A British malady or pure invention?

John Philip Holland, born in 1841 a British citizen, was to all intents and purposes the inventor of the submarine. Though much of his development work was conducted with the fledgling US navy, it was to Europe that he was obliged to turn for a real market. At the time Britain, the premier global naval power, was obsessed with a new and supposedly invincible super-weapon, the dreadnought battleship. The naval establishment regarded submarine warfare as ‘ungentlemanly’ and sought to ignore it. Imperial Germany was not so fastidious. After Britain’s costly strategic naval victory at Jutland in 1916, the days of the dreadnought were numbered; submarines became Germany’s naval weapon of choice… with devastating results for Allied shipping.

Such, in dramatic form, is a typical history of British invention: eccentric, misunderstood inventor, an unreceptive home market obsessed with orthodoxy and a nice windfall for a not entirely deserving UK competitor. It couldn’t happen 100 years on, could it? Well, James Dyson – nowadays the UK’s most commercially successful inventor – would take issue with that. Dyson’s latest rant about the obtuseness of Britain’s commercial, financial and governmental institutions towards inventions admittedly comes in the wake of his latest innovatory launch, the so-called Ball – which is modestly billed the ‘biggest change to vacuum cleaner design’ since the launch of (his own) Dual Cyclone machine back in 1993. Not everyone would agree with that self-aggrandising suggestion after grappling with the aforementioned Dual Cyclone. They would be hard-put, though, to dispute Dyson’s understanding and conquest of his market, particularly in the US where his brand is top of the vacuum-cleaner category.

Besides, being a skilful propagandist does not invalidate his critique. Dyson comes to the problem from an engineering as much as from a design point of view. Indeed, according to his recent Richard Dimbleby Lecture, he believes our obsession with style, rather than engineering solutions, is allowing the competitive ground to be cut from beneath us by the likes of China, where low-cost production and imported Western know-how are thriving. Many, indeed, will remember that Dyson himself was forced to outsource his Wiltshire manufacturing facilities a few years ago, though in his case to Malaysia.

But the problem may be more complex than Dyson suggests. That, certainly, is the view of Dick Powell, director of Seymour Powell – an agency that has just added a hydrogen-fuelled bike to its long innovation pedigree. Interestingly, Powell believes that excessive zeal in applying classic marketing discipline is partly responsible for the failure of many potential innovations. ‘Marketers tend to focus on a single aspect of a problem rather than the broader issues. They get carried away with exceptional design or price, or what the product can, or can’t, do rather than consider all those things together,’ he says. And – nothing new here perhaps – he castigates over-reliance on research feedback. One other important inference: to the extent that a company is bigger, it is also more bureaucratic and risk-averse to innovations that, by their nature, are highly prone to eventual failure. They never get on to, let alone off, the production line.

The trouble with this, as Powell implies, is that unless you present the public with a fait accompli, how are they ever going to know what they want? Beaming accountants surveying negative research feedback is not necessarily a desirable outcome.

Stuart Smith, Editor

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