Gordon Brown and the ghosts of innovation

James Heartfield reports from yesterday’s NESTA conference in London on the flailing PM’s vampiric relationship with the ‘innovation economy’.

James Heartfield

Topics Politics UK

‘I come as an enthusiast, not an expert or a politician.’ UK prime minister Gordon Brown flattered the audience, telling them that they were the real innovators. Unfortunately, it wasn’t true. At the Hertfordshire Google seminar on Monday, and at a meeting of the National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts (NESTA) at the Royal Festival Hall in London on Tuesday, Gordon Brown was talking to audiences that were acting the part of innovators, but which contained precious few of them.

Google’s seminar might have deserved the name Zeitgeist (spirit of the age) two years ago, when Conservative leader David Cameron first went there, but that was when the IT sector was still the apex of innovation.

Having emerged as a giant after the 1999 IT bubble burst, Google is now looking like one of the bloated monsters it originally took on – just as Gordon Brown is looking too much like the stale Labour administration that he was supposed to reform. Brown in turn is trying to associate himself with the new technology in the same way that Tony Blair did in 1997, except that it is not so new anymore, and people are worrying that the bet Brown took when he was chancellor of the exchequer on the ‘knowledge economy’ turned out to be so much hot air.

If Google’s claim on the Zeitgeist is questionable, so too is NESTA’s. In 2005, I did some research for NESTA, making the uncontroversial point that research and development in the UK is low (1) (historically, and in contrast with other OECD countries). However, incoming chief executive, Jonathan Kestenbaum, argued in his recent pamphlet Innovation Gap (2) that innovation is still part of the British spirit; but it is ‘hidden innovation’, he said, that does not show up on the statistics. But the problem is still the one that most economists associate with the British economy – that it has a low rate of investment, and despite having an admirable output of scientific papers, it has a poor record of implementing them. No amount of discussion about ‘hidden innovation’ is going to change that, unfortunately.

The problem was writ large in NESTA’s exhibition space yesterday, where the lucky recipients of NESTA’s seed money grants showed off their ground-breaking innovations: there was a round, plastic, ‘fruit-friendly’ lunch box; a padded neck-brace; for some reason there was a surfboard standing on its end, and a three-dimensional image of a skull, such as you might have found in the Science Museum in 1986. There were also lots of tubby girls brandishing packets of seeds and a trolley to pull water through the desert. Former Blair adviser Geoff Mulgan was around doing something on mental health – or was it just a rumour, like when Hard Rock Café waiters tell you that Robbie Williams is coming in tonight? No doubt there were some worthy things going on, but one did not quite get a sense of witnessing the cutting edge of innovation.

The whole Davos-like event atmosphere was pumped up with driving feelgood disco music: ‘Let it shine’, ‘We could be heroes’, ‘We are the champions’. ‘I think they thought of me as a suit when I first came to NESTA’, said Kestenbaum. Yet this ‘suit’ has built a growing movement: NESTA’s first innovation conference netted just 30 people; then 18 months ago there were 500 in Islington; yesterday, registration was closed at 3,000.

The coterie of degree-educated, would-be designers and knowledge entrepreneurs seem to sense that the climate is a lot colder out there than it used to be. Here is the simulacrum of innovation that the government created three years ago in the wake of the Cox Report into the creative industries and how they might assist the British economy.

The inspirational speakers at the NESTA conference included Bob Geldof (hailed as a rock god) and Tim Berners Lee (appropriately beamed on to a 30-feet projection from … Bristol). They assured the audience that they were the innovators of tomorrow, and argued that innovation was difficult to pin down. This was definitely true in the Royal Festival Hall.

Geldof’s seismic reflections on the future (‘there will be terrible wars, and terrible epidemics’) were disturbed by a rare moment of lucidity when he wondered: ‘Has Britain become the risk-averse nation when little Johnny cannot go out to play because he might scrape his fucking knee?’ and ‘Is the British entrepreneurial spirit fading? It feels it.’ And, as if attacking NESTA’s grant project itself, Geldof suggested that you couldn’t really encourage the young, like in the Lion’s Den, ‘or NESTA itself’.

Luckily for the spirit of the conference, the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland and The Economist’s Helen Alexander pushed the risk-averse ‘bogeyman’ aside, and carried on the boosting of Britain’s innovation economy in time for the PM to bask in its glow when he took to the podium. ‘You are the real innovators’, he told his audience, ‘you tell me what you need, whether it is support, or indeed less regulation’. Yet the strong impression he gave was that innovation had already left the building.

James Heartfield is a director of His new book Green Capitalism: Manufacturing Scarcity in an Age of Abundance is available to buy directly from his website at

Previously on spiked

Norman Lewis said we should look East to glimpse the future of the internet. Martyn Perks thought it’s unfortunate that the great potential of IT is being used for instrumental political ends. Mick Hume noted that, as predicted on spiked, Gordon Brown’s media honeymoon didn’t last. He said the reason this government is in permanent crisis is because it has no idea what its purpose might be. Brendan O’Neill listed 10 reasons why Gordon Brown is unfit to be prime minister.
Or read more at spiked issues British politics and Innovation.

(1) ‘Creativity Gap’, James Heartfield, Blueprint/Nesta, 2005

(2) ‘Innovation Gap’, Jonathan Kestenbaum, Nesta, 2006

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

Topics Politics UK


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today