UK as nation of innovative citizens and consumers

UK as nation of innovative citizens and consumers

By Charles Leadbeater
Financial Times

Sitting in a plush hotel lobby in Beijing, Li Gong, head of Microsoft’s Chinese internet business, an alumnus of Sheffield university, put the UK’s challenge bluntly: “China is the world’s fastest growing economy. The US is the home of high-tech and Hollywood. What is the UK’s one-line pitch to the world?”

In a world in which more ideas are coming from more sources, the UK can ill afford to be vague about what kind of innovation it wants to be known for. As innovation policy has become central to developed economies, so it has become more imitative: everywhere nations and regions are trying to emulate Silicon Valley, by linking university research to entrepreneurial high-technology start-ups and venture capital. Good imitation will not do. Britain needs a distinctive approach suited to an economy largely based on services, software and culture.

Britain is no longer a society of mass industrial production. Instead it should aspire to be a society of mass innovation, mobilising know-how and creativity from many sources, not just the boffins, and applying it to many fields – not just high-tech. Instead policy should focus on three roles everyone could play in innovation.

First, we need an education system that gives everyone the chance to be a creator. An inflexible, top-down, standardised curriculum may be a good answer to the industrial economy’s demand for punctual, literate, diligent workers capable of following the rules. An innovation economy is no less committed to the challenges of basic skills and literacy but also requires an education system that is curiosity-led, creates self-motivation and promotes collaborative problem-solving.

Current British debates about education are all about means: standards and testing, trusts and academies, the role of local education authorities and inspection. We need to open up a debate about what education is for in a world in which tens of millions of Chinese and Indians gain a sound education in the basics. Schools are often factories for learning in an age when we need agility, collaboration and self-motivation. Imagine an education system for the generation growing up making music with Garage Band, posting videos on YouTube, drawing information from Wikipedia and creating their own characters in Second Life.

Second, we must mobilise consumer innovators. Sectors such as mountain biking were first opened up by avid consumer innovators. Consumers not technologists discovered the potential for SMS messaging. Too often consumers are left out of innovation policy, which focuses on boffins creating technology that is then pumped down a pipeline. We need markets regulated and shaped to promote innovation that is driven and created by consumers.

Third, we need a wave of citizen innovation because many of the challenges we face are social. We must banish the nonsense that innovation comes only from youth. If we want more for our old age than to be warehoused in a residential home then we need a new wave of social innovations – playgrounds for the elderly and home-based services, supported by technology for monitoring health and staying connected. Ageing should be at the cutting edge of innovation as much as social networking and pop music. Social entrepreneurs around the world, in the mould of Mohammed Yunnus of the Grameen Bank, are mobilising citizen innovators. We need more of that spirit of mass social innovation in Britain.

Innovative societies generally have a shared story that everyone can relate to. Finland has an underdog story: a small nation surviving in the shadow of Russia. In the Netherlands, innovation is focused on pragmatic collective adaptations – dams, dykes, bridges – to allow it to live below sea level. In South Korea, with virtually no natural resources, innovation is close to a national ideology that self-consciously projects an image of dynamism. In the US, innovation is about opening up frontiers for exploration and growth, from the railroads out west through the space race to cyberspace.

The UK’s dominant story about innovation, in contrast, is a lament for gifted boffins and backroom boys betrayed by the men in suits. That will not do. Britain needs an approach that is not just about the scientific elite, the trendy creative class or entrepreneurial superheroes but about how all people can be innovators as consumers, citizens and creators in their own right. We need to respond to Li Gong’s challenge and fast.

The writer is a visiting senior fellow at the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (Nesta). His report, The Ten Habits of Mass Innovation, is at