Luke Johnson gave the Chairman’s Inaugural lecture this week as he assumed the Chair of the Royal Society of Arts. As a Life Fellow of the Society I was in the audience and was most impressed by his enthusiastic message. Luke is a serial entrepreneur and current Chairman of Channel 4 Television. He referred back to the founding fathers of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce to give it its full title. It was founded in 1754 and its first activity was to offer prizes for the best inventions of the day. It has continued to emphasize the importance of invention throughout its history although in the recent past I think it has slightly lost its way and moved more to an agenda of social progress. There is nothing innately wrong with that but it was not the original mission of the Society which was “to embolden enterprise; to enlarge science; to refine art; to improve our manufactures and to extend our commerce.”
I hope that Mr. Johnson’s election as Chairman will restore something of this ethos to the Society as it is badly needed. Certainly his speech gave hope that it will. He referred to several examples of great inventors and great inventions and believes that the conditions were good for the further development of these. As an entrepreneur he meets more and more people who made good money in the good days of the City and are now looking for places to invest it. Cash returns almost nothing and the stock exchange is still below its level of two and ten years ago. Solutions to the current economic crisis are to be found in innovation as were solutions to all the great challenges that the human race has faced.
While irrepressibly upbeat Mr. Johnson does despair of one thing; the precautionary principle. He thinks it invidious that the doomsayers insist that the inventor must somehow demonstrate that his invention will never cause any harm at his own cost. Many breakthroughs leading to great progress in society would never have happened if such views had prevailed in the past and it is a serious problem that such views have widespread currency today. As an example Genetically Modified foods will probably solve food shortages in the world if allowed to be developed but the precautionary principle will defeat that.
Brett Hoberman spoke in response at the same event. Also a serial entrepreneur and famous as the founder of Lastminute.com Mr. Hoberman was slightly less upbeat in that he saw more challenges but otherwise shared the positive outlook of Luke Johnson. As a South African educated at the Dragon School, Eton and Oxford University Brett thinks one of Britain’s problems is the continuing role of the Establishment which somehow discourages wealth creation and hard work. As a school boy at Eton he had had to get up at 5am to work as the prevailing culture was not to be seen to do any work.
His own approach to business has been to take risk where others would not. In the words of another entrepreneur "you jump over the cliff and make the wings on the way down."
His particular bugbear is the dead hand of the European Union which he thinks gives American business a huge advantage. A business founded in the UK, to achieve global scale, will need to work its way around the so-called European Common Market and will have lost the will to live long before it gets to the 27th country stumbling over the trade barriers that still exist in each market. The majority sell out well before this and hence US firms dominate the new digital markets. As proof only 2 of the top 50 websites in Europe by traffic are European, the BBC and France Telecom.
Luke Johnson finished by referring to a famous speech Steve Jobs gave to the 2005 graduating class at the University of Stanford which is now doing the rounds on YouTube. In this classic speech Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, tells three stories - simple, short and enormously inspiring. His final message is “Stay hungry, Stay foolish.” You can find it at
Copyright David C Pearson 2009 All rights reserved