‘True progress is about more than finance’: Sir Hugh Robertson on why innovation needs a makeover

The latest instalment of the Race to Dubai saw British business heads meet with Dubai entities on the sidelines of the 2017 BMW PGA Championship. Rt Hon Sir Hugh Robertson KCMG DL, Vice Chairman of International Relations at Falcon and Associates, looks at the key takeaways to arise from the sessions

Last week, I had the opportunity to host two business breakfast sessions, staged around the latest instalment of the European Tour's Race to Dubai – the 2017 BMW PGA Golf Championship at Wentworth. Golf, as we all know, is the sport of business, and the event was the perfect chance to bring together leading figures in the worlds of business and industry to discuss collaboration, and explore the future of innovation.

The Thursday session at Wentworth saw Simon Clegg CBE, Chief Operating Officer for Expo 2020 Dubai join me on stage for a wide-ranging discussion about the impact of global mega-events and their inevitable influence, particularly Expo 2020 Dubai and the drive for innovation in the emirate and beyond.

Similar themes carried over to Friday’s second session: a panel discussion on transitioning towards an innovation economy between Simon Devonshire, OBE, Entrepreneur in Residence at the UK government, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), Marios Maratheftis, Chief Economist of Standard Chartered bank, Roland Daher, Head of Dubai 100 and Genevieve Keeley, Director of Innovation and Learning at Falcon and Associates. The group shared their unique ideas, experiences and anecdotes with thought leaders and senior representatives of British businesses, in the search for a happier, more productive future.

Redefining progress

A crucial takeaway from both breakfast sessions was that the definition of progress is in much need of a makeover. Even innovation itself – a recurring word during the business breakfast sessions – must be redefined.

In our high-tech society, innovation is no longer about invention or patents; the panel agreed that we should be just as interested in commercial and economic development as we are in creativity.

With this in mind, both sessions discussed the importance of a worldwide move towards an innovation-based economy, which values knowledge, understanding and productivity over capital, labour and land.

Achieving such an economy is a central aim of Expo 2020 Dubai, but, the panel agreed, everywhere should seek to progress through knowledge.

After all, as the panel highlighted, innovation was once about necessity, with nations forced to think outside the box to progress after events like the global financial crisis. Now, during periods of reasonable economic stability, it was agreed that we must drive innovation from within – and this will be the true measure of future success and sustainability.

Embracing a global legacy

Of course, when it comes to progress, knowledge and commercial opportunities, they don’t come much bigger than a World Expo (and I say this as a former Olympic Minister!). As COO of Expo 2020 Dubai, Clegg reminded the London audience that the first ever World Fair was hosted no further than Hyde Park. The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations has undoubtedly left a cultural and economic legacy, which Dubai wishes to embrace – and dare I say surpass – during Expo 2020 Dubai.

Indeed, Clegg set out the emirate’s vision for a worldwide gathering that considers the scientific and social applications of everything, from Artificial Intelligence to genome therapy, and from sustainability to flying cars.

Friday’s panellists also praised the emirate as a hub for innovation, naming Dubai alongside Singapore as an inspirational city that developed from scarce resources into a thriving, high-tech society.

One interesting insight was the idea that cities must embrace an area of expertise. In the same way that Edinburgh and Hayes are renowned for their respective comedy and literary festivals in the UK, building specific skills in areas such as 3D printing for Dubai will give places both purpose and ambition.

The key ingredients for innovation

There is no doubt, then, that we should observe and build upon world history if we wish to see real progress across all areas of society.

But what are the tools for innovation today? Over both sessions, we looked upon global examples of growth, from the development and impact of mega-events, to funding and progressing startups seeking route to market.

Money, of course, is often sought and required for progress, but true innovation is about more than just finance. Through initiatives like UAE’s Ministry of State for Happiness, many businesses and governments are seeking to measure previously unquantifiable resources, such as happiness and confidence.

This move towards people-centric societies will encourage real, passion-driven growth in every area of business – an important stride towards a real knowledge-based, innovation economy. Emotional intelligence, it seems, is at the core of future progress.

Building the future through education

There is no doubt that – sooner than we think – the structures that underpin our society are likely to be entirely transformed. From new economies to new careers, the next generation will face an entirely different world to our own, and we must guide them and help them face new challenges.

Over both sessions, the five speakers joined me in arguing that education is the true driver of innovation. Beyond good health and survival skills, we must give the young understanding and purpose – we must teach them into a new era of knowledge and innovation.