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Innovation Edge – building the innovation nation

Yesterday at NESTA’s Innovation Edge conference, I watched a selection of the great and the good set out their vision for turning (or returning?) the UK into an ‘Innovation Nation’ .

Chris Powell, NESTA’s Chairman described a future in which an aging population with ever increasing life expectancy will need to be supported by a much smaller working population. With a globalised economy in which we can’t compete as a manufacturing base, and the knowledge that India and China will not content themselves with being cheap producers in the long term, Mr Powell asserted that we need to improve

Yesterday at NESTA’s Innovation Edge conference, I watched a selection of the great and the good set out their vision for turning (or returning?) the UK into an ‘Innovation Nation’ .

Chris Powell, NESTA’s Chairman described a future in which an aging population with ever increasing life expectancy will need to be supported by a much smaller working population. With a globalised economy in which we can’t compete as a manufacturing base, and the knowledge that India and China will not content themselves with being cheap producers in the long term, Mr Powell asserted that we need to improve the capacity and climate for innovation in the UK. The key lies in embedding innovation in our culture. However, change can’t be imposed from above – it must be systemic, and that involves us all.

For me, the highlight of the day followed – a video conference with Sir Tim Berners-Lee. Andrew Marr’s video introduction cited the Victorian book ‘Enquire Within Upon Everything’ as an Berners-Lee’s inspiration. Berners-Lee wanted to recreate the interconnectedness of the information within the book – to create a ‘web of connections’. He developed this as a system that would allow computers to share information and by 1991 had connected scientists around Europe using his ‘world wide web’. Key to his ability to develop a project not officially sanctioned by employed was his manager’s belief that his proposal was ‘vague, but interesting’ and willingness to allow Berners-Lee the time to explore the idea and see where it went.

Apart from the fact that I (and vast numbers of other people) now owe my income to Berners-Lee’s innovation, the web has the capacity to change the models of human society, democracy and behaviour through its ability to connect people as never before. Tim Berners-Lee’s new project is dedicated to understanding the implications of this, through the development of a new form of science. He views the current web as being in its early adolescence, flexing its muscles but not yet sure of its boundaries. His hope is that it grows into a responsible adult – although he made it clear that like all machines it is the people who operate it who must ultimately learn how to use it wisely.

A modest, public-spirited English scientist, Tim Berners-Lee has done more to change the way we live today than any government. He’s part of the history of modern Britain and the epitome of innovation. He also made no money from his invention – an observation which caused a very British titter of self deprecation around the audience.

Next on stage was Bob Geldof - a whirlwind of socially impassioned energy. He challenged the point of view of the previous NESTA speakers, who had focused on encouraging innovation as way of balancing Britain’s books in the future. His point was to do with social innovation and our ability to engage specifically with Africa – which as he pointed out is only eight miles from Europe, yet not a point of focus.

Walking on to the strains of U2 (and starting with a jibe about Bono being small and fat, unlike himself) Geldof characterised us as a nation with a historical love of the eccentric, uniquely placed to try new things and new ideas. He reminded us that we had, in a time of post war bankruptcy, created the National Health Service and the Open University. That this vision of a healthy, educated populace had enabled us to build the world’s fifth largest economy. However, he went on to question if we are a society overcome by the fear of failure. “We need to celebrate the attempt at trying,” he said. “Failure is nothing.”

The future he predicted was bleak – one of wars we can’t afford, climate change and population migration. He underlined the necessity of innovation and entrepreneuralism in tackling the huge problems we face in the future. He also spoke of the ways in which developing countries leap-frog technological innovations, finding new uses and contexts for familiar devices. Most illustrative was his story of a Tanzanian woman, used to walking eight hours to visit a butcher, who could now use her mobile phone to text ahead reserve her meat and pay using phone credits. This illustrated not only the social impact of technology but also the way in which citizens of unstable economies can bypass the economic infrastructure and move into a post-currency society. If a population can wrest control of transactions away from a government is there any continuing purpose to that government.

Sir Bob wrapped up with a call to arms, transcribed more efficiently than I was able by the Telegraph:

Where are these ideas of a different world, a world not to be afraid of? One that is coming, that is possibly here, but that is certainly inevitable.

We need our social entrepreneurs to consider these things. We need them to be innovative and progressive, we need our politicians to recognise it, and we need our financial institutions to support it. Is that currently happening? No, not enough.

