Closing the Innovation Gap

November 27, 2012 5:02 pm

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It is hard to believe that the United Kingdom, the birthplace of those that gave us the World Wide Web and the jump jet, might fall behind in the race for creativity. But despite David Cameron’s promise that his government would remain “firmly on the side of the high-growth, highly innovative companies of the future”, our fragile economy is being starved of crucial investment in innovation. Whilst the UK has prevaricated, other powerful economies have thrown their weight behind innovative research and development. The UK can, and must, close this widening innovation gap.

From radar to the Royal Mail, the chronometer to the computer, our island has been a standard- bearer of modernity for centuries. Britain’s reputation for creativity has sustained our standing in the world, and shaped our legacy.

The British instinct towards innovation and inventiveness remains a source of power to this day. It is a relief, but given their talent no surprise, that our innovators continue to perform in spite of being choked of investment. Our creative industries are vital to our economy and, according to the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, innovation led to 63% of the UK’s economic growth between 2000 and 2008. This is clear in my constituency of Barnsley Central, where the Digital Media Centre provides office space and invaluable support to over forty local start-ups and early-stage businesses. Only through the fostering of creativity and innovation can British businesses have a coherent and competitive future.

To achieve this future we must help those businesses which produce ideas and technologies that can’t be reproduced in the world’s sweatshops. The government must find ways to incentivise innovation. But rather than stimulating creativity, our government is taxing it. Out of 42 countries recently studied by The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, the UK only comes 25th in the R&D tax subsidies given to small- and medium-sized enterprises.

Other economies are also directly investing more in innovation. France, Germany, Japan, Korea and the United States all spend more on research and technology. If the innovation gap is going to be closed, then it is time for the government to take seriously the task of making it easier for businesses to innovate.

We must also strive to give every individual access to a world of ideas and information. The internet is integral to this pursuit. The rollout of superfast broadband to every household and workplace in Britain would be a precious resource for innovation. Jeremy Hunt promised that Britain would have “the best broadband network in Europe” by 2015, with superfast broadband in 90% of homes. Yet a quarter of adults are still without any access to broadband, and it is unlikely that the coalition will meet their broadband targets

If the internet is open to all, then all of us have the chance to start a business with little more than an idea and a laptop. Peter Cochrane, the former chief technology officer at BT, said that if the government doesn’t do more to make the internet better, and create a better informed and creative culture, then the UK risks being “frozen out of the next industrial revolution”. The government must not disregard their promises for faster broadband, or they will endanger both innovation and the future development of our economy.

If the UK is to be a hub for connectivity, innovation and creativity, it must also be a hub for talent. Of course, our borders must be tightly controlled, and our first priority must be educating, training and employing our own young people. But the UK should also welcome the world’s most talented graduates and skilled workers, who will help grow our economy and feed British innovation for the next century.

The coalition government is failing to welcome these talented individuals to our marketplace. They have been unable to meet their immigration targets by removing Europeans or asylum-seekers, and have chosen to punish graduates and skilled workers instead. In the year prior to June 2012, the number of work-related visas and student visas issued plummeted by 7% and 21% respectively. The world’s brightest minds will soon no longer see the UK as a promising destination for their careers, and faced with more and more bureaucracy, British businesses and universities will stop sponsoring visas for foreign candidates. The government must make it easier for these individuals to come and contribute to our innovative society. With their help, we can assure that the world’s best research happens in our lands.

And without a longer-term strategic plan, the innovation gap will endure and widen, unless innovation is fostered in our schools. Our curriculum too often stifles our children’s imagination, rather than rewarding it. We should encourage our youngest to raise their hands and ask unexpected questions, and welcome them to approach the whiteboard to try to solve perplexing problems, without the fear of getting it wrong. And to make a collectively powerful and creative workforce, our schools should allow children to realise their creativity through teamwork, as well as by themselves.

Schools must teach core skills, but they should also provide opportunities for creativity, be it in art, music, design, I.T., or other creative disciplines. The role of innovation in our education system currently leaves much to be desired. Our schools are under relentless pressure to prioritise traditional academic subjects, to the detriment of creative teaching. The Joint Council for Qualifications have reported that this year, there were 3.6% less entries for GCSEs in Music, 5.1% less entries for Design and Technology, and 6.3% fewer entries for Drama.

Michael Gove’s plans for reforming education will not improve this state of affairs. His plans for a more ‘traditional’ curriculum belong to the wrong century. Rather than providing rich and creative teaching; schools will be forced to reward the regurgitation of facts in just a few exams. These are not the skills which our modern economy demands. Now is the time to place creativity and imagination at the heart of our classrooms. We must ensure that the next generation have the skills necessary to thrive in the 21st century, not those that belong in the past.

It is the time for Britain to once again become the innovation nation. If we invest in creativity, then both the present and future generations will reap the benefits. If we only invest in unproductive assets and our own consumption, then we will deprive our children of the chance to thrive and grow our society.

The innovation gap that is growing every day between the UK and other countries will only begin to close if the coalition fosters long-term creativity. The government must extend their vision and thinking from the here and now and ensure that all of their policies, from immigration to quantitative easing, reflect wisdom that will create lasting benefits. If they continue to invest in only today and not tomorrow, then the innovation gap will become permanent and our next generation will be left to pick up the pieces.

Dan Jarvis is MP for Barnsley Central and  Shadow Minister for the Arts  

  • Quiet_Sceptic

    Creativity != Arts, music, drama.

    Too much of the debate about creativity and innovation assumes that creativity’s natural home is with the arts yet the creativity and innovation which the politicians seem to want; technology start-up companies, hi-tech manufacturing, software development etc is built on innovative products and developing these requires a solid understanding of traditional academic disciplines – maths and science.

