Britain, we are constantly being told, is a nation devoted to innovation. Technology ‘hubs’ and start-ups are popping up all over the country and politicians are clamouring to take the credit for our ‘leadership’ in next generation and future generation devices. Our inventors are loudly applauded and lauded on the international stage and have become household names.
Back in the real world, however, where actions speak louder than words, our ‘leadership’ credentials are being seriously undermined by an unseemly ‘race for the bottom’ when it comes to procuring integrated systems.
One would never today think of buying an analogue camera for a CCTV solution, nor would you install a VCR as your recording device. Similarly, you would never buy an analogue phone. So why would you specify or want to install an analogue door entry system into a block of flats? Because that is exactly what is happening.
The only reason I can see is the paucity of digital audio solutions available, but that should not be the barrier to demanding what is required. Local authorities and housing associations used to take the lead on such matters. They used to state their requirements and challenge the technology providers to come up with the answers. They did not limit their thinking or ambition by what was available at the time.
Despite the great leaps in technological advances in recent times, we are in very great danger of moving backwards. Rather than challenging businesses to innovate, authorities are settling for second best, with a decision that is also inevitably driven by cost. And yet the decision is a false economy.
Whereas buying analogue may appear to be a wise decision today, based on the bottom line cost, what is not being considered is the ongoing cost of repair and maintenance in the future. Take your old VCR into an electrical shop today for a repair and you quickly realise it will be cheaper to ditch it and buy new. The scarcity of original parts makes the cost of repairs prohibitive. Translate this same thinking across an entire estate, and it will soon become clear that the cost of maintaining an analogue system will be completely out of proportion to the cost of the original install.
This same mindset appears to be permeating throughout central as well as local government. What our American cousins do so well is invest heavily in new technology and innovation to meet a specific new requirement, but safe in the knowledge that the very same technology can then be applied to other products and industries in the future.
Thirty years ago, the very first truly integrated systems were innovated, bringing together CCTV, access control, intercoms, Public Address and monitoring into a single solution. Tamper, vibration and cloaking detection, and door sensors were also integrated, as were some of the first lone-worker systems. This ‘Blank Screen’ technology – where the screen remained blank until such time as an alarm occurred – is the basis of many of the systems now used in our airports, naval bases, oil and gas installations, and other critical infrastructure sites as the accepted norm. It is an innovation that has translated globally.
What is urgently needed is a change of mindset, and to match words with real action. The public sector needs to stop talking about wanting world-class technology and world-leading designs and start acting upon it. Government needs to see the bigger picture about how new innovation today can be applied in other ways and in other industries to support a growing economy. Procurement too needs to better understand the true cost and implications of their buying decisions and recognise their role in driving rather than preventing innovation and thought leadership.
Second best never won the race, neither did running backwards.
Stephen Smith is managing director of Intergrated Security Manufacturing