12 August, 2013 - 12:58 By Tony Quested

Business is NOT a boat race

You’d think it was the boat race or a Varsity rugger match. “Oxford can overtake Cambridge as a global centre for high technology business,” according to one of its top academics, Professor Peter Dobson, a local newspaper headline trumpets.

The majority of business people in Oxfordshire agree with him – 64 per cent of those surveyed in the Oxfordshire Business Barometer report saying “Oxford can push ahead of its traditional rival,” according to a report in the Oxford Mail. Well you don’t say!

Am I alone in finding the use of the word ‘rival’ in a business context somewhat depressing? Oxbridge academics are supposedly among the leading brains on the planet. When will they learn that Britain will never be taken seriously in world terms until it drops this smalltown, them v us approach?

Local bragging rights in a tiny portion of the UK don’t amount to a hill of beans, as our Silicon Valley cousins might well remind us, when it comes to establishing sustainable world class business, science and technology clusters.

Cambridge and Oxford are only 65 miles apart; Silicon Valley covers an area of 1,500 square miles. Scale-wise it’s no contest. Geographically we amount to a freckle on the body of China or India. So why don’t we start arguing in terms of brainpower and capability – much safer ground for UK hi-tech hotspots?

And why don’t we really engage those grey cells and start working together as an Oxbridge Science & Technology dream team? Better still – bring the UK’s other tech hotspots into one supercluster?

Silos suck. Business in FutureWorld demands collaboration and connectivity. The Government is hardly helping the situation. When it’s not clumsily pushing the claims of Tech City it’s wedging square pegs into round holes in vote-snaring desperation – scattergunning science and technology initiatives into areas of the country that are hardly best equipped to maximise the opportunities.

A new £38m national biologics centre for the UK? Well Darlington, naturally? Yes it has actually happened – but don’t get me started.

The delusion of it all. Yes, Darlington is a marginal seat – hovering between conservative and Labour. What they make of the Coalition isn’t recorded as far as I can see.

But as if the good folk of Darlington in the next General Election are going to pause, pen mid air in the polling booths, and plant their X alongside the Coalition because the Government gave them a national biologics centre. Decisions of such consequence really shouldn’t be determined so cynically.

If you imagine you were England football manager and told you could only pick players operating in the Conference rather than the Premier League you will get a feel for what is happening at the highest level in terms of UK trade.

The UK needs, without exception, to champion the best there is in whatever field of academia, research, trade and industry when Britain is venturing into the wider world – regardless of geography and certainly regardless of politics. The manager of England’s globally-facing trade team should always  be able to say with confidence that there are no better representatives of UK research, science and technology than those in that particular delegation.

Faced with such flawed thinking and splintered national strategy it is little wonder that companies decide to go it alone when pushing their credentials to customers operating in international marketplaces.

Which only does the UK good to a limited extent. It in no way leverages the full power of what UK universities, research institutes and business innovators collectively have to offer – or reflects what might be achieved if they operated in harness. One nation; one common cause. One despairs!

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