THE BLOG

Why's the Inspiration Switch Not Set 'On', Automatically?

19/02/2014 15:19 GMT | Updated 21/04/2014 10:59 BST

The Government has launched an £8 million initiative to support technology-led solutions to address the challenges facing the UK high streets. These challenges include lack of parking, competition from out-of-town retailers and online stores - and the Telegraph reported that up to 14 percent of town centre shops were boarded up last year - so it's clear that there's a serious challenge on the high street. The new initiative is great news for UK retail entrepreneurs and businesses, no doubt about it.

But why is such funding necessary? What is the nature and state of innovation within UK businesses that means that the Government has to step in to help this sector?

Let's take a look at UK attitudes to innovation and technology from a wider point of view, taking in our students' low rates of interest in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects and the future impact this may have. Along the way we can investigate innovative UK projects and see how successful brands are using technology to redefine the customer experience.

New scheme funding innovation

The Technology Strategy Board scheme the Government is funding seeks firms that can build technological responses to challenges in retailing, logistics and traffic management. The name of the project is 'Re-imagining the high street'.

Minister of State for Universities and Science, David Willetts said: "By developing innovations to regenerate the retail sector we will be able to breathe new life into the UK's high streets. This competition will encourage exciting new developments that could change the way business is done across our high streets."

Where are our innovators?

But what's happening in our schools to enthuse a new generation. Are we inspiring a new generation of innovators? Have we lost an 'innovation generation' - is that why the government needs to step in?

The UK Commission for Employment and Skills recently published a report, 'Supply of and demand for High-Level STEM skills'. The report finds that there are certain sectors and regions suffering from skills 'potholes' which hold back growth. Additionally, careers in STEM are increasingly difficult to move in and out of, partly due to the pace of technological change. The skills of people working in the field can become out of date if they change career or fail to find a relevant job soon after leaving education. Sadly for the UK, there is still a major gender imbalance, particularly in engineering and IT, which must hold back significant innovation across many fields of business and life.

And any number of surveys show a strongly held belief that school leavers lack the 'right stuff' - to pick just one study, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) last year found that:

55 percent of businesses "say school leavers lack the right work experience and key attributes that set them up for success, including self-management (54%); problem solving (41%); and attitude to work (35%) - stressing the need for school reform to produce people who are rounded and grounded, as well as stretched academically."

Stay positive

The story is certainly not one of doom and gloom though. Fears that school-leavers and new job seekers lack what it takes should be taken with a pinch of salt as they are repeated year on year, and yet the UK remains a leading economy!

An example of a firm taking a bold innovative step is Burberry, a leading UK fashion brand. Many UK fashion brands remain resistant to using technology to innovate their offerings. Just 56 of the 100 biggest luxury brands have transactional websites, according to Exane BNP Paribas, quoted in The Economist. Yet CEO Angela Ahrendts calls the online, digital experience "the million square foot store", showing an appreciation of new strategies and routes to customers. Ahrendts wants Burberry plans to be the first luxury company that is "fully digital end to end".

Burberry's step is one that many businesses can take. Not only can firms connect with customers and partners in new ways with the right technology, those who have not audited their business processes and technologies regularly may find many areas for improvement.

With the upturn in the economy and businesses looking for growth opportunities, an important challenge is to create a platform for long-term growth. This means finding new ways to manage the business, using all the tools available.

I'm not convinced that our school leavers are any worse than those of previous years. Nevertheless STEM skills are important to power technology innovation, since we live in a technocratic age. Luckily the government is stepping in here too, providing a new £500,000 fund to train teachers in software coding, just announced.

The truly innovative won't always need such assistance - they have the drive themselves.

Take Nick D'Aloisio who as an 18 year-old sold his Summly artificial intelligence technology to Yahoo for a reported $30 million dollars, making him one of the youngest self-made millionaires ever.

Or Demis Hassabis, who after finishing his A-Levels two years early, began a computer games career, at 17 co-designing and lead programming on the classic game Theme Park. In 2011, he co-founded DeepMind Technologies, a machine learning start-up. DeepMind was acquired by Google, for £400 million.

Stories like D'Aloisio's and Hassabis' should be inspiring a new generation of innovators to learn, study, and bring their innovation and success into the wider world, for the benefit of all.

UK businesses should look to nurture the innovative talent within their businesses, and hire in those skills which they lack. Not including innovation in the business plan can lead to what's happened on the UK high streets... a lack of innovation leading to government support.

UK businesses have it in them to adapt and grow in the better economic climate that we're now in, and those leading firms that embed innovation deeply in their DNA will soon find themselves leading the pack.