What's innovation good for?

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Royal College of Arts, London

A debate about what kind of innovation do we need? Newer, cooler iPads and faster, sleeker cars? Or might we have higher aspirations for human ingenuity and economic dynamism?

It is almost fifty years since Harold Wilson’s famous ‘white heat’ speech captured the popular imagination with its promise of a scientific and technological ‘revolution’. Today, scientific and technological innovation is still regularly espoused as the key to economic success. But do we know what we mean by innovation, or is it just a buzzword?  We all know about the excitement generated by the latest iPhone – but are we in danger of reducing our understanding of innovation to new product design, to consumer gadgets rather than the bigger industrial picture? While the relentless search by inventors and engineers for ‘the next big thing’ may seem dynamic, might this create a sense of ‘permanent innovation’ that actually gives the lie to it? Does contemporary innovation mean any more than gradual tweaks to what already exists?

Past innovations spawned whole new industries such as television, nuclear power, even fledgling bio-tech, capable of creating millions of new jobs and truly transforming society. Elsewhere, innovation has driven huge increases in productivity and revolutionised infrastructure. While UK manufacturing has recently been growing at its fastest rate for 15 years, this seems to owe more to the low pound than radical innovation. And while China and India power ahead in relative terms, some insist a lack of dynamism in innovation is a global problem. The total number of applications filed at the patent offices of nine key countries, for example, decreased by 2.9% during 2008-9. Innovation is an especially pressing need in the energy sector: the International Energy Agency estimates state support for energy R&D will have to be multiplied by between two and five times just to fulfil demand. Yet for every £10,000 Britain generates in GDP, Whitehall spends just £1 on researching how to keep the lights on.

Perhaps the economic climate makes it impossible to develop ‘big ideas’ and innovate on an ambitious scale. Some believe concentrating on innovative strategies for efficiency savings and cutting back waste would be more sensible than pursuing the uncertain promise of new products. Frequently the results of research are paltry but hugely expensive; investing millions is no guarantee of success. In such a severe downturn, surely it is safer to stick with what we already know and improve on that, avoiding new risks? Or does the economic situation in fact demand not a conservative, risk-averse approach, but radical innovation, even if that means the destruction of clapped out industries, processes and products? What kind of innovation do we need? Newer, cooler iPads and faster, sleeker cars? Or might we have higher aspirations for human ingenuity and economic dynamism?


Matt Johnson co-founder, Bare Conductive; Associate, BREAD; graduate tutor, Royal College of Art

Dr Norman Lewis consultant on innovation, PwC; co-author, Big Potatoes: the London manifesto for innovation

Carl Pickering head of electrical research, Jaguar Land Rover

William Webb visiting professor, University of Surrey and DeMontfort University; CTO, Neul; fellow, Royal Academy of Engineering


Martyn Perks director, Thinking Apart; co-author Big Potatoes: the London manifesto for innovation