Space 1999 and the lack of UK innovation...Does anyone else remember the 1970s science fiction TV series Space 1999? It told the tale of Moonbase Alpha and how, after a nuclear explosion, the moon was flung out of orbit, with the Alphans sent careening off through the solar system and beyond. Whilst I of course had much sympathy for those Moonbase occupants, especially given the many traumas that they experienced over the next two series, it disturbed me somewhat even then that there was scant regard for the impact the absence of a moon would have had on Earth’s tidal energy resources.
With the Chinese now mooting the possibility of a base on the moon, I wonder if thoughts of a Space 1999-like accident are behind the reticence of the UK government to invest in tidal power. Should the worst happen in decades to come, recent decisions to mothball some high profile tidal projects will seem like amazingly sound judgement, rather than the seriously short sighted and unambitious decisions that they currently appear to be. I suspect, though, that cult British sci-fi has very little to do with the decision, which opens up a more depressing possibility. Consider, as evidence, the Thomson Reuters list of the top 100 global innovators for 2013. Do you know how many British companies made it into the list? None. Not a single one. When you think how much we pride ourselves on our levels of innovation, that’s just a little bit sad.
The 2013 Top 100 Global Innovators List measures patent activity based on four principal criteria: overall volume, success rate, globalisation and influence. These four benchmarks reinforce that great ideas are part of the strategic equation and that organisations need the ability to protect, commercialise and leverage these ideas around the world in order to be successful. So why did no British companies make it into the list? After all, there is definitely innovation in this country, and there are significant funds available for research and product development.
But it seems to me that those funds are all loaded on the front end of design, extending only as far as proof of concept. Where is the mid-market funding that will enable a company to develop and grow, to build itself into a true market leader able to take on anyone in the world? It does not seem to exist. Instead, there appears to be a culture of simply developing products and technologies to the point where they can demonstrate their worth, and then selling out to the highest bidder. If you follow that to its extreme, you end up as a nation with a high level of expertise in many high value areas, but with ownership in none of them. Perhaps that’s what the ‘knowledge economy’ is all about, but to me it seems built on very shaky ground. When global competition starts to press, it’s much easier to defend your corner if you actually have something concrete to defend.
Meanwhile, I’ll concede it’s unlikely that the moon will be accidentally blasted out of orbit any time soon. At the same time, I actually think it’s highly likely that we will one day reap the benefits of tidal energy. But under whose ownership will that energy be produced, and what will it ultimately mean in real terms for our energy security?
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