We are all familiar with the optical illusions where by if you look at the black shapes you see one thing (e.g. two faces) and if you look at the white space you see something else (i.e. a candlestick). This seems like an apt analogy to start to talk about the recent announcement to invest £200m to set up a national network of Technology Innovation Centres across the UK.
Whilst I have some sympathy with the arguments that public investment in the economy should be more focussed on capital investment (such as transport and communications infrastructure i.e. if you give people the ability to connect, physically or digitally the rest will look after itself), I am also wary that ‘a bunch of buildings’ will somehow be the saviour of our economy.
This was reinforced by some of the commentary afterwards which was asking whether, in a connected age, spending money on bricks and mortar is really the best and most cost effective way to spark innovation in the UK. In summary, we need a thriving network and ecosystem that connects up large and small businesses, universities, investors etc for an economy to thrive.
Mind The Gap
I feel strongly about because I often describe what we do at 100%Open as trying to bridge the gap between (usually large and small) organisations. This sounds easy and obvious but it just doesn’t happen as much as it needs to and I think we are part of a wider trend towards a network of intermediary organisations that act as facilitators and connectors at both a local and global level.
But the other reason I feel strongly about this announcement is because I’ve seen a similar inititaves fail in the past. A few years ago I was responsible for setting up a network of incubators and investigating the possibility of setting up a science/knowledge park on behalf of the London Development Agency. The vision was to set up 8 incubators and 1 science park in the capital, but in the end (due to both budgetary and political constraints) we managed to set up 3 incubators and no science parks. In each case the money would almost always only be enough for the construction phase and then the new centre would inevitably be forced to run as commercial property, and therefore essentially rather than sparking innovation, they became simply subsidised workspace.
It’s always an easy photo opportunity for an MP (or even a Mayor or PM) to point to the shiny new building that they have paid for as a signal of what they are doing to regenerate an area or rebuild the economy. It’s much harder to point to the real value that these buildings have created, which depend far more on the informal networks that really make them really work. These require commitment, empathy, lateral insight that are much harder to simply throw money at.
Clients not Cash
Once upon a time the smart strategy was to focus innovation investment on the most promising companies in an economy and try to grow them. However the days of picking winners is long gone, partly because government has a terrible record of spotting winners, but also because it is much too expensive. For example it is much more cost effective and beneficial to connect a university spin out with a client who wants to buy what they have to sell, rather than to give them a grant of say £100,000 to develop their technology or IP. And yet why is it that the vast majority of publically funded innovation initiatives resemble the latter strategy rather than the former?
In summary, we need an agile and connected economy that reflects the networked way the world works and whether David Cameron and his advisers come to the same conclusion about investing in Technology Innovation Centres in a few years time remains to be seen. But either way I would urge them to focus on the spaces inbetween, more than the centres themselves, if this policy is to be a success.