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UK government aims to prioritise future innovations

Government research has been published to enable evidence-based recommendations on emerging technology with greatest impact

The UK government has released a study to enable evidence-based regulatory recommendations on innovations with the greatest potential impact for the economy and society.

Published by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the research has been commissioned by the Regulatory Horizons Council (RHC), an independent expert committee set up in early 2020 that identifies the implications of technological innovation and provides government with advice on reforms that may be required to enable its introduction. The research will support those recommendations.

The research, carried out by consultancy firm Steer Economic Development, describes a methodology that involves aspects such as horizon scanning, the result of an exercise conducted by BEIS to capture a selection of around 500 innovations likely to come to market over the next decade.

The horizon scanning effort was the key input of the research, which then transformed the spreadsheet of innovations resulting from the scanning task into a taxonomised and prioritised list. Using a combination of data science and manual review, the innovations were sorted in clusters according to their application, purpose and primary technology, resulting in 151 groupings.

A framework was also developed with BEIS to create 23 metrics with assigned high and low priorities to assess the attractiveness and feasibility of the groupings set in the innovation spreadsheet. Such metrics included estimated size of the global market, as well as the estimated health and welfare benefits.

An evidence base was also created, with the collation of publicly available information sources into short literature summaries produced for each of the 151 groupings, focusing on potential impacts, current regulatory environment and scope for regulatory reform. The groupings were scored, based on that literature and the judgement of the consultant's team, resulting in a list of most promising combinations of applications and technologies.

To generate the prioritised innovations, a spreadsheet front-end was created to allow weighted preferences such as risk appetite – weightings were previously defined with RHC, BEIS and other government stakeholders – to generate a rank ordering of groupings as an output.

The top 20 innovation groupings are reported in the study, with dominant groupings being related to those that have major potential for impact on lives/well-being, cross-functional impacts such as transport innovations that can impact decarbonisation, safety and the environment, as well as flexibility in relation to the various regulatory approaches that can add value.

Out of the top 20 ranked groups by sector, there is a prevalence of groupings from the transport and mobility sector – which represent eight of the top 20, and four of the top five. The next two most important categories are food, water and agriculture, followed by space and scientific research, both categories representing four out of 20.

In the transport and mobility space, the applications and technologies mentioned included advanced driver assistance systems, battery technology as well as vertical, or short take-off and landing vehicles.

In space and scientific research, artificial intelligence (AI), big data and machine learning are among the technologies mentioned. These technologies, along with internet of things (IoT), are also cited under food, water and agriculture. In space and scientific research, technologies cited include satellites and robotics.

The findings of the report are intended to enable the RHC to identify areas where regulatory reform could potentially help unlock economic and social benefits of new and upcoming technological innovations in areas such as welfare, the environment and health – though the latter was notably absent from the prioritised list of innovations. According to the authors of the report, this is due to that area having relatively focused, rather than cross-cutting, benefits, and the rigid existing regulatory landscape.

In terms of lessons learnt, the authors noted that it is possible to analyse innovations through the attractiveness and feasibility standpoints. In addition, it noted that the “albeit simplistic” categorisation into application and technology groupings is a useful way to make comparisons.

“Despite the challenges of collecting and assessing data on innovations not yet commercialised, this study has demonstrated that in many cases there is nonetheless publicly available data to indicate potential economic, social and regulatory implications,” the report noted, adding that BEIS took forward a long list of innovations and engaged with key stakeholders as a more detailed evidence-gathering exercise to generate the final short list, to safeguard against the lack of information in some cases.

Going forward, the report recommended further work to build on the study, by repeating the six-week horizon scanning exercise, continuing to expand the evidence base, adding to the literature reviews and amending scoring for the groupings as further evidence emerges.

Recommendations also included a review of the suitability of application and technology groupings, as well as continuing to work with the scoring spreadsheet, entering alternative preferences and carrying out sensitivity analysis to reflect the RHC’s developing priorities.

The RHC-commissioned report follows a research paper on the use of emerging technologies by regulators, also published by BEIS. The report sets out the benefits and challenges of using new technologies, said regulators are increasingly making use of such technologies, but they could benefit from learning from others.

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