The innovators: Britain’s economic future relies on seeking out the new

Article published by The Guardian on 10 March 2014

Written by Professor Birgitte Andersen, CEO, Big Innovation Centre

Featuring: Big Innovation Centre has developed a way to answer the question ‘What constitutes a good innovator’?

If one word links great British industrial figures through history, from George Stephenson to Alexander Graham Bell, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Sir Tim Berners-Lee, then it is innovation. Without that spark, railways would not have run, factories would not have been lit and the world as we know it would not have been created.

But economic growth and social progress will atrophy unless Britain overhauls its approach to innovation. Brunel’s railways are centuries old, as are many of the assets of a bygone era of empire. There is no longer the financial opiate of a credit boom to stoke a consumer-led myth of prosperity.

With the digital revolution hammering at the door, and George Osborne’s aim for £1tn in exports by 2020 posing an intimidating challenge, there is no room for hiding now. Innovation is the answer.

Innovation is accelerating among new technologies that have ever more uses. The boundaries between industries and sectors are stretching and changing beyond recognition. Take aerospace and defence group Chemring – one of Britain’s most hi-tech companies – which has invented so-called invisible cables, which transmit energy and signals with no need for the rubber coating or copper of recent times. As a commercial entity as well as a contractor for the Ministry of Defence, should Chemring’s technology be a trade secret shared only with the MoD and subject to export restrictions, or should the idea be applied in each and every house, city, transport system and consumer electronic device?

A society, political class and business community steeped in innovation – and how it is changing – would force such questions to the forefront of national debate. Instead the questions are hardly raised, and sometimes not even understood. One of the aims of The Innovators in the coming months is to start that debate. Sure, Britain has innovative companies like Chemring but to what extent does the environment they operate in foster open innovation along with the collaboration, new alliances and opportunities to exploit their innovations?

But if innovation is a key to building a modern economy, then agility, or keeping ahead, is another.

Nokia evolved from making paper to manufacturing rubber boots and car tyres before becoming a global telecommunications leader connecting more than 1.3 billion people. But it failed to keep pace in the smartphone era and its once world-beating handset business was bought out by Microsoft. BlackBerryis also fading fast and its sudden downfall should be a lesson to any company that thinks it is unassailable in this fast-moving age.

Seven criteria

 Seven criteria of a good innovator.

Could Google be wiped out in 18 months if a superior algorithm for a search engine emerges? Or should it take the approach of Facebook when it saw WhatsApp on the horizon and throw its capacious wallet as a competitive threat? Could the Apple iPhone and iPad products used for work by one in five Americans, be the launchpad for destroying the last bastion of Microsoft: its hardware and software for the workplace, school and university? Even if Britain undergoes an innovation boom, the winners must be on their mettle. As Amazon boss Jeff Bezos tells his hard-pressed staff: it is always day one.

An innovation may look good, it may even do something that no product has ever done before, but it also has to work as a business model.

As new big-data companies are emerging – and as established energy and transport firms are transforming – the Amazons and eBays of the modern industrial age may begin to seem very old hat. Simply using the internet to get to scale of production and distribution – as Amazon has – or achieving a vast network like Facebook may not be enough.

Today, companies must use their heft as digital networks – commercial webs that bind consumers and producers together in a spirit of openness – to grab and adapt the smartest new innovations. You can’t just get big and expect to survive: you have to be continually open to the outside.

When the Big Innovation Centre helped EDF energy run a domestic housing efficiency challenge with London’s Camden council at a Hackday at Google Campus, one of the most interesting parts of the day was the people-watching: who turned up and joined in – the smart SMEs and PhD students with an eye for an opportunity. By extension, we should ask Microsoft’s new CEO Satya Nadella more about whether he can work with smart people in other firms.

Successful innovation is a question of culture – not just corporate culture, but lifestyle. That too has to be open. Google famously inspired an innovative and entrepreneurial culture by letting its staff spend 20% of their time being creative – and that led directly to the creation of Gmail. Orange R&D Lab puts consumers first when it sets up new businesses. Barclays bank – which needs to look fresh if it is to revamp its battered image – invites entrepreneurs to work together on products and platforms. The bank reckons that if you’re going to change how you offer financing to innovators, it is worth working with those who will receive it. Elsewhere, pharmaceuticals giant GlaxoSmithKline is trying to do more than be a drug provider, and is harnessing big data generated by its industrial scale R&D testing, and millions of treatments around the world, in order to tackle resistance to anti-bacterial drugs and develop e-health (think NHS Direct and more).

Good innovators must be connected closely to the societies of which they are part; how else can they judge whether a new idea might fly and benefit society and the economy? They are the first cousins of social enterprises; unless they deliver services people want, and do good in the process, they cannot succeed. It is a world away from the financial services sector, for example, with its emphasis on bankers’ bonuses and the service offered by some banks to tax avoiders. It has been profitable, but it hardly constitutes innovation, especially when public opinion rages outside the window.

The Innovators will focus on what constitutes good innovation and the importance of open innovation. In every corner of Britain there are new Cadburys, Rolls-Royces and ARMs. They just need unleashing.

What constitutes a good innovator? The Big Innovation Centre has developed a scorecard to judge innovators that ranges from ingenuity that spawns novel products to business models, grasping new opportunities and impact on society.

There are more details on our website

Professor Birgitte Andersen is director of the Big Innovation Centre, an initiative from the Work Foundation and Lancaster University dedicated to making the UK a global open innovation hub.

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