Giving innovation wings

Bird flying in blue sky with sun and clouds in background

The UK is no stranger to technical innovation. The industrial revolution was forged in the factories and workshops of Birmingham, Newcastle and Manchester. The demands of war led to the construction of one the first modern computers, at Bletchley Park.

In 1963, the year before he became Prime Minister, Harold Wilson spoke of the "white heat of technology". In government, he went on to form a Ministry of Technology, or Mintech, to modernise UK industry. Anyone who saw the first Concorde passenger plane take to the air in 1969 would find it hard to argue with that vision.

Wilson's second term as Prime Minister, in the 1970s, saw the UK beset by economic difficulties. Innovation slipped down the political and business agenda, and few spoke of the white heat of technology again.

There are parallels to the present situation facing both business users of technology, and innovative technology firms. Talk of digital economies and business transformation, driven by IT and an information society have taken second stage to cutting costs and, for a growing number of companies, simply staying in business.

Looking forward

But at the same time, forward-looking companies are investing, both in order to reduce costs and also to maintain or even sharpen their competitive edge.

Hard times do not always cut innovation - sometimes they bring it to the fore, suggests Karl Deacon, chief technology officer (CTO) for outsourcing at CapGemini UK.

"Some companies are desperate," he said. "There are others who are worried about competitors making desperate moves and they have to ensure that they stay ahead of them. In order to take market share or develop innovative new products, they need to be able to move more quickly, as well as to be able to take cost out of the business. Some people are now more willing to take more risks."

And demand for innovation is being matched by supply, with businesses in the UK applying emerging technologies to develop new products and services, for markets both at home and overseas. In sectors such as IT services, mobile communications and informatics, the UK can still claim to be a leading player.

The Government has even stepped in: last month, it announced that it was putting forward up to 150 million of pubic money to support venture capital investment for technology start ups, as well as for initiatives in health and clean technology.

There is no doubting that the information and communications technology (ICT) sector is important for the UK. According to figures from UK Trade and Investment, the sector contributes 10 per cent of UK GDP and employs more than one million people.