CEO of SAIC, Heather Jones writes, "The old saying that necessity is the mother of invention has seldom had more relevance than today".
The changing nature of our needs is perhaps why technology and biotech companies have seen their valuations skyrocket as the likely long-term consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic unfold.
It is well-known that historically Scotland has punched above its weight when it comes to innovation – not least in the fields of engineering and medicine. Our mark on modern life remains ubiquitous through inventions such as the television, telephone, and refrigerator; and the “mac” in Tarmac provides a clue to its heritage.
While there have been more recent examples, the fact that these technologies most readily spring to people’s minds says a lot in itself. Now that our circumstances have changed so significantly, there is an opportunity to recapture the spirt of innovation and invention that once drove Scotland’s economy and our collective endeavour to create new, ground-breaking technologies in the first place.
That does, however, require an appreciation of the differences between the two concepts. Invention creates brand new products or devices – but there is no guarantee they are useful or have commercial benefit. By contrast, innovation delivers value that businesses and consumers will pay for – and this is where our focus should be.
We have a solid foundation on which to build. Both the UK and Scottish Governments articulate their views that the ability to innovate will be one of the key factors that will drive our economy in the years ahead. Scotland also has a wave of exciting and ambitious businesses emerging from the aquaculture, life sciences, tech, and digital sectors across the country.
Yet, innovation does not appear out of thin air – the Scottish government’s £38 million fund for innovators and entrepreneurs is, in part, recognition of that. As well as funding, it requires deliberate focus and the bringing together of the right people with complementary skills and expertise, and an ability to make technology matter to everyone.
Among its recommendations, Benny Higgins’ Report of the Advisory Group on Economic Recovery captured that intent when it talked about the need to re-visit “old demarcation lines” to find new ways in which we can work together to navigate the long and difficult path that undoubtedly lies ahead.
Innovation-enabling regulation has an important role to play and the adoption of Higgins’ recommendation for a pragmatic approach to planning, maintaining adequate standards, whilst also boosting sectors such as aquaculture, could also support another important aim – accelerating direct investment from overseas.
While Covid-19 has presented its fair share of challenges, in times of upheaval new opportunities will inevitably emerge. The pressure placed on supply chains, for example, has brought back into focus the need for more local food security and local sourcing of ingredients in production, which may present more opportunities for suppliers to Scotland’s burgeoning food and drink sector.
The pandemic will also super-accelerate the use of technology in all walks of life. For some, that may have been limited to working remotely through Zoom, but there is a lot more to it than that. Soon, across a variety of sectors, we will see greater adoption of robotics, while the internet of things will connect millions of devices to allow remote monitoring and operation on a mass scale.
Indeed, having better and quicker access to more reliable data can enable and support better decisions – whether those are about the types of food retailers need to put on shelves to meet the changing consumer tastes during lockdown, or when to implement or lift different Covid-19 containment measures.
Scotland has all the necessary elements to be at the forefront of these oncoming changes – a strong track record of innovation, leading academic institutions, a diverse economy, and a network of economic development and public sector organisations. Bringing them closer together will be critical in helping us to deliver on that potential.
And, if we can achieve that ambition, we have an opportunity to once again be at the vanguard of invention, making the knowledge, innovation, and products developed here ubiquitous.