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Plan K in Parliament: A plan for growth in the knowledge economy

Joanna Massie

04 July 2011

Last week, the second phase of our knowledge economy programme launched its final paper, A plan for growth in the knowledge economy, at the Palace of Westminster. The report, a culmination of two years of research, sets out a vision of what a balanced and sustainable economy could look like in 2020, describing the measures needed now to support this future economy. The paper highlights that, while the government has taken positive action in supporting the economy, more needs to be done to realise the full potential of the knowledge economy.

The Work Foundation welcomed guest speakers Rt. Hon. Dr. Vincent Cable MP, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills; Adrian Bailey MP, Chair of the Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) Select Committee; and Vicky Pryce, Senior Managing Director for FTI Consulting and former Joint Head of the UK Government Economic Service. Around a hundred key figures from academia, industry, policy and the media joined the panel in parliament for an event which not only looked back at the two-year programme of research but also reflected on the practical steps we need to take to have a thriving economy by 2020.

Charles Levy threw down the gauntlet: if the UK is going to build a lasting recovery and secure sustainable economic growth then we need to understand, and fully back, our knowledge economy. There is no other viable option. To achieve this by 2020 we need four fundamentals, essential for maintaining growth in the knowledge economy:

  • an environment where productive entrepreneurship is allowed to flourish;
  • a world-class pool of knowledge workers;
  • investment in a world-class science base; and,
  • an understanding of how to make the most of our public services, recognising them as an anchor institution at the heart of public-private innovation ecosystems.

Drawing on our research programme, emphasis was also placed on the key sectors of high growth in the knowledge economy: realising the full potential of the low carbon economy; backing the creative industries for success; turning the UK into a world leader in manu-services; and securing the UK’s advantage in business services.

As the person responsible for delivering the aims set out in the knowledge economy, Dr. Cable’s response was eagerly anticipated. He agreed with the thrust of our knowledge economy report, but said that it was less clear what policies were needed to achieve a 2020 knowledge economy. He questioned aspects of the report, asking how the ideas would be delivered, and suggesting that a successful recovery of the output lost during the recession by 2020 would be a “heroic” and optimistic aim. Dr. Cable stressed the value of innovation within the public sector, but said that the government was in a bit of a bind when it comes to delivery, jokingly asking for “answers on a postcard”. While the government is committed to the knowledge economy, it would appear that they have slightly different views of what is required to achieve those goals.

In part responding to Dr. Cable, Vicky Pryce expressed concerns over patent boxes and technology and innovation centres; during times of tight public finance, why, she asked, are we still carrying deadweight when there is no evidential outcome? She also stressed that while it is positive to experiment with innovation centres, it is important to keep a close eye on and monitor what they achieve once established.

Adrian Bailey MP welcomed the report, stating that much of it resonated with his experience. Mentioning that the government has not yet had the debate on what they are aiming to achieve in economic recovery, he argued that the emphasis on deficit reduction could neglect basic provisions such as health and education. He talked favourably of the report’s myth-busting material, and emphasised how people often undermine the scope for private and public sectors to work together but that a harmonious interaction between the two is both needed and possible. He concluded by once again stressing the validity of the report and by conveying that, in his experience, the key arguments are not only substantiated by evidence from the BIS Select Committee, but also reflective of personal experience of committee members.

Over the past four years, the first two phases of our knowledge economy programme have developed, refined and raised awareness of the term to help build a consistent understanding of the concept. Will Hutton recounted how the term used to be embarrassing jargon, but that it is no longer just understood as people in white coats in research and development laboratories. Dr. Cable MP followed that by emphasising that the knowledge economy isn’t a theoretical concept, but a real, observable thing. Adrian Bailey wholeheartedly welcomed the changing political language, expressing his belief that the languages developed now – in part thanks to contribution from The Work Foundation - will still be a part of the discourse in thirty years.

Will Hutton brought proceedings to an emphatic conclusion in trademark fashion, with a rousing call for the UK to take its proper place in the world economy. He highlighted how areas focusing on the knowledge economy are the most dynamic and fastest growing, and that the 21st century will continue to see that accelerating. He accepted that while navigating the way out of an economic crisis is hard, there is good news. With an emphasis on innovation, intermediate institutions can come up with the answers. At last the right questions are being asked and the right people are being held to account he insisted. Britain’s strong knowledge economy is a good starting point, and there is an awful lot to build on.

Watch this space for more updates from the knowledge economy programme.

Images from the event

The launch at the Palace of Westminster

The Panel: Charles Levy, Will Hutton, Adrian Bailey MP, Vicky Pryce, Rt. Hon. Dr Vince Cable MP