Britain must think bigger

Article published by The Guardian on 8 September 2011

Written by Professor Birgitte Andersen, CEO, Big Innovation Centre

Featuring: Big Innovation Centre’s launches to provide a solution to a potential decade of stagnation, with continued unsustainable levels of private and public debt, worryingly high youth unemployment, and sclerotic social mobility.

We all know that investment in innovation could massively boost jobs in the UK and drive sustainable growth. We know that to be successful in the 21st century, the UK will have to take the lead in new waves of technology – particularly in areas such as the low-carbon economy, renewable energy, life sciences and health economics – just as it was for the technological revolutions of the 19th century in manufacturing, railways and electricity.

We know that, unleashed, business innovation can spur real growth through remaking industries, markets and business models, and kick-start productivity.

So why is this not happening in the UK? Why, instead, do we face a potential decade of stagnation, with continued unsustainable levels of private and public debt, worryingly high youth unemployment, and sclerotic social mobility? Why do we have persistent and growing divides between the haves and have-nots in income, and access to technology, and opportunities?

While there has been no shortage of suggestions for how to tackle these concerns, current actions have only scraped the surface. Macroeconomic policies based upon trimming the deficit, interest rate adjustments, tax cuts, and research and development tax credits can only have a marginal effect.

We need to be thinking much bigger: the globalisation of production, trade and labour mobility means that effective answers will come from a deep understanding of the UK’s competitive position within international markets. But these forces of globalisation, paradoxically, also reinforce the central role of nation states and local business networks in creating growth. Tougher international competition increases the importance of a robust national investment and innovation ecosystem.

Innovation cannot flourish in an institutional vacuum: the ecosystem of institutions – including universities, technology innovation centres, financial institutions, business networks, and technology infrastructure – contributes profoundly to national competitive success. Directors of leading global companies pay very close attention to the innovation and investment ecosystems of different countries when they make decisions about where to invest and create jobs.

Solutions must therefore be centred on increasing the pace and effectiveness of investment in innovation. Policymakers need to make this institutional ecosystem so attractive that the UK is recognised as a global innovation hub: an environment in which entrepreneurial talent is fostered and supported, and where investment in innovation flows to the areas likely to bring the greatest dividends in terms of new jobs and economic growth.

The mood of national politics means we have a good start: the UK’s first coalition government in 60 years means collaboration across political divides is firmly on the agenda. Perhaps they have picked up the habit from some of the UK’s world-leading businesses. A good example of such collaboration is the Big Innovation Centre. Chaired by Will Hutton, and launching today, the Big Innovation Centre is a new partnership of organisations from across the UK’s innovation ecosystem, which have come together because they share a vision of the UK in 2025 as a global hub for innovation.

Ten global companies – Barclays; BAE Systems; EDF Energy; Experian; Guardian Media Group; Google; GlaxoSmithKline; Man Group; PricewaterhouseCoopers and Unilever – have partnered with the private trusts of Jon Moulton and Lord Sainsbury, some of the UK’s top research universities, HEFCE, Nesta, the Design Council and the Technology Strategy Board on this initiative.

These partners of the Big Innovation Centre are investing their money, people, data and ideas. Together we will design and conduct evidence-based research in the areas of markets, finance, skills and public action. We will discuss in business forums, open our doors to share data, ideas and talent, learn from practice and trial testing, and we may even experiment in pilot companies. We are committed to working closely with the government on innovation and growth to build a truly enterprising state.

Investment in its innovation ecosystem is required to secure the UK’s future; it is a long-term project, with big ambitions. But that investment must start today – boosting the confidence of businesses to invest, creating jobs and improving people’s lives – if we are to transform innovation in the UK by 2025. We will know we have been successful when partnerships of global corporations, small- and medium-sized enterprises, banks, research organisations, education institutions, and a highly enterprising state are embedded as the natural approach to innovation, and to doing good business in the UK.

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