Networks at Heart of Future Technologies

Date: 24-11-2012
Source: The Wall Street Journal

The importance of the networks, and in particular wireless, is revealed in a U.K. government report published Friday looking at what technologies will be driving growth in the economy in the 2020s.

As its title – Technology and Innovation Futures: UK Growth Opportunities for the 2020s – 2012 Refresh –suggests this is an update to an earlier report, commissioned in 2010.

The original report looked at 53 technologies, from genetech and other bio-related fields, through advanced agriculture, nanotech, advanced materials and the like. It has been updated and the fact that changes in such a short time scale are necessary shows how fast technology is changing.

The British government has noted changes in the speed of development in 3-D printing, in robotics and in the whole area of energy including production and management through technologies like smart grids.

One of the more interesting suggestions is the importance of smart fabrics such as technology woven into fabric which could be used to make clothes to monitor potential falls of an elderly wearer or the heart-rate of a patient.

What links many of the technologies that the U.K. government believes will be defining for the next decade is connectivity, they will rely on being able to talk to each other, to servers, or with sensors.

“There is also a stronger trend in the way that sensors, miniaturized communications and processing provide constant feedback and permanent connections to networks,” the report says.

That is good news for companies that will enable machine-to-machine communication leading to the “internet of things” (we wrote yesterday about British plans for freeing up white space) or providing other infrastructure plays like small-cell technology that allow cellular networks to be far more efficient.

The U.K. government has identified science and technology as key drivers for growth, and this report gives an indication in where the government believes the sectors that will deliver that growth.

However skeptics might question some recent government policies regarding how R&D will be delivered. A constant source of complaint from tech startups through to large technology companies is the crippling skills shortage, which makes anti-immigration rhetoric damaging. Moves by the U.K. government to improve the ICT curriculum have been welcomed, but they fall short of initiatives in European nations like Estonia.

Furthermore, in comparison to many competitor nations, U.K. spending on R&D as a percentage of GDP is behind France, Germany, Sweden, the U.S. and a long way behind Israel. The British government has also announced a series of cuts to the science budget. A report earlier this month suggested that total government spending on science in 2010-11 fell by 6.4% when adjusted for inflation.

In its defense, a spokesperson for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, which administers the core government science budget, accepted that while the core capital budget had been cut,  the resource budget had been maintained. The government has also ring-fenced the science budget, the spokesperson said.

In response to claims that the country spends less per capita than rivals, the spokesperson said a report had shown that U.K. research attracts more citations per pound spent in overall research and development than any other country. If citations is a valid proxy for efficacy, that would suggest that U.K. research money is better focussed.

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