UK Election

Election event graphic

Tuesday 27 April, 18:30 for 18:45 (The Royal Society, 6-9 Carlton House Terrace, London SW1Y 5AG)

In partnership with the R&D Society and in association with Epoch

Despite its importance to our economic future, innovation has largely been overlooked since the credit crunch and is being largely ignored in the UK General Election. As a remedy, the R&D Society and the authors of BIG POTATOES: The London Manifesto for Innovation have together organised an eve-of-election event entitled Innovation, R&D and the General Election to ask:

  • What are the real barriers to making transformational innovations today?
  • How is innovation best managed?
  • What should business, government and the third sector do to change things?



The event was a great success, with original introductions and observations from the speakers and a lively and controversial debate that could have continued much longer. The speakers’ comments and the discussion are summarised below. The event seemed to be well received by the attendees, demonstrated by the attention to the discussion and quality of questions and points – as well as by the level of discussion in the post-event networking. We hope the event has raised the level of discussion of this subject, and were gratified that in the Prime Ministerial Debate that followed this event Nick Clegg noted the need to re-discover our passion for innovation, and David Cameron advocated the value of science.

Real time documentation

Twitter tag #RDPotatoes [Twitter results]


Photographs will be posted shortly.


An audio recording of the talks and discussion will be posted shortly.

The point about Big Potatoes: Norman Lewis, Chief Innovation Officer, Open-Knowledge

  • Innovation mentioned little in party manifestos, though all talking about ring-fencing research
  • See Royal Society on UK research budget lower vs other countries
  • Why innovation? Because of the need to raise productivity, increase the division of labour, living standards. The sheer dignity of science.
  • There is not too much technology but not enough, not enough science
  • Get back to nobility of science, production the dirty, nasty stuff of production
  • Not just technology [organisation too]. See impact of electrification in Twentieth Century on industry, etc.
  • ‘Broadband Britain’ is a towering example of un-ambition
  • R&D expenditure has been stagnant
  • Different approach in India and China: 2 Bn more people is 2 Bn more minds to be applied. See Yochai Benkler on new ways to use those minds and connect people as we have never done before.
  • Enormous potential but little ambition
  • Elite that has given up on the future and progress, and demeans knowledge
  • There is a festishing of the speed of change and lack of relevance of the past
  • Things won’t be the same for our kids and never were
  • Not a lot is new, eg: see the observation of the transformation of time and space in Marx
  • Uncertainty has become the organising principle of society. See David Cameron in the first leadership debate on not knowing what China will be doing in 10 years time. A new fatalism in which change isn’t about human beings assessing situations and taking action [check]. See the lack of scientific evidence on the ash cloud. Not an abstract point or luxurious cultural discussion: this has real consequence.
  • Once you take this approach you abandon science. See commercial short-termism in research from Orange, H-P etc.
  • Destroying the authority of knowledge and what it might do for the future
  • You need knowledge to understand innovation. By contrast, see the New Labour manifesto on education as an export business. How will we train the next generation of scientists when we have this attitude? Low expectations of what next generation can [missed].

Reply: James Wilsdon, Director of the Science Policy Centre, The Royal Society

  • The Scientific Century report (began as Fruits of Curiosity, see also the US parallel, if more dramatic, report Rising Above the Gathering Storm) makes a case for ambition, thinking big, maintaining a long-term perspective. Note the response to the impact agenda and unrealistic expectations of politicians.
  • Science features more in the manifestos. The Conservatives didn’t mention science in two previous manifestos.
  • On the BIG POTATOES manifesto: I liked its global aspect: see the Atlas of Ideas project I wrote with Charles Leadbeater on how Asian innovation can help us all.
  • I note the limitations of the linear model of innovation but we shouldn’t lump everything under a very amorphous definition of innovation.
  • For the Royal Society’s 350th anniversary we are looking back. See the related book Discuss Seeing Further: The Story of Science and the Royal Society by Bill Bryson (ed.) and the application of Alec Jeffreys’s work on DNA fingerprinting.
  • [On ‘useless research’] Past Royal Society president: Research that is applied and that which is not yet applied.
  • Didn’t like climate change element of Manifesto.
  • [On Principle on precaution] Precaution is needed when dealing with some issues, eg: GMOs. Need precautionary and risk-based approaches.
  • [On Principle on regulation] Regulation can stimulate innovation, eg: carbon taxes, building regulations.

[James also mentioned the Royal Society’s Summer Science Exhibition 2010 which will be held at London’s Southbank Centre from 25 June to 4 July, as part of the See Further: The Festival of Science + Arts, celebrating the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society in 2010 and jointly organised with Southbank Centre.]

