In the media

More than ever, necessity is the mother of invention

The Times

11 March 2011

Our economy needs more innovators and inventors to secure long-term growth and compete on the world stage. Emerging economies are becoming the masters of low-cost replication and are building their expertise in the higher value elements of manufacturing. It is vital that we continue to create products and services that add value and that government, business and academia support and encourage this.

But there is little clarity about what an innovation-led economy would really look like. One argument, often put forward, is that advanced technology in manufacturing is crucial and that R&D should be the central policy focus. In this scenario, universities would drive research and transfer technology into business. This would address the low levels of university-business collaborations.

The flaw in this argument though, is the assumption that all innovation has to take place in university or public laboratory settings. This is based on a misunderstanding of what innovation is. Innovation is the process of designing something new, usually by integrating existing capabilities or technologies; for example, Dyson vacuum cleaners. It happens in grids, whereby companies and individuals interact with their customers, competitors and partners to generate ideas and build on them.

Invention, on the other hand, is about creating new products or services that may overturn existing dominant technologies or products. These are developments such as the next generation of semiconductors that embed logic and memory and will transform how we compute.

However, invention is expensive, harder for a single business to achieve, requires significant investment in research and takes an extended period of time. This means that the risk of failure is much greater, but so are the rewards for getting it right. Although it is easy to be swayed by the excitement of looking for the next technological breakthrough, we need to recognise that invention alone will not generate sufficient growth.

The next step, the use and development of technology, is also essential to the prosperity of a nation.

We need to find ways of stimulating both innovation and invention and there are three key areas where support should be focused. The first is for Government to continue to invest in fundamental R&D and sustain this funding so that our invention levels remain intact.

Second, there needs to be renewed focus on creating the right framework for innovation, including breaking down the intellectual property walls. This would encourage those involved to see the benefits, and added value, of sharing ideas rather than restricting them.

Finally, UK business has to step up and become more innovative in its products and services, responding and adapting more effectively to changes in the market.

If we do these three things, our innovation environment will flourish, inspired by our inventive science and facilitated by our Government, but ultimately driven by UK business dealing with global customers.

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