A lasting legacy? The Olympics and Great British Innovation

8th October 2012

London secured the games, in part on the back of their promised legacy impact. It will be many years before we know the extent to which London 2012 changes the fate of the East End of London, but in one area the legacy is off to an incredible start. We are doing an excellent job of positioning the UK on the global stage as a dynamic and creative location to invest. In the long-term this may be even more important than the regeneration projects.

Commissioned by the Department for Media Culture and Sport back in 2009, my colleagues at The Work Foundation delivered a great bit of research to offer a snapshot on how likely current activities were to drive a lasting legacy from the games. We chose to focus on London’s competitiveness.

We argued that this competitiveness needs to be understood in terms of the ‘knowledge economy’. Value creation across the OECD has shifted away from mass production and cheap labour towards exploiting expertise and experience. London has led and also benefited from this shift. Its productivity growth, innovation and ultimately competitiveness have in recent years been dominated by significant growth in knowledge intensive industries and an increasingly highly skilled population, which in turn have fuelled demand and employment rises in other sectors such as tourism, retail and construction. We have long argued that a sustainable recovery for the UK can only come from its knowledge economy finding new ways to drive innovation. This is especially true for London. So, back in 2009 we called on the government to find ways to leverage the knowledge economy benefits as well as the infrastructure and regeneration benefits of the games.

As the games draw to a close this weekend, it is hard to imagine how we could have done better here. The opening ceremony reminded the world of our industrial past, but also demonstrated the creativity, energy and sense of humour that our culture embraces. We know that these characteristics are critical for innovation and are perhaps some of our best features to market. UKTI have been working over time, taking visiting business delegations around the country showcasing British excellence (presumably these people thought they were here just to enjoy the champagne tent). The Prime Minister has been keen to demonstrate that rather than just watching sport with visiting heads of state he is also conducing high-level strategic meetings. Some businesses have gone as far as to announce new UK investments during the Olympics (although a cynic might suggest that these may have been in place beforehand).

Even the reported reasons why we are winning medals is potentially helping the cause. Much has been made of the scientific and rigorous way in which Dave Brailsford and his team have been advancing British cycling through incremental improvements and marginal gains. It would be great if we could promote the British engineering behind our successes, such as the laser timing systems developed by BAE systems to help monitor athletes during training. Although, this was taken to surreal proportions when the French Team Director, Isablle Gautheron, claimed that the British were secretly making ‘magic’ wheels in the track cycling and then branding them as having come from the French company ‘Mavic’. This is the type of positive press for British engineering, innovation and design that money simply can’t by.

It has been rumoured that the closing ceremony this weekend will further showcase British inventions and innovation. At a time when the economy is being severely tested, this is a great opportunity to market ourselves on the international stage.