There’s more to innovation than cool gadgets

The launch of the iPad was treated as a Really Big Event, but IT and telecoms could do much more to transform society.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

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Topics Politics

If asked to think of an example of technological innovation, it’s probably fair to say that many of us would cite something like Apple’s most recent offering, the iPad. After all, such things certainly seem very impressive – and that’s not just because of some innovation in touch-screen sensitivity. There’s also a buzz about these hi-tech products, an excitement generated by countless news bulletins and purring technology correspondents. One British newspaper even accompanied the launch of the iPad with real-time commentary. The significance of this was clear. The iPad’s arrival on the market place was an event of historic importance. Perhaps not up there with the moon landing, but certainly something worth staying up for.

Yet, while there’s nothing wrong with admiring the smooth surfaces of Apple’s latest products, isn’t there something more to technological innovation than lovely-looking gadgets? To redress the balance, on Thursday 8 July in central London, spiked, in association with Epoch, is hosting a live debate in which we will discuss the potential of IT and telecoms to help society advance, not just out of the recession, but, once more, towards the future. The debate will provide an opportunity to discuss how these technologies might actually aid the transformation of society; that is, how innovation in IT and telecoms might be able promote efficiency, productivity and quality in such spheres as medicine, health, manufacturing and transport.

On the surface, there seems to be no shortage of enthusiasm from Britain’s political leaders when it comes to hi-tech industries like IT and telecoms. At the recent UK General Election, each party manifesto seemed keen to embrace the hi-tech future. The Conservative Party dreamt of ‘an economy where Britain leads in science, technology and innovation’; the Labour Party envisioned Britain as a world leader in broadband; and the Lib Dems pledged to create a dynamic environment for science and innovation: ‘Britain’s future depends on a vibrant research base and the ability of innovators to exploit the country’s intellectual capital to generate new homegrown high tech industries.’

But can we really rely on Britain’s politicians to provide the necessary ambition? Beyond the rhetoric, is there really enough political will to realise the potential of IT or telecoms? For example, the Digital Economy Act, passed on the eve of the election, did not exactly provide a shining vision of a hi-tech future. In fact it was a piece of legislation far more concerned with stopping copyright infringements – either by blocking sites, or fining and cancelling internet connections of those accused of downloading copyrighted material – than of stimulating growth and innovation in digital industries.

More specifically, the commitment made in the Act to ensure everyone in the UK had access to broadband with a minimum speed of two megabits per second (Mbps) by 2012 might seem impressive enough at first glance. But given that South Korea is planning a broadband network capable of operating 500 times faster than that deemed acceptable for the UK, the lack of will is palpable.

Of course, while creating new products and laying down fibre-optic cables would be a good start, the real benefits of IT and telecoms can only come about when we embrace new ways of doing things. In that respect, innovation is not merely a problem for trendy designers and geeky researchers in lab coats. Rather, it is dependent on a thorough-going rethink of what we do and how we do it right across business and government.

So, in an attempt to go beyond the low horizons of two-megabit broadband and punitive copyright laws, and to look at how best to develop the massive potential of IT and telecoms so that they might actually improve our lives, join us at our debate, Beyond the iPad – What IT and telecoms could do for innovation, productivity and the economy.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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