In this blog James Baker, Chief Executive Officer of Graphene@Manchester, explores the UK approach to innovation and finding the next ‘Big Thing’ to stay competitive at a global level.
- North America continue to produce a succession pioneers who have delivered innovation through highly disruptive products and services.
- The UK approach to innovation is different with the government adopting a strategic approach through frameworks like the Industrial Strategy.
- If the UK is to remain competitive at a global level, the strategic innovation community must not lose sight of the value of true entrepreneurial spirit.
- There is a need for the UK government to adopt a ‘fail fast, learn fast’ approach for the model innovation community now being led by Manchester.
“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” This famous quote is often attributed to one of the greatest innovators of all time, Henry Ford. What Ford alludes to is the frustrating truth that customers will default to their known experience and, if asked in the early 1900s what their ideal future transport would be, they would not have chosen his vision for the car. And here lies one of the great challenges for the global innovation community. How do you choose the metaphorical horse that is most likely to win, in the highly competitive race to deliver the next ‘Big Thing’?
American pioneers and risk takers
In the wake of Henry Ford we have seen North America produce a succession of brave and determined pioneers who have delivered highly disruptive products and services such as visionary Steve Jobs at Apple, Jeff Bezos the founder of Amazon, and Elon Musk, the technology entrepreneur behind the Tesla electric car. The big breakthrough for Apple was the iconic Macintosh in 1984, the first affordable computer with a graphical interface which was to change the world of publishing forever. And the pace of innovation has continued with the launch of the iMac, the iPhone and iTunes, all of which revolutionised the communications, technology and music industries. While these ground-breaking innovations were massively successful, as Steve Jobs said: “Sometimes when you innovate, you make mistakes. It is best to admit them quickly and get on with improving your other innovations.”
Strategy, structure, and the UK approach
The UK approach to innovation is a little different. In recent years we have seen more large scale public-private sector partnerships – and to help pick the winning horse the government has created sophisticated frameworks like the Industrial Strategy. This carefully selects the grand challenges of the future, such as harnessing the power of artificial intelligence (AI), driving new developments in mobility and transport, as well growing our economies while also safeguarding our environment.
I applaud this strategic approach, as it enables the UK economy to apply its resources in a focused way, bringing huge economies of scale and delivering commercially supported solutions that also benefit the wider good. A great example is the Faraday Institution which is looking to radically develop the UK’s capability in battery technology. This ambitious university business partnership has been funded in part through the government’s £246 million investment in battery technology. It aims to make the UK the go-to place for the research, development, scale-up and industrialisation of cutting edge battery technology. For me, the real value of the
Faraday Institution will be establishing a pipeline of focused, substantial, and managed research projects in areas defined by industry, but delivered by businesses and universities, working in partnership.
The right model for advanced materials?
This classic sequential approach reminds me of the so-called ‘waterfall model’ which originated from the construction industry and was later adopted by computer programmers. Development is essentially segregated into a sequence of pre-defined phases, including feasibility, planning, design, build, test, production, and support. However, for me this may not be the best approach to deliver innovation when it comes to advanced materials which I believe will deliver the most disruptive underpinning technologies of our time. The fast pace of development in this exciting field means it’s perhaps too difficult to forecast an ultimate winner – instead, like those US pioneers, let’s start the race and see where it takes us.
Fail fast, learn fast
The clock is ticking. A range of sectors – including automotive, aerospace and construction – are impatient for the innovation they need to be sustainable, both economically and environmentally. A new generation of advanced materials are the most likely candidates to make the necessary difference to these businesses. I also believe that we can accelerate innovation without compromising safety, thanks to the advent of increased digitalisation in the industrial and manufacturing sectors – for example, adopting sophisticated modelling techniques, such as digital twin technology, to replicate ideas and quickly help identify and reduce potential risks.
To meet this demand a more agile, ‘fail fast, learn fast’ approach needs to be adopted across the advanced materials innovation community. This method focuses on short-term pilot projects and echoes the advice from Steve Jobs on being prepared to make mistakes, admit them quickly and get on with improving the innovation. It departs radically from the mainstream innovation model, because rather than trying to pick (and spend time and money) on a potential winner, we could instead spend much less time on running say, ten plausible projects all at the same time, but at a much earlier stage of their development. As we learn from our failures, we select or combine innovations that look to be winners.
The productivity puzzle
It all feels counter-intuitive but by making these informed quick-steps, the innovation journey should progress at a faster pace – and without the burden of the huge R&D investment normally required to develop a perfect, risk-free solution at every stage. This agility and speed to market would also improve productivity – perhaps the biggest drag on our economy.
The UK has experienced a slump in productivity growth since the financial crisis that shows no sign of ending. As a report by the Greater Manchester Independent Prosperity Review explains: “Almost every advanced economy has seen a sharp slowdown in productivity in the last decade. However, the UK has been amongst the most affected, and the gap with competing economies is getting wider. The UK’s output per hour is 76% of that of the US, 78% of the French, and 79% of Germany […] research by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) highlights a decade of stagnation, with UK output per hour not that significantly different to the level in 2007. This slowdown is often referred to as ‘the productivity puzzle’.”
