10 Jul 2013

Innovation in Britain - An Evening at the RSA

Attended “Innovating For Success: How to create the next generation of British World-Beating Companies” yesterday at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufacture and Commerce (RSA). The speakers were Trevor Bayliss, Doug Richard, Alex Schey, Rohan Silva and Matthew Taylor, CEO of the RSA, chaired the session.

The evening started with Trevor Bayliss explaining how he invented the wind-up radio, successfully deployed in Africa to educate people about AIDS; apparently, just about everyone turned him down and only the fact that Nelson Mandela was personally impressed got him his first break. But from there on, he launched into vocal requests, repeated throughout the session, about how IP protection really really mattered in the UK and how everyone must protect their ideas and how his foundation could help with that.

Doug Harris, a serial entrepreneur and founder of School for Startups, confessed that revenge was a driving factor when he started his second firm – he wanted to get even with the people who bought him out and chucked him out. Doug also took issue with Trevor that you don’t need an education to be an inventor/ innovator (and these terms were used quite interchangeably through the session) – innovating, he said, requires a vision that is driven by a very clear understanding of customer needs and the technical/ specialized knowledge to bring about a solution. All passion and no education was not exactly a solution, he said. He said the stereotypical pessimism of the British was a bit overrated and things are slowly changing… however, he recalls his first experience in a business panel in UK, when he thought someone who went bankrupt had great potential because he’d have learnt from his failure – apparently everyone else in the room disagreed and he told them off with a few choice expressions, which, unfortunately, he couldn’t share because there were children in the hall.

Rohan Silva meanwhile talked about how cozy government is with big business and so disconnected from start-ups and SMEs; he explained how he had to struggle, as a policy advisor to Cameron, to change rules and get government contracts to go to smaller companies – someone else pointed out that the measure wasn’t exactly a great success because it counted sub-contracting by the big firms as part of the “small company” quota. He pointed out that the government was starting a business bank to open up credit – something Doug said was pointless because the government ought to get out of the way.  Alex Schey agreed and added that the best thing government could do was to get out of the way of entrepreneurs and tend to the basics of ensuring high quality education for youth and better infrastructure.

Matthew Taylor made for an interesting chair (ignoring the general aura of cynicism that glowed around the man) as he pointed out the many intricacies of government (having been Labour’s Director of Policy) such as the necessity for press releases on new “A-ha” ideas every month and the realization that any large policy intervention would require several years to fructify by which the initiator/ initiating party would no longer be in power.

It was an interesting evening with wide audience participation and great support for the feeling that Britain is very capable of building world class companies if only… and this was the one of the main issues that I had with the forum/ discussion: no crisp and cogent suggestion emerged on what needs to be done either at a policy level or a regulatory level or at an industry level except for disparate issues and the panel’s opinions on those issues. Obviously, there is no silver bullet to such a broadly defined problem but surely there must be sectors where the UK has a clear competitive advantage, surely there must be fast growing export markets and sectors that need certain sets of language and cross-cultural skills and surely there must be innovation in sectors other than technology that require different business models, regulatory incentives, industry associations… but no, the discussion did not touch upon any of these. 

Moreover, the panel discussed innovation in 'big business' without anyone from a real-life company talking about it...  companies like Vodafone, Innocent, Dyson are good examples of British companies succeeding through innovation yet we didn't have any reps from these firms to talk about how they approach innovation. 

Agreed that it is difficult to cover so much ground in a couple of hours but somehow I left the room thinking that apart from government bashing and some interesting threads of discussion, there wasn't anything new that emerged from the forum. A pity, given that some fine minds were in the same room… well, now that we know the problems, maybe next time around we’ll get around to the solutions.

NB: The account is a recollection from notes and memory; any mistakes are entirely mine. Image used from http://www.intelligencesquared.com/events/innovating-for-success

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