Perhaps my brain is more receptive to ideas early in the day, but I’m still thinking about the role of partnership in innovation a fortnight on from our most recent OU Business Network breakfast briefing. Sharing the platform with our Chair in Innovation Dynamics James Fleck, Professor Steve Potter and Dr Clive Savory pointed to partnership as THE key success factor in getting new initiatives off the ground. Clive’s example, a stymied innovation in healthcare, showed how ideas can get scuppered through opposition born of habit. On a happier note, Steve demonstrated that involving interested parties from the outset not only improves an innovation but speeds its rapid acceptance.
His example, oddly enough, was the congestion charge. Not the first, or most attractive, thing that comes to mind when you hear the word ‘innovation’, but something new and useful nevertheless. And not, in this case, the one that’s been deterring Londoners from clogging up their city since 2003, but a scheme launched a year earlier, over 200 miles north of the capital, to cut traffic in the centre of historic Durham.
The scheme followed a number of failed initiatives involving parking restrictions and pedestrianisation in the quaint but narrow streets around the magnificence of Durham cathedral. Reviled by local business and residents, largely ignored by drivers, and half-heartedly enforced, they did little to address the problem. Traffic and safety problems continued, resulting in a number of injuries to pedestrians and inconvenience to all.
Radical innovation in search of a solution arrived at the turn of the century with the formation of a group of stakeholders working with the local authority. Together they introduced peak-time charging, with stiff fines for defaulters spotted on CCTV. This bold step, far from alienating citizens and shopkeepers, proved a popular alternative to a mooted total ban on traffic. The secret of its success (an 85% reduction in traffic) was the careful negotiation of the elements of the scheme from the outset to balance the interests of the relevant parties. In other words, partnership working.
Advocates of competition (i.e. the opposite of people working together in partnership) often point to its role in spurring innovation. The argument goes that, rather than losing business to a rival, an organisation will come up with something new that’s better, cheaper or more convenient. But Durham’s congestion charge story suggests that this way of thinking about innovation (led by individual rather than collective interests) is becoming outmoded in an increasingly interconnected world. If this is right, the first step in managing innovation may well involve changing mindsets rather than machinery.