The brains behind the new Innovation Centre at Lews Castle College UHI has called for a fundamental rethink on the kind of industry we believe “we do” in the Western Isles, for the sake of the economy.
Engineering lecturer Dr Chris Macleod has called for more backing for high-tech research and development, with traditional industries “having failed to produce sustainable and lasting prosperity for hundreds of years”.
His comments follow yesterday’s announcement that wind farm charity Point and Sandwick Trust have given £20,000 sponsorship to allow major expansion of the Innovation Centre.
PST, who run the award-winning and 100 per cent community-owned wind farm at Beinn Ghrideag, stepped in with the vital funding after failing to get any cash help from various public agencies.
Chris, formerly a NASA contract engineer and director of research at Robert Gordon University’s School of Engineering before returning to his native Isle of Lewis, had asked public enterprise agencies to support his vision for the high-tech centre in Stornoway.
The Innovation Centre is to support inventors and entrepreneurs, encourage more start-ups, boost the technological literacy of the workforce, attract inward investment and help students and schoolchildren working in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) areas.
He wanted £20,000 for sophisticated testing and development equipment, which will allow the centre to double its research capabilities, expanding into communications and biotech.
However, his request was repeatedly turned down — until he applied to Point and Sandwick Trust. In the sponsorship announcement, PST chairman Angus McCormack said: “Innovation is part of what we promote at PST” adding that this partnership encouraged “cutting edge thinking”.
Compared to some heavy industries, which have had tens of millions of public money over the years — with repeated layoffs at the end of contracts — Chris said the public sector refusal to fund the Innovation Centre was “quite bizarre”.
He revealed: “The college put in some seed funding and I went and asked all the big funders if they would be interested. I went to all the usual public agencies that are supposed to support innovation, entrepreneurship and business. They said ‘that’s a really good idea and we support it’ in the sense that they would stand on the sidelines and cheer.
“Some, that should know better, are completely Inverness focused. They more or less said, ‘well, it’s not in Inverness, so we won’t support it’. That’s not what they said but it’s what they meant.
“There was lots of nodding their heads but very little support in terms of people actually saying ‘we’ll put our hand in our pocket and give you the money to do it’. There’s this attitude here that ‘what we do’ is set in their mind and they’re not very open to new ideas.”
Chris believes there is a “huge need” for a centre of this kind in the Western Isles. “Programming and coding and software engineering is a big thing. That’s the basis of a lot of this technology. If you’re aiming for any sort of career these days, you have to be able to program a computer.”
He said there was “no reason in principle” why Lewis could not become a hot spot for high-tech development — “a Silicon Machair”, if you like.
“There’s nothing here that would hold it back, unlike heavy industry. The disadvantages of things like broadband are getting fixed. There are no real obstructions and people like the lifestyle.”
Political will, support in terms of hard cash and education provision is all necessary, though.
“If you ask big universities on the mainland, ‘what’s your big objective?’, they wouldn’t say ‘teaching’ in the first breath. They’d say ‘research and innovation’. Teaching would almost be an afterthought.
“There’s no point in training people for jobs that don’t exist. There’s plenty room and plenty space for traditional industries but you also need to expand into new areas. We can’t keep sitting down for everything. They employ a lot of people, they have their place — but they shouldn’t stop you expanding into other areas.”
He recognised, however, that “the people of the Western Isles aren’t as entrepreneurial as, for example, the Shetlanders or Orcadians”.
He added: “There’s almost a bit of a culture of entitlement. That ‘we deserve to be saved.’ Whereas, having been away 30 years, my answer would be, ‘well go and save yourself rather than waiting for some white knight to ride in’.
“When I came back here there was still this attitude that clever people will come in and save us — whether it’s a superquarry or a windfarm. Whatever the flavour of the month is.
“Why wait to be saved? Why not save yourself? It’s like a drowning man in a pond, desperately waiting for someone to throw him a ring and save him rather than trying to swim for the shore.
Meanwhile, clever people are just laughing to themselves and doing clever things but they’re not doing them here.”
Chris added: “The whole basis of the economy in California is high-tech and about doing it yourself. It comes back to the point that the highest growth and highest wealth companies in the world are high-tech and that isn’t going to change in the foreseeable future.
“There’s a coming revolution in robotics and Artificial Intelligence and you can either be the people who design these things or the people who are replaced by them. If you want to be somewhere wealthy and rich, you have to embrace high-tech. You are always going to be second-tier if you ignore it, because it’s what runs the world.”
For Chris, Point and Sandwick Trust were appropriate sponsors due to their spirit of innovation — he noted Beinn Ghrideag was a “very efficient, high performing” wind farm.
“Point and Sandwick have shown that you can be a success if you think differently,” he said. “Rather than waiting for some big corporate to come in and save them, they actually did it themselves and, if anything, they just prove that you can do it.”
• Pictured: Dr Chris Macleod holds a micro controller in the palm of his hand. These tiny computers can be programmed any number of ways by inventors. ‘The only limit is your imagination’ – and he wants an imaginative approach to economic development too.