BLOG: Innovation and COVID-19 Challenges Online Event

In a highly successful, brand-new format*, we combined our Innovation Policy and Practice and Working Group events online on 30th April to discuss an urgent and topical issue, for one of our most engaging and well attended events to date.

COVID-19 has brought significant and pressing innovation challenges, demanding immediate solutions that break through sectoral, regulatory and societal barriers. We gathered 81 innovation practitioners to examine how the West Midlands can capitalise on this new and accelerated focus on demand-led innovation (beyond the immediate crisis) in order to create new market opportunities and aid economic recovery for our innovative business.

Each of the three sectors/themes considered – Health, Digital Communications, and Net Zero – have been strongly impacted in different ways. Identifying the respective challenges and short-term responses led to fascinating discussions and revealed great potential for cross-sector collaboration and learning. All slides from the event are here.

The first part of our event involved three Keynote speakers, each identifying challenges in their sectors to set the scene for a panel discussion, followed by three breakout discussions in Working Groups. We finished by reconvening in the main session to feed back and to discuss potential support for taking forward new ideas and collaboration that emerge.

Keynote presentations

As the first keynote, we were delighted to welcome David Kidney, Chief Executive of the UK Public Health Register, and the Chair of the new West Midlands Health Technologies Cluster, in charge of overseeing a new collaboration of health sector businesses in our region.

David’s presentation highlighted the value in clustering businesses based on geographic locations (counter-intuitive though it may initially seem) and outlined the factors necessary to ensure that these clusters are successful in fostering innovation and creating vital change. These factors included being business-led, fuelled by Universities, and nationally recognised.

David crucially pointed out that COVID-19 is not the reason why the time for the Clusters has come – but it certainly adds urgency. His challenges were:

  • How will practices adopted in mid-crisis survive as the “new normal” (i.e. regulatory flexibility, rapid introduction of new technologies)?
  • Will new-found collaborations (think PPE, ventilators) across sectors endure?
  • Will there be a more risk-averse attitude to supply chains, e.g. more home-grown partnerships, fewer imports?

Next to present was Angela Jeffrey, Digital Leaders Midlands Champion, and Aston University, who highlighted the transformative effects of COVID-19 on digital communication. With much of the country thrown into home working in the space of just one week, the move towards digital platforms to sustain communication and efficient operations was unprecedented, and forced many organisations to adopt new technologies and software to relocate their practices online.

Some of the positive longer-term impacts, if this higher uptake of Digital persists, are fewer journeys meaning less traffic and cleaner air, better quality of life and medical distancing (uptake of telehealth). There are also benefits in education – COVID-19 has pushed Universities to enhance their online offerings, and the opportunity for more flexibility and inclusivity in the longer-term is becoming increasingly apparent.

But there are undoubtedly challenges, such as the extremely variable range of teaching in schools, and the pre-existing digital divide has the danger of widening inequality. Angela’s challenges to the group were:

  • How can we make digital properly inclusive?
  • How can we manage stress / mental health whilst working from home?
  • What about cybersecurity?
  • How do we make the most of innovation and redesign of business models and supply chains?
  • How do we ensure that post lock down, town and city centres survive and thrive?

Finally, Jacqueline Homan from the West Midlands Combined Authority, focused on the plans for a Green Recovery from COVID-19, building on the recent WMCA #2041 net zero plan. As with COVID-19, there are many pathways to respond to climate change, and data, evidence and government regulation has a fundamental role to play in shifting behaviour to result in change at scale.

But how does COVID-19 feed into these considerations, and how do we move forward beyond the pandemic? Jackie emphasised how it’s clear that we don’t want to go back to business as usual; there are positive changes in lifestyle that have been made as a result of the pandemic (e.g. more working from home). Jackie’s challenge was:

How can the ‘green economy’ offer an opportunity going forward, through:

  • Community support
  • Clean growth challenges
  • Targeted financial stimulus
  • Targeted active travel campaigns
  • Retrofit and fuel poverty alleviation
  • Circular economy and resource efficiency programmes

Panel Discussion

Throughout the presentations, delegates posed questions to our keynotes via the ‘Chat’ to be answered during the panel discussion. Some of the topics raised included:

  • Our Health Technology should aim to be world-class, not just nationally recognised, and enhanced links to manufacturing can be exploited to raise our profile.
  • Increased focus on Circular Economy models could be a route to building business resilience as well as supporting net zero goals.
  • This crisis has highlighted the interconnectedness of health and social care and the public partnership with these services. Innovation outside traditional health structures is important, e.g. social prescribing.
  • To ensure home working is sustainable and inclusive longer term, we need to ensure universal and robust broadband provision and consider employers’ duty of care to contribute to costs of energy efficient homes etc.
  • Is there an opportunity to invest in green transport, cycleways and reclaiming streets for exercise now we have seen the value of fewer cars on the road?
  • Given the role of science advise in managing the Covid-19 crisis, will we now follow scientific advice more in response to the climate crisis?
  • There was demand to hear more about West Midlands success stories, around Covid-19 responses, and in the future.

