Reclaiming innovation

Report on the spiked-seminar.

Jonny Thakkar

Topics Science & Tech

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The concept of ‘innovation’ has become more popular then ever in business circles – but at the same time, our understanding of innovation seems to have narrowed. What passes for significant innovation today is arguably little more than incremental advances in technology or business process. A spiked-seminar on ‘Reclaiming innovation’ asked how we could get beyond New Economy jargon and work towards real innovation.

Tom Barker, head of industrial design engineering at the Royal College of Art, kicked off the debate by arguing that things are good, and are getting better. He put this partly down to good governance in London, which makes it easier to get planning permission for innovative buildings; and also argued that business had learnt to take risks, ‘like a high wire act’, with the possibility of insolvency and bankruptcy acting as a safety net.

Next to speak was John Ryan, director of the UK bionanotechnology interdisciplinary research centre (IRC), who beat a drum for science. Ryan pointed out that history shows that technological innovation is becoming increasingly science driven. Innovation during the Industrial Revolution had been driven by entrepreneurial inventors rather than science; for instance, the science of thermodynamics came after the invention of the steam engine. By contrast, innovation in the Silicon Age has been led by science, deriving ultimately from quantum mechanics.

Ryan argued that scientific innovation in the UK is limited by funding. Companies were shying away from research and development (R&D), and the funding that is available tends to favour safe research. In his view, to ‘reclaim’ innovation the UK needs to: make an effort to get young people into science; give young scientists more freedom; remove barriers to interdisciplinary research; and engage in high-risk research funding.

Gill Samuels, executive director of science policy and scientific affairs at Pfizer, took over, arguing that innovation in the UK pharmaceutical industry was being held back by excessive regulation and the ‘precautionary principle’. Under the precautionary principle – meaning that any new proceedure has to definitively prove that it doesn’t cause harm – aspirin would never have been licensed, Samuels claimed, given that the drug kills 2000 people a year. We need to learn to manage risk in order to deliver the innovations that patient care demands, she said.

Samuels also argued that education was needed to prevent the public from being taken in by media scare stories about new drugs; these scare stories were a product of what she called ‘the Judas principle’, under which statistics can mislead the ignorant, exemplified by the statement that 8.33 per cent of Jesus’ disciples betrayed him.

Samuels said that patents were essential to innovation. Seventeen per cent of Pfizer’s turnover goes to R&D; this figure was only so high thanks to the funding generated by patents, because ‘we drill a lot of dry holes’.

Speaking last was Norman Lewis, director of technology research at Wanadoo SA. Lewis accused the UK of having a ‘risk management culture, not an innovation culture’, and said that the telecommunications industry was only posing as innovative. ‘Finding a new way of filing, that’s considered innovation. Getting out of bed each day is a new process, so it’s innovation’, he remarked sardonically. Real innovation in Western telecommunications suffered from the dysfunctional structure of the industry, which meant that those who invested in the broadband network and therefore delivered the innovation to consumers received only meagre rewards, while the gains on the investment were realised elsewhere by software providers such as Microsoft.

Lewis contrasted the Western climate, in which the ‘R’ in R&D is on the wane, with the dynamism of East Asia, where business leaders believe that consumer behaviour could be changed by the advent of new technology. He argued that the West needed first to free technological innovation from the tyranny of market research and business plans, but above all to regain an understanding of what innovations really are: advances that ‘fundamentally change people’s behaviour’, accompanied by the ideal of cultural progress through technology.

When the debate was opened to the floor, a number of audience members argued that it was crucial to educate the public about the benefits as well as the risks of innovation. David Dodson of the City University’s School of Informatics complained that the UK is hampered by a damaging level of ignorance about the nature of copyright and patents.

Some reflected on what drives innovation. Joe Kaplinsky pointed out that the two sectors that are undoubtedly still innovating are health and defence – which shows that what is really required for innovation is motivation. Simon Hopkins, of BBC Music Online, asked whether the panel agreed that ‘sometimes the fuck-ups are the most interesting’, giving the examples of champagne, Viagra and LSD as by-products of failed research. Meanwhile, Chris Francis of IBM countered Norman Lewis’ derision of incremental change by pointing out that it was incremental change that got the computer down to a small and practicable size.

Phil Mullan, of Cybercafé Ltd., took up the idea that East Asia was immune from the limits to innovation, arguing that the culture of caution was spreading quickly from West to East. He also opined that the role of leadership in fostering innovation lay in fighting against regulation and the precautionary principle. Chris Marsden of the Oxford Internet Institute had a different prescription for business, commenting that outside Silicon Valley business hasn’t learnt to move from the centralised linear model of working to a more flexible, decentralised model.

In summing up, John Ryan argued that since technology always needs public acceptance in order to be successful, innovators should make an effort to engage with the public. Norman Lewis conceded Mullan’s point that risk-aversion is creeping into East Asia, but maintained that businesses there still have an admirable willingness to fail and learn from their failures. Lewis rounded off the debate by arguing that innovation thrives in a society with a positive vision of the future – the great inventions of the nineteenth century emerged at a time when people had strong beliefs about the need for progress.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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