“Innovation is the UK’s key to regaining its world-leading position”

Since the year 2000 the world’s reliance on technology has changed beyond recognition. The turn of the century brought the dotcom bubble but, in the years since, the global population has embraced technological advancements – from smartphones, to social media, to more than half of the world’s population accessing the internet.

Andrew Roughan predicts that the next five years will surpass the past 25 in terms of innovation, with significant opportunities ahead. As CEO of Plexal, a company fostering collaborative innovation in emerging technology and national security, he plays a key role in this industrial revolution. Plexal collaborates with HBD on the Golden Valley project in Cheltenham, promoting synergy among local start-ups, UK scale-ups, and global tech giants.

In this article, written off the back of his appearance at CyberUK, where Plexal hosted the Startups Zone in keeping with its commitment to powering the UK’s cyber ecosystem, Andrew talks about the opportunities on the horizon, and how collaboration and working in innovation clusters can head off the challenges of the modern world…

The world’s been on a remarkable journey this past 25 years.

It’s an era in which we’ve observed a seismic transformation, one spurred on by a widespread integration of innovative technologies and concepts that have propelled businesses forward.

Putting the rose-tinted glasses aside, it’s fair to say that journey’s not been without its obstacles. Many of them persist today – something we must address as we usher in a new era of technological prowess and welcome fresh perspectives on the horizon.

Strength in numbers

There’s so much opportunity ahead and we believe plenty of that can be seized if we work together. Collaboration is key to unlocking potential, helping us foster global cooperation while nurturing partnerships across regions.

When founding Plexal, our aim was clear; to cultivate spaces tailored for innovators, creating physical environments in which companies could flourish. Central to our mission is the role of co-piloting innovators on their transformative journey, uniting brilliant minds and collaborating closely with governments at both national and local levels.

We also set out to work with developers and decision-makers to build innovation clusters – the focus of this article.

What are clusters?

Essentially, clusters are places engineered to thrive. You start with the nucleus, the magnet, the very reason for the cluster’s being. High-value innovators then surround that cluster – think big tech companies and universities, who in turn are surrounded by a third ring of organisations. The latter are disruptors and unshackled creatives who bring new ideas and can scale them up thanks to the cluster community they are in.

One such emerging cluster is Golden Valley in Cheltenham – a £1bn, once-in-a-lifetime project being delivered by our friends at HBD. The nucleus here is GCHQ – the UK’s intelligence, security and cyber agency with a brief to keep the country safe.

GCHQ has set the scene and made cyber the focus of the area; it’s different to placemaking and the task of developers elsewhere, as what we are seeking to do is to create a scalable community that will become internationally renowned for a specialism – all centred around one magnetic force.

The time is now

The first part of this century was very much about ‘wiring’ the planet, experimenting and reaching the point we’re at today as we stand on the precipice of a period of exciting technological growth in which the next few years will be as transformative as the last 25 put together.

But we have some hurdles to jump.

In the UK, we’ve long since lost our world-leading positions in industry so this is the perfect time to grasp new opportunities, ensuring that our productivity per capita increases – imperative in helping us maintain the country’s standards of living.

We also need to address the dichotomy that has permeated the past decade: the imperative and aspiration for international trade juxtaposed with the complexities of Brexit and the longing for sovereignty.

The latter has been underscored by the onset of Covid too, a period during which our reliance on global supply chains was starkly highlighted. From lithium to wheat, essential resources became compromised, prompting a sobering realisation of the importance of diversifying options on home soil.

And, with a new government likely, we need to ensure that domestic and foreign policy encourages the existence of clusters. As I write this article, I’ve got one eye on Keir Starmer setting out his priorities for a Labour-run government – economic growth being chief among them. I believe that innovation clusters can contribute significantly to this agenda, particularly if spurred on by a commitment to levelling the playing field and spreading prosperity akin to the Golden Valley model of ecosystems.

The UK’s role in the new industrial revolution

But what is it specifically that the UK can capitalise on in a new technological epoch?

Once renowned for prowess in industry, textiles, steel production, manufacturing and exporting, the UK’s lost its standing. But, our nation still has its rich tapestry of innovation credentials, not to mention luminaries like Turing, Berners-Lee, and Bell, and their trailblazing technologies still intertwined with our daily lives.

We need to harness the expertise of the past to become renowned on a global stage once more. We must delve deep and identify our core strengths through clusters that foster collaboration and infrastructure necessary to propel progress at scale.

It’s been done before. Silicon Valley, where decades ago, a burgeoning ecosystem was catalysed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) – an organisation born out of Eisenhower’s desire to be first in the space race but has since become the tech epicentre of the tech world. Silicon Valley epitomises the concept of strength in numbers, showcasing the power of collective innovation and we can learn from that, harnessing new possibilities.

AI is a key focus, particularly amid the current global challenge of productivity. I firmly believe that a cluster like the one planned at Golden Valley holds immense potential to revolutionise our approach to AI-powered work methodologies. Through collaborative efforts, we can pioneer scalable programmes and models that debunk the perceived negatives, ultimately generating new employment opportunities in the same way the Indian subcontinent did with outsourcing. We can adopt that model to bring services back onshore, leveraging our expertise in AI to drive this transformation.

But we’re very much in the infancy of this journey with Golden Valley, and there’s a long way to go. The right minds are on board, each of them with the appetite to move at pace. HBD, with its wealth of experience ready to drive the real estate opportunity, a local authority embracing what’s ahead and, crucially, the magnetic force in the form of GCHQ.

With the right actors around we can nurture a thriving future here.

Layers of opportunity

When reading about Golden Valley, you’ll often see much of the conversation centred around cyber security – but many don’t realise how nuanced that sector is, and the layer upon layer of opportunity and challenge it will bring.

There’s food security, climate security, and biosecurity – the latter actually being one of the most pertinent human risks. The world hasn’t really got its head around what caused Covid, imagine the ‘criminal’ gets to the source first, and suddenly we have a biosecurity attack on our hands worse than what we endured in 2020.

The UK has the expertise, academic and commercial prowess to explore such major issues, all while being part of a global alliance. It’s not just engineered biology either, and the government has a total of five key priority areas when it comes to innovation – each of them reiterated by Tech Minister Saqib Bhatti in his speech at CyberUK.

In addition to AI, other priorities include semi-conductor supply and a concerning reliance on Taiwan to sustain our electric products, as well as quantum. The latter has its downsides given that we’ve so long lived with an internet governed by passwords, but that for me is outweighed by a revolutionised internet – one that harnesses the principles of quantum mechanics to pave the way for secure and high-speed communication.

The final priority pillar for this government is the future of telecoms. From our smartphones to Teams, we’re hugely reliant on what is a struggling sector. But with the right innovation, there’s a whole load of opportunity to go up the value chain. Scottish-born Alexander Graham Bell led the charge in this field 150 years ago, something we can embrace as we seek to rejuvenate the telecoms industry on a global scale – all while creating jobs and a strong economy at home.

In seizing new opportunities and working with great partners like HBD, we are confident that we can propel the UK’s role as an innovator on the global stage through clusters. Plexal has a blueprint, with measurable objectives to help collaborators move forward, using data and making evidence-based decisions to adapt and intervene.

With so much potential, I can’t wait to see what the next few years will bring.