There are no big problems

One of the advantages of the organisational promiscuity that has characterised my career is that I have worked for and with many people.  Some have been both successful and fun to work with; some have been less than successful and no fun to work with.  Since I was trained as a scientist, I have watched them all and attempted to learn what the approach to being a success in business should be. 

After almost 30 years, I am still not sure, but Lord Sugar's polemic at Innovate 09 made me think about it all again.  If I can paraphrase his argument, it was that you need to know what people will buy to succeed.  Various people asked questions about aspects of business but I think the simplicity of his response bypassed many.  The same simple approach is also what marked out those CEOs that I worked for that were successful and was missing in those who weren't.  There were many other attributes the successful ones had - the ability to communicate a vision of the future to their workforce and motivate them to deliver it comes a strong second, but it was this constant commitment to probe and understand the market that has stuck with me.  Perhaps is it because it is the one part of the overall business jigsaw that they couldn't control.  They could affect the development of new products and services through their R&D group, they could manage costs and efficiencies in their manufacturing operations and they could train their sales force and equip it with suitable brochures and samples, but unless the customer bought the product, all was in vain.

What then can governments do to help businesses, if the core challenge is to understand where your market is going so that you can design and develop the right products and services that people want?  Part of the answer lies, I believe, in the more predictable changes that are happening to our world, and happening at a scale that it takes governments to deal with them.  They are mostly of a scale and reach that put them into the territory of government, and often the final "customer" for them is society.  In dealing with these large, societal challenges, governments make and change markets.  This approach lies at the heart of our Innovation Platforms - but is increasingly being used around the world to simultaneously address large-scale global challenges and drive national economies.

Climate change is the most obvious one.  There is increasing evidence that we have to change the way we use a variety of resources for the planet, but our use of hydrocarbon fuels over a couple of centuries seems to have put us on a problematic path.  We therefore need to drastically reduce our use of fossil fuels and find ways to deal with the greenhouse gases produced when they cannot be avoided.  This is behind the activities to develop low carbon vehicles (which currently contribute about 18% of carbon dioxide emissions) low impact houses (about 30%) and low impact buildings (a further 15%) and to develop renewable energy generation systems or capture and "store" the carbon dioxide produced by conventional energy generation systems.   Each of these is being driven by government using a combination of regulations, standards, fiscal policies and procurement, and we are working with the more innovative companies that are addressing these government-orchestrated challenges.

The provision of healthcare is also a government-coordinated market.  From the challenges caused by the demographics that will see more of us (and I do mean US) live for longer, to those born of the increased level of international travel (with possibly a side order of climate change related disease spread), there is plenty that government-supplied healthcare needs to deal with. 

The ageing population means that there will be more of us living well past what passes for the "design life" of our bodies, and we will need a different approach to the "diseases of old age" with earlier diagnosis and different organisation for the provision of care.  The increased prevalence of infectious diseases means that we need to understand better the molecular causes of these diseases and new methods to tackle them - and a much better understanding of the social and physiological aspects of those treatments.  The proliferation of infectious diseases makes rapid and accurate detection and diagnosis a priority and (once again) a much-improved understanding of the molecular aspects of the disease, the patient and the therapy if we are to efficiently deal with these new healthcare challenges.

There will be other societal challenges that we look to government to address on our behalf, but it will be through businesses that the answers mostly come.  It is the role of government to identify, articulate and prioritise these challenges and find ways to mobilise companies to efficiently and effectively tackle them for a "win-win" result.  These challenges may appear large and possibly insurmountable but, as Henry Ford is alleged to have said "There are no big problems, there are just a lot of little problems."


Last updated on Friday 24 February 2012 at 10:11

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