Changemakers: Stian Westlake

Former head of innovation at a UK think tank who now advises government on policy – and how to implement it

By Nick Mickshik 24 May 2019

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Mateusz Baj

Stian Westlake MIFFT2004 lives and breathes innovation. He also believes passionately in promoting it in the public sector. Indeed, he has dedicated his entire career to it: “I am an evangelist for innovation in government policy,” he says.

Educated at the University of Oxford, Harvard University and London Business School, Westlake has written numerous policy reports on the economics of new technologies, high-growth start-ups and venture capital, the future of automation, government innovation policy, and the economic measurement and mapping of innovation.

He spent eight years running the think tank at Nesta, the UK’s national foundation for innovation. Now he is Policy Advisor to the Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation at the UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Previously he worked as a strategy consultant for McKinsey & Company in Silicon Valley and in London, and was the founder of a health-data social venture.

At Nesta, he was one of the most high-profile and stimulating thinkers on innovation policy around, prepared to say the unthinkable – even if it meant courting controversy. Now he’s inside the tent, does he miss the freedom to speak truth to power? Absolutely not: he loved his time at Nesta, but relishes the opportunity “to be closer to the action in terms of where and how the government spends its innovation budget and to be able to influence that process directly; to get traction in government”.

He derives great satisfaction from thinking that he has been able to make the people who matter “see things in a different way”. This doesn’t necessarily mean inspiring others to leap into action and rush a new policy out; rather, it consists of encouraging decision-makers and budget-holders to challenge long-held assumptions and let go of old nostrums, so that genuinely innovative ideas are given due airtime.

‘It’s not really about a single, breakthrough idea. It’s about many smaller ones coming together and being able to take the ideas and make them into a greater whole’

Surprisingly, he works with a smaller team now (less than a dozen people) than he did at Nesta: “It actually feels more like working for a small business or a start-up than a large government department.”

He resists the suggestion that innovation in public policy – or any arena – is about the next big idea: “It’s not really about a single, breakthrough idea. It’s about many smaller ones coming together and being able to take the ideas and make them into a greater whole.

“Most great ideas are not generated by one person but are a product of different people with different perspectives coming together.” His job is to take other people’s ideas and shape them into something practical. When that collective labour bears fruit in terms of policy, then implementation, it is “a hugely satisfying process.”

Given that he did a Masters in Finance (MiF) at LBS in 2004, was a management consultant for several years and has founded a social venture company, it prompts the question why he hasn’t gone down the entrepreneurial route himself.

Ultimately, he says, it’s because he gets more fulfilment from promoting innovation in the country at large and doing something that interests him intellectually than he would from pursuing a purely self-oriented agenda: “I’m still amazed that I get paid to work on stuff that I find interesting!”

One of the achievements he is most proud of as a policy adviser is helping to get the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 through Parliament – the last Bill to be passed on the last day of the Conservatives’ majority government (“a difficult and fascinating process”) – and putting the Act’s measures into action, helping to set up the UK’s new research funding body and new universities’ regulator.

Of equal personal satisfaction was helping improve the links between universities and businesses, especially the government’s Knowledge Exchange Framework (intended to increase efficiency and effectiveness in use of public funding for knowledge exchange) and “trying to ensure that the UK’s research and development budget is spread more widely across the country.”

This naturally egalitarian and democratic approach seems to characterise everything Westlake does, including his co-founding of the Mohn Westlake Foundation, a family charitable trust that helps provide opportunities for young people from deprived backgrounds, particularly in the arts and science.

He is equally passionate about projects that use data science for the public good and believes there is “a big opportunity to use data to help communities”.

He is therefore understandably proud of a grant that the foundation has just made to OpenCorporates, a not-for-profit organisation that works to make information on companies and company data more usable and more widely available for the public benefit, particularly in combating the use of companies for criminal purposes such as corruption, money laundering and organised crime.

Given that he has been involved in the field of public policy for so long, one would think he might harbour political ambitions himself, but he is quick to quash the mere thought of it.

At 41 and married with two children at primary school, he has seen the sacrifices that friends in politics have had to make in order to carry out the duties of office effectively, and they are not ones he is prepared to make: “I value my personal privacy too highly. It’s not for me.”

Instead, he will continue to focus his mind and energy on influencing public policy. He recently co-authored (with Jonathan Haskel) Capitalism Without Capital: the Rise of the Intangible Economy, a thought-provoking look at how investment has changed in the new economy, and its ramifications for managers, investors and policymakers.

Encouraged by the critical acclaim it has attracted, he is thinking about writing another book. Against the expectations of all those who warned him it would be a solitary and painful experience, he found it hugely enjoyable: “It was a pure process of creativity that involved using my brain as hard as possible for months. There’s something fun about creating things.”

Another learning experience that surprised him was the accounting elective on the MiF. “In the world of economics, public policy and politics, there are so many smart people who have advanced degrees in very technical subjects but who know nothing about accounting, but there are so many easy wins to be had by being able to read a balance sheet. You come across as extremely smart if you can simply focus for a few weeks and learn how to read the figures.”

As for what the future holds, his mind is always open to the next challenge. It may be writing or research or policy development but, whatever it is, it will be directed to the public good.

A natural optimist, he won’t spend too much time dwelling on past accomplishments or current status, citing US Chief of Staff Donald Rumsfeld’s observation after leaving office: “If ever you start to think that you must be a big deal because of all the people who come to see you, find the former Chief of Staff and ask them how many invitations they got to parties last week.”

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