Breakout Rooms

The second part of our Webinar brought together discussions in our three Working Groups: Innovative Health, Smart City, and Innovative Low Carbon to respond to the challenges outlined by the respective keynotes. The aim of these sessions was to simulate ideas for collaborative to be followed-up after the meeting. More will be available soon about the discussions in each of our Breakout Rooms, including a short video from each of our Keynotes and Chairs, but the headline points raised in each were as follows:

Health (Chair Bethan Bishop, Aliciyo Ltd)

  • A culture of innovation and collaboration has sprung up – In order to maintain this, and to capture the lessons learnt, actions could include: Sharing good examples/ stories to inspire of collaboration; Investigate sustainability of positive changes in working practices / culture; Better use of networks/ platforms to help find collaborators and available solutions; Enable/ support front line staff to share challenges and implement/ commercialise their ideas in partnership.
  • Supply chains have been disrupted as many materials/ customers are from outside of the UK and are becoming harder to source. Actions will be required to build new, sustainable and resilient supply chains, perhaps more UK based.
  • Poor access to funding in regional SME’s is reported anecdotally; investigation of application and success rates is needed to appropriately target support and to raise awareness of support routes.
  • Digital technology is increasingly vital to health, but Infrastructure is not uniformly good, value of 5G is not yet well understood, software is not always stress tested, and there is a plethora of innovation platforms available. Testing and endorsement would help SME’s to understand the landscape more and confidently develop/ adopt technologies.
  • Procurement and regulations have been simplified in some aspects in the current crisis; could this be built upon to make it less confusing for SME’s that want to engage with the NHS/health and care sector? Procurement experts and SMEs could be brought together to discuss.

Digital Communication (Chair Alex Cole, Tin Smart Social)

  • Health and the Environment can be benefited with digital technologies – the two things the Covid-19 crisis has highlighted that need to change from a ‘place’ based perspective.  However, there is a need for stress testing of existing technology before use in mass applications.
  • Digital infrastructure, software platforms and delivery need to be right to ensure the ‘new normal’ is to succeed in an inclusive way for education, businesses and collaboration. Actions might include assessment and recommendation of best platforms and protocols for different settings; consistent, universal minimum standards of broadband across the region; development of new delivery mechanisms and content, eg use of immersive environments, modular learning, rapid accreditation of online learning material.
  • Construction is a sector with a great need/pressure for change to become more digital, to move toward net zero. There is an opportunity for this sector to benefit from ‘Green Recovery’ for example by engaging with MTC programme of Advanced Methods of Construction; work with finance to develop green bonds; reskill unemployed people for this industry; work with WMCA on its building clusters of 2k-5k new homes.
  • Accessibility and sustainability of town/city centres and services will be required in an era of prolonged social distancing to support wellbeing, travel and return to work. Though local authorities have appetite to reset services they don’t have the means/ technology to reach/ support the most vulnerable easily. There is scope for example for demonstration and scaling up of existing technology.

Net Zero (Chair Alison Fulford, National Grid)

  • Resilience and recovery and role of businesses and communities – we have seen how manufacturing can respond to a health emergency; can it also respond to the climate emergency? We need to ascertain what we do well already, what the net zero challenges have been brought forward by Covid-19, and work out the right priorities and approaches to take to respond. There are further questions about ability to mobilise and train unemployed; how to support SMEs and supply chains that need to ‘pivot’; a need to understand the power of the community and resilience of local supply chains and the power of public sector innovation to tackle the climate emergency.
  • Radical transport shifts have happened – can they be shifted to benefit the environment? Public transport has become feared and difficult with social distancing, so incentives and assistance will need to be developed; cycling has become more popular but will need better provision, eg by implementing more pervasive green corridors.
  • Planning and regulation changes have been made in response to Covid-19 – can they also be made to support net zero? Can we turn empty shops into homes; can we integrate a circular economy statement into planning regulations?

Support and next steps

We reconvened after the breakout sessions and shared main points – noting a lot of synergy and scope for collaboration between the themes.

Three short presentations from Innovate UK, British Business Bank, and WMCA outlined some of the support available to take ideas forward that had been shared in the breakout discussions. You can access their presentations here.

Pam Waddell closed, for the Innovation Alliance WM, explaining that this was only the first stage in a process of working up some tangible innovation actions that could be developed to capitalise on the learning from the COVID-19 crisis and aid economic recovery and resilience. We would be furthering the discussions started today through the three working groups, and discussions with the Innovate UK, LEPs, WMCA and other stakeholders.

Once again, we would like to thank everyone who was involved and attended our Innovation and COVID-19 challenges online event. We were overwhelmed with the response and hope everyone found the discussion useful. The success of this event will surely influence the work of IAWM post-COVID, so watch this space!

If you have any questions regarding the event or the Innovation Alliance WM, email

*Given the number of ‘how did you do this?’ questions, a blog on the technicalities of the event is HERE.

(Author(s): Pam Waddell OBE, IAWM; Rhiannon Davies, IAWM)