Breaking down the barriers to innovation

The Iain Gray Column

Technology has become synonymous with almost every aspect of our lives, but there are still some significant barriers to innovation in the UK that can be difficult and slow to break down.

At a meeting I was at recently to discuss telecoms and satellite applications technology I heard a story about a farmer advertising a recruitment opportunity for a computer operator – and when the successful applicant turned up to start work he pointed to the tractor cab and said ‘that is your computer!’

The use of GPS positioning technology has been in use in the agriculture sector for over 15 years now and is just one of a number of innovative and high tech solutions being introduced by farmers across the UK. I was therefore surprised to see recent research conducted by the National Farm Research Unit, which showed that only 10 per cent of the 51,244 farms in its database (representing around 70 per cent of total UK agricultural output) could be called innovative based on criteria including business approach.Our interactions with the farming and agricultural communities clearly indicate willingness and drive to look at how technology can enhance productivity, resilience and efficiency. Our experience, through some of the collaborative R&D projects we have funded, is that the sector has already adopted some very high tech solutions – from plant and animal breeding to automated weed mapping, various electronic decision support technologies and many new approaches to crop protection and animal nutrition. Furthermore a number of engineering-led agricultural themed projects are being funded under our recent Innovate for Growth feasibility competition, including an extremely innovative idea to develop a weight sensing vacuum cup to handle light objects such as strawberries (one of my personal favourite products of British agriculture!)

Technology has become widespread in farming

The total farming and food sector in the UK is worth some £85bn (the equivalent of 6.9 per cent of GVA) and these combined sectors provide around 3.5million jobs. It is therefore important that the Technology Strategy Board continues to liaise with the key stakeholders in the agri-food arena to understand and identify future markets, opportunities and potential challenges. Currently we are working with key stakeholders to develop an industry led roadmap which we aim to produce by the end of the year. The aim is to produce a document that will provide a concise coherent and integrated assessment of the R&D needs of the land-based industry sector covering the period up to 2030. This will then feed into the ongoing activity of the Sustainable Agriculture and Food Innovation Platform which continues to focus on the four major challenges of crop productivity; sustainable livestock production; waste reduction and management and greenhouse gas reduction technologies.

As the UK’s innovation agency we know that breaking down the barriers to innovation in some industries can be hard. However, our remit to indentify and invest in those areas or themes where we see the most likely potential to generate sustainable economic growth for the UK means that we can offer support at the most critical stages. Bringing together supply chains and pinpointing how technology can be transferred from one sector to another are just two of the ways we will support industries like agriculture to make the best use of the ever developing range of engineering technology in the UK.

Iain Gray is chief executive of the Technology Strategy Board