Successes, Learnings and Future Plans

On the 3rd of February 2021 we welcomed nearly 1000 delegates from Scotland and across the globe to the first online edition of the national CAN DO Innovation Summit. We’d like to take this opportunity to share our successes and learnings from this year’s virtual offering and touch upon our future plans.

Each year, the Summit provides a platform to connect innovators, entrepreneurs, academics and investors to help drive greater business innovation in SMEs for the benefit of people, productivity and the planet.

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the devastating and disproportionate economic impacts on micro businesses and SMEs, this year’s Summit was crafted as active resource to support innovation-led recovery, resilience and growth.

New for 2021 – the Online Edition

The global challenges we are facing pushed many conferences into testing a virtual delivery. We are pleased to report that our experience has been overwhelmingly positive with 90% of attendees rated their experience positively. We are excited to see demonstrable benefits of online delivery and will be building on these for future years – for example:

  • We were able to showcase a broader range of high-profile speakers, (as travel was not required). As well as Scottish success stories, we carefully selected global thought-leaders from Boston, New York, San Francisco and Europe – to bring international perspectives and best practice into Scotland’s ecosystem.
  • We increased the geographical reach of the summit both nationally and internationally, with the event being more attractive and accessible to remote and rural businesses. 22% of our Scottish audience came from outside the central belt (increase from 5% in 2019) and 9% of the total audience came from overseas (increase from 2% in 2019).
  • We eliminated less climate-friendly bi-products of in-person events such as air travel, printed materials, food waste and single use plastics.
  • We created legacy content by recording summit sessions which are now available ‘on-demand’ via the CDIS website – benefiting Summit participants as well as audiences who couldn’t attend on the day. To date, the summit content has been viewed over 4000 times.
Highlights from the day…

Delivered by GCOSI, the event programme showcased Scottish innovation across key sectors and aimed to inspire more businesses to adopt the right mindset, combined with the right tech and creative workplace cultures, to drive transformational change.

The 2021 programme involved 21 industry-led sessions focused around 5 themes: Recovery & Resilience, Journey to a Sustainable Future (sponsored by ECCI), Workplace Innovation, MedTech / Health Innovation and Advance Manufacture & Digitisation (sponsored by NMIS).

Highlights from our international keynotes included Lolita Jackson, the Special Advisor Climate Policy & Programs at New York City Mayor’s Office, who kicked-off the morning discussing the critical need to build a truly sustainable society with embedded and equitable innovation at its heart. Chloe Demrovsky (President of the Disaster Recovery Institute International in New York City) and Dyan Finkhousen (CEO at Soshin Works in Boston) advised on preparing and planning for the unexpected, saying that businesses must be more agile and open to adopting emerging tech, in order to be as resilient as possible. We heard from John Reid, CEO of the new National Manufacturing Institute Scotland (NMIS) on the opportunities of technology to unlock potential and build resilience throughout the advance manufacture sector, as well as his future vision and the key role NMIS will play in driving forward this change. Our concluding keynote, Craig Foster (Art Director at Pixar Animation Studios in San Francisco) inspired us with key elements of Pixar’s peer culture. He exemplified the importance of open, creative and collaborative working cultures in building a sustainable organisation that has competitive advantage and that keeps up with ever-increasing customer expectations.

We heard from some of our funders who offered critical insight on the alignment of policy and the CDIS programme, while highlighting key opportunities available for businesses. David Wilkes from Innovate UK spoke of how innovation will be essential for businesses to recover and grow post-COVID and post-Brexit, and how these innovation-led businesses will be pivotal in driving a sustainable and inclusive recovery. Stuart Fancey from the Scottish Funding Council highlighted the strong and flexible eco-system – bolstered by organisations such the Innovation Centres, academic institutions and enterprise agencies such as Interface – who can help SMEs navigate and take advantage of change. Mr Ivan McKee, Scottish Minister for Trade, Investment and Innovation spoke of the inward investment plan in Scotland’s key growth sectors and the role that ambitious companies can play towards achieving a high technology future that works for Scotland’s businesses and people, supporting the economy and society at large.

Other nuggets from the day included that creative, trusting and empathic leadership aids recovery and delivers better outcomes. And whether you’re a micro business, SME or large corporate, ramping up digital fire power will now be critical across all sectors. And finally, the value in cultivating transformational collaborations with others, who can bring new skills and inspiration to help you diversify your business.

