The British are recognised internationally as being highly creative. The workshop of the world may have long since disintegrated into niche manufacturing, but the UK still has scientists, engineers and creatives in abundance.
Our problem is that we often fail to recognise this, and most importantly we are let down by a lack of understanding of how to convert ideas into commercial successes.
There are some powerful cultural reasons for our lack of adventure in commercialising smart ideas. The pride the UK had in its scientists and inventors has gone. In the post-war period there was huge confidence in the ‘backroom boffins’ to produce world-changing and improving technologies. Today we have a business and management culture which is comfortable with the idea of technology as a separate function, a specialist area needing no detailed understanding.
In my experience very few senior executives have science or technology training, and if they do they will shout about their management credentials, preferring to keep the ‘techie’ background quiet. Staff who would be embarrassed to admit they couldn’t spell will boast of a lack of technical knowledge.
Business leaders ultimately have to rely on gut feeling to spot winners – to decide when to keep investing in ideas that might not work now, but have the potential to be the cash cows of the future. How can this be done without an understanding of technology?
It could be argued this was sentimentality; an appeal for a return to a lost age of heroic invention. But the root concerns are purely practical. These kinds of cultural traits and attitudes in business are a threat to the future of the UK’s £11.5bn R&D industry.
In fact, the future for UK plc as a whole could be an unhappy one. Not only is there the possibility of the manufacturing industry disappearing, but also the thriving R&D which feeds into it.
Less contact with the real world of manufacturing, with the rough and tumble of commercialisation and developing its own ideas and technologies, means that the UK would become purely an ‘Ivory Tower’ centre of research.
Venture capitalists are starting to realise this, and are increasingly looking for firms that have a manufacturing capability and tangible assets. It’s less risky than relying on intellectual property that can be superseded before the money arrives.
The lack of expertise and vigour in commercialising ideas means that major funders already refuse to invest in European technology because there is a false perception that it will lead to a low return compared with US innovations.
Business needs to wise up to the role of technology – and to think more about
innovation rather than relying on straight imitation and better marketing. The government can help by backing up words with cash and to make major investments in areas of R&D that will put the UK into a clear leadership position.
Renewable energy is a good example. The UK has plenty to say to the world on the issue. it has the good principles and the expertise, but will it actually be leading on R&D and implementation of the technology?
Anne Miller is Director of The Creativity Partnership and co-founder of TTP Group. She is an inventor with over 20 years’ experience of R&D.