How the UK Government can unlock the ingenuity of the nation

By Chris Jones

People are making history around us, right now. The huge disruption of COVID-19, intensified by Brexit, is forcing the public sector to do things differently with a renewed imperative for collective prosperity and security. Initiatives like the UK Ventilator Challenge, building Nightingale hospitals and applying new technologies to solve COVID-19 challenges show what the UK can do, at pace. And people have realised they can work effectively remotely, supported by rapidly adapted digital services.

So, how can the UK build on these opportunities, and learn from the urgency and shared sense of purpose created by a global pandemic, to unlock the nation’s ingenuity? In our experience, it comes down to defining a clear mission, becoming more agile and creating the right environment for innovation and growth to flourish.

A clear mission rallies people around the cause

Being clear about what the Government wants the UK to excel in, and having a plan for getting there, focuses efforts and encourages co-investment. Even if the destination is different to the original ambition, trying to reach it can generate spin-off benefits by galvanising the public sector, private sector and academia to work together and try new things. That’s what the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) found with its ‘Grand Challenge’ for autonomous vehicles, where it offered a $1m cash prize to the team that could get a car to drive itself off-road from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. Future leaders of the proposed UK ‘ARPA’ can learn from such examples, deliberately bringing together diverse groups to work on some of the biggest problems facing society.

In the UK’s response to COVID-19, we’ve already seen how a clear purpose promotes collaboration. Back in early March 2020, the virus was threatening to overwhelm UK hospitals, so the Government announced the UK Ventilator Challenge – a call for British industry to design new, and scale existing, ventilators. PA led this critical mission, coordinating more than 5,000 offers of help from a range of innovators, from multinational corporations to small medical device makers and individuals. We oversaw the design, development and approval of four new ventilator devices. And within 12 weeks of getting the call from government, we’d ensured more than 13,000 ventilators had made it to hospitals. In the end, every patient who needed a ventilator got one.

While incentivising people to work together, rather than in competition, will be key to making such collaboration a success in the long-term, it’s much more important to have specific, purposeful goals. Before leaders get bogged down, restructuring funding to cut across siloes and adapting intellectual property rules to enable collaboration, they need to frame tangible and inspiring outcomes for their teams to work towards.

The UK has a clear ambition to be at the forefront of cyber, technology, digital and data. But exactly what it wants to achieve in these areas, and why, needs explaining.

The world moves quickly, so agility is essential

Innovation can take time. But time can be a luxury in the modern world. The Government needs to create an adaptable system that can spot an innovative idea and pivot quickly to develop and implement its minimum viable state. That means making it much easier to prototype, test, learn and iterate ideas rapidly, with end-users in mind (or, preferably, in the room).

Government could find accelerated commercial arrangements so departments can place contracts in days, for example the Defence and Security Accelerator (DASA) aims to place contracts within three weeks. Removing match-funding would allow small start-ups to bid for contracts with ingenious ideas. Simplifying the overall innovation funding landscape would make it possible to direct investment to the best academics and entrepreneurs by the shortest possible route. Bridging the gap between idea and market means focusing on exploitation as least as much as ideation and development.

There are already good examples where being more agile and collaborative has helped Government access private sector expertise, such as Team Tempest. This alliance is enabling the aerospace companies work collaboratively with the Government, and each other, towards a shared ambition - developing the technologies needed for the next generation combat aircraft.

People need the right environment to be ingenious

Our experience and research show that successful innovation is achieved by empowering people to develop their ideas, giving them a sense of ownership and encouraging them to challenge the status quo. Diverse, multi-disciplinary teams come up with better ideas as they bring different experiences and knowledge, and readily challenge each other. Sometimes, even ignorance of a subject is an advantage – without the hinderance of established thinking, bright newcomers are open to new ideas.

Even as people are finding ways to work together remotely, they benefit from physical collaboration spaces that suit their work styles. Creating a thriving ecosystem where Government, academia and industry can work together, based regionally around specific themes or goals, has many advantages. It creates a diversity of ideas while building the networks and relationships needed to develop and sustain innovations. This, in turn, attracts private investment, creates self-sustaining, flexible job markets and rejuvenates communities with new wealth generation.

The UK already has established and emerging ecosystems, such as the Cambridge Cluster, Western Gateway near Bristol, Golden Valley development around Cheltenham, and Imperial College’s White City innovation campus. Recently sold ARM holdings, the UK’s chip design giant, originated in Cambridge and has been an anchor of the wider tech ecosystem for years.  Whilst in the West, communities like Cynam (Cyber Cheltenham) are creating networks, connections and capability around the cyber technology industry.  These are places where people from different backgrounds, disciplines and stages of careers can meet to inspire new ideas.

Despite the myth of the ‘lone genius’, research and innovation are team sports. Instead of emphasising individual career paths, high-performing and diverse teams should be built, promoted and rewarded together. New career pathways should emphasise team-working, expose people to a greater range of ideas and concepts, foster curiosity and learning, and highlight collaboration across organisational boundaries. Darktrace, Ripjar and Immersive Labs are all recent examples where regional talent from UK defence and security organisations has created regional prosperity and international security.  More public servants should be encouraged and supported to start their own businesses, and then bring their new skills and experience back, throughout their careers.

Government and industry must take the opportunity to unlock the nation’s ingenuity

The future is exciting. The UK can build on its national creativity, ingenuity and openness to seize the opportunities ahead. The present period of disruption can be a force for good, a catalyst to drive change and harness the hope and promise of science, technology and innovation. By unlocking the ingenuity of the nation, the Government has the chance to create a more prosperous and secure future.

About the authors

Chris Jones PA defence and security expert Chris is an engineer and change specialist translating technology opportunities into large scale business concepts.

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