THE BLOG

In Defence of Innovation...

13/02/2016 23:02 | Updated 13 February 2016

These days, the word 'innovation' is one of the most over-used terms in common parlance. As irritating in its own way, as 'designer' was in the 90s.

Innovation is too often used to mean 'new'. So many of the latest products are now called innovative, when actually, they are incremental upgrades. Innovation can, I admit, operate incrementally, but innovation in its true sense comes when an invention is transformed through design and radical user insights into a fully fledged new product or service. Whether it gently disrupts or causes its competitors to topple in one fell swoop is what we are witnessing at the moment, as innovation cycles in technology accelerate rapidly, either with a discernible business model attached or one that only becomes apparent in all of its magnitude once the dust of a tail wind settles. What started off as a quick way to solve short-term flat rentals suddenly undermines the business model of mid-market hotels (Airbnb). And the ramifications of Uber's end game are enormous: suddenly we can envisage a cheap, electric, driverless pod replace the taxi, the combustion engine, the driver, and the concept of car ownership. Uber shows us what the internet of everything will deliver; it's much more than a cheap fare in a Prius.

The ability of people to think differently, to challenge convention, and to create an extraordinary result through serendipity, tenacity, or chance - that is the thread that runs throughout our civilisation, whether it's the invention and commercialisation of porcelain as a luxury commodity in Han dynasty China or graphene in twenty-first century Britain.

The Napoleonic view of the British as a nation of shop keepers may have some truth to it, because we are good at service design and our designers are especially good at user interface and predicting consumer insight. What politicians and business commentators do however bemoan, is the tardiness with which the UK innovates. We're great at inventing new materials and technologies; less good at innovating in order to create commercial success. And less good at scaling up a new business with the long view in mind.

The Government understands this issue. Just last month, the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, announced the launch of a new plan to drive forward innovation in the UK.

This presents an opportunity for everyone in the creative and educational sectors. 4 out of the world's top 10 universities are based in the UK. London needs to aspire to become 'Silicon City' rather than content itself with a grimy roundabout. We have elite specialist institutions covering the creative industries and we have world-ranked giants which bestride our city. Silicon Valley can draw upon Stanford, but the entire paradigm of Silicon Valley with its 80s style science park suburbia is so deeply unappealing that surely, it will start to lose its lustre, talent pool and finally its VCs? The Crick Institute, the RCA's planned expansion at Battersea, UCL's new Stratford campus, Imperial West, KCL's expansion southwards, all position London as a formidable accelerator for invention and innovation, from fashion to biomed, architecture to materials and computer science. Any innovator would surely crave what Arup's Dan Hill calls the 'the city as studio' or the 'city as lab' model, rather than the soulless suburban sprawl of the Valley?

Enlightened government policy is often the first step. The RCA, where I work, was first established in 1837 as the Government School of Design, set up to ensure that British manufacturing industry was equipped with the design talent the nation needed in order to compete with foreign imports. Prime Minister Lord Melbourne would not have used the term 'value add', but that is what he saw the designers at Sevres and Dresden create, and he recognised that British products needed the 'value add' that design delivers. Nearly 180 years later the RCA is still shaping the world's creative leaders, the James Dysons, and Christopher Baileys of this world and they help consolidate the vision of London as the world's centre for innovation. Everyone from Government to universities, schools and industry has a part to play fostering the next generation of creative entrepreneurs.

So when you hear the word 'innovation' and instinctively roll your eyes, stop and think instead of what real creative thinking looks like -- and why it is so important to us all to help it grow.

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