Innovate, Innovate ‒ the Mantra of the Uncreative Class
As the UK creative economy flags, the National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts (NESTA)'s corrective is 'innovation'. But without investment, is this any more than a word? James Heartfield reports
At the Royal Festival Hall the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) promised to take us to the ‘Innovation Edge’, with Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and inspirational speakers Tim Berners Lee and Bob Geldof.
The driving muzak – ‘we can be heroes’, ‘we are the champions’, ‘let it shine’ – all conforms to Blodheim’s injunctions on Jazz in the Third Reich. This is a New Labour in drag, as it were, aping the mannerisms of business leaders at a Davos conference. They are ‘innovators’. Even the policy makers are re-branded as ‘social innovators’. But as so often, the empty vessel sounds the loudest. The insistent claims of innovation are only evidence of its absence.
Introducing the conference, Chris Powell and Jonathan Kestenbaum lauded a ‘movement that is gathering pace’ marching forward from its humble beginnings to a few hundred people 18 months ago in Islington, to the 3,000 on London’s South Bank this May. Nesta has ‘built up this group of collaborators’ a ‘committed group of risk-takers’.
Image: Gordon Brown speaking at the Innovation Edge conference
Powell saw Nesta’s strength promoting innovation in the ‘supply side', but work had to be done in the ‘demand side’ if we were to create an ‘innovative society’. It was a good thing that the Culture Department was pushing for schools to educate children to be ‘early adopters of new technology’ to create the demand. The fears about the commercialisation of schools that beset MPs recently were set aside.
Of course, the growing movement was due to the fact that NESTA was disbursing funds in its role as an endowment, greatly enlarged since Chancellor Gordon Brown got behind George Cox’s review into putting creativity into industry.
Down on the exhibition floor, the first green shoots of NESTA’s seed-money could be seen: Red Button design’s ‘water transport, sanitation and storage device for the developing world’ (that is, a trolley, with a big bottle of water on it); Latitude 56 Degrees have a bag to put a suit in that you can carry on your bicycle; the Young Foundation (that’s Geoff Mulgan’s new gaff) have some courses in ‘emotional resilience’ for old people; while Distance Lab has some ideas for remote teaching in Scotland. Innovation is too grand a word for these boffinish efforts.
Image: The Innovation Edge conference, Royal Festival Hall, June 2008
Three years ago I did some research for the National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts on innovation in the British economy. The low rates of investment in Research and Development in the UK were uncontroversial, but apparently unfamiliar to the Knowledge Economy boosters at NESTA. They were intrigued, but not satisfied with the analysis.
Chief Executive Jonathan Kestenbaum, started to try to invent excuses for UK plc's poor performance. His 'Innovation Gap' report argued that the fine grain innovation in the British economy was too tacit to show up in the bare figures on R&D spending. No amount of manipulation of the numbers, though, can disguise the fact that Britain has chronically low levels of investment overall, and these are the reason why its R&D, and its 'innovations' are mediocre. Most British business is happy standing still.
Robert Shapiro recalls meeting after meeting in the Cabinet's oak-lined rooms with ministers bemoaning the conservatism of the British. Instead of innovation, the British economy grew in the ten good years largely through recruiting cheap labour ('job-rich growth') and by asset inflation (rising house prices making up much of the growth registered in GDP). Today, those two strategies have reached their limit point. The underlying failure of British business to invest in new technology has left the economy exposed.
The ideology of innovation, though, means something else. It is the intellectual claim to the hard work of the real producers, made by the ‘entrepreneurs’, these money-men who are the Labour Party’s new social base. ‘I don’t come here as a politician or an expert’, a suitably contrite Gordon Brown said, ‘but as an enthusiast’. He promised to take away what lessons the entrepreneurs offered.
Image: Bob Geldof speaking at the Innovation Edge conference
Except of course these were not real entrepreneurs, but the mere husk of an entrepreneurial class. It was the lure of NESTA’s ‘seed money’ that had gathered them together. The Tsarist Minister Grigori Potemkin put wooden façades on the hillside to convince Catherine II that her carriage was passing real villages, evidence of the social development of her kingdom. The entrepreneurial innovation at the Royal Festival Hall was a Potemkin Village of innovation.
With innovational speakers like Bob Geldof and Tim Berners Lee, the conference had the feel of a big business get together, but there was no Bill Gates, and even Berners Lee was on the video link-up. ‘He invented the internet,' said Sir Bob, talking up the polite man in the jumper and shirt as if he was Al Gore. Geldof swore on cue, and gave the whole event a very safe feeling of danger. All our UK plc innovations seemed to recede gently into the past.
James Heartfield is a widely published writer and social critic. His recent demolition of the hype around London's creative industries can be found here: http://www.metamute.org/fr/node/10969
Footnotes ‘As to the tempo, too, preference is to be given to brisk compositions as opposed to slow ones (so-called blues); however, the pace must not exceed a certain degree of allegro commensurate with the Aryan sense for discipline and moderation. On no account will negroid excesses in tempo (so-called hot jazz) be permitted, or in solo performances (so-called breaks).’ Baldur von Blodheim, 'Reichsmusicfuhrer und Oberscharfuhrer SS', ‘Dance Band Rules And Regulations During The 3rd Reich’, http://www.shellac.org/wams/wnazi02.html
 Blueprint/NESTA, 'Creativity Gap', 2005, http://www.design4design.com/broadsides/creative.pdf
 Jonathan Kestenbaum, 'Innovation Gap', Nesta, 2006, http://www.nesta.org.uk/assets/Uploads/pdf/Researc...
 Robert Shapiro, Futurecast 2020: A Global Vision of Tomorrow, Profile, 2008, p.15. Before Shapiro, this is the kind of thing that Michael Porter, Ronald Reagan’s economist used to do for the Labour cabinet.