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Supporting Innovation

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 8th October 2019.

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Photo of Jamie Halcro Johnston Jamie Halcro Johnston Conservative

Innovation should be a driving force in our economy. It is through renewal, invention and creation that economies thrive, and the pace of that change has increased.

In our lifetimes, the instinct for innovation has only strengthened, and the world moves forward at an ever-faster rate. We should certainly consider the challenges that arise from that; it is also worth considering the enormous, world-changing advantages that we have seen.

Innovation is the main source of sustainable economic growth. We know that, in recent years, Scotland’s economic growth has lagged behind that of the rest of the UK.

I draw attention to sustainability, because sometimes it seems that we in Parliament are expected to look on economic growth and productivity as being somehow unsustainable. Although it is right to look beyond the simple gross domestic product of a country, it is wrong to consider growth in itself as a negative thing.

Members might wish to reflect on how innovation has benefited our wider environment. We need look only to the significant decline in the cost of technologies such as offshore wind in recent years to see the environmental benefits.

Much innovation is about how we can manage resources better and be more efficient. Ultimately, the world will go forward; the challenge to individual countries is to seize the opportunities that that presents. The challenge is to be at the forefront of change and to help to shape the future, rather than simply to be shaped by it. If we are to succeed in that, Scotland and the wider UK must create the frameworks for success. Building the conditions for innovation across Scotland will be a key part of that.

We have seen positive work in the city region deals across Scotland. The projects have brought the UK Government, the Scottish Government, local authorities and other partners together in a common aim. They are promising starting points, but they must be regarded as laying the foundations rather than as examples of investment as an end point in itself.

In my region—the Highlands and Islands—opportunities have been seized. The European Marine Energy Centre in Orkney is a case in point. I have been pleased to welcome colleagues including Alexander Burnett to EMEC, to see for themselves the world-leading advances in tidal and wave-energy technology that are happening there.

Our universities must be key drivers of innovation. Some of that work has been taking place in the University of the Highlands and Islands, Heriot-Watt University and many other institutions in Scotland.

Collaboration must extend further—into industries in which productivity growth has not been as significant as we might have hoped it would be. For too many years, industries such as construction have lagged behind. The Parliament’s Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee explored that issue recently.

In many sectors, a technological revolution is just over the horizon. Change is coming, and the basis for that change is skills—an issue to which I have returned time and again. Learning is central. Our universities can be creative hubs, but the process must begin earlier, because there remains a skills gap in Scotland between what employers need and what is available in our labour market, and the answer to that problem will be found at an earlier stage in education. Innovation and enterprise education and science, technology, engineering and mathematics education must all be improved if we are to build the skills base that we need.

Scottish Conservatives have called for greater links between business and schools—some of our proposals were taken forward by the Scottish Government as part of the developing the young workforce programme. I welcome that. There is still time for recommendations to be delivered. However, that should not happen in a piecemeal fashion; rather, we should be looking for systematic change at national level.

A focus on STEM education is vital, but in recent years the hard work has not been done. We hoped that improvements were coming; instead, the number of employers who report skills shortages in STEM areas is increasing. That is a finding of a report on the Scottish Government’s STEM strategy.

We should be forthright about making innovation an important part of what Government encourages and supports. It must be in every ministerial portfolio, from education to health and from transport to business. That approach requires co-operative working at all levels of government. Above all, it requires commitment and a Parliament that respects business and entrepreneurship and their role in our economy.