Time for a bit of Swedish says Miliband Minor

UK Labour leader Ed Miliband spent yesterday in Stockholm, hosted by his Swedish counterpart, Stefan Löfven. As part of the outing Miliband Minor toured the KTH Royal Institute of Technology, a specialist science and engineering research centre and university. In addition to addressing the Swedish parliament, the visit was for Miliband a PR opportunity to use as part of Labour policy development in high-technology industry and higher education. Speaking to the press, Miliband described KTH as a “global example”.

KTH is undoubtedly a successful institution, and there is surely something that Britain can learn from the Swedish model of commercial exploitation of state-funded research and development. But its so-called “structured collaboration model” and support systems for business startups are a very long way from where the UK is currently.

A couple of years ago I wrote about the UK experience with Faraday Centres, the poor level of support received by these academia-industry collaborations, and their subsequent transformation into Knowledge Transfer Networks which saw the employment of armies of junior managers tasked with marketing university research output in the real world. Politicians from across the spectrum looked at the results of the KTN experiment, and decided that the German model of Fraunhofer institutes would be a better one to copy. Since 2011 there has been little concrete action by government and industry, and it’s unclear where we stand today.

Step forward the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition to trumpet the achievements of social-democratic Sweden. Yes, I know that Sweden now has a centre-right government, but this is likely to be a temporary aberration. Speaking of KTH in Stockholm, Miliband said…

It’s an incredibly inspiring centre. It’s one that I want to learn lessons from, to take back to the United Kingdom.”

This is exactly the same kind of language used by UK government ministers and parliament’s Science and Technology Committee of the Fraunhofer centres. So what, if anything, is new?

Leaving aside politician soundbites and disposable political rhetoric, is there anything special about KTH, and wherein lies its success? Now one could conceivably identify particular aspects of the KTH regime, and attempt to link these causally with Swedish industrial success, but such an analysis would be overly simplistic.

The Swedish reality is complex, and its roots go back a long way. Certainly further back than the KTH model extolled by British politicians grasping for policy ideas. Swedish state capitalism has long been successful at stimulating large-scale engineering industry, with notable examples being car manufacture, aerospace and armaments. But smaller-scale enterprise is another matter, and this is one of the problems that the current liberal government is trying to address.

The press release reporting Miliband’s visit to KTH is as bland as they come, but there is contained within it one interesting comment. Not from either of the politicians featured, but rather Donnie Lygonis, a business coach with KTH Innovation

“It doesn’t become an innovation until it is put in a context where it generates a value for someone else. It’s not what you want to sell – it’s what they want to buy.”

Let us hope that these words do not fall on deaf British ears.