On 1 June 2012 I attended in Sheffield a workshop on Shaping the Connected Digital Economy Catapult (“the CDEC”). It was the second workshop on how small and medium enterprises (“SME”) can participate in, and shape, the CDEC programme.
On the home page of the Technology Strategy Board’s website, Catapults are described as ”a network of work leading technology and innovation centres.” Click the link to the “overview” and one finds a more modest claim:
“We are making fast progress in creating a network of world-leading Catapults centres to transform the UK’s capability for innovation in seven specific areas and help drive future economic growth.”
In fact, this “network” seems to have only one such centre, the “High Value Manufacturing Catapult” which opened in October 2011. That Catapult’s website does not state where that centre is located but it has a number of partners in different parts of the country including Sheffield University’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre at Catcliffe and Strathclyde’s Advanced Forming Research Centre in Glasgow. A lady in Glasgow called Margo Hutchison answers enquiries. Eventually there will be 7 Catapults, the others being Satellite Applications, Future Cities, Connected Digital Economy, Offshore Renewable Energy, Cell Therapy and Transport Systems.
Great things are expected of these centres. The Intellectual Property Office’s publication “From Ideas to Growth” April 2012 gushed:
Catapult centres can create a critical mass for business and research innovation by focusing on a specific technology where there is a potentially large global market and a significant UK capability. These centres will be an important part of the UK’s innovation system, making a major long-term contribution to UK economic growth. They will allow businesses to access equipment and expertise that would otherwise be out of reach, as well as conducting their own in-house R&D. Each Catapult will target a specific sector and will help transform the UK’s capability for innovation within that technology area.”
According to the foreword to “Catapult update Shaping the network of centres” (March 2012) which was in our delegate’s pack,
“the network of Catapults is a strategic long-term investment in the UK’s innovation capability, which will drive economic activity for years to come and significantly increase wealth creation by building a bridge between our world-leading research base and business.”
“Just like the National Computing Centre forged by the Ministry of Technology in the furnace of Harold Wilson’s white hot technological revolution way back in 1966″, I mused this Jubilee weekend.
My sense of déjà vu was aroused when I read that the idea of Catapults was based on a report by Hermann Hauser commissioned by Lord Mandelson and that it was endorsed by another from Sir James Dyson, commissioned by David Cameron. It was increased still further by Nick Appleyard’s presentation which included a slide of an inverted pyramid with “economy” at the top and “person” at the bottom with “industry” and “company” in between. Not once did I hear the word “market” in his presentation and I made that point in the first question of the Q & A session. ”Well of course it has to be market driven” replied Dr. Appleyard. And so it is in a sense but only in the way that the coal and steel produced by Stakhanov and his mates were put on sale in the Soviet Union.
The problem with the Catapults is that this is not how innovation works. Enterprise and innovation cannot be established by fiat. They occur naturally when a number of factors coincide such as a market, source of capital and concentration of bright individuals. Those factors vary from time to time and from industry to industry. Thus the factors that sparked off the industrial revolution in 18th century England were different from those that gave rise to Silicon Valley in late 20th century California; though in neither case was there anything like a Catapult.
Governments are desperate for growth. Their electoral vulnerability prompts them into initiatives where they can appear to be doing something. Doubtless that is why New Labour wheeled out the founder of Acorn Computers and the inventor of the dust cyclone for advice on how to achieve growth. No doubt the same concern explains why the Coalition has bought their recommendations.
I think there are better uses for public money than Catapults. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s investment in broadband is a good use of public money. It is much more likely to stimulate innovation and growth in the digital connected economy by generating demand for new equipment and content for the services that can be delivered by superfast broadband. If it has money to spare, the government could develop more services in sectors such as education and healthcare that can be delivered electronically. In the longer term investment in schools will pay dividends. Especially if more kids can be taught to program together with the maths to understand programming and North Asian languages such as Japanese, Korean and Mandarin in which much of the world’s new technical literature is now written.
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