    Reply: Eliot Forster, CEO, Solace Pharmaceuticals

    • [Tells Charles Handy story on different reaction from frog put into boiling water vs put in cold water that is warmed to boiling] We are within warming water. This is as good a hot water as I have seen in a long time.
    • That new MPs will not have a scientific background is a problem. Change can be upon us without us realising.
    • What is innovation for? See cure rate for various cancers.
    • Increasing population proffers possibilities but also problems, eg: obesity. This requires innovation. You can all think of a dozen other examples.
    • I endorse the Manifesto’s endorsement of elitism and failure: failure leads to learning only available to those who are part of an elite. Don’t allow meritocracy to become mediocrity as we will lose the elite that allows this to happen. [Subsequent clarification: Those who have achieved the compentency to innovate (through training, education, experience and personal endeavour. An innovation-based economy and society provides the opportunity to acheive these things, but accepts they are not for everyone – hence ‘elite’. To try to create a system so that all can participate in this form of elitism leads to mediocrity.]
    • Ought to have blue skies research but should not be aimless
    • See Thomas Friedman on putting bailout money into new organisations

    Reply: Steven Cousins, managing director, Axon Automotive Ltd

    • People can’t understand that we are a car company!
    • We had a 100mpg car but were told that only electric cars were the answer
    • Real innovations take place in the body not the motive unit
    • Challenge is to look at fundamentals: emissions are a function of vehicle mass vs power
    • Avoid faux science and bad method. Marry research to fundamentals to allow innovation to happen.
    • Concerned about the use of language: Need low emission vehicles.
    • Blue skies research lead to the light weight materials we use in our vehicles. [Show material sample.] See £40m Legible London programme which does not have proven benefits.

    Reply: Munira Mirza, advisor for arts and culture to the Mayor of London

    • Manifesto is well written. Lots of parallels with the world of arts and culture.
    • From ‘Cool Britannia’ to the ‘Creative Economy’
    • Insight 1: Don’t confuse quantity and quality in arts or innovation
    • Insight 2: Innovation is the product of a wider society, eg: Anish Kapoor-Cecil Balmond ArcelorMittal Orbit Olympic Park sculpture: wouldn’t have been possible in a pre-CAD age

    Conditions for innovation

    1. Have seen growth in cultural product with funding but need to prove a short-term outcome: this need for impact is the opposite of what innovation is about. Resistance to investing in the long term, eg: many music initiatives vs lack of investment in education. See higher education assessment and impact of research. Inhibits younger researchers.
    2. Specialist knowledge: View that this stops you breaking out of the box. But you have to know the rules to break them. [Kids education deprived.] Took years for Picasso to learn to draw like a child.

    Scale can be very good for creativity

    1. Fetishisation of young people in cultural organisations around their lack of knowledge. Young people end up repeating the same old mistakes.
    2. Scale can be very important to creativity and innovation, in commercial organisations as well
    3. Cultural attitude to risk taking and wariness of positive attitudes to change. See Joseph Wright of Derby or Modernists, who saw the creative use of technology as positive.
    4. There is a real public appetite for innovation. See Brunel Tunnel opening: people loved the idea that this was a world first. The Brunels didn’t know the tunnel would be part of an underground railway. Would like artists to see that barriers to science are similar to barriers they face.

    Reply: Stefan Stern, management columnist, Financial Times

    • Open innovation is trendy but lots of good companies are very closed, eg: German Mittel-stand companies [SMEs]
    • Go outside the box when we have completed the work inside
    • Need for hard work. Find out what people are up to (‘management by walking around’)
    • There is also a need for leadership
    • Michael Porter: Relentlessness leads to discovery. Not the same as Gary Hamel’s ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ approach, not least as companies may not have the budget for it.
    • The Manifesto provides a context for an intelligent discussion

    Discussion: Name and affiliation

    [Discussion notes are incomplete and may be inaccurate and should not be directly cited]

    • David Wood: Need more innovation in innovation, eg: cross-disciplinary, open innovation
    • ??: No definition of research, R&D and innovation. See Maran and Haskel QM research. Risk is not synonymous with what we are doing: see See Alwart [sp?]. Eliot: Science not the same as innovation. Alec Jeffries used IT. Public input into innovation.
    • Daniel Ben-Ami: Climate change argument is about kind of response.
    • Norman Lewis: Applied and non-applied research. Can’t elide research and development. Right to separate science and innovation. Danger of commercialising what we do today.
    • Geoff Lawton [check]: Old companies failing creates room for new ones.
    • James Woudhuysen, BIG POTATOES: Not much new creation coming. [To James Wilsdon] Precautionary principle says we should never attempt something unless consequences benign in all situations. No scientific absolutes, see Popper. Falsify-ability. Regulation: Clegg-ish reduction to taxation. Substantive Parliament: people want idea. Be pro-innovation and militant. Workgroups.
    • Kieran Levis, Cortona Consulting: Crisis of innovation? Where is the problem [?].
    • Alan Patrick, BIG POTATOES: Our grandparents saw the most innovation
    • Paul Reeves, SolidWorks R&D: We are a closed company, as was Jaguar-Landrover. Eliot: Could you do without IP system.
    • Geoff Lawton, InMed: Pharma companies discussion exiting research
    • Johny Morris, iergo Ltd: Open source software companies. Can’t ignore non-UK research. Problem of small companies not getting innovative when bigger.
    • Guy Rundle [?], The Age: In Australia lack of vision of the future. Munira: Wider cultural problem.
    • Sarah Farrugia: Where is ethics in this discussion?
    • Martyn Perks, BIG POTATOES: Culture of limits that leads innovation [check].


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