On the face of it, David Cameron’s announcement of a £1m prize for solving a ‘grand innovation challenge’ is good news for UK science and industry. The competition will look at the biggest issue of our time (as selected by the public) and then be judged by an illustrious panel, chaired by Lord Rees, the English Astronomer Royal. The Prime Minister likened the competition to the 1714 Longitude Prize which was created to solve the problem of navigation at sea, and which spurred unknown Yorkshire clockmaker John Harrison to develop much more accurate marine timepieces.
All well and good – anything that stimulates debate on pressing problems for mankind and supports scientists and engineers is obviously welcome. Even Cameron’s idea of a ‘Britain’s got talent’-style show to identify the key issue that scientists have to solve is an attempt to put engineering and research back into the mainstream.
But there’s three main problems I can see – and unfortunately they run through a lot of the coalition’s thinking on science, engineering, technology and entrepreneurship.
Firstly, £1m is a pitifully small amount of money for an idea that will solve ‘the biggest problem of our time’. The annual Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences (bankrolled by Mark Zuckerberg, Google co-founder Sergey Brin and tech investor Yuri Milner) has distributed $33m to 11 winners. And that’s just in one year. The new Longitude Prize is being funded by the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) and it appears (from what I’ve read) that the £1m is not new money, but is from the TSB’s existing budget. Hardly an expansion of government investment in science and engineering.
Secondly, like all politicians Cameron is driven by short timescales. Solving the problems the world faces can’t be accomplished in a single term in office. Research simply does not move that fast. If the Prime Minister checked his historical facts (perhaps he needs to speak to Michael Gove), this has always been the case. The original Longitude competition began in 1714 but Harrison’s clock was not successfully operational until the 1760s. And even then he was judged not to have won the official prize itself (though he was awarded multiple grants during his lifetime to recognise his achievements).
Thirdly, modern research is a global undertaking. Scientists work with their peers across the world, collaborating to solve problems across disciplines and countries. Look at the Human Genome Project – while the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridge made an enormous contribution to sequence human DNA, it was a truly global effort, involving scientists from across the world. So if Cameron expects his prize to be won by a 100% British entry, he’s likely to be proved mistaken.
I really hope that the new Longitude Prize takes off and increases interest in science, engineering and technology. But, like investment in championing Tech City, it smacks of a short term, PR-led approach by the Prime Minister – aiming for headlines, not the lasting breakthroughs that take decades to unlock.
Very few of us like paying tax, but there’s a fine line between legitimately reducing your tax bill and actively avoiding paying the tax that is due. And at a time of austerity where everyone is tightening their belts, there’s obviously a push by governments to close loopholes and maximise the revenues they receive.
Given their high profile and obvious success Starbucks and Amazon have both been the subject of widespread condemnation of their tax avoidance methods, and I’ve covered Starbucks inept PR response in a previous blog. Google was up before a House of Commons Select Committee last week (for the second time), backing up its claims that, despite revenue of £3 billion in the UK, all its advertising sales actually take place in the lower tax environment of Ireland. Google boss Eric Schmidt has countered that the company invests heavily in the UK with its profits, including spending £1 billion on a new HQ that he estimates will raise £80m per year in employment taxes and £50m in stamp duty.
Apple is the next company caught in the public spotlight, with CEO Tim Cook appearing before a US Senate committee that had accused it of ‘being among America’s largest tax avoiders’. Meanwhile, the loophole that sees Amazon and other big US ecommerce companies avoid paying local sales taxes is being challenged by a new law passing through Congress, with estimates of between $12 and $23 billion extra being collected.
Given the close links between Google and UK politicians (Ed Miliband is appearing at a Google event this week and Schmidt is expected to meet David Cameron on his current UK trip), the cynical view is that this is a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing. But it does create an image problem for the companies involved, particularly at a time when we’re all meant to be in it together.
Obviously the most popular thing for companies to do would be to re-organise their tax affairs so that they meet the spirit as well as the letter of the law. But that’s not likely to happen given the enormous sums at stake. Instead expect increased calls for global tax reform (so that the organisations involved don’t have to operate the way they are currently ‘forced’ to) and a slew of feel good announcements that demonstrate the level of investment and support for the UK economy by the companies concerned. Being ultra cynical perhaps the whole tax situation explains the huge support by big tech companies for Tech City – it is simply an elaborate way of diverting attention from their financial affairs…………..
