Review: The Future of British Innovation

Your Ready Business reports from the first Live series event – the Future of British innovation.

For 60 years, Michael Faraday stood at the forefront of nineteenth century science, bringing discoveries such as the electromagnetic field and chlorine to the world. What you might not know, however, is that he was also a great communicator, who openly shared his theories and discoveries, and helped build networks of scientists who in turn exchanged and shaped their ideas.

So it’s fitting that the first Your Ready Business Live series innovation event took place in the shadow of Faraday’s statue, which occupies the foyer at the Royal Institution of Great Britain.

The Future of British Innovation brought together four of the nation’s most successful entrepreneurs. Charlie Mullins, Jo Fairley, Wayne Hemingway MBE, and Luke Lang, plus a long list of delegates from diverse areas of business – for an open exchange of ideas, opinions and advice. Bryan Hill, Innovation Manager at Vodafone UK, introduced the event with a snapshot of the network provider’s pioneering work in communications.

The panel discussion, focusing on innovative business thinking, was chaired by business owner and journalist Dan Matthews, who put some probing delegate questions to the entrepreneurs: What is innovation? Where and how can you apply it? Is the UK still a global creative leader? Who’s best placed to drive innovation – business or Government? Whatever happened to ‘craft’? What does the future hold for the high street? And how does British business regain lost ground in the manufacturing stakes?

The panel – from very different business backgrounds – provided some insightful perspectives on these and many other key issues facing UK industry.

One recurring theme was that innovation doesn’t necessarily mean inventing the next wheel, the next electricity, or the next internet. For modern businesses, innovation can simply mean looking at an old problem from a different angle, and solving it in a new, better way. Charlie Mullins, who set up Pimlico Plumbers in 1979, spoke candidly of how simply turning up on time, in a clean van, with a clean uniform, was innovative in its time. And how businesses must constantly push for new and differentiating thinking – or else risk losing ground to the competition.

Wayne Hemingway, MBE, now heavily involved in social housing design, talked about the importance of shared passion within the creative environment. In creative businesses, he said, you need to surround yourself with employees who work and create primarily as a passion – not just for a pay-check. He added that if the UK is to continue to be seen as an innovator, we need our schools and colleges to understand that young people all have different strengths and passions, and to allow them to follow vocational paths – not be forced into academic subjects they don’t enjoy.

Amongst Jo Fairley’s wise words, was that innovation can’t come without hard work. But, as she learnt at an early stage, if you feel you’re coming up against a closed door, you’re looking for a solution in the wrong place. Look for an open door elsewhere, and try to solve a problem in a different way. She went on to say that having a business partner to talk to and share ideas with may sound simple, but is incredibly valuable for business people looking to innovate and grow.

Crowdcube owner Luke Lang, spoke with passion about British manufacturing, our heritage as a nation of makers, and our deep-rooted ability to create and make high-quality products on a small-scale, rather than en masse – and added that the Government needs to focus more on incentivising this kind of manufacturing, not so much on large multi-national manufacture such as car plants.

Perhaps the most resonant message of the day, though, related to national pride and identity. It seems that whilst we all still feel that Britain is a hub for creativity and innovation, we’re not good enough at encouraging our talent and marketing our ‘brand’ to the world. A return to the ‘Made in Britain’ mentality, as a badge of quality, was something the panel and delegates agreed is now needed.

Much food for thought, a real spread of opinion and ideas, and some clear learnings for the event delegates who attended the Royal Institution.

Faraday, we’re sure, would’ve been proud.