Positive people drive recovery, says Dr Robert Crawford

I recently attended a conference on innovation co-sponsored by the Economic Development Association Scotland (EDAS) and the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) - probably the UK's leading think-tank on innovation. Featuring a host of inspiring speakers from home and abroad, the conference considered the key drivers of innovation. NESTA has researched the most appropriate policy responses and in doing so has investigated the approaches taken by many countries. It found that "no one approach fits all". But there are certain categories of behaviour that seem to be universal for innovation to flourish.

So what are they and what implications do they have for Scotland's towns?

Innovation is not simply about research and development, there are many other routes to success. NESTA identified key behavioural characteristics as being positively correlated with innovation. These include personal creativity and curiosity; optimism; openness to new experiences; interdisciplinary working and, remarkably enough, happiness and personal wellbeing.

This shouldn't surprise us. Self-confidence and a can-do spirit are attributes widely accepted as being critical in sport and business success. Can these be taught, fomented and encouraged? The speakers at the conference seemed to think so. In fact, Senor Juan José Ibarretxe, a former President of the Basque Country, was sure that the cultural dimensions of innovation are fundamental. The Basque Country is easily the most productive region of Spain. The Basques recognised in 1981 that a landmark building can regenerate rundown locales and boost regional, national and personal self-confidence. The Guggenheim in Bilbao had exactly this effect. It has been much copied but never bettered by other cities. I could parade a raft of economic data to support the contention that it has also boosted economic growth, but it is the impact on the confidence of Bilbao and the Basque Country as a whole that I find most encouraging.

Of course, Scotland's towns cannot be expected to copy anything of the scale of the Guggenheim, but many have fantastic architectural and historic assets which can be transformed into drivers of innovation. Paisley, for example, was once one of the most productive and innovative places in the world and it still has a wonderful legacy of buildings and open-spaces which, with investment and imagination, can support a rise in innovativeness.

One can point to other Scottish towns rich in assets such as Ayr and Greenock. Town councils with support from businesses, universities, colleges, community groups and Third Sector organisations, should also work on confidence, team-building and openness; and seek to support the view that everyone has something to offer.

Mainstream innovation support programmes won't succeed by themselves. We need to reach the souls and minds of our people. Places such as Paisley, Greenock, Hawick and Ayr were once economic powerhouses and they can be again - providing they learn how to mobilise their greatest assets - their people.

Dr Robert Crawford is the Chair of Economic Development Association Scotland.

Source: Sunday Herald

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