This opinion piece was written by Diana Rivera, an economist, and Sarah Villeneuve, a policy assistant, at the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship(BIIE), which has recently conducted new research on inclusive economic growth and innovation policy.
Advances in technology have brought with them incredible improvements in the standard of living of millions, but the reality is that some of the most innovative places in the world, like Silicon Valley, are also some of the most unequal. Inclusive innovation policies can help to mitigate this risk. While they’re not yet the norm, two recent examples around worker inclusion stand out.
In North Carolina, a training course created a pathway for displaced manufacturing workers to join the state’s world-renowned biotechnology sector. Its success sparked the creation of a robust talent pipeline that remains attractive for bio-manufacturing firms. In Finland, Nokia’s Bridge Program shows how a company can support its laid off workers as it makes difficult strategic decisions. Nokia helped 70% of its 5,000 participants find their next step in employment, entrepreneurship, or education.
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These examples show the potentially transformative effects of thoughtful innovation policy. It has the power to benefit entire communities and regions, even beyond those who initially seem to be most at risk from the disruption brought about by new technology.
One door closed is another open
In the late 2000s, after years of dominance in the mobile phone world, Nokia faced unexpected and fierce competition from Apple and Android smartphones. By 2011, Nokia announced it would leave the space, focus on its other business ventures and lay off over 18,000 people globally.
“Some of the most innovative places in the world, like Silicon Valley, are also some of the most unequal”
During this transition, Nokia created the Bridge Program, which prioritised the welfare of its employees and the prosperity of the affected communities. Nokia surveyed the needs of its workers at each site, and built in flexible access to training, funding and community support. Bridge helped participants: find new jobs in and outside of Nokia, start their own business, or further their education.
Almost 6,000 of these workers were based in Finland, the company’s home country, and were heavily reliant on Nokia’s jobs and economic contribution. Some 5,000 former employees from the four major Finnish sites received additional support through the firm and the government.
Three years after the launch of the program, former employees as well as economic development officials in Tampere and Oulu, cities home to two of Nokia’s largest sites, regarded the company’s retreat as the “best thing that happened” to the regions. This was not only due to the support it provided to laid off workers, but also the spillover effects it had on the local economies. Notably, the Nokia Bridge incubator program for start-ups, and the more than 400 firms it generated in Finland, was key in diversifying and fostering the regional entrepreneurship environments.
Creating new pathways
In the mid-1990s, North Carolina faced two major problems in its manufacturing sector: its traditional tobacco, textile and furniture industries were declining sharply, and its young biotech sector was at risk of losing important firms due to severe production-line talent shortages.
State actors, led by the Biotechnology Centre, seized the opportunity to harness the skills of thousands of displaced manufacturing workers and train them to enter the industry. With its network of partners, consultations with industry and support from the state’s expansive community college system, the Biotechnology Centre created and implemented BioWork: a short course teaching science fundamentals and biotech production processes.
“Rather than seeing advances in technology as a zero-sum game with winners and losers, these decision-makers looked to apply new thinking”
Its main goal was to create the workforce the sector needed. Yet, it was designed to be accessible to people who had no more than a high school equivalency and no experience in the sector, and it was taught locally. These features made the course ideal for the highly-localised, laid-off manufacturing workers, who were valued by employers for their previous experience with manufacturing processes. It created a pathway back into the economy.
Anyone can become an engine of innovation
These two programs show policymakers, corporations and training providers the role they can play in guiding an economy through technological change and its implications. Rather than seeing advances in technology as a zero-sum game with winners and losers, these decision-makers looked to apply new thinking on policies that properly utilise the skills and talent of displaced workers.
Yet these cases also reveal that while teaching the right skills and training is essential, doing so is only one part of how to approach the design and delivery of inclusive innovation policies. For these policies to succeed, they must also incorporate research on demand and adaptability, while encouraging widespread collaboration among different networks in the community. Together, these components can create pathways that can lead anyone, from displaced manufacturing workers to laid-off employees in a declining tech field, to become an engine of innovation. — Diana Rivera & Sarah Villeneuve
(Picture credit: Flickr/Department for Business, Innovation & Skills)