Should government get involved when it comes to helping British firms be innovative? This was the question posed by the latest debate on competing in the global economy hosted by the Royal Academy of Engineering last week.
It’s a pertinent point: the coalition government has already announced the creation of Technology and Innovation Centres, modelled on Germany’s Fraunhofer Institutes, which will be managed by the Technology Strategy Board. It is hoped the new £200 million centres will bridge the gap between the research base and industry, focusing on areas such as high value-added manufacturing.
But some believe a hands-off approach is better. They argue that government should allow innovation to prosper unfettered by regulation. One panellist, arguing for the motion that the “best innovation happens without government intervention” said that Apple, Microsoft, Ford and the Wright brothers relied on a spirit of innovation that was anathema to government, which moves too slowly to successfully innovate. “The successful entrepreneur is not a committee member – he’s a dictator.”
Others disagreed: Excelsyn founder Professor Ian Shott, arguing against, said the government should be responsible for providing a “supportive environment” in which innovation could thrive, coordinating itself closely with business. The Fraunhofers, public-private partnerships, had shown “constant growth almost every year”. By contrast, and this was something which all the panellists agreed on, the approach in the UK to translating research into wealth creation had been “less than stellar”. It was here that consensus lay.
There were examples of companies that relied enormously on government for their health, one panellist argued, including BAE Systems. Tim Berners-Lee created the worldwide web while working for publicly-funded CERN, someone pointed out during the debate. But, no matter which side of the debate they were on, all agreed that there had to be a way of doing things better: one most hope for the success of the innovation centres in the wake of the decision to abolish regional development agencies and other public bodies that support business.
In the end the motion was defeated by a substantial majority. This, as one wag pointed out, could have been down to a large number of public servants in the audience. Where do you stand on the innovation versus government intervention debate?