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Take a lead from the Victorians and ignore Lord Sugar

The annual MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival is a great example of a traditional public lecture: someone gets up and talks about a subject, in this case television/media/etc. Eric Schmidt of Google gave a very interesting talk; the full text of which can be found at

As expected the text differs slightly from the speech actually given. Schmidt starts with tributes to Scottish universities and to Steve Jobs.

Although the whole speech is interesting, with insight into the plans of Google and discussion of how money can be made by TV companies in the age where people can get programmes for free, I’ll quote what he said about education in this country.

And of course, you have the BBC. Not just the world’s best public service broadcaster, but arguably the most creative and technologically innovative of all. After the necessary pruning, the long-term settlement means the BBC can count on what to anyone would be a mouth watering income stream. It has a recognised and admired brand globally – just imagine live-streaming the Proms to 2 billion people! The world is the BBC’s oyster.

So what could go wrong? Well, everything. If I may be so impolite (and here’s the insult Mark [Thompson] advised I throw in) your track record isn’t great!

The UK is the home of so many media-related inventions. You invented photography. You invented TV. You invented computers in both concept and practice. (It’s not widely known, but the world’s first office computer was built in 1951 by Lyon’s chain of tea shops!) Yet today, none of the world’s leading exponents in these fields are from the UK.

So how can you avoid the same fate for your TV innovations? Of course there is no simple fix, but I have a few suggestions.

First: you need to bring art and science back together. Think back to the glory days of the Victorian era. It was a time when the same people wrote poetry and built bridges. Lewis Carroll didn’t just write one of the classic fairytales of all time, he was also a mathematics tutor at Oxford. James Clerk Maxwell was described by Einstein as among the best physicists since Newton – but was also a published poet.

Over the past century the UK has stopped nurturing its polymaths. There’s been a drift to the humanities – engineering and science aren’t championed. Even worse, both sides seem to denigrate the other – to use what I’m told is the local vernacular, you’re either a ‘luvvy’ or a ‘boffin’.

To change that you need to start at the beginning with education. We need to reignite children’s passion for science, engineering and maths. In the 1980’s the BBC not only broadcast programming for kids about coding, but (in partnership with Acorn) shipped over a million BBC Micro computers into schools and homes. That was a fabulous initiative, but it’s long gone. I was flabbergasted to learn that today computer science isn’t even taught as standard in UK schools. Your IT curriculum focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it’s made. That is just throwing away your great computing heritage.

At college-level too, the UK needs to provide more encouragement and opportunity for people to study science and engineering. In June, President Obama announced a programme to train 10,000 more engineers a year. I hope others will follow suit – the world needs more engineers. I saw the other day that on The Apprentice Alan Sugar said engineers are no good at business. Really? I don’t think we’ve done too badly!

If the UK’s creative businesses want to thrive in the digital future, you need people who understand all facets of it integrated from the very beginning. Take a lead from the Victorians and ignore Lord Sugar: bring engineers into your company at all levels, including the top.

The emphasis may be on engineering but the same holds for mathematics and mathematicians. And bear in mind that the one of the proposed innovations in the Vorderman review of mathematics is that there should be a separate examination that is about the use of mathematics rather than the doing of mathematics – which is similar to teaching the use of software rather than teaching how to create software.

An aside: In the list of UK accomplishments Schmidt missed out that we invented the Web. Ok, Tim Berners-Lee was working at CERN but it still counts!

The whole video can be seen below. For some reason nothing happens until 27:25, you will miss nothing if you skip to that point, and Schmidt does not appear until 36:00. The sound, despite the presence of at least three microphones, is terrible. The quote from above starts at about 1:08:00.

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