I was pleased to speak at the recent Radix Big Tent Meet the Leaders session about innovation, a topic that is close to my heart and one of great importance.
Innovation is the source of all prosperity. It is the reason countries get rich in the first place and so the more you have of it the better. We should be thinking hard and furiously about how to turn ourselves back into the country that spawned the industrial revolution.
One of the key elements that is required for innovation to flourish is freedom. By that I mean the freedom for trial and error, particularly the freedom to experiment, to be wrong, to fail, to start again. This freedom for entrepreneurs was a feature of 17th to 19th century Britain, not just the North East where I live, but across the UK, making it quite distinct from continental Europe (except Holland).
I believe this economic freedom is also the key to understanding China, because one of the reasons for China’s economic success is that – although not free politically – it has been free economically for entrepreneurs, at least until recently. There is an important lesson for the UK.
In my research for my book on innovation, trial and error was a recurring theme from the stories I collected. For example, Jeff Bezos made a string of catastrophic errors at Amazon and he boasts about it and he says if you’re not swinging and missing, you’re not swinging enough. Without that experimentation, Amazon wouldn’t be the company that it is today.
When we talk about innovation, the focus is too much on invention rather than innovation: we talk about the original prototype rather than the hard slog to turn it into something that’s affordable, reliable and available, which is a much more collective effort. A lot of the stories of innovation are actually about quite ordinary people, people who just knew the importance of learning by doing, of experimenting, as part of a collective effort by lots of people.
At my school, science was simply taught as these are the things we know for sure – those are what you need to know, instead of saying the whole point of science is that scientists are interested in the things they don’t know, the things they don’t yet understand, the mysteries, the enigmas and trying to solve them.
Somewhere in the education system, we should be challenging people to say to students that they’re not entering a complete world, a finished world, the world in which we know everything, a world in which we know how to run it. They are entering a world which is going to change fast, where things are going to be invented and innovated and they’re going to change the world. We should be telling them they could be part of it.
An area where we could do more to remove barriers to innovation in the UK is in biotechnology. The recent announcement that gene editing will be allowed for experimental purposes in plants in this country is good news, but from my point of view it’s not nearly bold enough. There’s a huge opportunity having left the European Union for the UK to say we’re going to be the European country that does this, but we’re still being cautious.
For example, take the breakthrough by the Roslin Institute on pig DNA that could make it immune to a disease, this technology is now being commercialised in other countries, but is a long way off from being allowed here in the UK. How is it that we got ourselves into a situation where we’re not even allowed to do an incredibly safe project on a pig, but we’re doing extremely dangerous projects on viruses?