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South England’s pioneers: past, present and future

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Thomas Edison famously said that “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”. This made me wonder if these are the only vital ingredients needed to become a successful pioneer.

I decided to investigate and shine a light on some of the amazing pioneers in the South of England, which I cover in my regional role.

I discovered that although each pioneer is unique, they often share similar traits: being imaginative, collaborative, adaptable and resilient.

These characteristics enabled them to overcome challenges and chart a new course for the future.

Imaginative and curious

Last year marked the 400th anniversary when pioneers boarded the Mayflower and set sail from the Solent to discover the New World.

Three centuries later a pioneer called Marc Isambard Brunel installed a series of pulley block making machines in Portsmouth dockyard.

These were the forerunner of factory mass production lines that has transformed many industries and enabled business to grow on a global scale.

I am sure the young Isambard Kingdom Brunel was inspired by his father’s creative spirit. He went on to pioneer bridges and railways across the country.

Collaborative and open

We live in a digitally connected world and can share ideas at a click of a button: a huge advantage with restrictions currently limiting our freedom to travel.

It is amazing to think that this was all made possible by the pioneering research of Sir Tim Berners-Lee who created the first website in collaboration with partners at CERN.

His legacy is being taken forward by the next generation of pioneers, including Dame Wendy Hall who led the government’s Artificial Intelligence review and, like Sir Tim, is connected to Southampton.

Both these pioneers demonstrate the importance of working collaboratively with others to achieve visionary goals.

Adaptable and resilient

Pioneers need to be adaptable and resilient in the face of adversity. This is particularly important with the current disruption in trade and travel affecting shipping and aviation.

Fortunately, these sectors have been reinvigorated in the past through pioneers. Portsmouth was the first port in the world to install a dry dock, which revolutionised shipbuilding.

Fast forward to 2021 and HMS Queen Elizabeth is the largest and most powerful vessel ever constructed for the Royal Navy. This awe-inspiring warship has state-of-the-art weaponry and communications systems.

The flight deck is an enormous four acres, and four fighter jets can be moved from the hangar to the flight deck in just one minute.

Willing to take risks

Up in the air R J Mitchell designed a new spitfire plane with smooth elliptical wings and lighter materials making it much faster and agile. He developed this at Supermarine in Southampton, which had previously pioneered flying boats.

RJ is similar in many ways to the scientists behind the vaccine: a hidden pioneer figure that has saved the lives of many through being bold and taking risks with new materials and designs.

What are the lessons for future pioneers?

I have identified some key traits that are common to great pioneers. It is also vital we learn how best to support them at critical stages in their journeys and avoid missed opportunities, where the UK has led the world but then failed to capitalise.

Pioneers like Sir Christopher Cockerell, inventor of the hovercraft, and Andy Stanford-Clark co-inventor of MQTT, the communication protocol that drives Facebook Messenger. Both these technologies were invented in the UK but went on to be exploited and further developed in other countries.

Bold pioneers redefine failure as a learning opportunity that should be positive and embraced. If this happens then I believe more people will step forward to become disruptive pioneers.

Over the past seven years Innovate UK has invested over £1 billion in supporting cutting-edge business pioneers across the Solent and continues to work with local partners to help them scale and grow.

This has led to major breakthroughs, including:  Professor John McGeehan who heads the Centre for Enzyme Innovation, which is pioneering solutions to plastic pollution, and Sir David Payne who pioneered optical fibres that now span the world.

I am looking forward to a brighter future and feel confident that businesses across the south will support the UK’s transition to sustainable growth with a pipeline of new innovations in clean energy, robotics and automation of ships and planes.

Innovate Local

Our virtual Innovate Local event 8 - 9 March 2021  will focus on clean technologies, digital, space and wider opportunities in the South East.

You can find out about more KTN events here.


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1 comment

  1. Comment by Doug Robinson posted on

    My experience with agencies such as Innovate UK, the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI), EPSRC has thus far disappointing. The “Valley of Death” for UK innovators looks set to continue, as a revolutionary new zero emission approach to propulsion, that circumvents limitations of all existing technologies still dependent on laws of motion derived in 1687, and over a century since those limitations became apparent in Einstein’s 1905 theory of relativity.
    Something is missing from Government funded agencies that shy away from radical ideas, that challenge the accepted norm, a fact in itself that lies at the heart of the problem. Brits invent, and others abroad that adopt those ideas, capitalise on them, and establish an insurmountable lead before the full potential has been full assimilated by stakeholders here in the UK.