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Supporting Innovation

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

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Photo of Brian Whittle Brian Whittle Conservative

Presiding Officer,

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. While some see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

That is one of Apple’s mottoes.

It is timely to have a debate about innovation just a few days after the anniversary of the death of Steve Jobs, who was one of the great innovators of the computer age. The company that he co-founded and led to global success—Apple—is arguably one of the best examples of the benefits of a culture of innovation. Apple did not invent the computer, the tablet, the smart phone or digital music but, through innovation, it made them more accessible, more useable and commercially successful.

It is important that we do not confuse innovation with invention in this discussion. Both are important to Scotland’s future success and ensuring that we remain a world leader in research and development. Both rely on new ideas, but invention is the creation of something completely original and innovation involves taking an invention and finding a new way of using it that changes how it is used. To use a sporting metaphor, if invention is the giant leap forward, innovation is the run-up; without it, we are less likely to clear the hurdle.

We have an impressive record of invention and discovery in Scotland. We are the home of countless great inventions and discoveries, such as the cell nucleus, cornflour, fountain pens, marmalade, pneumatic tyres, radar, raincoats, tarmac and ultrasound scanners. We have a reasonably good track record of supporting innovators in their early stages of setting up and developing viable products.

Where we fall down is in support for innovators to grow. All too often, businesses grow to a certain size and, instead of being supported to grow further, are swallowed up by one of the big players. In a globally competitive world, innovation is the difference between success and failure. Without continuous technological and scientific innovation, we risk losing our reputation as a global leader in those fields.

Innovation can mean bringing several different ideas together in a new way, often through seeing connections that others have missed. As Henry Ford is often quoted as saying:

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Innovation is not confined to the world of technology and business. It is a mindset that can be applied to almost anything. Many of us will see innovation during our regular visits to our constituencies.

At this point, I highlight how important innovation in healthcare will be as we transform its focus from secondary to primary care. Innovation is useful only if it is adopted and integrated. We have a lot of experience of developing new technologies, but our record on adopting them is much poorer. We need to look at the way that we fund healthcare innovation. There are too many quangos and it is a difficult landscape for business and entrepreneurs to navigate. We need to reduce the complexity of the landscape.

Some of the changes that are needed do not cost money. It is about changing the process and the attitude of people who work in the quangos. We need to nurture an innovative mindset. Albert Einstein said that we cannot solve problems by using the same kind of thinking that we used to create them in the first place.

Like much of the public sector, the NHS is bureaucratic and intensely risk averse—two qualities that are tailor made to stifle innovation and quick reactions to changing circumstances.

Education is the key battleground. We should be creating an educational environment that nurtures and encourages innovation. We should be encouraging exploration, rejecting dogma, questioning ideology, taking the wider view, and seeing the whole board and the benefits of being a generalist with a wide-ranging education, which is why cutting the number of subject choices is so damaging to our children’s education and our ability to innovate. The ability of teachers to innovate has been strangled by that self-same bureaucracy that stifles healthcare innovation.

We all recognise how vital supporting innovation is to our economy, our communities, our society and our health and wellbeing. Much of today’s debate has centred on the financial aspects of supporting innovation, but we should not lose sight of the wider value of encouraging people to have a more innovative mindset and promoting a culture across Scotland that is more open to trying new and innovative ideas. We must invest in education, because that is the nursery of innovation.