How do we solve this puzzle? Well, I believe we should be looking at more agile innovation in the various organisations and institutions that support our economies. A special report produced by business thought leader Raconteur and published in The Times newspaper earlier this year highlighted the role of the supply chain in providing leadership in delivering innovation. As well as adopting new technologies, the Supply Chain Innovation report highlighted the need for more agility and collaboration across supply networks. Malcolm Harrison, Chief Executive of the Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply, said: “If an agile and flexible approach can be fostered without too much fear of breaking with the norm, an organisation can respond much quicker when innovations are presented, reaping the benefits fast and without having to wade through layers of process. This can become a competitive advantage.” And this is where The University of Manchester’s lab-to-market model comes to the fore.
The Manchester model
The ‘fail fast, learn fast’ approach should work well for the model innovation community now being led by Manchester, which features a ‘science supply chain’ that runs seamlessly across academia and commercial end-users. For us, this journey begins in research groups based in the University and where blue sky thinking can be nurtured in centres of excellence like the National Graphene Institute (NGI).
When the science is mature enough, we can transition it into projects based in the nearby business facing Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre (GEIC). The GEIC proactively engages with business partners for whom 2D materials could prove transformational, including light weighting, energy storage and membrane technology. For example, innovations to ensure your battery-driven car of the future is no heavier than the fossil fuel-powered vehicle it replaces, or your children and your children’s children will access sustainable energy and clean drinking water, regardless of the climatic conditions to come.
These flagship facilities are also part of a wider innovation eco-system including the Henry Royce Institute as well as Manchester’s Graphene City, an innovation ecosystem featuring a critical mass of scientists, manufacturers, engineers, innovators and industrialists centred around fully integrated lab-to-market capability. This unique advanced materials community will also contribute to the broader vision of ID Manchester – an ambitious scheme that will regenerate the University’s north campus to provide a 26-acre site that will be home to a new Innovation District in the heart of the city. The aim of this university-led project is to nurture a world-class community based around collaboration and enterprise. As the go-to place to discover disruptive technologies and creative thinking it would be an ideal place for ambitious start-ups looking to scale up or an international business wanting to establish a UK HQ. This £1.5 billion project has the potential to create over 6,000 new jobs – some of which, I have no doubt, will require highly skilled people who can work in the new 2D materials economy.
The catalytic role of Graphene City has been highlighted in the Greater Manchester Independent Prosperity Review which identifies innovation and the role of universities as a key driver to boosting regional UK productivity, stating: “…when it comes to the links between universities and business, there should be a role for strengthening the outstanding capabilities in basic research, idea generation and invention, as typified by Graphene City, as well as growing ‘incentives’ for the application of university research results. Here, incentives for increased R&D spending by firms and larger outlays for the purpose by Government should be a priority. The links to the Challenges identified in the Government’s Industrial Strategy and the respective opportunities for growth are key.”
Less fear, more entrepreneurial spirit
It’s important to recognise that the ‘science supply chain’ will not necessarily always mean a smooth transition from lab to market. A project could hit a setback at any stage and have to retrace its steps as the problem is unpicked and looked at again (like that frustrating moment in a game of snakes-and-ladders). This, however, is the potential strength of the Manchester materials model because by responding quickly to failure we can fast-track science-to-product innovation. So, what I would encourage national policymakers and public funding bodies to think about is this – failure is nothing to fear – if it’s managed in the proper way. A losing horse one day could be a champion a little bit down the line, if nurtured in the proper environment. Innovation is the same. Creating an innovation community is also just as critical to facilitate this more entrepreneurial approach. This massively mitigates the risk, but it does require infrastructure (research and scale-up facilities, a supporting supply chain, digital tools, etc) and people (bold leaders from academia and the business world, skilled professional staff, and world-class researchers). If we are to remain competitive at a global level, the UK’s strategic innovation community, led by the Department for Business, Energy and the Industry Strategy (BEIS), must not lose sight of the value of true entrepreneurial spirit, while working toward objectives set by the Industry Strategy and all its ambitious planning, consultative workshops and competitions. In a speech delivered in September 2012, one of the early architects of the nation’s economic plan, the then Business Secretary the Rt Hon Dr Vince Cable, stated that “a good industrial strategy allows for failures, and recognises that innovation may strike in an unpredictable place”. So, what would I recommend the UK’s strategic innovation community to consider in their plans?
- The need to have an ‘innovation stream’ within the Industry Strategy Challenge Fund that introduces and adopts the ‘fail fast, learn fast’ approach.
- A cultural shift in national funding and policy thinking with a recognition that the UK should be nurturing innovation winners based on the ‘fail fast, learn fast’ approach and not just ‘picking winners’.
- The need to identify and support exemplar innovation eco-systems that enable the ‘fail fast, learn fast’ way to innovation (Graphene City would be a good example).
Our economy, our daily lives and our planet stands to gain, and the sooner we start, the sooner we’ll reap the benefits.
This article was originally published in ‘On Materials,’ a collection of essays aimed at the advanced materials community in Greater Manchester and across the UK. You can read the full publication here, or in shorthand here.