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The Wiki Man

The Wiki Man: Bring back the madcaps

Rory Sutherland on technology

24 September 2011

12:00 AM

24 September 2011

12:00 AM

I recently watched another one of those delightfully obscure BBC4 archive documentaries. This one was called Bristol on Film.

I like archival film footage for what it reveals unintentionally: the incidental details which have nothing to do with the film-maker’s original intent, but which 60 years later reveal how profoundly the world has changed. Like the sign once glimpsed in 1950s Ramsgate: ‘Lift to the seafront 2d — perambulators and wheelchairs 4d’.

There was one such moment in the Bristol programme. It was footage of the Queen inspecting the first Concorde prototype at Filton. What astonished me was that it was filmed in black and white. It’s now hard to believe there was a moment in history when we could build an airliner capable of doing 1,350 miles per hour and yet when colour televisions were so rare you wouldn’t bother using colour film to record it. It shows how rapidly media technology has progressed since the late 1960s. And how slow has been the progress in everything else.

As I have written before, there is a danger that our obsession with information technology will cause us to direct too little of our inventiveness towards the physical world. Steve Jobs has sometimes been described as the 21st century’s answer to Edison, but perhaps we also need a 21st-century answer to Brunel.

The problem facing any latter-day Brunel is that, in Britain especially, doing anything innovative in the physical world is so difficult. You can start an online retailer tomorrow with five friends, a broadband connection and a shed; yet try to start a new bus company and you enter a world of bureaucratic pain. And don’t even think of trying to build anything…

But it isn’t only British nimbyism that’s the problem. Our engineers, architects and developers are also at fault for being, frankly, quite boring. In Britain we have rock-star hairdressers, chefs, designers and antiques experts, but where are the rock-star engineers or domestic architects? Who is the Paul Smith or the Conran of house design? Who is the John Galliano of public transportation? Are they so busy talking to bureaucrats, developers and accountants that they have no time to engage the public imagination?

The history of British engineering and construction is one of completely mad people occasionally succeeding against equally insane odds. Look, say, at the early development of the Spitfire and everyone involved was certifiably bonkers. What happened to our sense of adventure?

Tim Harford, in his book Adapt, proposes an excellent solution that might recapture this madcap spirit of experimentation: the revival of the state-sponsored competition — of the kind that encouraged John Harrison to develop the marine chronometer.

I think this is an even better idea than the author realises. For not only would competitions of this kind spawn far more originality per pound than conventional tenders but, by capturing the public’s interest, they might also build a groundswell of popular support for the best solutions before the nimby chorus begins. Many of the ideas would be mad. But then important ideas are. ‘Progress depends on the unreasonable man.’

If just £1 billion were made available annually for prizes in this way, we wouldn’t have ended up with a high-speed train to take you to Birmingham: it would have been a high-speed cablecar. Or a fleet of two-man pilotless drones.
But such competitions could take place on a smaller scale too. The National Trust’s time and money would be far better spent staging architectural competitions to promote attractive, innovative modern housing than in trying to preserve every boring field in southern England — as though Britain can no longer build anything worth preserving.  

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.

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