Dr Rob Dekkers: Communicate and collaborate to innovate

Innovation is not only on the agenda of governments, ­economic development agencies, companies and inventors, but it is also of eminent importance to address the challenges we face as a society, which range from health and poverty to sustainability and ­economic growth.

Dr Rob Dekkers, Reader in Industrial Management, Adam Smith Business School/University of Glasgow
Dr Rob Dekkers, Reader in Industrial Management, Adam Smith Business School/University of Glasgow

All of these challenges require ­novel solutions that look beyond the ­problems of today, even when we are sometimes inundated by the issues surrounding Brexit. However, even if this happens or not, innovation is key to the prosperity of the Scottish ­economy and the wellbeing of its people – such requires a wide ­variety of initiatives, perhaps changing mindset, and adequate policies.

In this plea for more appropriate attention, however, a long-standing Scottish tradition in science and ­engineering should not be forgotten.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

An example that attests to this is the renaming of the School of Engineering at the University of Glasgow after James Watt, who famously improved the steam engine – this led to the ­golden age of British industry during the first industrial revolution.

Scottish inventors have also ­contributed to advances in ­civil ­engineering, communication, ­medicine and transport among ­others. Even today, innovative ­sectors, such as the gaming industry and medical devices, are blooming.

In addition to the world-class ­reputation of universities, the ­performance of companies seems reassuring. There are truly innovative firms. A case in point is Skyscanner, the ­company behind a website for finding the bests travel fares. Less well known is Clan Dynamics, a world-class supplier of handlers and robots for production. Some of the leading firms are subsidiaries of global ­companies, such as Diodes International in Greenock, formerly owned by Texas Instruments. This should put observers at ease that the ­Scottish economy is dynamic and ready for the future.

However, the Scottish economy, and for the matter also the UK ­economy, are seen as struggling when it comes to innovation, particularly, when compared with Germany, France, Japan and the USA. The productivity of the Scottish and UK economies also lags behind. This is also found in other indicators.

For instance, a doctoral study by Alessa Witt (University of Edinburgh), puts the so-called ‘hidden champions’ – innovative SMEs – at 50, whereas similar companies in Germany are counted as about 1500.

There are reasons why this falling behind happens. One could be the patchy nature of the industry, with universities and companies ­benefiting less from clustering.

Another possible reason is the myopic perspectives embedded in Anglo-Saxon perspectives; short-term vision on profits clashes with the long-term vision for opportunities associated with innovation. A third reason is the skillset at all ­levels for innovation to happen. These three reasons could be leading to ­pessimism about the chances to become an innovative nation.

There are opportunities to address these cracks and barriers. First, innovation policies should facilitate the patchy character of the ­Scottish ­economy by enhancing cross-sector collaboration and by being responsive to the multitude of ­sectors and firms, rather than targeting only ­specific sectors. This also ­covers developing the suppliers base in ­Scotland and access to supplier ­networks beyond.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Second, initiatives for cross-sector collaboration, such as CeeD – the Centre for Engineering Education and Development – should be strengthened and expanded; this will help companies to learn from each other and new developments at ­universities.

Third, in this spirit, open collaboration should be encouraged and ­stimulated. One of the barriers ­mentioned during a clinic was the fear of losing control of intellectual property. ­However, there are ­positive solutions to this.

Furthermore, open collaboration builds on networks for ­innovation, locally, regionally, nationally and internationally, ­contradicting the philosophy of ­Brexit. Policies should stimulate this based on facts and not on impromptu claims, as seems to be often the case nowadays.

Fourth, the skillset at all levels should be improved. Skills are more than having tablets and smartphones; they include coding and ­in-depth knowledge about software and hardware, even at elementary and secondary education.

Fifth, a culture of long-term vision for identifying opportunities for entrepreneurship based on technological insight should be stimulated. Perhaps such means departing from the spirit of Adam Smith and alike to foster innovation.

Only through such measures, but not limited to them, ­will ­innovation be in the hearts and minds of the Scottish ­people to form a transparent society based on meritocracy, sustainability, prosperity and well-being.

Dr Rob Dekkers, reader in ­industrial management, Adam Smith Business School/University of Glasgow.