Strategic Economic Plan, which sets out the region’s ambition to increase the number of jobs in the North East economy by 100,000 by 2024. Creating new ways of working leads to new jobs.

The coronavirus pandemic, whilst having a devastating impact on the North East economy as a whole, has demonstrated how innovation can help our region recover, and not only return to pre-covid levels, but exceed them.

There are some sectors of our industry that have remained largely unaffected, in fact some have even experienced growth. And what do they all have in common? Innovation.

Pharmaceutical and health businesses, digital companies, and businesses working in energy, construction and parts of the manufacturing sector, have managed to survive the economic impact because they’re developing new approaches and challenging the way we do things. COVID-19 has been a massive disruptor and businesses have had to adapt – this type of innovation is process, product or business model innovation – and for those that see the opportunity and take it, this type of innovation can be the difference between a company flourishing or floundering.

We’ve seen a huge increase in open innovation across our region too, with new collaborations and new solutions being brought forward by partnerships up and down the North East. The Northern Accelerator partnership between Durham, Newcastle, Northumbria and Sunderland Universities is a brilliant example of this. It provides a structure to support the commercialisation of ideas from academics and shows how we can build a knowledge economy with built on the back of regional assets and regional people.

SMEs from our region have also been developing solutions to specific challenges caused by COVID-19 as part of our Challenge North East programme. It’s really shone a light on the creative talent in our region, and demonstrated the kind of thinking and action we need for the North East to flourish post-covid.

The North East Growth Hub’s new Innovation Toolkit is designed to help businesses embrace innovation. It includes inspiring case studies, details of relevant events, as well as information on business support and finance and funding programmes that can start companies on their innovation journey. 

Lots of businesses in the North East are already thinking of new ways to survive in a different world, and that to me is true innovation.

So, the next time someone asks you ‘what is innovation?’, think about what’s happening right here in our region, and how it’s helping drive forward the economy of the North East.

Find more tools to help you embed innovation in your business in the North East Growth Hub innovation toolkit.