Philip Hargrave: Strong culture of digital innovation bodes well for future of UK economy

Philip Hargrave is the CEO and network director of the ICT Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN), which aims to boost the UK's economic firepower through open innovation and the exchange of knowledge. We sat down with him to find out more about his role and the wider picture of what the KTN does.

What does the Knowledge Transfer Network do and how can ICT ventures benefit from getting involved?

The ICT KTN is hosted by the not-for-profit ICT KTN company, working in association with Intellect and NPL as delivery partners. With funding from the Technology Strategy Board, the ICT KTN focuses on knowledge transfer as a stimulus to economic growth. It seeks to bring a competitive advantage to the UK by facilitating the development and uptake of information and communications technologies and their adoption as key enablers in other industries. Membership is free and open to all involved in any way in the ICT value chain, from university researchers to those in enterprises of all sizes working in the converging sectors of communications, information technology and broadcasting, to those in adjacent sectors for which ICT can be transformational. The ICT KTN achieves impact by engaging with the community through high quality focused workshops, seminars, briefings, master classes and other events, both physical and online, and the publication of position papers, roadmaps, thought leadership articles and case studies.

ICT is an intensely competitive and innovative arena. How does this knowledge transfer notion that you encourage fit with the drive for competition?

In the past most organisations pursued a policy of 'closed innovation' on the premise that to be successful they needed to control the generation and exploitation of their own ideas. In recent years, however, there has been a move towards 'open innovation', a policy of seeking out and using external as well as internal ideas. By collaborating with partners, organisations seek to share both the risk and reward associated with the innovation process.

The need to move from closed to open innovation has been driven by a number of factors, including the increasing availability and mobility of skilled employees, the sheer complexity of many advances and the demise of large corporate research and development organisations. Knowledge transfer is a contact sport, and there is enormous value, not only in the discussions which happen formally during our events, but also during the informal discussions and networking that occur around the meetings, in facilitating the collaborations that are at the heart of such open innovation.

In your Future Internet Demand-Side report, you concluded, "The adoption of Future Internet style services is changing the relationships between institutions and people and in many cases the UK as a world leader." Could you suggest a few examples of how these relationships are changing and what developments we might now expect – both here in the UK and in our export potential?

Our latest Future Internet report focused on demand side issues based on evidence gathered from a number of interviews covering a range of sectors from transport and energy through to care for the elderly. Some trends emerged around the management of data, and in particular the integration of diverse data sets to enable value added services to be created. Each of the sectors addressed is complex in its own right, with its own motivation and culture, but all are under extreme cost pressure and are seeking ways of delivering more efficient and user-friendly services to end users.

Cities tend to encompass aspects of all the sectors addressed, being the principal delivery points for our large urban population. A very successful event was held in Manchester in June in association with Techcelerate to publicise the report findings and to widen the debate about Future Internet style service delivery. The event was supported by Manchester City Council, which showcased its policy in this area and presented examples of completed projects. This is an area in which the UK is clearly taking a lead, and we are therefore holding a second event in association with Cambridge Wireless towards the end of November with a much expanded agenda, bringing together the leading Future Internet UK cities of Bristol, Manchester and Cambridge.

The ICT KTN sponsored the Digital Innovation award in the Next Generation Digital Challenge Awards 2013 – and you were on the judging panel. This was a new category for this year's awards. Did the shortlisted finalists tell us anything about the health of innovation in the UK?

The ability to innovate and to bring the results of innovation to market are now universally recognised as crucial contributors to the global competitiveness of every nation. Innovation is therefore now firmly at the centre of every country's economic policy, particularly so in respect of the digital revolution.

The UK is home to Europe's largest ICT industry and hence a prime location for investment in these new technologies. It has secured a global reputation, not only for its ground-breaking research, but also for its success in realising commercial returns on its investment in R&D. This is particularly so in respect of digital innovation, with 38 per cent of all spin-out companies from UK universities being in the ICT sector. The precise number of ICT companies in the UK is quite difficult to establish. However, recent research by the National Institute for Economic and Social Research concluded that there were something like 270,000 such companies in the UK, a figure significantly higher than had previously been thought. In regards to the size of the labour force in the UK , an e-Skills analysis in 2010 put the total number employed in IT and telecoms at just over 1.5 million, about five per cent of the total UK workforce.

So, as a country we have a massive need for digital innovation and, fortunately for us, a significant capability to enable it. Anything that encourages and rewards innovation in the sector is therefore to be applauded. The ICT KTN was therefore delighted to be associated with the Next Generation Digital Challenge awards and, in particular, to be the sponsor of the 'Digital Innovation' category. I was personally extremely encouraged by the quality of the finalists in the categories of both the digital innovation and open data categories for which I was a judge, which bodes extremely well for the UK.

Thinking about global competition for new products and services, do you think the UK's digital infrastructure and expertise is improving fast enough to support innovation across all our local economies?

A knowledge worker in the new economy can live anywhere in the world, provided that necessary communications infrastructure is in place. A country's communications infrastructure has now become as central to its economic growth as roads were, and trains were before that, and canals in the early days of the Industrial Revolution. Access speeds are clearly set to continue on their upward trajectory, driven by the demand for services requiring ever higher data-rates. In the UK, fibre is coming closer to the end user, enabling speeds in excess of the European Commission's Digital Agenda target of at least 30 Mbit/s to all households by 2020. Mobile access speeds are similarly increasing with the roll-out of the long term evolution (LTE) standard. The challenge is, as always, the speed of the rollouts, and the cost challenges associated with reaching the most remote areas.

Image credit: Flickr (raph.ae/)

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