Respect due to British innovators

June 28, 1996

Innovation should become an academic field with its own professorships and institutes, a leading industrialist said this week.

While schemes to solve the United Kingdom's old problem of poor innovation are quite successful, they operate in a vacuum, with the result that the UK is not building up a repository of knowledge on how to innovate, said Richard Duggan, former head of Unilever Research's Port Sunlight laboratory on Merseyside.

Giving the annual 3M innovation lecture at Brunel University, he said innovation was interpreted too narrowly as technology transfer. He defines it as "the successful exploitation of new ideas", which includes many activities that merit building up into "a generic, exciting body of knowledge".

Professor Duggan, who has been seconded to the Department of Trade and Industry's innovation unit, defined innovation as a tripartite system: a culture that welcomes change; a process to make change work effectively; and the skill of turning success into global dominance. Universities play a major role in the process part.

He also criticised the relationship between universities and industry. "There has been an enormous improvement in the relationship between academe and 'academically literate' companies, which make up about 5 per cent of the total number of companies in Britain.

"But the problem with British society is that a very large proportion of British companies need to understand how to use the ideas of academe - at least 25 per cent. There is not a good dialogue."

He praised the Teaching Company Scheme, which has carried out 2,000 projects. But he said: "The problem is the leveraging: one graduate goes into one company for two years, yet there are three million companies in Britain.

"There is no applied knowledge base being developed in which what comes out [of these schemes] is a pool of applied knowledge that enables you to do each thing better than the one before.

"The 'process' is still not seen as academically respectable."

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