Encouraging entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds

Alex Cole is an inclusive innovation champion in the West Midlands: he is Deputy Chair of the West Midlands Race Equality Taskforce and Chief Executive of TIN Ventures, supporting entrepreneurs from under-represented backgrounds. Now he is playing an important role in the DIATOMIC programme and the first regional Inclusive Innovation Network. Here, he explains why.

Encouraging business supply chains to work alongside a more diverse range of entrepreneurs is good not only for the communities we serve, but for spreading economic prosperity widely and fairly. It could also help to spark more interesting innovations.

There is a huge latent potential from businesses run by under-represented groups to get more involved in the innovation economy. It makes absolute sense to me – as Deputy Chair of the West Midlands Race Equality Taskforce – to include everyone on that journey, and to encourage inclusive innovation.

Some entrepreneurs need more help than others: women and those from black and minority backgrounds are often overlooked in terms of receiving support and investment, leading some to fund their own ventures themselves – which is far from ideal.

For me, inclusive innovation is about creating the right conditions to allow people from a wide range of backgrounds to help a city or region embrace new ideas and grow to its full potential.

But inclusive innovation is also about making the outcomes of innovation inclusive. Entrepreneurs who are designing, developing and delivering new products must be in ‘listening mode’ from the outset, to ensure their innovative new technologies or services are relevant to local people.

They must demonstrate empathy with the communities they want to engage with, and listen to – rather than talk about – everyone’s needs, before taking their ideas forward.

Too often, I see clever people coming up with technology proposals and trying to sell their ideas to others, without fully understanding exactly what is needed to solve a problem for everyone. Make that mistake and your innovation will be far from inclusive.

I’m delighted to be supporting the DIATOMIC programme in the West Midlands, which includes an important focus on ensuring that innovation happening in the region is truly inclusive and its benefits are felt by the whole community. The programme brings together place-shaping, leadership and innovation, and has huge potential to ensure that the innovations developed are as inclusive as possible.

If the programme takes off, it could be used as a blueprint for other areas to follow. Connected Places Catapult is the perfect host of such an initiative, as it brings many different locations together; offering the possibility of helping to scale-up and roll out the concept both nationally and internationally.

DIATOMIC has brought together a very promising cohort of firms representing a diverse cross-section of society through its accelerator with Birmingham City Council. But for the good start to continue, there will need to be a strong group of specialists actively developing ideas in future years from across the West Midlands, and who are committed to developing innovation in the areas of environmental and social gain.

In addition, the Inclusive Innovation Network is about gathering best practice and sharing learning across the West Midlands and the UK to broaden the innovation economy. Inclusive innovation can be considered as part of a three-staged approach; considered in the design, delivery and diffusion of innovation activities.

We need to challenge the idea that innovation happens behind locked doors: because to be an innovator, you don’t have to be the next Steve Jobs of Apple and promise to change the world. There are many different types of innovation, and not all have to be about disruptive technology. Innovations could be ideas that build on existing processes; making life better for people or work more efficient.

The wider innovation economy must continue to engage with our next generation of innovators to entice the curious. I sometimes ask a group of young people I teach to raise their hand if they consider themselves to be an innovator. Very few of them do. But when I ask who has issues they are passionate about – and great ideas for adding value – many hands go up. ‘Well’, I say to them, ‘you are all innovators’.

Parents and teachers must help to feed the curiosity that children have about the world; and the business community can help to harness that enthusiasm too when they are older.

For me, successful innovation programmes are those that feature great stories that are relevant to different sections of society. But there must also be a plan for such programmes to exist in future years, and an aspiration to share experiences with others: a blueprint of what works, and what doesn’t work so well. From these playbooks, the successes of programmes of inclusive innovation such as DIATOMIC can be repeated elsewhere.

Details of the DIATOMIC programme and innovation in the West Midlands will be covered at the Connected Places Summit in London on 20 and 21 March.

Alex Cole is the chief executive of TIN Ventures, supporting under-represented entrepreneurs, and the founder of Digisheds – a digital skills programme for young people. Alex is also an Entrepreneur in Residence with The Open University, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and Independent Deputy-Chair of the West Midlands Race Equality Taskforce. He is a former smart city co-chair of the Innovation Alliance for the West Midlands, and was a transformation director with CapGemini.

DIATOMIC is part of the The West Midlands Innovation Accelerator, which is delivered in partnership with the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, Innovate UK and the West Midlands Combined Authority.