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Let Brexit Be The Mother Of Invention

02/09/2016 14:54

The fathers of Britain's industrial revolution have cast a long cultural shadow.

Whether they backed Brexit or Remain, politicians during the EU referendum campaign were quick to invoke the inventors of the first factory machines, builders of canals, roads and railways.

We're meant to draw confidence for the future from distant ancestors in stove pipe hats who have come to symbolise British ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit.

But there's a blunt question beneath the political rhetoric for Theresa May's government to ponder.

Is today's Britain innovative enough?

Seventh in the world and stagnating

Take a look at the latest raw data comparing Britain to the rest of the world.

Last year there were 218,000 attempts to claim international legal protection for ideas for new products, components or creative concepts - the raw ingredients of innovation.

Some of those ideas were speculative and will never make it into production. Many offer incremental improvements to existing technology. A few may have the potential to reshape our personal and professional lives; innovations in bio-tech or business tech.

According to the latest data from the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), Britain ranked seventh in the 2015 league of countries that submitted applications under the Patent Co-operation Treaty, which is one of the two routes to secure international legal protection for a new idea.

Ahead of Britain came the United States, Japan, China, South Korea, Germany and France.
Seventh may sound encouraging ... until you compare Britain's 5,313 applications last year to the 57,385 patents applied for in the US, Japan's 44,235, or even South Korea's 14,626.

WIPO's data shows the countries ahead of Britain have enjoyed a rising trend of patent applications through the last decade, while the number generated in the UK has plateaued since the year 2000.

Must try harder

Dig deeper and you won't find any British companies in the top 50 private sector patent applicants last year. One company, the Chinese telecoms giant Huawei, submitted almost 4,000 alone - four and a half times as many as Microsoft, five times more than Google.

You will also find only two UK universities in the US-dominated higher education top 50: Oxford and Imperial College, London.

Three of the top five governmental applicants came from French state-sponsored research institutes - again, there are no British representatives in the top 50.

So if this suggests that Britain "must try harder" when it comes to generating ideas, how do things stand when it comes to putting ideas to work?

Business-as-usual not good enough

Look at productivity and there's a similar concern.

In short, Britain needs to generate more ideas ... and do a better job at turning them into products to compete with the world's biggest economies.

That means a pre-Brexit policy rethink of the incentives and aid programmes to support research and development: tax system, grants and subsidies.

After all, if leaving the European Union means a lifting of European rules against state aid, there will be new opportunities to give practical support to British businesses.

But the real challenge is for businesses to think hard about their own operations from shop-floor to top-floor.

The 20th century business mantra "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" is long-overdue a rethink.

It's a licence to overlook what could be done better. The fact that it works is not necessarily the same as the most effective or most efficient solution.

Door now open to business-as-it-should-be

Look to the most productive countries - and leading lights in innovation - and in tech terms, everything from email to antivirus is being rethought to find more effective and efficient solutions.

Likewise, there's a growing business culture that's moving from owned to shared - whether co-working space or sharing transport.

So while preparations for trade talks get under way, the new Government should encourage British businesses to adopt a more innovative frame of mind post-Brexit.

The question every British business should ask is not just "is this best tool for the job?" but "has the right tool been invented yet?"

If it hasn't, then let Brexit be the mother of invention.

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