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Innovation is a word that inspires excitement and dread in equal measure. A much overused buzzword but, at the same time, a process that should be part of the daily life of any business that wants to stay competitive. It might sound a little grandiose to some but if you’re not looking for new ways to add value to your customers, and ultimately to your shareholders and stakeholders, then it’s likely the competition are going to steal a march on you.
That, in essence, is what innovation is. Doing something new and different, whether it’s the development of a new product or service, business model or process that delivers additional value. It is not merely the collection of ideas, but sifting them, identifying which ones have merit, refining them, and executing them until you can realise value by developing a new unique selling point, or improving productivity through the adoption of a new technology, to give two examples. It’s about staying relevant to your customer base, as a minimum, and preferably always searching for that next feature that will set you apart from the rest of the crowd.
In order to do this you need to really understand what business you’re in, who your customers are, what they think they’re buying rather than what you think you’re selling, and who your competitors are. It’s easy to assume you know the answers to these questions. If you don’t then the market will move on and you will be left behind. Did HMV, to pick a topical retailer, think they were selling shiny discs of plastic rather than access to entertainment? Was it too late by the time they realised their competition was Spotify and Netflix rather than WH Smiths? Or would it have mattered? Does the global reach of the internet lend itself to the creation of an oligopoly? In which case, how could they have created additional value for their customers in the real world by improving the experience?
If a business wants to survive it needs to have innovation embedded in its culture. For businesses to be innovative they must engage positively with their two greatest knowledge resources – their customers and their employees. Rather than only asking for ideas they should work with these stakeholders to identify real challenges and areas for improvement so any ideas that are generated are already being framed to deliver value. Space needs to be provided to explore these ideas and risks need to be taken to pursue the best of those. Not all will deliver but with a robust approach your success rate can be greatly improved and real value realised by customers and the business.
Innovation doesn’t have to come in a big bang. Innovation is evolution as well as revolution, incremental as well as step change. If you create the right culture, encouraging the identification of challenges and solutions, then it is likely that you will embark on a journey that will deliver continuous incremental innovation, and in those circumstances you are much more likely to discover the step change that will really set you apart from your competitors. So successful innovation is rooted in culture. But culture is rooted in leadership. You can’t pay lip service to this. Leaders have to be not just ‘bought in’ but leading the charge, setting the vision for continuous improvement, and celebrating the inevitable failures as well as the successes.
So how does Peterborough fare when it comes to innovation? It may be surprising to some but Peterborough performs very well when compared to other locations around the UK. For the last four years we have consistently ranked in the top 18 cities for the number of patents registered per 100,000 of population. Not bad for a city that ranked 49 out of 63 in terms of population size, and that is considered the largest city in the UK without a full university presence. The University Centre Peterborough has had a fantastic impact on the local economy but that is only set to increase dramatically as we move towards the delivery of a full university and higher education offering.
Of course, this isn’t news to us at Opportunity Peterborough. We’re lucky enough to work with innovative businesses across the city and beyond on a weekly basis, putting them in touch with centres of excellence, industry experts, financiers and funders, training providers, and other support organisations, in order to help them achieve their growth ambitions.
Concepts like the circular economy and the drive for zero waste are also revolutionising industry. Peterborough is home to fantastic examples of large and medium-sized businesses such as E-Leather, Caterpillar Perkins, and Lesko Modular, that are embracing the circular economy as a key driver for business innovation, but smaller businesses and community groups such as Backyard Food are also fully on board.
And it’s not just the private sector and volunteer groups that are getting involved. Opportunity Peterborough’s circular economy programme, run in partnership with Peterborough City Council, is setting the roadmap and measures to track Peterborough’s progress on its journey to becoming a circular city, creating zero waste, by 2050. This innovative programme is also helping companies to re-evaluate their entire supply chain, find collaboration opportunities across sectors, and evaluate their processes so resources efficiency is maximised, waste is minimised and given new purpose, and whole life costs of products are driven down. This increases competitiveness, resilience, productivity, and profitability, as well as promoting sustainable growth and minimising the negative impacts of the economy on the environment.
Innovation. It can be an overused buzzword but it is for us all, and fully embraced it can be the driver of change for the better, for businesses, communities, and the environment.
From Tom Hennessy, chief executive of Opportunity Peterborough. As submitted to the Peterborough Telegraph for the innovators supplement 28.03.2019.
If you’d like to enhance innovation in your business email info@opportunitypeterborough to see how Opportunity Peterborough could support you.