10 February 2007

Technology Policy: Royal Society Debate 15 Jan 2007

A report of a debate that I wish I could have attended has just appeared on the BCS website. It is headed "What are the right things to do to sustain UK competitiveness in 2025?" It ties in well with a couple of recent articles on this blog - namely the UK's depressing performance in patenting and provincialism.

The debate took place at the Royal Society on the 15 Jan 2007 and appears to have centred quite rightly around the premise that "competitive advantage is increasingly enabled by IT and the use of intellectual assets." The report states that John Leighfield of Research Machines and David Butler focused on "How can we build on the existing driving forces to achieve sustainable IT enabled competitiveness in the UK economy?" and "What must policy makers, industry leaders and the professions do to address the restraining forces?" It seems to have been a very metropolitan debate. Mr Leighfield is described the City of London as a "shining example of a British industry leading the world" with "business people from many other countries come to the square mile to learn from the way it works". Elsewhere the City was described as a "cluster of excellence" and "one of the best things that the UK has". Others urged that we should concentrate on what we are good at which was said to be "banking, the arts, media and culture."

Even though this was supposed to be a debate about technology hardly a word appears to have been said about Britain's decline in the invention or invention stakes. That is important because patenting is not cheap and the investing in legal protection for a new product or process proclaims to the world that someone believes that invention is worth something.

Now I don't want to knock the City, the West End nor even Docklands or wherever the media has dispersed to, but a modern economy needs more than culture, media and financial services to thrive. I rejoice that our country has all sorts of wonderful institutions such as Covent Garden, Harrods, the Royal Courts of Justice, Wimbledon and all those markets in the City, but none of those those things subsists in a bubble. They developed to serve a market that derived wealth from making things, digging coal, laying down railways et cetera in such places as Lancashire, Clydeside, Tyneside, the Black Country and the West Riding. Much of that base has been eroded and unless we do something about restoring that base the cultural, media and financial services superstructure will lose their sustenance. As my old head of chambers used to put it we can't all live by taking in each other's washing.

One of the reasons why it is so difficult to rebuild our industrial base is the fact that so much that is good and civilized is to be found only in London. It need not be like that. Berlin is one of the most pleasant capitals of Europe with its excellent underground, miles of green belt and some of the best museums in Europe but it does not dominate Germany as London dominates Britain sucking up resources from everywhere else. Munich, Hamburg, Frankfurt and Stuttgart are also major cities with all the things that make life pleasant and they brim with self-confidence. I could have said the same about many other countries - Spain, Italy, Australia and the USA to name just a few. We need to be more like them if we are to hold our own in the world. Great cities like my birthplace Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield, Newcastle, Bristol, Birmingham and Glasgow must be more like Milan, Munich and Sydney.

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