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  1. Spotlight on Policy
19 September 2019updated 09 Sep 2021 12:56pm

Fail fast, learn fast: pioneering a new model of innovation

The clock is ticking. A range of sectors – including automotive, aerospace and construction – are impatient for the innovation they need to be sustainable, both economically and environmentally, says the CEO of Graphene@Manchester.   

By James Baker

A new generation of advanced materials are the most likely candidates to make the necessary difference to these businesses. I also believe that we can accelerate innovation without compromising safety, thanks to the advent of increased digitalisation in the industrial and manufacturing sectors – for example, adopting sophisticated modelling techniques, such as digital twin technology, to replicate ideas and quickly help identify and reduce potential risks.  

To meet this demand a more agile, ‘fail fast, learn fast’ approach needs to be adopted across the advanced materials innovation community. This method focuses on short-term pilot projects and echoes the advice from Apple’s innovation genius Steve Jobs on being prepared to make mistakes, admit them quickly and get on with improving the innovation.  It departs radically from the mainstream innovation model, because rather than trying to pick (and spend time and money) on a potential winner, we could instead spend much less time on running say, 10 plausible projects all at the same time, but at a much earlier stage of their development . As we learn from our failures, we select or combine innovations that look to be winners.

The Manchester model

This more agile approach should work well for the model innovation community now being led by The University of Manchester, which features a ‘science value supply chain’ that runs seamlessly across academia and commercial end-users.

For us, this journey begins in research groups based in the University and where blue sky thinking can be nurtured in centres of excellence like the National Graphene Institute. When the science is mature enough, we can transition it into projects based in the nearby business-facing Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre (or GEIC for short). The GEIC proactively engages with business partners for whom 2D materials could prove transformational, including lightweighting, energy storage and membrane technology. 

These flagship facilities are part of a wider innovation eco-system including the Henry Royce Institute, the UK body for innovation in advanced materials, that we call Graphene City – this unique community features a critical mass of scientists, manufacturers, engineers, innovators and industrialists centred around fully integrated lab-to-market capability.

Less fear, more entrepreneurial spirit

If we are to remain competitive at a global level I recommend that the UKs’ strategic innovation community need to consider in their plans:

  • the need to have an ‘innovation stream’ within the Industry Strategy Challenge Fund that introduces and adopts the ‘fail fast, learn fast’ approach.
  • a cultural shift in national funding and policy thinking with a recognition that the UK should be nurturing innovation winners based on the ‘fail fast, learn fast’ approach and not just ‘picking winners’.
  • the need to identify and support exemplar innovation eco-systems that enable the fail fast, learn fast way to innovation (Graphene City would be a good example).    

Our economy, our daily lives and our planet stands to gain, and the sooner we start, the sooner we’ll reap the benefits.

  • To find our more read On Materials: policyatmanchester.shorthandstories.com/on_materials/index.html

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