Brexit and the spirit of innovation

Ignore the Remoaners – Brexit lets us reimagine the future.

Norman Lewis

Topics Politics

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In politics as in life, there are moments when things are clarified and critical choices have to be made. Brexit is one such moment. Like it or not, the triggering of Article 50 has put into flow a process replete with uncertainties as well as possibilities. The challenge now is how best to think about the future; how to realise newer, better ways of doing things.

For true innovators, Brexit ought to be a cause for celebration; a time of opportunity. Every innovation principle we hold dear – the ability to take risks, to embrace failure and unexpected outcomes, to disrupt the status quo and invent the future – is now a pressing practical possibility, not some abstract principle paid lip service to in the thousands of MBA business primers found on Amazon.

Everything that has held back innovation – including the EU’s risk aversion, expressed in overregulation, the enshrining of the precautionary principle in scientific-based research, and the short-term focus on quarterly results – can now be challenged and rethought as we embark upon a journey to shape the future. Everything should be up for grabs. As an historic moment, Brexit, whether we recognise it or not, can be the beginning of an era of true innovation. There really is no alternative but to go for it.

As in all real problem-solving, there are no guarantees of success. The irritating but ultimately fulfilling challenge of innovation is that you cannot guarantee success at the outset. It is hard truly to innovate. Inventing the future is never easy. The future often comes about from unexpected sources that lay hidden within the present. But what marks Brexit out from other innovation moments in history is that we now know that we must invent that future, not stumble upon it as we experiment from laboratory to the real world. Article 50 means we cannot continue as we have in the past. The fact that we know the parameters of what we need to do is thus a moment of clarity. Two historic questions on innovation are now posed: what is to be done, and which side are you on?

In asking ‘what is to be done?’, the issue is not what should I be doing but what is objectively called for. If we are serious about driving innovation as part of the post-Brexit UK, then we need to focus on the innovation conundrum we face: namely, that despite all the breakthroughs in information and communications technologies, in bioscience and new materials to name a few, these have had little impact on UK productivity. We need big thinking, not tinkering; breakthroughs, not merely incremental innovations. How do we drive innovation that will create new industries, raise living standards and create growth and more wealth?

As part of this rethink, we need to revisit several important innovation spheres with an eye to changing them, and possibly bringing about a new innovation manifesto. These are the five key issues I think we should consider:

First, the issue of regulation. The ringfencing of innovation within the confines of hundreds of restrictions, the institutionalised risk-averse culture of limits, needs to be reanalysed and, where necessary, destroyed or reworked.

Second, fundamental research. Winning the argument for investment in non-specified outcome-based fundamental research programmes is a critical shift that will underpin the longer-term viability of inventing a new future.

Third, taking risks and tolerating a culture of failure. The risk-free institutionalisation of expected outcomes in innovation departments remains the greatest barrier to the development of a more experimental, open, longer-term and ambitious innovation culture.

Fourth, limit the technocrats. Brexit has shown the power of the demos. We need to find new ways of embracing the wisdom of the crowd to crowdsource insights, uncover unanticipated needs and create an innovation mindset that is liberated from today’s technocratic gatekeepers. Innovation needs to be an open space rather than one dominated by a self-serving technocracy who, like every clique in history, controls the art of the possible.

Fifth, develop innovation leaders. Great innovators in history have always been leaders: people who trusted their instincts, and had enormous self-belief and the authority to carry on regardless of the naysayers. There is very little of this today. Instead we have an institutionalised culture of MBA-based innovation primers that churn out colourless technocrats, followers rather than leaders. Countering this cult of innovation is a critical step towards reinventing a new generation of innovation leaders.

And then the second question: whose side are you on? The future belongs to everyone wiling to shape it. The democratic impulse behind Brexit is fundamentally positive. But what has become clear is that many people who would have counted themselves as being firmly in the innovation camp are now balking at Brexit and self-consciously opposing change.

This is not about left or right, liberals or conservatives, Remainers or Leavers. These categories have no meaning or content anymore. But the attitude towards innovation, towards a positive orientation aimed at shaping the future, is, I suggest, a critical dividing line in 21st-century Britain. Many Remainers have moved on. They might not agree with the decision, but many can now see that, first, it is happening, and second, it does offer something new. Many more, who have no axe to grind or egos to massage, but who remain pragmatic, practical folk, will join the side of the historymakers, too, because this is what people do.

The sceptics, however, those who refuse to accept reality, are not only choosing self-consciously to orient themselves towards the past – they are actively wishing for failure. This has nothing to do with the future. Seeking out ‘proof’ that confirms how right they, and how self-delusional and wrong we were all along, is deeply cynical, pessimistic and childish. If taking their toys home were the only things they were doing, we could live with that. Life always improves in the playground for everyone when the spoilt brats remove themselves. But their active quest to prove we are doomed stokes further uncertainty, self-doubt, cynicism and passivity. It elevates the present as the unreformable future – the exact opposite of what an innovative approach would aspire to do.

What is so depressingly ironic is that this behaviour is exactly what these former innovators would once have come up against, and even fought and railed against every day of their lives. Those Remoaners who now desperately want to prove their moral virtue by upholding yesterday’s status quo have become the stick-in-the muds; the middle managers in every corporation whose reason for living is always to say ‘No!’. These are the new gatekeepers, the technocrats whose self-appointed role is to try to sow doubt, to spread uncertainty (as if that were necessary), and to derail the march of history.

I am reminded of a wonderful passage in Vladimir Lenin’s seminal pamphlet What is to be Done?, which proved to be a defining historical moment in the evolution of change in Russia – slightly adapted here to work with Brexit, with apologies to Lenin.

‘We are marching in a compact group along a precipitous and difficult path, firmly holding each other by the hand. We are surrounded on all sides by enemies and we have to advance under their almost constant fire. We have combined voluntarily, precisely for the purpose of fighting the enemy, and not to retreat into the adjacent marsh, the inhabitants of which, from the very outset, have reproached us with having chosen the path of struggle instead of conciliation. And now several of us begin to cry out: let us stay in this marsh. And when we begin to shame them, they retort: how deluded you are! Are you not ashamed to deny us the liberty to implore you to take what we the enlightened technocrats know is a better road! Oh yes, Ladies and Gentlemen! You are free not only to invite us, but to go yourselves wherever you will, even to stay in the marsh. In fact, we think the marsh is your proper place, and we are prepared to render you every assistance to remain there. Only let go of our hands, don’t clutch at us and don’t besmirch that grand word ‘freedom’, for we too are ‘free’ to go where we please, free to fight not only against the marsh, but also against those who are stuck in the marsh.’

Norman Lewis works on innovation networks and is a co-author of Big Potatoes: The London Manifesto for Innovation.

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Topics Politics


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