After lunch (a most satisfactory bit of catering, except for the rather strange nutty meringues) we had a surprisingly charming and self-assured (and blissfully short) visitation from the Prime Minister. Looking utterly comfortable in his skin, he said all that was necessary just by turning up. He told a few jokes but the essence was that he is convinced of the necessity of the drive for innovation and is committed to breaking down any and all barriers that exist in order to help deliver on the promise of the conference. His closing comments summed it up:

the most important thing we have is you… your creative talents, your ability to innovate, your ability to lead for the future with new ideas – for new businesses, new services, new goods. I look forward to Britain leading the world as the innovative nation of the future – and it can do so because of your talents.

I’m not sure if he’ll be around to lead us into that future – but the sentiment was convincing.

The rest of the day flagged, with my energies being so totally drained by a circuitous discussion on whether Social Networks are the new cities. It was a desultory affair with uninspiring participants and little or no audience interaction. I retreated to charge my batteries – literally and metaphorically and ponder the inspiration of the morning.

My key takeaways are

  • frustration over the lack of definition – what is innovation? What does it look like and where does it currently live?
  • a reinvigoration of my interest in the global economy and our place within it
  • fascination with how emerging markets will leapfrog existing modes of use for familiar technologies and develop new, unguessable solutions for problems of which we in the West are unaware
  • vague inklings of how we can use the connecting power of the web for the social good – locally and globally

So – this was a long post – does it make sense / strike a chord / bore you rigid? What do you identify as innovative and do you believe we are a nation in which innovation can blossom? Do you harbour secret plans of your own – if so, what holds you back?
the capacity and climate for innovation in the UK. The key lies in embedding innovation in our culture. However, change can’t be imposed from above – it must be systemic, and that involves us all.

For me, the highlight of the day followed – a video conference with Sir Tim Berners-Lee. Andrew Marr’s video introduction cited the Victorian book ‘Enquire Within Upon Everything’ as an Berners-Lee’s inspiration. Berners-Lee wanted to recreate the interconnectedness of the information within the book – to create a ‘web of connections’. He developed this as a system that would allow computers to share information and by 1991 had connected scientists around Europe using his ‘world wide web’. Key to his ability to develop a project not officially sanctioned by employed was his manager’s belief that his proposal was ‘vague, but interesting’ and willingness to allow Berners-Lee the time to explore the idea and see where it went.

Apart from the fact that I (and vast numbers of other people) now owe my income to Berners-Lee’s innovation, the web has the capacity to change the models of human society, democracy and behaviour through its ability to connect people as never before. Tim Berners-Lee’s new project is dedicated to understanding the implications of this, through the development of a new form of science. He views the current web as being in its early adolescence, flexing its muscles but not yet sure of its boundaries. His hope is that it grows into a responsible adult – although he made it clear that like all machines it is the people who operate it who must ultimately learn how to use it wisely.

A modest, public-spirited English scientist, Tim Berners-Lee has done more to change the way we live today than any government. He’s part of the history of modern Britain and the epitome of innovation. He also made no money from his invention – an observation which caused a very British titter of self deprecation around the audience.

Next on stage was Bob Geldof - a whirlwind of socially impassioned energy. He challenged the point of view of the previous NESTA speakers, who had focused on encouraging innovation as way of balancing Britain’s books in the future. His point was to do with social innovation and our ability to engage specifically with Africa – which as he pointed out is only eight miles from Europe, yet not a point of focus.

Walking on to the strains of U2 (and starting with a jibe about Bono being small and fat, unlike himself) Geldof characterised us as a nation with a historical love of the eccentric, uniquely placed to try new things and new ideas. He reminded us that we had, in a time of post war bankruptcy, created the National Health Service and the Open University. That this vision of a healthy, educated populace had enabled us to build the world’s fifth largest economy. However, he went on to question if we are a society overcome by the fear of failure. “We need to celebrate the attempt at trying,” he said. “Failure is nothing.”

The future he predicted was bleak – one of wars we can’t afford, climate change and population migration. He underlined the necessity of innovation and entrepreneuralism in tackling the huge problems we face in the future. He also spoke of the ways in which developing countries leap-frog technological innovations, finding new uses and contexts for familiar devices. Most illustrative was his story of a Tanzanian woman, used to walking eight hours to visit a butcher, who could now use her mobile phone to text ahead reserve her meat and pay using phone credits. This illustrated not only the social impact of technology but also the way in which citizens of unstable economies can bypass the economic infrastructure and move into a post-currency society. If a population can wrest control of transactions away from a government is there any continuing purpose to that government.

