Giving innovation wings

From Concorde to cloud computing, the UK produces great innovations, but how robust is today’s technology sector?

Although the focus of computer hardware and software is - with a few notable exceptions, such as Sage, Sophos and Autonomy - now elsewhere, the UK has strengths in several fundamental technologies.

With one of the world's largest telecoms companies, Vodafone, headquartered in the UK and listed on the London Stock Exchange, mobile communications is also a core competence and broadband technology expertise is also growing, helped in part by BT's investments and the Broadband Britain project.

Other fields where the UK has an edge include nanotechnology, geospatial systems, including GPS technologies and mapping, and media technologies, such as the BBC iPlayer.

According to Julian Richards, a UK spokesperson for HP Labs - which has a large operation in the UK, near Bristol - the UK has world-leading research in critical areas of cloud technology and security. HP researchers, for example, are working on "secure, intelligent infrastructures that increase the confidence of enterprise users in the cloud", without which such technologies will not develop their full potential.

Just as important as the technology itself is how it is used, and how it transforms the way businesses operate. As technologies mature, and in some areas, become cheaper and more commoditised, both industrial and academic research will switch to the way technologies are applied, in the workplace and in wider society.

An example of this is the joint project between Mobile VCE and The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). The jointly funded project has a budget of 3.5m and involves several leading universities. Mobile VCE is a consortium of 15 industry players including, from the UK, Vodafone, BT and the BBC. The two main projects include one looking at the future of mobile network design, and another examining how uses interact with devices.

"[These projects rely critically on integrating research on the softer social aspects of IT with the harder technical research. Both technical researchers and commercial organisations have realised that the limits for step-changes in innovation through purely technical research pretty much has been reached," said Dr Carsten Sorensen, from the London School of Economics and one of the researchers involved in the project.

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