The problem of comparing lists
11 December 2013 by David Bott
We are accustomed to lists. They help us make sense of a complex world. They have a certain familiarity. We have lists of the most popular music, the best-selling cars, the richest people and so on. Many of the lists we construct are a comparison of similar things and tend to have a quantitative ordering.
But there are other lists that are more difficult to explain. They are often action lists. They are used as a reminder of things to do and are often not ordered or quantified. Lists of this sort are difficult to understand because, although they are all actions to take, they are not comparable – indeed the measurement of their “success” often requires very different variables so comparison is possibly meaningless. This makes them appear arbitrary and open to criticism – or replacement with similarly derived lists!
There have been a fair amount of comments recently on lists government have issued in the area of innovation. Since I often end up giving my explanation of how they fit together in response to specific questions, I thought I’d try and set out my thoughts!
I’ll start with the area where there ought to be the most overlap with my experience – the sector strategies published by the Government as parts of an overall industrial strategy. They capture specific actions in the individual sectors.
There are three strategies aimed at addressing the energy needs of the country. The first is Oil and Gas, where the intention is to extend the life of the current oil and gas fields in the North Sea using the latest available technology. There is also a balanced and measured strategy for Nuclear, which needs to be a serious option for energy generation, given that it supplies around 25% of our current energy needs but with power stations that are probably nearing the end of their lives. Finally, there is a strategy for Offshore Wind – which is probably the most advanced of the renewable energy technologies.
The Agritech strategy addresses the challenge of feeding a growing population without damaging our natural environment. It seeks to establish the UK to as a world-leading player in the race for better, more efficient and more sustainable agricultural production.
In Construction, the goal is to exploit the world-class expertise in architecture, design and engineering, and support British companies to lead the way in sustainable construction solutions. This is a sector with considerable growth opportunities, with the global construction market forecast to grow by over 70% by 2025.
In the Automotive the strategy sets out to build on the renaissance that has been facilitated by an effective and partnership approach between Government and the industry through the Automotive Council. There is a clear roadmap for the development of technology and the building of a UK supply chain.
The UK has the second largest Aerospace industry in the world, based on a highly competitive design and manufacturing capability. It would be bordering on carelessness not to invest in this major industrial strength.
We are newer to the Information Economy, but have made a strong start. The goal of this sector strategy is to use our education system to focus on developing creators of technology, as well as confident users, to work with industry and academia to develop a plan to improve our digital skills, and ensure everyone can make the most of digital technology, and to train the next generation of innovators in this area. Since it will probably impact on almost every other area in the near future, this seems like a sensible plan.
In Education, our universities, colleges, awarding organisations and schools are already recognised globally for their excellence but there are also some excellent education businesses too. The strategy sets out to take advantage of this powerful reputation, and to seize the opportunities that stem from it.
There is also a strategy for Professional and Business Services. The UK is host to top international firms providing the various highly skilled services that make up the sector, including in advertising, accountancy, architecture, legal services and management consultancy. The strategy’s goals are to increase access to the high level skills demanded by these client-focused professional firms and to capitalise on the excellence of this sector to increase exports to emerging markets.
Finally, there is a strategy for Life Sciences. This was effectively started some years ago, but inclusion as part of the overarching Industrial Strategy recognises the progress made over the last few years – and seeks to continue it.
Each of these strategies was built on the back of wide-ranging consultation and has built partnerships with the relevant businesses – not just to the current participants but those who could be involved as the sector develops and grows. We took part in a number of those consultations. Each strategy details the area it covers, the current and projected impact on the UK economy and tries to anticipate the developing needs of the “market” that the sector serves. They are not perfect, but they are also not finished and will probably evolve over the next administration.
The Eight Great Technologies
Almost a year ago the government published a list of the Eight Great Technologies. I have to declare an interest that (I think) I made several contributions on the translational side of the arguments. My worry with the current publicity around the “Eight Great Technologies” is that it casts them as comparable and even absolute. The other point to note is that the language and definitions have subtly “evolved” and/or been condensed and therefore what people talk about now are subtly different from what is in the original pamphlet.
Synthetic Biology – originally included with genomics, this is a genuine technology platform. It consists of a suite of capabilities developed to be able to design and construct biological systems – including those that do not occur naturally. It can and will have impact on a wide range of application areas from industrial biotechnology to medicine – and that impact will possibly be disruptive. The UK does have strong capability in research in the area but we need to ensure that the applications can be assessed and focus given to the developing field.
