So many ways to make Britain more ingenious

It may not be as gripping as a Dyson-style invention, but co-creation will do more for innovation than any amount of cuts to tax and red tape

Stuart Smith

“Art is pleasure, invention is treasure, and this nation has got to recognise that. If it can spend a fortune on dead sheep and formaldehyde, then it can spend a bit more of that money on inventors.”

That was Trevor Baylis, inventor of the wind-up radio and torch. But it might just as well have been Sir James Dyson, our greatest living engineer, in his relentless quest to put successful innovation at the heart of British economic endeavour.

Dyson has long called for a revaluation of our commercial and industrial skills. At last year’s Conservative Party Conference, he railed against the banks for creating “illusory wealth” and posed the far-from-rhetorical question, can Britain now only make money from money? Behind it lies one of the great mysteries of our national character. How is it that a country, whose entrepreneurial spirit fostered the industrial revolution and which became “the workshop of the world”, has diminished into a slick packager of collateralised debt obligations and celebrity culture (to take up Baylis’ point about Damien Hirst)?

The issue has assumed huge topical importance as the UK economy struggles to find the momentum for an “export-driven” recovery that will put behind us the shattered illusion of prosperity built upon fundamentalist market economics and consumer debt. Export what, exactly? Dyson’s own comprehensive contribution to the debate may be found in Ingenious Britain, a report just out that he has authored on behalf of the Conservative Party.

In it, Dyson is unsparing in his criticisms of Britain’s cultural blindspots and institutional inadequacies. Schools and universities fail to breed enough scientists, mathematicians and technologists; financiers, so innovative with their own flaky investment vehicles, are strangely risk-averse when it comes to supporting other people’s ideas; bureaucrats smother the inventive spark, with their endless demands for morale-sapping form-filling; and government, which should lead by example with carefully targeted tax credits and investment, doesn’t, because it has neither the vision nor the willpower.

It’s a familiar litany of complaints (and none the less compelling for that), but I wonder whether it misses one of the key points about innovation. Benign incubating conditions may facilitate the success rate, but frequently have little bearing on the quality of individual invention. Remember Harry Lime in The Third Man: “In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

Dyson’s career itself perfectly illustrates that paradox. His success has been a tribute to doggedness and natural commercial flair rather than any tax-breaks, facilitating loans or nurturing institutions (with the possible exception of Sir Terence Conran’s design studio in the mid Sixties).
Indeed, Dyson’s breakthrough invention, the cyclonic, bagless, vacuum cleaner neatly encapsulates his story. While recognising the importance of his technical insight, no manufacturer at the time would touch his invention for fear of destroying its established market share. Which forced Dyson to set up his own factory, at huge commercial risk, in 1993. Dyson bagless cleaners may now dominate the US and UK markets with an estimated one-third share, but this apparently effortless triumph little reflects the many years he had to spend in court trying to fend off rivals who were eagerly ripping off his idea.

Remember what Harry Lime said:

“In Italy under the Borgias they had warfare, terror and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock.”

For all his championship of consumer product innovation and his transformative effect upon our garden sheds (the ball barrow), living rooms (Air Multiplier fan), utility room (various vacuum cleaners) and even public loos (the Airblade hand-drier), Dyson is representative of a very particular tradition of industrial design. It’s the “heavy metal” end: of big, breakthrough inventions that require long gestation periods, heavy investment and maniacal faith in their eventual usefulness.

At the other end of the scale, corporations have been responding to the paralysing bureaucratic frustrations of modern society by embracing so-called co-creation innovation, in which the consumer is roped in as an adviser. Frequently, the added value amounts to little more than brand titivation (exchange of playlists through Apple iTunes, for instance), or the opening up of customer-facing services to public collaboration (Dell, Starbucks). At the higher end of activity, however, co-creation is transforming the way that companies manage innovation. Look no further for examples than, say, Procter & Gamble’s Connect & Develop division; or the development of Linux open-code software and the accompanying “apps” revolution.

Co-creation lacks the spectacular appeal of a Dyson-style breakthrough launch. It is collaborative rather than contrarian, and to that extent a lot more anonymous than the highly-acclaimed pioneering inventor. It requires little by way of tax-breaks or government intervention. It is indisputably a product of the democratising internet age, and its potency as a tool of innovation has been tremendously spurred by the spread of social media. It may be accused of “little wins” which fall short of big insights. But that is not invariably true. Inventions of whatever sort often have unintended consequences. Such as the ones currently sweeping the mobile telecoms market, thanks to Google and Apple. There’s nothing cuckoo about that.

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