22 April, 2020
Over the last few weeks we have seen some inspiring and innovative responses to the coronavirus crisis by UK firms and universities. The JCB-Dyson collaboration to produce ventilators and the UCL-Mercedes AMG collaboration to develop other breathing aids are outstanding examples. Necessity is the mother of invention after all.
But what of the wider consequences of the crisis for innovation in UK firms? Will these positive collaborations inspire broader innovation in the economy or will the financial pressures on firms have a more negative effect? How will this affect smaller and larger firms?
Most of the evidence suggests that R&D spending and innovation are ‘procyclical’ – rising in periods of strong growth and declining in periods of crisis. However, investing in innovation in periods of crisis can be beneficial for firms in the longer term with innovators typically maintaining stronger post-crisis profitability and demonstrating greater resilience than non-innovators.
Firms which have overcome previous periods of crisis also seem better able to weather future storms. Past investments in R&D and innovation also matter with firms with a track record of innovation more likely to perform well through recessions, particularly where that innovation is based on new technology. Other non-technological innovations appear to benefit firms less in crisis periods but more in times of stronger economic growth.
Financial constraints also tend to push firms towards more collaborative innovation in order to reduce costs and share risks. Supply chains are critical here with most firms turning to their customers or suppliers to find collaborators for innovation.
Universities and other organisations such as the Catapult Centres also have an important role, particularly in sustaining more radical innovation.Sustaining levels of R&D and innovation through and after the crisis will certainly be challenging for both businesses and policy-makers. The can-do attitude and commitment demonstrated by some of the UK’s leading businesses over the last few weeks is an inspiration, however. And, maintaining this commitment to innovation really matters: Countries which maintained a pro-innovation culture performed most strongly after the Great Recession (2008-13).
Professor Stephen Roper is a Professor of Enterprise in the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Group and is the Innovation theme lead on Warwick’s new Global Research Priority on Productivity and the Futures of Work.