If you walked in to the main hall of Innovate 2016 in Manchester earlier this month you would be forgiven for thinking that innovation in the UK was a bit like The Gadget Show. The life-sized robot was a hit – in ‘person' and on social media. VR companies were there in full force. QR codes were stuck all over household devices. Bits of kit that were all world class. An amazing testament to the ideas this nation can generate.
But if that was all you took away, you missed the richness of innovation that is unfolding around us. The really powerful stories came from listening to people talk, about initiatives in progress across industries from manufacturing to bioscience and urban planning. About the outcomes innovation can bring. Not about things.
Take manufacturing as an example. The decline of this sector is something we have heard much about in recent years. It would be easy to think we were looking at the inevitable collapse of UK as a manufacturing nation, in the face of ever cheaper volume production elsewhere. Yet we are still the 9th largest manufacturer globally and products made on our shores make up 44% of UK exports.
What emerged last week was an overriding sense of re-invention and a clear path being forged to bring home the bacon. It’s just not the same bacon we used to produce. Because the game we were playing has changed.
We have gone through cost engineering, JIT delivery and kaizen. We have learned to combine lean processes with agility. Now comes digitisation and the deployment of sensor-based tracking software to take another gargantuan leap in time and resource efficiency. And of course robots.
Companies of all sizes are reaping the benefits of innovation
Two manufacturing stories that particularly stuck in my mind were these:
Unilever just knocked 7 months off the test phase of a new cleaning compound by running a very large IBM computer simulation of product reactions that teams could control via an iPad app. The value of increased test speed was a 60% increase in year 1 sales. Net present value calculations just got a whole lot rosier.
Juice Technology have made it their mission to make ‘obsolescence obsolete’. Their new range of light bulbs have been designed for assembly, disassembly and re-assembly. Even recycling is viewed as failure, because these bulbs are built to last a lifetime. Throw-away culture has been shunned and a product-based business model has been exchanged for service contracts and subscriptions. In the same way airlines buy ‘power by the hour’ from Rolls Royce engines, the responsibility of longevity and product care is shared between supplier and buyer.
What do we need to get better at?
Among the many shining examples of innovation success, a few areas of improvement were discussed:
Bridging the gap between ‘best practice’ and ‘regular practice’.
Having one company as a world leader is no good on its own. Imagine what would happen to the UK’s bottom line if we got even 10% of our other companies adopting proven ideas. Actually that is exactly what ‘has’ been imagined. Hence www.howgoodisyourbusinessreally.co.uk a portal designed to push out relevant, instantly applicable learning to as many companies as possible, operating in key manufacturing sectors.
Linked to this resource are initiatives focused on widespread business behaviour change, not just information share. One of these is the academic-industry collaborative venture Productivity Through People, developed by BAE Systems, Siemens and Rolls-Royce.
Collaboration and cross-sector innovation
Without cross-sector idea stealing, Ford would never have created the automotive production line after a visit to the Chicago meatpacking district. But still we often hear much more obstruction to, than acceptance of, ideas from outside our immediate commercial environment. “Show me someone who has made that kind of thing work in my industry” means I’m showing you the place where you have already missed the boat.
And throwing up walls around IP has debatable value. Companies such as Brompton Bikes generally decline to patent ideas, on the grounds that the application process gives away more detail than industrial espionage. What you give away, you may see returned in the form of knowledge from outside your sector. A classic form of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, which individual inventors must navigate for themselves.
Commercialising new ideas
There is no doubt we have a pretty good crop of inventors in the UK. We don’t have quite the same hit rate when it comes to bringing those ideas to market with maximum commercial success. Many ideas are created here, but made into a success elsewhere. The race is still on, to make sure that doesn’t happen with new wonder materials like Graphene. With the help of specialist support like Catapult programmes and Innovate grant funding, UK bright sparks are getting better at entrepreneurship.
Getting the innovation habit
Innovation is hard work. It’s the road less travelled. The riskier, effortful option. For a nation with a high proportion of SME businesses all navigating ever choppier operating conditions, I think this presents us with a problem. We are asking people to leap in to the unknown at a time when their instinct will be to hunker down and weather the storm with their existing business model.
Spawning enthusiasm strong enough to get people adopting the innovation habit won’t be an overnight sensation, unless we can somehow hook it up to Pokemon Go.
But at next year’s innovation conferences, it would be great to see row upon row of innovation beneficiaries. People with more interesting jobs or a better quality of life. People working on new ideas across the supply chain with collaborators, not working in a shed to create one more new widget. A visual demonstration of the multiplier effect brought by the ideas and inventions developing this year. That would show the real, human value of innovation.