Management / Why Britain is set to become a global innovation powerhouse

Why Britain is set to become a global innovation powerhouse

 

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“Exports will be transmitted, not transported,” read the HSBC ad poster as I arrived back at Gatwick Airport this week. Every business has had to reinvent itself as a digital business, taming the disruptive power of the internet.

Everything has been turned on its head. Books, DVDs and LPs have now become luxury items as we consume entertainment digitally now. Small luxury items such as jewellery will be next, as 3D printers take hold. Eventually the idea of old-fashioned manufacturing and exporting goods by truck and container ship will seem quaint.

So where does this leave Britain, the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, the grand canals and great engineers such as Isambard Kingdom Brunel, if traditional manufacturing becomes obsolete? What exactly will there be left to be Made in Britain?

Travelling around England over the past nine months for Business Reporter, it is clear to me that Britain is well placed to become one of the technological and innovation hubs of the world. Both main political parties understand the future lies in technology and innovation. Even dear UKIP is talking about scrapping university fees for science and maths degrees. One of the most exciting innovations I have witnessed over the past nine months has been in the field of robotic process automation (RPA) – the automation of boring, repetitive tasks such as maintaining an IT system or handling basic customer enquiries. The London office of tech firm IPsoft is developing a truly revolutionary desktop android called Amelia to handle regular IT helpdesk queries. A helpful blonde digital avatar pops up to answer your questions, freeing up overstretched IT departments to do something more creative. The implications are enormous. The kind of mid-level knowledge work that Amelia hopes to take the drudgery out of represents 25 per cent of the economy, according to the company.

Driverless cars are another when-not-if technology that has enormous potential. Coventry-based RDM Group is building three prototype driverless pods for a trial scheme in Milton Keynes this year. So confident is RDM about the future of driverless technology, it predicts it will be turning over more than £25million by 2020.

Meanwhile, a visit to an Ark data centre in Farnborough, Hampshire, showed me how a British company is spearheading the use of green technology when building vast server farms. If data is the new oil, then data centres are where the barrels are stored. “My key word is ‘disruptive.’ I want to disrupt this market,” Steve Hall of Ark told me. “This is a fantastic good news story for the UK.”

The Luddite in me worried about the job implications of this new technology. What will happen to all those call centre workers? Why would you flag down a manned taxi when you can summon a driverless car with your phone? I now believe new jobs will be created because of this technology. The truth is that our children will be doing jobs we cannot even conceive of yet. Who would have thought even five years ago that whole departments would be devoted to analysing web traffic?

Of course, all the companies above are based in the South East, and there is a danger this white heat of technology – to borrow a phrase from Harold Wilson – is too focused on the Home Counties. George Osborne has thrown his weight behind establishing a world-class medical research facility in the north along the lines of the Francis Crick Institute in London. Osborne has also backed the idea of creating a “northern global powerhouse” – extending the London-to-Birmingham high-speed rail network to connect Manchester and Leeds. Separately, ex-Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neill told me in October about his proposal for fast train services to connect Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds.

The problem, as ever, is going to be finding money to support these visions. Risk-averse banks need to loosen their lending criteria. As the saying goes, a banker is somebody who lends you his umbrella when the sun is shining, but wants it back the minute it begins to rain. Broadcaster Melvyn Bragg explained to me how difficult it was for him to set up even the most basic of bank accounts when he decided to go into business at the ripe old age of 70. And that was without even borrowing any money. “God help small businesses in this country, that’s what I say, God help them. No wonder they’re packing up by the million. It’s a disgrace,” he said.

Entrepreneurial tech businesses might be better off talking to private equity investors such as Amanda Staveley’s PCP Capital Partners, which has billions for UK plc through Middle East backers. Originally focused on property, Staveley comes from a tech background. She invests her own cash alongside her investors. “You’ve got to be prepared to put your own skin in the game. It’s easier to persuade investors when you yourself are in the deal,” she told me.

Back to 3D printers, pop star and technology cheerleader Will.i.am has predicted that eventually one day we will be able to print an entire human being. Companies and researchers around the world are currently working on ways of 3D printing organs, parts of organs, blood vessels, and more. In fact, one company has already printed off liver tissue for commercial use. The commercial opportunities are huge. So, which British company is ready to accept Will.i.am’s challenge?


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