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View from the street: The advantage of youth

John Cumming

John Cumming

Senior associate

Modern western democracies and economies face three generation-defining challenges: deteriorating global security, a rapidly evolving information and technology environment, and the ever-present climate crisis.

The word ‘transition’ is often batted around these days. However, as a society, we haven’t clearly defined what this means. Yes, it means change but it constitutes a degree of change we haven’t seen since the industrial revolution. During these turbulent times, governments and businesses need to step up to the plate but we also need to foster an environment for those starting out in their careers. Those unencumbered by “how we’ve always done it” are our best hope of finding innovative solutions.

Last week we saw data showing company insolvencies in England and Wales are at their highest level since 2009. This is attributable in large part to the rising cost of energy and materials and the wider economic turbulence, brought on by worsening geopolitical relations and the aftereffects of the global pandemic. Emerging industry leaders recognise they will be working in an increasingly uncertain world, where a willingness and ability to adapt is absolutely crucial.

Last week also saw the AI Safety Summit at Bletchley Park, which felt like an important moment, however, I can’t help but feel it was also a missed opportunity. The focus was primarily on potential doomsday scenarios, with little attention given to the plethora of opportunities AI offers. Businesses have an opportunity to demonstrate how the well-regulated use of AI and adapting to new technology can be transformational but, the truth of the matter is, it is hard to spot innovation when you have been doing something a certain way your whole career. That is where the naive expertise of youth has an advantage.

The industrial and more recent digital revolutions were both spearheaded by innovative young leaders who capitalised on the era and delivered real change. The likes of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Bill Joy and Tim Berners-Lee were starting their careers when the tides of change and opportunity were moving. They were all at a similar age and career stage as the likes of Andrew Carnegie, John D Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt and the other titans who defined innovation during the industrial revolution.

As we move towards a green economy, we must do things differently and change the way some businesses have historically operated. We have to change how we deliver services, how goods are produced, stored and transported. While governments must play their part in mapping out the route to net zero, business will be at the forefront of delivering the transition. How well businesses foster rising talent may be central to their success and survival.

As Jeremy Grant has pointed out, the Scottish funding environment is already adapting to support the changing environment and investing in the potential and innovation of SMEs. This shift is very welcome, but I would also argue that legacy brands and businesses don’t need to be left behind and could be perfectly placed to deliver world-changing innovation if they invest in research, technology and, critically, young talent. Those of us who are beginning our careers in the midst of these massive global challenges have an advantage. We aren’t trying to make the world work the way it used to. We don’t know how it used to work. We are trying to build a smarter, greener and more secure future. We aren’t held back by tradition, which is the environment needed to foster real innovation.