Welcome to BIG POTATOES: Join the debate!

SOME TIME BACK, the authors of this Manifesto came together in London to write 10 case studies on innovation in 20th century recessions. We found ourselves impressed by some of the innovations of the Great Depression, pioneered by companies that have since proved durable – companies including Nestlé, Penguin Books, General Electric and Texas Instruments.

But we also noted how times have changed. Despite sitting on the precipice of another global economic depression we could not see much evidence for any appetite for groundbreaking risk-taking innovation that became apparent during and after the Depression of the twentieth century. Instead, we noted how contemporary society shuns innovation while paying it lip-service.

What we believe

It is the belief of the BIG POTATOES authors that innovation and a culture that can nurture innovation needs something of a rebirth. We note how the elevation of the precautionary principle in science, the short-termist financialisation of business culture and the hostility that now exists to open-ended experimentation means, in effect, that our society has lost faith in progress through science, technology and human ingenuity.

This is why we came together to develop BIG POTATOES. We aim to provoke a debate that can challenge our contemporary culture of limits. We want to think the unthinkable, explore the unfathomable, question everything in the spirit of nurturing unexpected outcomes and place human endeavour back at the centre of the universe. Join us and help grow BIG POTATOES!

But what policies are you advocating?

We are not advocating any policies… at this point. ‘What policies are you advocating?’ is always the battle cry of the impatient entrepreneur or government official. This debate is too important for it to become enmeshed in policy discussions. We need this debate in order to clarify the issues at stake, and to scope what needs to be done to reinvigorate a culture of innovation in contemporary society. Innovation is not something that can be turned on and off like a tap. It is a complex interplay between economics, politics and culture – from how we inspire and educate younger generations, to our attitude towards scientific discovery and risk-taking, from the arts to long-term thinking and investment – and pursuing it requires clarity of thought and purpose.

We hope BIG POTATOES will help inspire a debate that illuminates the scope of this challenge. Only then will it be meaningful and practical to talk about the policy implications of these insights.

We hope you will join us on this quest. We do not proclaim to have a monopoly over the truth. But a collective intellectual exchange will bring us closer to clarifying what’s at stake and how we might start to get there.

Join us and let your innovative self free!


6 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Julian Spence,

    I much appreciated a copy of the manifesto I was given.
    It reminded me of the Midlands Philosophical societies – which con-joined membership worked together to push signification innovations. Difficult to see who are the successors to Wedgwood & Arkwright – with their appreciation of more than just product but also manufacturing and technology push. In these societies networking individuals and bringing new ideas and arts together seemed to have flourished. Perhaps we have failed to learn the lessons of history…?

  2. Paul hIBBERD,

    Science, we are told, is exciting. But to many outsiders it is the imaginative leaps which are exciting – the scientific ‘method’, essentially a checking process, is a necessity but can be tedious! Different kinds of people are needed for the different parts of scientific progress. Why not choose ten ‘big potatoes’ (big scientific problems), give people a bit of background and then have a brainstorm on the web. It just might speed things up a bit….

  3. I agree that the government have become risk averse and that the STEM subjects are not taught creatively. I have been called a high risk taker and have been involved in a couple of successful companies and a number of so called “risky” ventures in renewables and space.

    I have long given up approaching any government organisation for help and for the past 10 years used private funding. One project that is technology disruptive (the eMdrive) has been almost totaly ignored here and yet the Chinese government has put 20 scientist on their copy of the eMdrive project. It would seem that some emerging countries are willing to take risks. Is our government (and I mean all parties) just too old and staid in its thinking?

    Lord Drayson has instigated a review of our space industry but those so called “risky” project I have been involed in have been ignored. These are Starchaser (reusable “green” launch vehicles), PowerSat (power satelites) and eMdrive. Are there any government advisers who are capable of recocgnising new scientific inovations and their long term impact on the British economy? Where they do not just count the “beans” and assess risks? How they can assess risk on inovative technology is beyond me. I know my math is not great (or my spelling) but I can’t recall anything in probability theory that can reliably predict this kind of out come. Why they cannot see the long term benifits and how interactions between inovations can take place, again, is beyond me. I and many other entrepreneurs seem to be able to accomplish this so why not a well funded government?

