The sheer concentration of R&D talent in Cambridge make it an ideal location for a tech-based company aiming to stay at the forefront of its sector, says Roy Williams
News that Apple is considering extending its footprint in the UK by establishing an R&D facility in Cambridge, otherwise known as the ‘Silicon Fen’, is a ringing endorsement of how far the UK has come in terms of building its global reputation for innovation.
But what exactly has prompted the move? Is it part of an initiative to leverage innovation expertise, wherever it exists, in order to increase the company’s agility? Or is it a tactical response to help counter concern that the company’s innovation record is slowing?
The latter is unlikely, as the company already has R&D centres in Shanghai, Israel and Taiwan, which have been established for some years, so the proposed move to locate in the UK is more likely to be part of a long-term plan to further strengthen its innovation supply chain. In adding Cambridge to this list of technology hubs, Apple would benefit from a new stream of ideas, based around the unique skillsets of innovation leaders in this UK cluster of expertise. It would be a significant increase in the innovation resource coming from outside Apple’s headquarters.
Regardless of whether you believe Apple is becoming less innovative or not – and the findings of the latest Boston Consulting study of the world’s most innovative companies would suggest otherwise – the company would stand to gain from the move to Cambridge. As the UK’s original cluster of digital businesses, Cambridge is already home to a band of global multinationals including Microsoft, Sony and Siemens, as well as some successful home-grown corporates including ARM Holdings and Autonomy. The sheer concentration of R&D talent in the area and proximity to the University of Cambridge’s R&D department make the city an ideal location for a tech-based company aiming to stay at the forefront of its sector.
For Apple, the innovation challenge is particularly acute. The company has an impressive innovation record that it must live up to with each upgrade or release. This raises the stakes when it comes to devising genuinely new ideas and it is increasingly important that products are consumer-tested at every stage of the development process to ensure they will meet market expectations and generate the right level of demand.
One of the ways Apple has been attempting to address this innovation challenge is to increase control over its supply chain, investing in the manufacture of its own components and placing large advance orders with key suppliers where needed. However, stiff competition from nimble innovators in Asia is encouraging the company to reach beyond this model and loosen its tight control over innovation processes. In doing so, it is opening the door to greater collaboration and ideas-sharing.
Such an approach to innovation sourcing is not without risk of course, but clearly the pressure to keep on innovating is beginning to outweigh the pressure to own and protect. Apple is also following in some well-trodden corporate footsteps in taking this approach. Proctor & Gamble operates an open innovation programme called Connect + Develop, which aims to accelerate product development through strategic partnerships. Cisco too has established a global network of Innovation Centres to accelerate development of the Internet of Everything.
Whether Apple will want to embrace open innovation to the same degree as others remains to be seen, but either way the move to Cambridge, if it happens, represents a constructive step to a more agile future.
Roy Williams is managing director at Vendigital, a firm of supply chain and procurement consultants operating globally and across industry sectors.