Tuesday 7 September 2010

Bizarre and misguided?

I'm not convinced that today's attacks by some politicians and lobbyists on the Technium programme are entirely fair or balanced. Finding the flaws in a programme after the event is always easy and makes for a good press release; it's spotting them in advance that's the hard part. Hindsight is a wonderful planning tool, I've always found. The criticisms of the Lib Dems sound particularly hollow in any event, given that, as Jaxxlanders point out, they were part of the government which launched the programme.

It can take time for a venture like this to bear fruit as well. Some of the centres seem to be doing better than others, and it would be interesting, to say the least, to see how that compares with the length of time for which they've been up and running.

There's nothing wrong in principle with the government taking an occasional risk with our money, particularly if the sums involved are comparatively small - and £5.4 million over eight years, or just under £760,000 per year, isn't what I'd call a huge sum out of the government's budget for economic development. Attacking the cost of £1,500 for a meeting which seems to have involved the managers of ten centres seemed a little gratuitous as well; it doesn't look like a hugely excessive cost to me, and it's peripheral to the core issue.

I can't agree with the suggestion made by the Tory spokesman, David Melding either, namely that support should have been focussed on developing ideas with commercial potential. In the first place, politicians and civil servants trying to second guess what does or does not have commercial potential doesn't sound like a recipe for success to me; and in the second, the nature of innovation is that a fair proportion of ideas are going to fail. If governments are going to take the risk of underwriting innovative schemes, they need to understand that some will fail; the question is whether they are getting an adequate return on the ones which succeed.

None of that means that we cannot and should not learn some lessons from the whole programme. My own feeling is that the basic idea – providing modern well-equipped premises and facilities for innovative start-ups – was a good one. I confess, though, to having wondered whether all the locations were selected for entirely the right reasons, rather than simply spreading them as widely as possible across Wales. Most importantly, was there enough liaison with universities in particular to match the locations and subjects closely enough to the academic work happening there?

We shouldn't allow a bit of political point-scoring based on an FoI request to force us to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The government has announced a review anyway, as part of the ERP; we should see what that has to say before drawing premature conclusions.


MH said...

I'd be interested to know what proportion of the £12.4m spent represents capital and start-up costs. And even if these costs have been amortized, any venture might be slow to take off, as you say. They have generated £6.9m over eight or nine years, so they might well recoup the entire cost over 15 or 20 years. We'd need to see the full picture, not a few figures issued in isolation by press release.

I remember when Jenny Randerson was making a big deal out of the fact that the number of prescriptions issued in Wales had gone up by 5%, using this in an attempt to show that free prescriptions were being abused. But the number of prescriptions issued in Wales had gone up by about that much every year ... and they also went up by the same 5% a year in England, even though prescription charges there had steadily increased.

Anonymous said...

From what feedback I've had from businesses that have been/are in Techniums, the general opinion is 'patchy'.

Some Techniums offer a great service, links with universities, governments yadda yadda. In other Techniums, the servive is no more than a landlord to businesses with no real links or service. In others, high-tech businesses wont locate to a Technium due to electricity supply issues.

Even meeting facilities differ greatly between them. For example, I tried to book a room to hold a meeting with other businesses at Aber Technium, it was reasonable, bookable and provided catering. This was great for me and other businesses involved. A different story in Swansea when you could only book a room if you worked for DE&T. Hardly a service to the business community locally.

Basically, I think that the idea is sound...but as usual, what the Techniums have turned into is far from what I envisgaed when I read the plans for them initally. As with much of the ERP, there is a real danger of throwing away the baby with the bath water (as you said, John).