Britain's most important discussions are taking place miles away from the political parties' conferences (despite Boris's best efforts).
In the past few weeks, I've read the applications for the 2012 Growing Business Awards, and listened to one of Britain's buzziest entrepreneurs at the event's launch. I've immersed myself in submissions for the 2012 Women of the Future Awards. I've acted as a judge at a business pitching competition, organised by Patrick Philpott for school kids in London, and chaired a roundtable for the new mutual sector. And, in Britain's Steel City, I've hosted a session at the Made Festival (conceived by the formidable Michael Hayman), where Real Business was a proud media partner.
I haven't made it to any of the political parties' conferences. Okay, so I wasn't invited, but I don't believe that this is where the real action in Britain lies. As The Spectator editor Fraser Nelson has ruthlessly observed, our political parties are fading forces. Their conferences are mainly attended by lobbyists and “influencers”. You're more likely to meet a sustainability consultant than hear raw political debate.
No, the white heat of social change is taking place among our mid-sized, small, independent businesses. They may not compete with London Mayor Boris Johnson for media coverage, but their actions and contributions will leave a more lasting impact.
A real lesson of the past five years' financial crisis is that our political leaders and central bankers are impotent in the face of rampant new digital and global forces. Okay, so there's been some political sure-footedness (QE, low interest rates, state ownership of the banks, handbraking on wasteful public spending), but all these are defensive actions. In terms of forward momentum and vision for the future, the cards are blank.
Fortunately, if my experience is anything to go by, a section of Britain is still thinking big. So here, in no particular order, are a handful of properly big ideas being worked on by Britain's entrepreneurial businesses:
- Introducing competition and innovation into our energy sector. Many argue that our big energy firms have a similar stranglehold on their customers to that of the state in the seventies (For rubbish service and power cuts, read soaring prices and faux competition.) Maybe not for much longer. The unheralded Opus Energy (shortlisted for this year's Company of the Year at the Growing Business Awards) is the UK's fastest-growing supplier to business, offering “a real alternative” and determined to shake up the big six. Also on the rise is Co-operative Energy (part of the Mid Counties Cooperative), committed to renewable energy and fair pricing for its customers.
- Technology to rebuild communities. It was a thrill for me to meet Renaud Visage, co-founder of Eventbrite, at the Made Festival. On the surface, Eventbrite looks like a clever ticketing business. To the stylish Visage, however, it's “the ebay of events” - using technology to create events and bring together like-minded communities. It's an idea that simply could not have been realised pre-internet, but Eventbrite really is bringing the world closer together.
- Empowering the world's kids to be health-aware. Former doctor Kate Hersov used to angst about how to provide young patients with the tools to understand their diagnoses or medicines. She felt that the healthcare sector was simply not communicating properly (or intelligibly) to children. So she created Medikidz (shortlisted at this year's Women of the Future Awards), a brilliant new brand that's selling all over the world and creating a new common language for kids, their parents and the medical sector.
- “Flipped education”. For many, education is the next great opportunity for digital transformation. In the sage analysis of Doug Richard (speaker at this year's Made festival), the whole model of university education needs to be flipped: why traipse into a lecture hall to hear a lecture that you could watch online; and then go home to do the homework (alone) that would more effectively be done with your lecturer? Doh! Young entrepreneurs such as Kieran Miles (founder of Live-Media Group) are all over the challange of how digital technology can improve education and bring it to a far wider audience.
- Revolution is everywhere. The stand-out message among our Growing Business Awards and Women of the Future candidates is that no sector is immune to revolution: MindGym and Unleash are unsettling management consultancy; Wonga, Nucleus, Crowdcube, MarketInvoice and Funding Circle are rattling at the cage of the financial services sector; Ink is opening up new commercial opportunities among airline travellers; Made.com wants to reconnect furniture buyers and makers in a new digital bond. And so it goes on...
- The tech-savvy generation is with us. When faced with a problem, today's kids think first about apps; they are the youthful route to everyday solutions. The Skill! Workshops, created by Patrick Philpott, give London school kids (many from difficult neighbourhoods) a chance to develop and pitch their business ideas in a single, inspirational afternoon. As a regular adviser, I know that the whole process gives them a huge boost to their communication skills and confidence. What's notable is, with just a couple of hours' notice to work up a business plan, how many of the kids immediately opt for a technology solution. Again and again, they apply technology (normally apps) to their everyday issues (waking up in the morning, getting to school, choosing their school lunch etc etc). They have a natural affinity for how digital technology can solve problems and open opportunities. As a country, we must find a way to unlock this innovative potential.
The really big, unmentionable question of our era is: how to create sufficient work for people so that the developed world can continue to have at least the same (if not improved) standards of living in the future. Automation and a shift of economic power to the east mean that developed economies won't create the same number of “jobs” (ie, full-time positions, with offices, pensions etc) in the future.
This hasn't got much attention in this year's party conferences. Even if delegates wanted to mention it, such a global conundrum would get buried in the circus of personalities and so-called debate that makes up modern politics.
Fortunately, if you do dare to look up from behind the sofa, there's a new generation of businesses and entrepreneurial teams that aren't afraid to address the important questions – and are even busy figuring out the answers.