    You can be dripping with creativity but you aren’t going to be inventing the 21st century equivalent of the cavity magnetron unless you’re a dab hand at maths and physics.

  • Quiet_Sceptic

    Creativity != Arts, music, drama.

    Too much of the debate about creativity and innovation assumes that creativity’s natural home is with the arts yet the creativity and innovation which the politicians seem to want; technology start-up companies, hi-tech manufacturing, software development etc is built on innovative products and developing these requires a solid understanding of traditional academic disciplines – maths and science.

    You can be dripping with creativity but you aren’t going to be inventing the 21st century equivalent of the cavity magnetron unless you’re a dab hand at maths and physics.

  • Quiet_Sceptic

    Creativity != Arts, music, drama.

    Too much of the debate about creativity and innovation assumes that creativity’s natural home is with the arts yet the creativity and innovation which the politicians seem to want; technology start-up companies, hi-tech manufacturing, software development etc is built on innovative products and developing these requires a solid understanding of traditional academic disciplines – maths and science.

    You can be dripping with creativity but you aren’t going to be inventing the 21st century equivalent of the cavity magnetron unless you’re a dab hand at maths and physics.

    • AlanGiles

      I agree with your final paragraph, QS. One of my great regrets was that at school in my day physics was barely mentioned – not even in passing. It was a secondary modern which just taught the basics. Now that society has moved on, I must confess I am disappointed that too many students still don’t get the opportunities to persue the sciences. I have mentioned it before, but a few years ago my local college (Havering College) built a whole new wing – devoted to the performing arts. My own view is that a career in the arts is based as much on luck (being in the right place at the right time, and having the right face etc) than talent, and anyway, there are only so many TV presenters, dancers and singers that are needed.

      I think that filling kids heads with the idea they can be a “star”, by persuing a Mickey Mouse course, diploma or even degree course is both deceitful and ultimately destructive. Of course, not every person learns – or wants to learn – at the same pace and the same time, and there should be opportunities for people to go on learning at all ages, and we should concentrate on trying to get more interested in engineering, construction etc and stop the still prevelant idea that we don’t want to interest people in “dirty” jobs. What could be more dirty than some tarty actress, or failing self obsessed MP or “entertainer” of yesteryear toddling off to the jungle on TV to make a fool of themself. At the other end of the scale, the junior “Apprentices” seem to want to act like hammy AmDram actors than really aspire to industry or manufacturing things, or doing constructive things with their lives.

      I totally agree that maths and science should hold a higher place in the priorities of educational establishments.

    • AlanGiles

      I agree with your final paragraph, QS. One of my great regrets was that at school in my day physics was barely mentioned – not even in passing. It was a secondary modern which just taught the basics. Now that society has moved on, I must confess I am disappointed that too many students still don’t get the opportunities to persue the sciences. I have mentioned it before, but a few years ago my local college (Havering College) built a whole new wing – devoted to the performing arts. My own view is that a career in the arts is based as much on luck (being in the right place at the right time, and having the right face etc) than talent, and anyway, there are only so many TV presenters, dancers and singers that are needed.

      I think that filling kids heads with the idea they can be a “star”, by persuing a Mickey Mouse course, diploma or even degree course is both deceitful and ultimately destructive. Of course, not every person learns – or wants to learn – at the same pace and the same time, and there should be opportunities for people to go on learning at all ages, and we should concentrate on trying to get more interested in engineering, construction etc and stop the still prevelant idea that we don’t want to interest people in “dirty” jobs. What could be more dirty than some tarty actress, or failing self obsessed MP or “entertainer” of yesteryear toddling off to the jungle on TV to make a fool of themself. At the other end of the scale, the junior “Apprentices” seem to want to act like hammy AmDram actors than really aspire to industry or manufacturing things, or doing constructive things with their lives.

      I totally agree that maths and science should hold a higher place in the priorities of educational establishments.

  • Visual

    Good article! And it is in places like South Yorkshire with its tradition of industrial innovation in the “heavy” industries and still plenty of that industry around but more focussed on the specialist rather than basic products, that we need to enable the bright sparks who work in those industries to experiment and develop.

    Vicky Seddon

  • Pallof

    I agree with most of what Dan writes but some young people, particularly in areas such as Barnsley, need extra input at school to get them to the starting line. Traditional schooling in post heavy-industry areas has neglected to teach pupils that they can be creative. Metacognition (learning how to learn) and education for creativity has been neglected for too long in favour of training for work; as son followed father into mining, etc. and girls were expected to work in the home or for ‘pin money’. Although the demise of heavy industry was a quarter of a decade since, the curriculum has not kept pace with the need for the sort of freedom to explore and encouragement to innovate that Dan alludes to and nor has the opportunity for pupils to learn how to do so.

    As the curriculum becomes ever narrower and the teachers ever more under pressure to gain private sector ‘Brownie points’ through OFSTED, more young people are left behind.

    We should follow the example of others and ensure that teaching assistants and remedial teachers are better equipped even than ordinary class teachers (in Finland they are educated to at least masters level) and that the curriculum is broader and deeper. The International Baccalaureate is widely used by many successful schools and is accepted for entry to many university courses. The ‘I Bac’ also includes ‘Approaches to learning’ and a personal project as well as technology, sciences and arts; along with languages and an ethos of international mindedness.

    If pupils and students in some of our most deprived communities are to overcome their disadvantages and achieve their potential we must introduce a better curriculum and ethos in our schools as well as giving all those who wish to return to learning later in life the opportunity to do so. Our economy needs the potential locked up in the future and current generations to be released.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jon.marsden.96 Jon Marsden

    One of my friends would love to come to work `oop North, he went to University of York, he now runs R&D dept for Sony in Oxford….as he says there simply aren`t the jobs.

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