Everyone knows that the publishing landscape has changed forever thanks to the internet. The rise of blogs and free blogging software has radically brought down the cost of getting your opinions onto the internet and many blog based sites (such as the Huffington Post) have made lots of money out of the move.
But there’s a big fear that the Government’s new press regulations could potentially threaten small blogs by including them in the legislation. If they don’t sign up to the new regulator they risk high fines if sued by libel by an aggrieved reader. The key test is if it is ‘a relevant publisher’, generating news material where there is an editorial structure giving some control over publication. So by that token, this blog is irrelevant when posted to my own site (though you probably knew that anyway). Except that when it is republished on the Cabume website there is then some editorial control so it suddenly becomes relevant. Essentially if I libel someone Cabume carries the can.
Obviously a small blog wittering on about startups, PR and technology is unlikely to be sued, no matter how relevant it is. But for other smaller, blog-based sites, particularly political ones this opens up a stark choice – sign up to the regulator and face an arbitration system that is focused on protecting individuals who complain or risk crippling fines. It is the same for local newspapers, already suffering due to the rise of the internet. Given the work they do in uncovering local political, public sector and business corruption their trade body The Newspaper Society believes the regulations would ‘inhibit freedom of speech and the freedom to publish’.
My own opinion is that the internet cannot be beyond the law. In the same way that the Lord McAlpine Twitter libel case showed that you can’t repeat false allegations and expect to get away with it, neither should you be able to libel someone on your blog with impunity. But the new regulations throw up a number of questions – what happens if your content is on a US server? Why are student publications exempt? Will journalists set themselves up as one man/woman band blogs to get round regulation? There has to be a more flexible way of regulating online content in the internet age – my relevant/irrelevant fear is that lawyers will be the chief beneficiaries of the new regulations rather than either press freedom or genuine victims of press intrusion.
I’ve always believed that people who take part in daytime phone-ins either have too much time on their hands, don’t have jobs or don’t get out of the house enough. Which of these apply to Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg I’ll leave to the audience to decide, but his strategy to take part in a weekly phone-in on London radio station LBC looks like a mark of desperation.
Currently with the lowest poll ratings of the leaders of all three major parties (which is saying something), Clegg’s strategy is to appeal directly to voters by appearing on LBC. After all, his spin doctors must have mused, it was his appearance on the first televised party leaders debate before the last election that pushed the Liberal Democrats up the polls and ultimately helped them into power. So, let’s simply repeat the exercise and people will forget the last couple of years of government, and any policy changes, and just connect to Clegg the man.
Unfortunately, I think they’ve got the right idea but the wrong media for turning round Clegg’s image before the next election. Here’s three reasons that come to mind:
Lack of control
Obviously the whole point of a phone-in is that you have no idea what you are going to be asked. The plus point is that you can get the chance to talk about a wider range of subjects, but normally people on phone-ins aren’t giving up their time to call in and praise you. Hence Clegg suffering a verbal kicking in his first week on the radio. This may improve as he builds a rapport with the audience, but the randomness of live radio was shown by the headline news picked up by the press – Nick Clegg has a onesie, but hasn’t worn it yet.
LBC doesn’t reach a national audience
Having a senior politician on every week is a no-brainer for LBC – it boosts ratings, increases profile and, by broadcasting via the web, means it can reach a wider audience. However, whichever way you look at it, Clegg is not reaching the right voters – hundreds of miles from his constituency and not on a national platform. He’d do better (and show a keener grasp of new technology) by hosting a web chat or using social media to increase his credibility.
Other politicians make you look good
One of the basic reasons that Clegg impressed in the televised debates was that he was a relatively fresh face against the well-known Cameron and Brown. He hadn’t got the baggage they had and so looked good by association. The combination of years of government and being the only politician on show is always going to weaken credibility.
