Posted on Leave a comment

Brain Drain: Is British Innovation here to stay?

I recently spoke on a panel at ei's Comment conference.
It was a privilege to be among the speakers see here;
I was quite taken by Sam Roddick, Coco de Mer's founder, world view. Innovating our attitude to sex is quite a way from the usual technology based discussions I have about innovation and IPTV.

Anyway, here are the ideas I put together in anticipation of the conference.

If British Innovation is here at all, can there actually be a Brain Drain in the first place?
If there is, then Britain is already sliding down a slope towards decrepitude of some kind. The second part of the question implies some kind of divine right or duty to shine out.
My (and Julia’s) Viennese grandma told me of her Honeymoon in London just before the 1st world war. In Trafalgar Square her brand new husband told her “darling I’ve just brought you to the centre of the world”.
Well, that was a century ago.

I’ve lived in France for twenty years, so my brain must have gone down the British drain. Drains lead to sewers so that’s how I got to Paris.
Well maybe not. Britain is now part of Europe; at least that’s what the other Europeans think. If this talk had been about European Innovation and mobility we’d be taking quite different stances. clearly state that innovation is about raising the standard of living.
Innovation for its own sake has never created any value. True innovation must be useful, It’s about creating or reinforcing/reasserting a role a person or organisation plays in an ecosystem or society at large.

Some examples of failure and success from the past include: Chrome car bumper makers of the 50`s & 60`s. They went out of business when plastic came along because they thought their business was to do with chrome and a certain style, it wasn’t, they were absorbing shocks as cheaply as possible. In the same vain cinemas almost lost it, in the eighties, so they got smaller & cheaper but that just made things worse until a crazy Belgian guy created the first cinema multiplex. That was all about big seats, huge screens, lots of choice, ludicrously expensive popcorn galore, huge entrances, requiring a car journey to get there … it brought cinema back to the role it was always meant to have in society: a real night out, a break from reality, the opposite of home TV.

So if technology alone is extremely rarely a success or failure factor in innovation, what is? It’s the marketing ideas around something new and especially the way they’re perceived. That’s why this is a really interesting place for me to be instead of the usual techie conferences I attend.

The “Brain Drain” concept is very twentieth century. If British innovation were about being faster and more agile in the knowledge society that we’ve just entered into, then it’s a lost battle anyway. Spend just a few days in an Indian High-Tech company and you’ll see what I mean. These companies may not yet be the cause of a British Brain Drain, but they will very soon make a mockery of a previous worldview that implied that we, the chosen, (I mean Brits and a few other select nations) would somehow be superior in a knowledge-society world, just because we had more educated people.
Innovation in a knowledge-based society requires mobility and agility and the concept “Brain Drain” just doesn’t fit in.

A “brand” new Britain could capture a new set of criteria by which to measure success and innovation. Setting an example for the future of society rather than trying to win previous battles over again. Shifting the balance to social and environmental progress away from technological prowess might be part of the answer (ouch that last sentence hurt as I’m a technology person).

The new government can play out previous bust & boom scenarios and Britain will quickly get better including in terms of old-school innovation (no that’s not an oxymoron).
If the government plough loads of cash into making life great for technology start-uppers, of course we’ll see more twentieth Century innovation from London. Reducing capital gains tax and the likes would reduce the perceived Brain Drain. But is that all there is?
If such Innovation were the yardstick, Britain would fall to its true place well behind many other nations like for example South Korea or Israel.
Britain is one of the rare nations that could try a different route. What Obama has done to the US economy by pushing “green” into business could be even more powerful if done in a European context. European society is more intricate. You can’t “just do it” in London for example. You need to first get everyone on board to discuss, have tea, discuss some more then maybe decide over tea a few months later.
Going green in more than rhetoric would require more political will than in America, but the end result would be proportionally more significant. If Britain embarked on such a journey for this decade, it could spearhead a European move. In the next decade she would have an army of consultants and thousands of companies of a new kind.
The political entity we call our Country might not be better in terms of GDP or standard of living, as would have it, but could be leaps ahead in terms of quality of life.
Britain can innovate again on a global scale if she changes the rules. One new one could for example involve happiness creation as criteria for measuring the success of innovation.