Networking & Connection

A key function of the Summit is to create a space for building the connections to drive innovation and entrepreneurship. But within a virtual event space, meaningful networking can be a challenge. With this in mind, finding effective ways to facilitate connection was a priority. We selected a platform with functionality to enable connections, including speed networking. And we were delighted to see 1221 speed networking interactions on the day – with a further 244 connections made in our Delegate Hub.

Over 700 delegates also attended our various live Q&A sessions with our speakers after each panel session. While these live elements of the day were largely successful, we did experience some unforeseen technical issues, which affected delegates’ ability to engage with some of these Q&A sessions. We are assessing options to mitigate these tech issues and enable even better connections between participants for future events.

“First time Speed Networking – and how fast it was! Amazing what you can cover in 2mins. Seriously though, great experience – well done #CDIS21” Michelle Reid 

Practical support for business

A key ambition of the Summit is to provide implementable takeaways to support transformative change. So, we’re pleased that 40% of our target audience said they would do something different in their business as a result of attending. We would want to boost this outcome in future years by curating ever-more relevant, actionable content based on business and societal needs.

Our programme featured 30 SMEs providing peer-to-peer experiences of innovating their products, services and business models to deliver social and economic impact.

Representatives from major support agencies also featured throughout the day to help attendees to navigate the rich, innovation-focused resources and support in Scotland and beyond.

Delegates paid 1370 visits to our Support Village, which included Innovation Centres across Scotland and key innovation ecosystem agencies providing practical insights for SMEs looking for entrepreneurial and innovation support.

Committing to diversity, accessibility and inclusion

We care about including everyone in the Summit programme and removing barriers to enable wider access.

The event was free to attend to ensure that cost was not a barrier for small businesses. We also worked with a range of partners to help ensure more diverse business audiences and small businesses in rural areas were aware of the Summit. All the sessions were also subtitled to improve accessibility.

Promoting diversity as an engine of creative thinking and innovation is a core objective of the Summit and was proactively discussed with all contributors throughout the development process. It can be challenging to reflect diversity, including ethnicity and disability, in some of the tech sectors that are our focus at the Summit. There is a systemic issue of low levels of diversity in these workforces in Scotland. To help tackle and debate this ongoing challenge we programmed a session titled ‘Diversity – Driving resilience and innovation’ with a panel of experts from around the UK to give practical advice and guidance to attendees.

Of our registered attendees, 46% identified as female49% identified as male with 5% preferring not to say. 10% of our delegates identified as BME (4% of people across Scotland are from ethnic minority groups according to the most recent Census).

We had a stated target to reach 50:50 speaker gender balance throughout the programme which we achieved with 51% of the speakers being female and 13% of our speakers identified as BME.

We commit to a gender balance in future events and will undertake positive action to ensure speaker diversity is representative of Scotland’s demographics.

We adopt an approach of continuous improvement at our events, identifying barriers and challenges and refining our practices over time to become more inclusive. We have formed relationships with diversity and inclusivity specialist organisations and look forward to working further with these partners to help achieve our goals.

The Future of the CAN DO Innovation Summit

The delivery team were excited to see the overwhelmingly positive evaluation feedback, an improved audience reach and the broader opportunities of an online event space.

We will build on the strengths of both virtual and in-person formats to connect people for our 2021/22 programme and we commit to providing relevant, action-oriented, business-led sessions with local and international insights, to help enable transformative change in Scottish SMEs.

We would like to say a huge thank you to everyone who’s supported and contributed to this year’s programme, it really is a concerted team effort with partners, supporters and participants from across Scotland’s innovation ecosystem, the success of the Summit wouldn’t be possible without their generous time, energy and expertise – thank you all!

If you have any further comments or would like to contribute to future plans please get in touch with us on and if you’d like to catch up on any of the content you can do that on the CAN DO Innovation Summit website –


In the meantime, we’ll leave you with a quote we feel sums up the event nicely:

“We’ve had an amazing day @CANDOsummit today. Made loads of new contacts, some especially exciting collaborations on the way, and that final keynote was very inspiring. Huge thank you to the organisers and everyone who contributed. Can’t wait for the next one! #CDIS21” Scottish Esports Hub (attendee)