However it is a brave move from the Liberal Democrats who realise that from a communications point of view they need to do something to differentiate themselves and rebuild their fortunes. What next – sending him into the Big Brother house or chairing Have I Got News for You?
I grew up with a ZX Spectrum, and while my programming efforts may never have been up to much (a flickering horse racing game where you could bet and a pretty much mythical hotel booking system for a Duke of Edinburgh’s Award project) it got me interested in IT, and probably has a lot to do with my becoming a technology PR person. More successful programmers went on to essentially create the billion pound UK games industry and provide a generation of tech-savvy workers for the sector.
Now I’ve got kids of my own I can see the same curiosity about technology but the opportunities for casual programming seem so much more limited. They happily use computers but don’t necessarily know how they work or even that you can program them and make them do what you want.
So I’ve been following with interest the progress of Raspberry Pi, the Cambridge-based project that aims to create a cheap ($25/£15) stripped down computer that is affordable for all and aims to develop a new generation of programmers. Based around an ARM processor and Linux, what I like most about it is the deliberate focus on keeping it simple. The idea is to create an ecosystem of partners around the computer itself, adding additional hardware or software to fit specific needs. Add together the cheapness of the computer and its openness and the potential uses are pretty much endless – from education to embedded projects. In a stroke of marketing genius the first 10 beta boards are being auctioned on eBay, to raise funds for the charitable Raspberry Pi Foundation – and they are selling for thousands of pounds.
Both OFSTED and the likes of Eric Schmidt of Google have complained recently about how ICT and programming is taught in UK schools. The advent of Raspberry Pi provides the start point to address these issues – providing the tools to interest and teach a whole new generation of kids. Obviously making it central to the ICT curriculum will take work (and a case), but given the government’s oft-repeated desire to provide young people with the skills a 21st century economy needs, it’s time for David Cameron to put some investment into putting them into every school before we fall further behind.
- Resurrection of the BBC Micro (rasremmos.wordpress.com)
- $25 Raspberry Pi Computer Prototypes Selling for $3,000 (blogs.wsj.com)
- Raspberry Pi Credit Card Sized Computer Will Handle 1080p Video for $25, Due Out Next Month (inquisitr.com)
- Raspberry Pi, a Tiny But Powerful $25 PC, Coming Soon [VIDEO] (mashable.com)
In an increasingly virtual world it is easy for inventors and start-ups to forget about the importance of good physical product design, and treat it as an afterthought or the packaging for the clever stuff.
And yet I think people have never been more discerning about the whole design of a product, demanding not just that it looks good but that it is intuitive to use and simple to understand. My 3 year old son quickly grasped how to navigate round my iPhone, leading to some unplanned phone calls, but providing a good example for designers to aim at. And the tools are now here that marry product design with innovation, through CAD/CAM systems and photo realistic rendering that creates stunning visual representations of a great idea.
So it is good to see James Dyson, a man who has shown the power of innovative product design to disrupt traditional markets (whether vacuum cleaners or hand dryers) putting his money where his mouth is with his own student design award. Built on a simple premise – design something that solves a problem – it runs in 18 countries and the UK winners have just been announced. What impresses me is a combination of the breadth of the ideas – from a portable room divider for hospitals to a bike seat designed to be more comfortable for women, and their real simplicity. These are products that can be easily understood and used without reading a 100 page manual or undergoing special training. And it looks like a competition worth winning – the global victor (announced on 8th November) is in line to win £10k and gain a real foot up on the ladder towards getting their idea into production.
While it is all well and good for the likes of David Cameron to push for the UK to create the next Facebook, it is vital that we don’t neglect the creation of physical products that are well-designed and fit a market need. After all, one of the key reasons that Apple has become the most valuable company on the planet is through good design across its entire product range. So I think the next generation of start-ups need to heed Dyson’s advice and design something that solves a problem rather than expecting customers to grapple with advanced, but user-unfriendly technology. Make it simple and they will buy.
- Engineers always do the business, Lord Sugar | James Dyson (guardian.co.uk)
- Dyson’s new product still shrouded in mystery (guardian.co.uk)
- Product designer gives patients privacy in hospital (telegraph.co.uk)
- Student inventors battle it out for Dyson award (telegraph.co.uk)