Innovation is Failure

In the late 18th century, Ironbridge in Shropshire was at the heart of the British industrial revolution – and Britain led the world.  A fizzing hot house of invention, investment and innovation, it was the Silicon Valley of its day.  One of the thrilling new products discovered and processed in Ironbridge was ‘British Oil’.  The raw material oozed naturally from the ground in Ironbridge, and in 1787 the Coal Tar Tunnel was dug beside the River Severn, to harvest and transport this amazing product.  The tunnel was built by a certain William Hombersley.

Now, sadly this is not a story about how my great-something grandfather established us as the Gettys of Great Britain.  British Oil is now known more prosaically as bitumen.  The tunnel was closed after a few years, though you can now visit it as a tourist attraction, if that’s your thing.  The project failed.  But from that project, an innovative railway was developed for material transportation.  And from that, a canal business developed.  And then innovative processes for pig iron and other materials.  There were I’m sure many more failures, many more footnotes in our industrial heritage, lost investments and dead-end developments.  But Britain was the leading industrialised nation for over a century not despite failures like these, but because of them.  Innovation is a process of repeated failure.  To succeed, you need the capacity to fail.

The challenge for innovators in today’s industrial revolution is in finding a space to fail repeatedly.  The big industrial companies have the experience and resources to invest in innovation, and a pressing need to innovate to stay competitive.  But large companies, perfectly rationally, aim to minimise risk.  Managers are often rewarded more for avoiding failure than for achieving success.  And despite the news stories of teenagers developing an app in an afternoon, industrial innovation takes time.  Annual budgets, performance milestones and Return on Investment calculations are all essential in a shareholder driven world, but they sap the lifeblood of innovation.  There are exceptions, of course, some large companies are built on innovation.  The Dysons and Teslas, where a culture created by an iconoclastic innovator is maintained. But most big industrial companies are decades or sometimes centuries distant from their pioneering founders.

So, where is the space to fail today?  Where an innovator can create, without the pressure of annual budgets and investment committees?  Where repeated failure is seen as a valid methodology?  Our universities.  In Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial College, Britain has three of the top ten ranked universities for engineering and technology.  Sure, the US has six, but they are five times our size.  And in part this strength in engineering is the legacy of our leadership of that first industrial revolution, all those years ago.

Universities can’t do this alone.  Innovation is the application of invention, and universities need an ecosystem of industrial entrepreneurs, patient investors and industrial partners. So did my great-something grandfather (though he may have scratched his wig over ‘ecosystem’).  And innovation hasn’t changed over the centuries either – it’s still a process of repeated failure. If we’re going to capitalise on Britain’s great lead in engineering and technology, we all need to shift our attitude to risk and embrace failure.