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Do we have the vision to make the world a better place?

Atkins | 17 Feb 2015 | Comments

We at Atkins recently shared our purpose; central to this is the power of transforming potential into reality. Yet for this to happen, the risks of that transformation must be systematically overcome. The call to innovate, to create, to challenge goes out, with the accompanying calls from government that the market will meet the challenge, with technology, finance and leadership. But at Innovate 2014, the UK’s national innovation agency’s annual jamboree, amongst the lionising of exciting start-ups and whizz-bang technology, a stark message from the equally-lauded venture capital industry accompanied it. According to a panel including Stuart Chapman of DFJ Esprit, private capital is very much constrained. VCs supply risk capital, but they also want an early exit and a quick turnaround on their money. Private capital is impatient, looking something that can be fast, agile and quick to scale. But although it’s easy to look askance at claims that social media and processing algorithms can “make the world a better place”, solving the biggest problems human society faces – climate change, housing and energy shortages, social inequality, global pandemics, to name but a few – will be done in capital-intensive industries, the very ones that the supposedly great innovators of Silicon Valley aren’t prioritising, according to a sobering piece in the MIT Technology Review by the writer Michael S. Malone. Quoting Mark Steep of the legendary Xerox PARC centre:

"This town used to think big—the integrated circuit, personal computers, the Internet. Are we really leveraging all that intellectual power and creativity creating Instagram and dating apps? Is this truly going to change the world?"

So private capital may not provide the right solutions – and we already have a shortage of engineers and scientists. What we need, therefore, is to find a way to focus on the really big challenges. This won’t be quick and it won’t be easy. It won’t provide a tidy profit to one bottom line, or stick to a VC’s timetable. We need you to ask us to think big – and think long-term.