Regenerative Medicine – As usually defined, this is a combination of two areas – cell therapies and implants. Implants (included in the broader definition because they address the consequences of degeneration of our systems) do not conform to a definition of a “technology” – they are an area of medical treatment that has been around for centuries and all that has happened recently is that we’ve got better at making them work. Cell Therapies are, however, another technology platform – a range of different capabilities addressing a complex market – but I would argue that are in the development phase and well advanced compared to synthetic biology.
Robotics and Autonomous Systems – the definition here lets us down. The use of programmed machines to do mechanical tasks is not new and their sophistication is developing incrementally. It is the addition of autonomous systems that makes this an interesting area and therefore worthy of being called a technology. The increased (and still increasing) speed of analysis and our development of more efficient algorithms to analyses a complex set of data inputs and make decisions based on them will go some way towards making a real difference. Given that our work in the area suggests that older adults crave social interaction, I am not sure about the robotics for assisted living slant in the pamphlet, but there is no doubt this area is ripe for development and commercial exploitation!
Agri-Science – Once more, I am not sure this is a technology. It also gets variously labelled as agri-science and agri-tech and confuses itself about how far down the supply chain it goes. There is such a wealth of exciting science and technology that could be applied to the area of food production to increase its efficiency and effectiveness, it needs attention, but that attention should be driven by a better understanding of the markets and supply chains than is usually apparent in the description!
Advanced materials and nanotechnology – Again I think the classification lets us down – I’m not sure materials is a technology. Materials Science is a very broad area and materials have defined the many ages of man – adding an adjective doesn’t make that different. What I suspect is being talked about here are things like graphene and quantum materials , where the challenge is not all at the research phase but in the identification and evaluation of end use. As a subset of materials, I am not sure nanotechnology hasn’t degenerated into a funding banner. Many companies are already making money from this and it is probably well past its fundamental technology phase!
Energy and its Storage – I think this is more a need than a technology. With the evolution of the energy system, we will require means to store energy of many forms and at all scales. It is also important to point out that this is not just about batteries!
Big Data – I do not think this is what I would call a technology. I am not sure it’s anything other than trend. The amount of data generated has been rising steadily over the last decade – and so has the ease of storage and analysis. It requires the development of new technologies – mainly on the ability to analyse those increasingly large sets of data to extract answers to the questions that customers will have value for.
Satellites and Space – this is, as described in the analysis, a subset of big data. The ability to observe our planet, how things change, what we do to it and how we move across it in real time gives us a lot more data. It does require a more commercially coordinated approach to the analysis just like the wider data area.
The semantics of innovation is complicated and not really agreed by anyone. Attempting to identify specific “technologies” and invest in them is the dream of everyone on the supply side of innovation, but I would argue that it has been largely discounted as ineffective. However, the combination of a process to identify need and match it to evolving technologies has a lot to recommend it and I am not sure the separate timescales and approaches hasn’t done a disservice to these two government initiatives, and that they would be better served by a joint approach.
Technology Strategy Board Areas and Catapults
I may be partial, but do think our own approach to structure, which at least has some logic to it and has been consistent over the last 6 years. We start with markets/application areas – these are areas where people want solutions to challenges they face in living (health, energy, food, buildings and transport – you could add education and even others to round out this grouping). At the other end of the intellectual supply chain are underpinning technologies – these include large buckets that cover off materials, biosciences, electronics/sensors/photonics and software and act as our interface with the Research Councils. Acting more as translational capabilities which turn technologies into the products and services that satisfy the needs of the markets/application areas are activities like manufacturing and digital services. Within each of these areas, we look for subsets or activity where the challenges are better defined and (ideally) quantified, where we can see real capability to deliver within the UK and where (by common consent) the timing is right.
So, putting them all together – and recognising that they all start from a different place, what do we get?
If you take into account the fact that each list was compiled for different reasons then it turns out they fit together remarkably well. The preponderance of Sector Strategies map onto the application areas and translational competences we have identified and the Eight Great Technologies (the ones that are technologies at least) map onto our underpinning technologies. Even those that do not appear to fit with the over-riding principles of the respective list, do fit in with our list. Of course, I could be delusional, but isn’t this close to joined up government?