Wednesday, 7 January 2009

The price of innovation

Gordon Brown never misses an opportunity to champion innovation, but the details are often murky. I can understand his paranoia: reveal too much detail and your plan will be rubbished by media and opposition alike before it’s even had the chance to develop legs. But some kind of idea of how we’re going to turn all those ex-Woolworths employees into wind farm entrepreneurs really would be useful. If it’s “digital infrastructure” you’re interested in, then does a good job of suggesting a few things to spend that £18bn on. Actually make that £17bn. Apparently Gordon’s splurged a billion already. Championing innovation is pricey.

Last month, I visited computer games developer Media Molecule and was struck by the depth of creativity there. The UK’s games industry is blessed by a wealth of talent, but we’re hampered by our rival developer nations’ generous tax breaks, which make it hard for the Brits to compete. Media Molecule remains competitive by keeping the numbers down. But here’s the thing: employees are actively encouraged to use the premises to work on their own projects, out of hours. If they manage to come up with anything worthwhile, the intellectual property is theirs to keep. That might sound like a bizarre oversight, after all, a company’s greatest asset is usually its people. The more they create, the more money you make.

But hanging onto your most effective creatives is, in the long run, a more profitable track. And these employees will be more encouraged to stay if you offer them a sense of freedom—the opportunity to chase their dreams out of office hours. This is, after all, the same freedom that enabled Tim Berners Lee to create the World Wide Web. Infrastructure is important, but so is fostering the will to create.

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