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Technology for tomorrow, action for today

Posted By Andrew Sissons

23 November 2012

David Willetts today (23 Nov) launched an update of the government’s “technology foresight” exercise, which aims to identify the key technologies that will drive economic growth in the 2020s. The paper makes exciting reading for futurologists, covering 53 technologies from tissue engineering to nuclear fusion, and it gives government something to think about. This type of exercise – one which looks ahead at future sources of economic growth – is welcome, and is something governments should take seriously.

The report highlights three particular technology themes that have grown in importance over the last couple of years. First is the energy transition, which includes both renewable energy and a shift to smarter, more efficient grids and better energy storage. Second is 3D printing and on-demand manufacturing, which could transform the way things are made. And third is human-centred design, which includes technologies such as smart fabrics, where technology can be woven into clothes.

Of course, there are plenty of other technologies around that get people excited – take Allister Heath this morning for instance, throwing self-driving cars, nanotechnology and aquafarming into the mix. Is the report right to focus on the themes it picks out? It is hard to answer this definitively, but we should bear in mind that: a) predicting future technologies is a hugely uncertain business; and b) the report authors consulted a wide range of experts to develop its view.

That said, there are a couple of risks to this type of approach. The first is that it focuses too much on individual technologies, at the risk of creating silos and missing combinations between technologies. We would benefit from thinking more about the uses of the technologies, as well as the technologies themselves.

Second, we tend to focus too heavily on whether Britain is a world leader in these emerging technologies. In truth, most of the technologies that have brought the greatest benefits to the UK economy have been invented overseas. Most economic growth comes from adopting and applying new technologies, rather than inventing the initial technology itself. We shouldn’t write off an emerging technology just because other countries are leading its development – if it’s a transformative enough technology, it will still reach Britain and create economic opportunities.

Taking these points into account, what should government be doing to take forward the technological opportunities highlighted in the report? The first part is easy – continue to fund research into the most promising technologies, and foster collaborations around them through initiatives like the Catapult Centres. This has been one of Willetts’ and Vince Cable’s top priorities over the last two years, and it could end up being one of this government’s key success stories.

The second part, though, is more complicated. Government needs to work out how it can help businesses and entrepreneurs turn these technologies into new products and services, and create new markets for them. That means identifying many of the barriers that hold these things back (often before it is obvious what they will be), and offering coordinated policies to promote growth in these areas. We will be publishing research on this next week, and we hope government will take note.

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