Talk for Scottish Innovation

by Iain Logie Baird, 4 September 2009

I would like to welcome you here tonight to what promises to be an evening full of insights into encouraging the innovation process. The John Logie Baird Awards recognize all entrepreneurs and innovators and reward a wide variety of success in these areas. In this way they are helping to promote an innovative national culture, leading ultimately to the large scale incremental growth of successful new Scottish products and new industries.

I am also very pleased to be here today to represent the Baird family. As well as being one of John Logie Baird’s five grandchildren and the son of Dr. Malcolm Baird, I am the Curator of Television at the National Media Museum in Bradford. In the past year, coincidentally, I have been involved in a special National Museum of Science and Industry group, which is working to build creativity across our family of museums: the London Science Museums in South Kensington and Swindon, the Railway Museum in York and the National Media Museum in Bradford.

With the myriad electronic technologies that speed up the transfer of all kinds of information … today we live in Marshall McLuhan’s 'global theatre', an increasingly decentralized echo-land that has imploded our sense of space. The world of discrete jobs has gradually disappeared, to be replaced by 'roles' in the global theatre. Roles mean involvement, whereas having a job meant simply having risen to your level of incompetence and settled down with full security. Those without roles join the quest for identity, 'who am I?' in itself a powerful force for innovation. Quests for identity are literally everywhere across the communications media, and sometimes accompanied by a passionate dissatisfaction with the status quo.

In his memoirs, my grandfather quoted Victorian poet Matthew Arnold in describing his own quest 'to depart on the wide ocean of life anew', when he first decided to go into business for himself.

With the move from the industrial to the electric age, and then to the digital, the traditional job era went with it, and incidentally the Peter Principle belongs to thinking of 90 years ago. Red Green, a popular Canadian comedian observes:

There have, however, been a bunch of people who have fought the computer every step of the way, from punch cards to PC’s. Well I salute the effort, but I’m here to tell you the battle’s over. The palm pilots have landed … lay down your arms and get carpal tunnel syndrome like everybody else … the enemy is at the gates … heck, the enemy may even be named Gates.

In this world empire of instantaneous gratification, the 'we are customer-focused' corporate cliché has been coupled with the light speed delivery of electronic information, retrieving among other things, patterns of human behavior previously associated with the world of the ‘emperor’. The ‘customer as emperor’. One has to wonder what the customer’s new clothes are. Well, the audience’s clothing is resurrected content of the past. McLuhan argues that pastimes are past-times ... always. Is this why innovation usually arrives so unexpectedly?

This amplified focus on the customer, combined with scientific innovation, of course, also goes back to figures like Gordon Selfridge Sr. who was really the inventor of the modern department store. In 1925, his son Gordon Selfridge Jr. personally invited John Logie Baird to publicly demonstrate his early television system at London’s Oxford Street Selfridge’s store. Baird’s television pictures at this time were only crude silhouettes as he had not yet perfected his system. Nonetheless, support from Selfridge’s and from electrical companies such as Hart Accumulators, G.E.C., and many others, was crucial, and by early October, Baird had obtained pictures with the tones of light and shade by reflected light. The first-ever true television system to actually work. A perfect example of how an innovator is nurtured leading to a successful result.

Another peculiar effect of today’s digital speed-up has been that people even more desperately want to believe that there are quick, simple solutions to complex problems. The lure of simple solutions drives us away from innovation. Students of innovation need to understand the customer, while constantly reminding themselves that they are not the customer! Innovators also need to think ahead—so the customer doesn’t have to. A big reason for this is that all the media we use—television, radio, print, and the internet, are increasingly powerful translators, in other words, with any medium, inputs rarely match the outputs.

People are however, also inherently creative beings. If your organization is not innovative today, it is probably because your employee’s ideas are being killed by its dominant culture. An innovative counter-culture, if it exists at all, is extremely, extremely fragile, and needs subsidy, reward, aftercare support, or it will be very quickly driven back into the dominant culture.

Quoting from Matthew Arnold’s poem, A Summer Night, “Is there no life but these alone? Madman or slave must man be one?” Like John Logie Baird, to innovate we must, in a sense, liberate ourselves from prefabricated thinking and, “prefer madness” to slavery.

It was during a long walk along the coast near Hastings in 1923 that my grandfather thought out his first prototype television system. According to his memoirs, he divulged the plans to his friend, Mephy Robertson. Baird had announced to him, “Well sir, you will be pleased to hear that I have invented a means of seeing by wireless”. “Oh,” said Mephy, “I hope that doesn’t mean you are going to become one of those wireless nitwits. … Far better keep to soap. You can’t afford to play about you know”. The soap Mephy referred to, of course, was the notorious ‘Baird’s Speedy Cleaner’ which, along with the Baird Patent Undersock, was among previous businesses Baird had operated with considerable success, in London and Glasgow respectively. However, these successes were accompanied by a longer list of unsuccessful ventures including a jam factory, air insoles, and a lethal glass razor blade. Nonetheless, Mephy’s initial reaction to Baird's idea of television was to urge him to repeat a past success rather than innovate.

Although Baird had limited funds at this time, lack of funds (to him) was not an excuse to stop innovating either. Companies cutting back on research and development, returning to their core business or going back to basics due to a recession, can be very damaging.

Message to deep sea diver, surface at once, ship sinking.

Baird’s belief in keeping the UK at the cutting edge of television technology lasted until the very end of his life. His greatest accomplishment was the Telechrome colour television system, demonstrated in 1944 before WWII was even over, which provided full-colour pictures with 600 lines of resolution incorporating the potential to upgrade to 1000 lines. One reason why this system did not progress was the large amount of bandwidth required, which would have allowed only one analogue terrestrial channel on the spectrum where we presently have five. Today, digital compression, satellites and other technologies have enabled my grandfather’s dream of high-definition colour television to be realized in a multi-channel format.