The Power Of Self-Help Innovation

The Power Of Self-Help Innovation

Self help innovationLeicester City won the English Premiership last season because they were a better, more effective, more efficient version of Leicester City, rather than an inferior sort of Barcelona. Leicester’s innovative capacity in that halcyon year was matched by their delivery, and one of the most vital lessons for British firms is to build their own capacity to come up with new products, services, ideas, approaches to talent and intellectual property. We need to be a great British economy, not an inferior US or German one.

For the past six years, the National Centre for Universities and Business has been reviewing and researching national and local innovation systems in the UK. There are many elements necessary for success, such as sustained government funding and strategy, truly independent universities working on fundamental and close-to-market research, entrepreneurial graduate talent, and a well-connected innovation players. But too often this debate overlooks one crucial lever, namely innovative self-help.

The typically Scottish Victorian writer, Samuel Smiles, wrote Self-Help, which became the definitive liberal rallying call about dragging yourself up by the bootstraps. He wrote: “it is nevertheless equally clear that men (sic) must necessarily be the active agents of their own well-being and well-doing; and that, however much the wise and the good may owe to others, they themselves must in the very nature of things be their own best helpers.”

Smiles was blind in many ways to the structural challenges of poverty, and implicitly disdainful of anyone who doesn’t achieve success, and you can positively smell Ebenezer Scrooge coming off the pages, but there is a certain truth lurking here. Too often in business, we look to government and its innovation agencies, or tax breaks, or universities to solve our problems for us, when the problems lie not in our stars but in ourselves. Business is still not innovative enough to ride the hurricanes of change heading our way. Recent headline findings show that 53% of businesses were innovative, 10% percent of non-innovators were exporters, and only 23% worked with universities. All these indicators must go north if the economy is not to go south.

Sir Charlie Mayfield’s review of productivity is, at heart, a self-help manual. He argues that to put another £130bn into the economy more businesses and firms must ask themselves: How good is my business really? And owners and managers must actively seek out ways to make their businesses better. ‘The prize for those that do will be substantial, turning good businesses into great ones.’

Self-help innovation is not just about your business becoming more productive and profitable, it is also at the heart of sustaining vibrant cities, and great culture, it underpins a local feeling of prosperity, well-being and civic pride. But only two cities – Oxford and Cambridge – are in the European top twenty for innovation. And even more challenging, nine out of ten UK cities are below the European average for productivity, and more than three in four have a lower percentage of high skilled residents.

Clearly government can help, universities can support, and regulation can be more effective. But Industrial Strategy begins at home. I have run small and mid-sized businesses and know the pressures of time, money, brain-space, paying the wages. It is incredibly hard to focus on the future when the present is so grinding. But the future is where we are all heading, and  innovation is the fuel.

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