Patrick Bradley: Content versus technology – the art versus science of our time


Ingenious Ventures CEO Patrick Bradley says it isn’t an either-or choice in prizing content and technology

Why hasn’t Britain produced an internet giant?

The Times Higher Education Supplement puts three of the world’s top universities in the south-east of England alone.

The Startup Ecosystem Report 2012 has London as Europe’s best culture for fostering new ideas. The level of support – government R&D tax credits and other superb schemes – is second only to Silicon Valley. Yet our performance in terms of revenues generated, jobs created and exits realised lags.

Each month seems to bring another totemic, almost statutory, $1bn exit – elsewhere. New York matures with Tumblr, Tel Aviv with Waze. (I just mistyped Tumblr, but Word corrected it without a problem; can you think of a six year old British tech company that is in Word’s dictionary? Not even Bebo gets recognised.) Our distance from a Google, Amazon or Twitter is Atlantic in scale.

The usual excuses won’t do. Fear of failure is not to blame here. There is plenty of risk capital to deploy, and if major financial institutions can be shown to fail, who today is going to attach an unshakable stigma to a pair of developers with an idea that didn’t quite kick? Equally, success is not a social allergen. While celebrities may mutter about tall poppies and emigrate, our brightest business stars remain (mostly) and contribute to society (mostly).

Doing it yourself has also gone mainstream. Those of us in the business might not always enthuse about Dragons’ Den and The Apprentice but they often entertain, sometimes inform and almost educate. Recent research by Barclays shows that in Britain, 45 per cent of High Net Worth Individuals cite entrepreneurship as their main source of wealth – nearly three times more than those who mainly rely on inheritance. As a society, we are learning that starting for yourself is the fastest way to wealth creation.

But we have not had that big internet win yet.

Why this failure, then? I believe a factor in our failure is our perception of technology. As a society, we prefer content. We have a Sir Jonathan Ives, but not a Steve Jobs; we cherish the BBC, but we treat Amstrad with contempt (although it does make it into Word’s dictionary).

Perhaps this affection for content over technology is a reflection of our remarkable, centuries-sustained cultural gift to humanity. It reflects our scholars and professionals’ preference for humanities over science. The older, if not wiser, among us keep proving that we do not understand technology risk: bankers and CDOs, intelligence agencies and file-sharing, politicians and scanned expenses forms. Educators seem to spend more time arguing over the content of our schools’ history syllabus than worrying about getting children coding. The line in Tech City is that we are creating a generation that can read but not write. In other terms, a generation that consumes but does not manufacture. Neither description depicts a desirable economic cocktail.

Choosing content over technology, or indeed vice versa, is a false choice; the decision is not binary.

While we all reap the benefits of the scientific method, we should all remember that before Francis Bacon – the 16th Century tech Francis Bacon, not the 20th Century content Francis Bacon – and his excellent ilk, art and science collaborated constantly, when the Church wasn’t in the way. The Internet Revolution provides us, I hope, with an opportunity to get back to this.

You are probably reading this on an ingeniously designed tablet or smartphone, possibly via Wi-Fi hardware plugged into London’s Tube. What you have chosen to consume in the method of knowledge-transfer we know as letters and words is actually a series of 1s and 0s of a complexity and beauty reminiscent of Watson and Crick’s double helix. Content enabled by technology, not held in siloes of mutual suspicion.

Those of us who make the case for more investment in the media and creative industries need to understand that if we do not embrace technology, our content dies. It is why we invested in London’s Digital Theatre. Thanks to their technology talent, Britain can now export the best of its theatre content from Covent Garden and Stratford-on-Avon to theatre lovers from Christchurch to Sao Paolo. They have taken the most analogue of content and made it truly digital.

Over the next month my team will be heading out across the UK to find the best ideas in our sector looking for seed funding via SEIS – another example of government support for innovation. Those who make it into our Seed Investment Programme in September will have shown that they understand that art and science – content and technology – are, to borrow a metaphor, two feet of the same compass.

Patrick Bradley is CEO of Ingenious Ventures.