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Analysis: Why innovation must power the future of our nation

The future of Britain will depend on a new age of invention and innovation. Technological superpowers such as the United States and China are investing heavily in their futures, raising the possibility that everyone else will be trapped behind these two forces – a risk the European Union is belatedly recognising and acting upon.

Britain must find its niche in this new world. To do so requires a radical new policy agenda, with science and technology at its core, that transcends the fray of 20th-century political ideology.

In turn, this requires a fundamental reshaping of the state, from how government itself works to how public services are delivered.

This new “strategic state” needs to embrace the technological revolution.

The private sector is already doing so. Individuals are already doing so. Across the board, the costs of electronic goods and software have been driven down, information has become abundant, and we can access entertainment, book travel or connect with friends and family almost instantly.

Government and public services, on the other hand, face costs increasing, service slowing and the public’s frustration building.

The starting point, then, is to ask how government can harness the benefits of this revolution for our country and use data and technology to drive down the cost of public services while improving outcomes.

The speed of the Covid response – particularly the development and deployment of new vaccines – shows what can happen when the government and the private sector mobilise effectively behind a clear purpose.

Groups like the UK's Fresh Produce Consortium (FPC) are working to educate the fresh produce industry and showcase the opportunities on offer that can provide solutions to the challenges faced by the sector.

“We can’t afford to be complacent and should grasp the opportunity to evolve and grow,” says Nigel Jenney, FPC's Chief Executive.

“There are fundamental challenges for the sector,” he explained “and they are having a huge impact on imports and foreign exchange purchases. In addition, households and businesses may face further increases in fuel costs, including aviation, which will increase costs. And life will be made more difficult.”

"There needs to be a fundamental shift in the perception and overall infrastructure of our food supply system, which is why the FPC has worked with its members to develop innovative new solutions for the industry.

“They lie in making agriculture ‘smarter’ by developing and adopting the new technologies and innovations that can dramatically enhance productivity and reduce its high labour demand and by making the various sectors more attractive to a new generation.”

“We believe in educating the industry about how both agriculture and horticulture can be made smarter through the incorporation of technologies such as AI, IoT, robotics and automation, along with the development of new growing systems and practices, all designed to promote long term sustainability,” Jenney continued.

"FPC Future and Careers has been developed to do just that. This groundbreaking two-in-one event will lift the lid on the innovations and opportunities that exist within the industry, with the aim of future-proofing our nations vital food supply.

"Both events will be held at the East of England Arena and Events Centre, Peterborough on 16 March 2023 and both are free to attend upon registration at:"

Over the long run, a successful British state will likely be smaller in scope but more effective in its delivery. In practical terms, achieving this entails a series of reforms, including:

A reorganisation of the centre of government to drive this science and technology agenda across government and public services, with the full weight of the prime minister’s authority behind it and, at the core, the skill set to ensure its effective implementation.

Building foundational AI-era infrastructure. This should include:

  • Government-led development of sovereign general-purpose AI systems, enabled by the required supercomputing capabilities, to underpin broad swathes of public-service delivery.

  • A national health infrastructure that brings together interoperable data platforms into a world-leading system that is able to bring down ever-increasing costs through operational efficiencies.

  • A secure, privacy-preserving digital ID for citizens that allows them to quickly interact with government services, while also providing the state with the ability to better target support.

  • A shift in the government’s approach to data, so that it treats them as a competitive asset that can be used to drive down the cost of delivery and build high-value data sets, such as in the biomedical field.

  • Creating an Advanced Procurement Agency (APA) with a specialised mandate to find opportunities for public-sector innovation, procure promising solutions and manage their deployment and testing.

  • Incentivising pensions consolidation and encouraging growth equity by making the pension capital-gains tax exemption applicable only to funds with over £20 billion under management that allocate a minimum percentage of their funds to UK assets; and combining the UK Pension Protection Fund (PPF) and the National Employment Savings Trust (NEST) to create a single investment vehicle that participates in market consolidation.

  • Reforming technology transfer offices (TTOs) to encourage more university spinouts.

  • Increasing public research and development (R&D) investment to make the UK a leader among comparable nations within five years, coupled with reforms to the way our institutions of science, research and innovation are funded and regulated to give more freedom and better incentives.

  • Investing in new models of organising science and technology research, including greatly expanding the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA), and creating innovative laboratories that seed new industries by working at the intersection of cutting-edge science and engineering.

  • Pursuing broader planning reforms to ensure infrastructure projects that are critical to the UK’s economic transformation can get approval in six months or less, while also creating exemptions and fast-track processes for R&D infrastructure planning.

  • Mainstreaming new technologies in education to build the skills of the future and develop a workforce capable of rolling out technological advances. This should include a new edtech-training fund to improve teachers’ confidence and incentives to adopt innovation as part of learning.

  • Building stronger global partnerships to avoid being trapped behind the tech superpowers of the US and China. This should include seeking to establish a new informal “T3” coalition between the UK, EU and US to find areas of common ground on global technology standards, enable associate membership of EU research programmes including Horizon, Copernicus and Euratom, and taking leadership of multilateral research initiatives on AI.

The discovery and development of CRISPR technology is allowing DNA, the code of life, to be edited with a precision that was impossible barely a decade ago, leading to new opportunities in the field of biological engineering that could transform agriculture, health and industrial processes.

Meanwhile, mRNA technology and CAR-T cells are changing our approach to health, as seen over the duration of the pandemic, by harnessing the power of human cells to prevent and tackle disease. And while 3D printing is already revolutionising fields such as orthopaedics, innovators are working on pushing the boundaries to recreate complex organs and systems through tissue engineering.

With science and technology as our new national purpose, we can innovate rather than stagnate in the face of increasing technological change. This purpose must rise above political differences to achieve a new cross-party consensus that can survive any change of government.

About the Authors: Multiple authors of this analysis piece are a part of the Future of Britain project, which seeks to reinvigorate progressive politics to meet the challenges the country faces in the decades ahead. Our experts and thought leaders are setting out a bold, optimistic policy agenda.


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