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Comment: With innovation diplomacy, Scotland has sparked a new approach to tackling world problems

Comment: With innovation diplomacy, Scotland has sparked a new approach to tackling world problems

Innovation diplomacy.  Not a widely known concept but one that will become increasingly significant for smaller countries such as Scotland. In essence, it’s about using innovation to build relations with governments and NGOs to create mutual value. Scotland has all the ingredients to seize this opportunity and make its mark through new methods of international collaboration.

The type of international diplomacy we’re all familiar with, managing relationships between governments, often takes the form of aid or trade. Innovation diplomacy is different in that it uses new ideas and technology to build relations between governments with a focus on delivering shared policy outcomes or better public services.

This is now increasingly possible due to the creation of in-house innovation delivery teams within the burgeoning GovTech sector. Examples are our own CivTech Scotland, or IdeiaGov São Paolo, Go2Gov South Australia and GovTech Lab Lithuania.

These teams lie at the cross section of government and innovation ecosystems. Given their impact at a national level, imagine the collective capability if they were brought together at a global level. 

And that is what is happening. Set up by the Scottish Government, the CivTech Alliance is a strategic vehicle for building global connections, demonstrating the value of collaboration and offering a vehicle for policy makers to create dialogue and effect change.

The alliance contains a mixture of government and academic institutions across 16 countries, including Accelerate Estonia, the InnoLab of the Baden-Württemberg Regional Government, the US General Services Administration, and the Opportunity Project of the US Census Bureau. 

After 8 months of weekly video calls, those of us involved in the alliance saw the opportunity to evolve from a knowledge network to a collective capability and focus on solving some of the world’s most complex problems. What could be achieved if we leveraged the knowledge, network and expertise held within the membership for the benefit of the planet? With Scotland playing host to COP26, we had a unique opportunity to act as conveners and catalysts and put innovation diplomacy into action.

We put in place the Global Scale-up Programme (GSUP), which demonstrated not only Scotland’s convening power but also our vision for what true intergovernmental collaboration can be. It was an ambitious ground-breaking programme which brought together eight governments and three academic/not-for-profit institutions across 10 countries.

As we set about our mission - to source, surface and scale climate tech solutions for global public applications - how could we create a unique access programme for climate tech companies in the run up to, and during, COP26? 

Working with the UNDP, the World Resources Institute and Michelin Scotland Innovation Parc, we set three COP26-aligned challenges to solve, on the themes of environmental resilience, food wastage and decarbonisation for fast-growth companies with global ambitions. 

We selected 18 companies from nine countries. During a seven-week ‘Scale-up Safari’ preceding COP26 we scheduled 69 engagement sessions with policy makers and procurers, investors and innovators across the 10 participating countries.

Over 200 introductions were made, including the NASA open innovation team, the Federal Emergency Management Agency of the US Government, top researchers in the field of sustainability, ministers of environment and international trade, and gatekeepers of the €500m German family office funds.

This global access has been of huge value not just to the innovators but also to our policy makers. Governments wouldn’t normally have a reason to engage with such a diverse spectrum of stakeholders. Our innovative approach was of sufficient interest that viewers from 46 countries tuned in to watch the ministerial-attended presentations by our companies and guest speakers during COP26.

Just some of the tangible positive impacts of our cohort of companies include saving over 100 million meals across two continents, bringing $13bn of forestry assets under management, assessing 85 million capital infrastructure assets for eight weather hazards in 105 countries, saving 17 billion litres of water through lubricant oil plastic recycling, reducing food waste in Brazilian schools by 20 per cent, and carbon negative hydrogen production compacted into shipping containers.

According to Brazilian company BMV, their participation in the programme and corresponding exposure has enabled them to win a $2m service contract, potentially rising to $5m, with another government state. And whilst that has no bearing on Scotland per se, we were the convener. 

What it does mean for Scotland is that we now have a mechanism to move from intergovernmental discussions to collaborative delivery. So watch this space for bilateral or multilateral challenge series which develop closer relationships between governments, agencies and businesses across borders. This in turn will open the door for Scottish companies to access global markets. 

What COP26 demonstrated was the power of a mission-oriented approach to both policy and delivery in tackling the climate crisis. Insights from other governments can help policy directorates understand how to deliver domestic policy objectives.

To use an Airfix model analogy - if the solving of the challenge is the ‘picture on the box’, the governments are the different pieces and the climate tech solutions are the glue. 

Collaboration on shared policy challenges is arguably the best way to deepen our international relationships and increase awareness of innovation in Scotland. Innovation diplomacy is clearly an idea whose time has come.

Alexander Holt was recently listed in the World Economic Forum / Apolitical Agile 50 - the world’s 50 most influential people navigating disruption.

More information about the CivTech Alliance can be found at https://www.civtechalliance.org/

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