We need to rethink the balance between risk and creativity if the UK is to stay at the forefront of innovation.

The UK is renowned as a global innovator. As the world’s first industrialised nation; innovation, creativity, and – to an extent – risk, have all played a part in some of the UK’s greatest achievements. But have we reached a tipping point where UK creativity is in danger of being stifled as a result of increasing trends towards risk aversion in the innovation ecosystem? What’s more, is it now harder to find the commercial backing to get truly innovative ideas off the ground?

On the surface, regulation is simply necessary for the greater good. 3D printing is a prime example. Take medical devices – without industry regulations ensuring product safety and quality, 3D printed solutions for healthcare could pose serious threats to public safety. The same can be said for food and any number of other industries. Product liability and regulation are certainly vital in ensuring innovation remains ethical and safe and those bringing products and services to market remain responsible and accountable.

However, are these so-called safety nets starting to work against the creative process? Play has long been the engine of innovation. Without it, we may never have realised the true potential of some of the technologies that are now ubiquitously shaping our modern world. Technology is getting faster, smaller, cheaper, and more powerful and accessible, but it’s moving faster than any governing or regulatory body could probably ever hope to. Research shows that regulations simply aren’t keeping up with the latest developments and innovation in our digital age – something that Adam Thierier, Senior Research Fellow at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, calls ‘The Pacing Problem’.

So, the question stands: if regulations can’t keep up with innovation, should we push forward without them, and how can we reach out to regulatory bodies to bring them up to speed?

The answer is complex. As I have said, regulation works for the greater good. It ensures our safety. Yet supressing new technologies and innovations can have significant economic, social, and environmental consequences. Consider, for example, regulatory delays in industries like healthcare, which could result in putting people at further risk by not providing them with a quick and cost-efficient solution to their problem. Startup Cloud DX were a victim of this when, in 2017, its wearable product which could identify respiratory illnesses didn’t meet the US’ Food and Drug Administration approval. And the problem doesn’t just have consequences in healthcare – German company Saperatec, which developed a process to make it easier to recycle mixed-material packaging by isolating materials, couldn’t sell to the food and drink industry due to regulations that prohibit recycled materials coming into direct contact with food. A quick Google search will reveal many examples of companies with genuinely innovative solutions to problems being slowed due to regulations within their target industry.

Arguably, this issue didn’t arise alongside the increasing pace of our digital age. One famous anecdote highlights the problems associated with regulations that are not fit for purpose – the adoption of automobiles in Britain was significantly hindered due to insufficient regulation followed by overregulation during the 1860s. A lack of foresight in Parliament meant that the first automobiles needed to adhere to the same laws as steam engines, which restricted them heavily. In 1865, Parliament tried to rectify this with the ‘Red Flag Act’ which required a crew of three for each automobile – one of which had to walk 60 yards ahead with a red flag to warn pedestrians of the oncoming vehicle. These overburdening laws weren’t repealed until over 30 years later in 1896 – who knows how much road transport was held back during those 30 years?

Would a world without regulation mean that we would design without inhibition? Would we express Elon-Musk-level ambitions and actually make strides towards delivering on them? Would 70% of tech start-ups still fail, or would we constantly be creating new businesses and jobs?

I would argue that flexibility and autonomy is key to balancing risk and creativity. Innovation doesn’t stop, and what the general public wants, the general public tends to get. Top-down approaches simply won’t do any more – and as the Red Flag Act shows us, perhaps they never have. Governments and regulatory bodies need to shift away from a ‘regulate and forget’ model and build flexibility and responsiveness into the rules being created. Where this proves difficult, self-regulatory measures need to be in place – industries and law makers must collaborate with innovators to set realistic standards which guide our country’s innovators from the start of the process.

Many companies need support in balancing the facilitation of creative design with the practicalities of business, as well as the tools, knowledge, and – crucially – the contacts needed to make their ideas a reality. One of the ways this can be achieved is by creating spaces where start-ups and entrepreneurs have access to the support and information they need, when they need it, as they move along the innovation journey towards commercialisation.

This challenge is something that I help businesses navigate in my role as Head of Engineering at Sensor City, using our state-of-the-art labs which feature the latest digital fabrication facilities, including 3D printing, laser cutting and CNC machining. We have an extensive multi-discipline knowledge base within our team with a broad spectrum of capabilities covering most electrical and mechanical disciplines, and thanks to our connections with local universities, we can call upon academic specialists and researchers to cater to almost any client need. Our aim is to help businesses working with sensor-based technology to take their concept and create working prototypes, from enclosures to electronics, mechanical design and manufacture.

So, what’s the benefit of this kind of collaboration? With the right team, approach, and facilities in place, innovative solutions can be tested and prototyped in a safe and controlled environment before being presented to customers and investors. For Sensor City, this includes working with partners like Funderbeam and Arrow to provide alternative finance and accreditation methods, which provide entrepreneurs with different routes to market. On average, these certificated campaigns raise 87% more funds and mean businesses are 4x more likely to reach their crowdfunding goal, proving that having a product feasibility process in place significantly impacts a business’ access to further funding, as well as target markets’ understanding and adoption of new technologies.

Creativity is always going to come with risk – they’re part of the give-and-take necessary to drive economic growth and something that we will never be able to mitigate. What we can do is change the way innovators, regulators and investors interact to create a shared space which facilitates communication, collaboration and creativity.

Dan Watson is Head of Engineering at Sensor City, where he leads the technical team in harnessing more than £1m of laboratory equipment to give SMEs, start-ups and larger companies the tools to go from novel concept to working prototype with speed and accuracy.

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