  4. For back ground info here is a link to this year’s

    “The 50 Most Innovative Companies 2010” report from Bloomberg and Business Week.

    One passing point is that (as far as I can tell) there are no aerospace companies – either – manufacturers; airframe, engine or satellite designers – or service innovators such as Ryanair or EasyJet- on this list?

  5. Justin has hit the nail on the head. The key problem we face as a society…perhaps fundamentally as individuals…is the ability to take risks collectively. In a society where political decisions are only made if actions can be measured (because measurement supposedly enables us to evaluate progress effectively), we are ignoring all those ideas, policies and actions that are riskier, but which may well be more successful.

    The fact that this idea of incremental and measurable progress (just look at targets in the NHS) is seen as “scientific” is, to any scientist or lover of scientific method, deeply disappointing and and disturbing. A survey of scientific history (Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolution or Feyerabend’s Against Method) reveals that science is fundamentally a creative process which proceeds on hunches and leaps of faith grounded in “big ideas” and then develops rigourous systems of research, experimentation and analysis to prove the idea. In this way science is fundamentally NOT incremental and measurable at all times.

    But there is a fundamental difference between the scientist and the politician: Scientists are expected to explore wide and far for an ever-evolving understanding, where politicians are expected to work on our behalf to do the right thing. If a scientist gets it wrong, s/he simply begins again. If a politician gets it wrong, they get mud on their face and do not get reelected. So taking risks in the political sphere is fundamentally difficult in a democracy. And in a media-saturated political environment where every move and every word is broadcast to the world and scrutinised by a public who are often not well informed enough about the particulars of the issues (and don’t care to be), risk-taking is nigh on impossible. I daresay the founding fathers of america would have been unable to write the constitution or the bill of rights were it so publicly scrutinised in realtime.

    In this environment, politicians focus on policies that generate short-term value and popularity rather than long-term value…and big, world-changing ideas (which are challenging, risky and not always measurably successful in the short term) get passed over. What is worse, the people who are capable of these grand ideas are driven out of public service and into private industry, thus reinforcing the idea that politics and politicians are self-serving and vapid rather than the engine of a civilised society.

    The sadness of this situation for anyone who has been a leader or who understands what leadership requires is that that leadership demands taking decisions which are not always popular in the short term because they are right in the long term. And to rally people behind an idea that is painful and difficult in the short term, one needs a vision of the world that those people can buy into…and where those individuals understand how their actions and behaviours contribute (or work against) this vision so that they feel responsible for the actions of their leaders and feel they are participating in the shaping of society.

    We have, unfortunately, allowed our society to devolve into an us versus them environment where perhaps once well-intentioned politicians cease to do anything risky, construct vapid manifestos and rely on media glitz and personal popularity to drive progress…thus fuelling the malaise and disenfranchisement of the populace. The end result is that little or no progress is really ever made on the issues which matter…because those issues require leadership, vision and a large dose of creative innovation, something our poll-following political machines are no longer capable of.

    Unfortunately, it is unclear how, short of financial and social catastrophe which forces everyone to work together toward a common goal (WW2 operated like this) and enables, no requires, leaders to come to the fore with innovative ideas and actions, that we can get out of this dismal spiral and revitalise the very idea of democracy…perhaps the debates initiated by this manifesto will help identify a solution…or at least catalyse a search for them in true scientific style…rich with hunches, flights of fancy and rigourous experimentation and proof.

  6. I think you’re on to something here, folks. You mentioned risk-taking, and for me this is key.

    During wars, during the Depression, it was riskier *not* to take a punt on things. Arguably developed nations have become very risk averse, and this is to our collective detriment.

    I believe you’re going to challenge the political parties in the upcoming UK General Election – but I would argue that the parties have become risk-averse in terms of big ideas, setting out their ideas etc. because the Electorate is itself risk-averse.

    If, “in a democracy, the electorate gets the government it deserves” – how can we break this cycle?

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