Making innovation mean business

Ever since 1963 when prime minister Harold Wilson spoke about the ‘white heat of technology’ the UK has battled to harness the power of innovation for the national good.

Of course, every economically developed nation has been engaged in the same process, but it has always had a special resonance for this country.

After all, the UK has a proud history of innovation not least because it is home to some of the world’s great research universities.

It is also a country whose economic strength was built on trade, so in theory we have the twin ingredients for success — a talent for innovation and a knack of selling to the rest of the world.

In reality, the UK’s track record has been mixed. The reasons for this are many and varied, but surely one of the most significant must be the difficulty of marrying the needs of the various interested parties — stakeholders, to give them their New Labour jargon name — involved in the process.

The latest manifestation of the quest to bring innovation and the needs of business into harmony is the Technology Strategy Board led by Iain Gray, who is interviewed by The Engineer (click here to read the story).

As a former head of Airbus in the UK, Gray has the background to suggest he is as well placed as anyone to make a go of his demanding brief. Airbus, where Gray spent his career rising through the ranks, is a good example of an organisation where leading-edge technology has to be pulled together for a particular, highly commercial purpose. That is to build aircraft that can compete in the cut-throat environment of the global aviation industry.

It also has rather a lot of stakeholders, from customers and shareholders to the national governments that invested so much expectation (and money) in building a European aerospace behemoth.

The challenges at the Technology Strategy Board will certainly test the experience Gray has brought with him. What, for a start, are the needs of business? Business being business, its number one need tends to be concerned with making a few quid, and turning innovation into highly profitable ventures has historically been something of a blind spot for the UK.

The Technology Strategy Board has also been briefed to consider the needs of government and society. It is not difficult to predict some of the themes that will emerge, and Gray alludes to a few of them during our interview, with the mention of low-carbon vehicles and healthcare technologies.

Healthcare, energy saving and environmental technologies will loom large on the nation’s radar over the next few decades.

There is no doubt that within those areas will be a considerable number of specific opportunities to build businesses.

Identifying those opportunities and helping the process to happen will be the big challenge for Gray and his team.

Andrew Lee, editor