Britain: Innovation Capital of the World

George Freeman MP

George Freeman is the MP for Mid Norfolk, former Minister for Life Sciences and Chair of the Prime Minister’s Policy Board. Before his election to Parliament, he had a 15 year career in biotech venture capital.

Global economic growth will in the future be driven by science and innovation. As a mature Western democracy with an advanced economy, we need to be furthering our competitive advantage by developing the technologies, innovative products and companies of tomorrow, and better globalising and exporting them to the fastest growing economies.

Post Brexit, this will now be an even more important element of our prosperity. With our world-leading universities and venture funding base in the City of London, Britain is brilliantly placed to become one of the innovation capitals of the world. But to do that, we must think strategically about marshalling our resources. That’s why I’m delighted that Theresa May has put a twenty-first century industrial strategy right at the centre of her economic programme. In my previous Government role as Minister for Life Sciences, I was responsible for driving through the first ever Life Science and Agri-Tech Industrial Strategies. Now in my new role as Chair of the Prime Minister’s Policy Board, I am determined to build on this work and help to drive through this wider agenda of innovation and growth across Government.

As well as delivering and making a success of Brexit, Theresa May has made clear we also need to go further in tackling the domestic root causes of the growing resentment of globalisation and a perceived economic and political powerlessness felt by so many.

Not just in our own country but right around the world people are signalling deep reservations at the implications of globalisation and the accelerating pace of change that they see in economies and societies. It’s the role of governments to navigate this moment of transition and identify and tackle the barriers to widening access to opportunities. As Theresa May signalled in her first speeches after entering Downing Street, we need to respond with a domestic agenda that demonstrates how Britain can thrive in a connected world and create more opportunity in doing so for more of the people and places that have felt increasingly marginalised.

Key to this new model of global growth will be harnessing our status as a science and technology superpower, and using our need to modernise our public services and Government as an engine for early adoption of innovation in the UK. We are already one of the world’s most digital economies. Imagine if we also led in e-healthcare, autonomous mass transit, contactless payment and clean energy. Not only would we help tackle our historic productivity and structural deficit challenge, we could become a global hub of innovative businesses and inward investment and exports.

In 30 years’ time, I want us as a nation to look back and be able to say that we seized the chance of Brexit to tackle our domestic economic priorities as well as our relationship with the EU, to make the UK a hub of innovation and a technological pioneer. That means embracing the idea of public sector entrepreneurship. The traditional thinking is that the public sector spends money while the private sector generates it. But I believe the public sector can become part of the solution, rather than the problem. We need to ditch the old thinking of ‘private sector good / public sector bad.’  To succeed post-Brexit, we need to champion the concept of public sector enterprise, an approach not unlike Team GB at the Olympics, where long-term thinking and ruthless meritocracy in backing winners in a patriotic not-for-profit cause delivered such astonishing success. We cannot afford to leave innovation to the private sector and allow our public services to stagnate. We need bold thinking and new ideas throughout Whitehall as we negotiate our new relationship with Europe and the world.

One way to achieve this is a renewed localism. With public affection for Big Government at an all time low, and Whitehall’s coffers under continued pressure, we need to be asking deep questions about how best to harness the many assets we have in Britain. For example: allowing entrepreneurs and council leaders in a place like Cambridge to raise a £2 billion infrastructure bond for the city or the leaders in Birmingham to raise a Chamberlain-esque ‘Brummy Bond,’ supporting a new range of mutual companies, and incentivising much bolder local economic business plans; letting local areas retain more of the proceeds of growth, and go further with what’s already been started by allowing local councils to keep more local business rates, so they have a greater incentive to support local economic growth; or allowing the NHS to harness its unique research strengths to become a partner in innovation instead of a customer, negotiating discounts and charging royalties for innovations proven in the NHS. Put all these together and we could use the much maligned public sector to help drive a new model of growth.

Take Norfolk, the area I am so proud to represent as a Member of Parliament, and the wider Eastern region. Having spent fifteen years working as an entrepreneur in East Anglia before coming to Parliament, I believe our area has the potential to be a “New California,” a major technological hub including the Cambridge cluster and the Norwich Research Park, with entrepreneurs setting up new businesses across our towns and villages. Though we have come a long way, to achieve this vision we need to continue improving our education system to ensure the companies of tomorrow have the skilled workforce they need, invest much more in our transport links with faster access to London and upgrade our digital infrastructure, making sure there is high-speed broadband for everyone.

This is the task before us as we shape our future after Brexit. We have a once-in-a-generation chance to seize the opportunities to make the UK the innovation capital of the world, defying the doubters and being clear that we will go on leading the world in science and technology. We have the chance to embrace public sector enterprise, rolling out innovation at scale across our public sector, making the NHS a pioneer in the new model of twenty-first century healthcare just as it was with twentieth century healthcare. Most of all, we have a chance to show how this new model will benefit all in our society, creating an economy that works for everyone and restoring faith in the power of politics as a force for change.