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Where Dragons’ Den should stop and some proper work begin

The Tory Government’s plan for a competition to identify innovation is an X-Factor answer to a Nobel question

At first sight you may well have thought that the UK Government’s plan to run a competition to find the best examples of pre-market innovation in Britain was a basically benign and broadly favourable initiative. But once again the cheap, talent-contest approach to important questions about education and the economy seems to me likely to do more harm than good.

There are a load of reasons for this. Real innovation in the modern world usually (though not always) requires some real intellectual work. You can’t make up for the comparatively low-level of interest in science education in Britain with a beauty contest. The innovation we should be looking for should not be superficial – Britain is precisely in the economic state it is in because short-term and flashy trumped long-term and substantial when it came to business. And people who really understand the process through which genuine innovation works will tell you that it is all about having a deep-and-wide system of innovation embedded throughout your economy. If innovation isn’t happening upstream and downstream as well then what is feeding into and out from the innovation we do have? It needs to be a system, not just a brilliant individual.

This is a usual neoliberal response to a usual neoliberal problem. The hard work of creating genuinely innovative companies was simply of no interest in the get-rich-quick decades where instead pitching your eye-catching but shallow idea on reality TV constituted the bottom rung of people’s imagination and selling out for millions to a foreign-owned venture capital firm was the end goal. It is no surprise that the UK economy is so weak after 20-plus years of this attitude.

In Scotland we have a big advantage in our universities. Because of their quality and reach we have managed to compensate for a bit of the lack of interest in long-term investment in R&D, but even they are now being infected with the desire to produce showy ideas quickly.

We don’t need a competition, the main aim of which seems to be to give people the impression we’re worth a damn when it comes to discovery; we need a revamp of an economic system which simply doesn’t have the ideological time for people who want to build something good and not just something fast. All the political parties talk the talk on innovation, but they all still fall over themselves for any offer of apparent success now and don’t really want to tackle some of these underlying problems. Competitions are cute, but they’re no substitute for a national strategy.

Robin McAlpine