Sir Bob wrapped up with a call to arms, transcribed more efficiently than I was able by the Telegraph:

“Where are these ideas of a different world, a world not to be afraid of? One that is coming, that is possibly here, but that is certainly inevitable.

“We need our social entrepreneurs to consider these things. We need them to be innovative and progressive, we need our politicians to recognise it, and we need our financial institutions to support it. Is that currently happening? No, not enough.”

After lunch (a most satisfactory bit of catering, except for the rather strange nutty meringues) we had a surprisingly charming and self-assured (and blissfully short) visitation from the Prime Minister. Looking utterly comfortable in his skin, he said all that was necessary just by turning up. He told a few jokes but the essence was that he is convinced of the necessity of the drive for innovation and is committed to breaking down any and all barriers that exist in order to help deliver on the promise of the conference. His closing comments summed it up:

“the most important thing we have is you… your creative talents, your ability to innovate, your ability to lead for the future with new ideas – for new businesses, new services, new goods. I look forward to Britain leading the world as the innovative nation of the future – and it can do so because of your talents.”

I’m not sure if he’ll be around to lead us into that future – but the sentiment was convincing.

The rest of the day flagged, with my energies being so totally drained by a circuitous discussion on whether Social Networks are the new cities. It was a desultory affair with uninspiring participants and little or no audience interaction. I retreated to charge my batteries – literally and metaphorically and ponder the inspiration of the morning.

My key takeaways are

  • frustration over the lack of definition – what is innovation? What does it look like and where does it currently live?
  • a reinvigoration of my interest in the global economy and our place within it
  • fascination with how emerging markets will leapfrog existing modes of use for familiar technologies and develop new, unguessable solutions for problems of which we in the West are unaware
  • vague inklings of how we can use the connecting power of the web for the social good – locally and globally

So – this was a long post – does it make sense / strike a chord / bore you rigid? What do you identify as innovative and do you believe we are a nation in which innovation can blossom? Do you harbour secret plans of your own – if so, what holds you back?

This post was filed under Events, The future, Working culture and tagged , , , , Comments are currently closed.

4 Comments

  1. Will

    Great post. Although the UK may not be churning out scientists, engineers patents and PHDs at a rate like China, india, US etc we do have the ability to be truly innovative. I think the ability to innovate in response to specific or local problems is where we need to focus and not try to be too grand in our thinking. As I understand it and I may be wrong Berners Lee started out to provide a solution to a specific problem rather than a grand vision to change society, communication etc. If we can innovate and then share our thinking solutions to wider problems will emerge as per the Tanzanian woman and her visit to the Butchers. Great thought provoking stuff.

    Posted 22nd May 2008 at 12:16 pm | Permalink
  2. I was at Open Coffee at the Sussex Innovation Centre this morning talking about this. It was noted that the conference ended on a rather ‘financial’ down-note, encouraging creatives to think about financially lucrative innovation….what did you feel?

    We were thinking of Facebook and Google – cases where innovation seems to be quite capable of happening without a particular financial strategy. A case of ‘use-value’ triumphing over immediate economic value. And that creativity of thought is often stifled by financial strategy and planning (like funding applications for artists).

    Just a wee thought from a bunch of grannies nattering over coffee…now back to work…

    The interesting thing

    What did other people think?

    Posted 22nd May 2008 at 1:11 pm | Permalink
  3. …scuse the editty snippets at the bottom there…

    Posted 22nd May 2008 at 1:12 pm | Permalink
  4. Thanks Ellen. I’d like to get over to Open Coffee some time – I like nattering with grannies!

    One of the points I’ve been mulling over since Tuesday is education. Sam Pitroda (a key figure in the development of India’s Telecoms/Technology industry) pointed out that the education strategy for this generation is being planned by 60 year old Civil Servants with a near obsolete world view. He used the example of his 6 year old granddaughter, able to google for any information she’s interested in and therefore able to skip ahead of set curricula – and set expectations.

    Perhaps the place where most innovation is necessary is the classroom. Reading about the One Laptop Per Child project (and its perceived failure) has made me consider whether a similar programme would benefit UK children – where a ‘learn by doing’ approach and a radical computing device could help our children leap frog the office based paradigm presented by current PCs and instead use their collective creativity to make something new together. This would inculcate innovation better than just teaching them to use what’s already out there.

    I feel that I’m going to have to think about this more but reading this Business Week article will give a bit of background to the OLPC project – and a perspective on why it might be seen to have failed.

    Posted 23rd May 2008 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

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  1. By Innovation Edge « Tipple of Choice on 25th June 2008 at 3:04 pm

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