“What will Innovation be like in 2020?” – first in a series

Steve Welch, CEO of the electronics Knowledge Transfer Network imagines the future

The UK, once a leading centre of academic output will be eclipsed by the desire for education and the academic might of eg India and China. And our relative inventiveness will continue to be hobbled by the UK’s once advanced infrastructure. The personalisation of design, manufacture and our environment will combine with a social climate of increasing distance from one another and asynchronicity, to make relationships and collabor-ations more ephemeral.


The changing status of the UK

   The dedication to education that culture, parents and children show in India and China contrasts with our relative indifference and uncertainty about it. This means, given the inexorable rise in populations there, that they will soon have more and better boffins driving technological progress; and that they will be hungrier for innovation. While we are currently among the countries filing the most patents and depending on our creativity, we will inevitably be overtaken by newly developing countries. 

   Moreover it is difficult for early-developing countries like ours to throw away existing infrastructures (copper wires/the London Underground/even systems of government) and start afresh; developing economies can jump over us. Standards cease to develop and infrastructures become a sunk cost trap.

   Can we perhaps foresee an economy of small parts: of individuals and small organisations participating in a group eco-system, linked by internets. 

The changing nature of consumption

   Learning-to-make has become learning-to build-systems. The 3D printer means that a library of parts can be made at home. We will evolve a culture of sharing designs; and we will make things via the internet and through exchange. The lone inventer can buy so much technical “lego” with which he or she can organise his life (for example new products such as the Rasberry Pi computer make home automation via a smartphone an easy prospect for DIY). Hand held computers can be quickly programmed to find out where is the ferry that you have just missed. All of this could empower individuals to conduct their own R&D. 

   Three roadblocks stand in the way: current IP protection is out of date and needs replacing; we need new models of interaction that understand sharing/collaboration; and we need a new method of making small payments eg from users to what may become a myriad of inventers (or creators).

   Where will this leave us a nation; where will our niche areas of expertise be? At present we give it all away: our inventions and ideas tend to be exploited by others; and we teach others how to do it. Maybe all that will be left to us will be our relative creativity and inventiveness.

The changing social climate

   A number of factors combine to make us more remote from one another: social websites with their own concept of ‘friendship’ replace face-to-face encounters; many more things can be monitored from afar – not just which websites you may have been into, but whether Grandma has not been using the kettle (and so might have had an accident); and people work more and more from home, and more therefore live locally. And this will be reinforced by the fact that life will continue to become more asynchronous.


   One consequence of our new forms of interactivity is that groups will assemble together of their own accord, for their own specific purpose, and for a short time. Companies may exist for only a short period of time. And experts whose interests cross boundaries will become even more valuable.




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