Muddling through is no longer good enough
- Published on Friday, 20 July 2012 11:04
- Written by Professor Simon Mosey
Britain has been the birthplace of a number of pioneering inventions, but during the past two decades the scope for new-to-the-world advances has significantly narrowed.
This is in large part because an increased focus on short-term financial performance has led to a concentration on next-generation products based on customer feedback. In other words, we have become a nation in which incremental innovation is the norm.
Manufacturers have embraced this philosophy. Universities, by and large, have supported it through their methods of teaching. It is safe, reliable and unadventurous. And it cannot go on.
In the wake of the global financial crisis and with society as a whole facing huge challenges, incremental innovation alone offers little promise. Quick-fix thinking and systemic short-sightedness will not address the mounting and urgent problems of the early 21st century. We need a culture of creativity and transformation. We need an innovation economy.
The value of radical innovation was very much in mind when the University of Nottingham Institute of Enterprise and Innovation (UNIEI) was established in 1999. More than that, absolutely crucial to the concept was the belief that radical innovation cannot be taught from a book.
UNIEI encourages business, science, social science and humanities students to develop leading-edge inventions that could be taken to market. It allows them to present their ideas to experts in technology transfer and research commercialisation, equity investors and intellectual property development professionals. In short, it not only introduces them to radical innovation: it immerses them in it.
Such an approach needs to enter the mainstream if Britain is to enjoy an enduring economic recovery and maintain a meaningful presence on the global stage. We have to reject the notion that radical innovation is some kind of quaint hobby that eccentrics pursue in their spare time: it has to become an integral component of the curriculum.
A recent report by the Royal Academy of Engineering called for "substantial" government investment in higher and further education to propel the journey towards an innovation economy. It also recommended closer engagement between industry and academia and for the wider adoption of a Nottingham-style model of students from diverse disciplines working together.
Naturally, money, commitment and cooperation would be needed to make this a reality. But there is a measure of hope in the emerging appreciation among policymakers and businesses that the status quo is unsustainable; and there is encouragement in the fact that radical innovation in Britain, although at present comparatively isolated, already exists and is ready to be expanded and embraced.
As Dr David Grant, the Academy's Vice-President, observed, the UK is still home to some of the world's best designers and engineers. It is only an incomplete understanding or application of the innovation process that ensures their creative flair is seldom turned into competitive advantage.
Such wasteful is as needless as it is unconscionable. The message has to be that incremental innovation, though it has its place, will prove ever more inadequate unless supported by an approach that is rooted in greater ambition, more daring and longer-term thinking. We have grown wearily accustomed to muddling through. Now, finally, we must do all we can to take the lead and stride ahead.