Unsung heroes of the games

The most lasting legacy of the Games will be to inspire the next generation of engineers and scientists, writes Russ Thorne

The London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games were a triumph of spectacle and sporting achievement.

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It was all made possible by the training and dedication of the athletes, naturally, but the Games themselves were also brought to life through a combination of innovation and technological expertise that helped create the venues, power the site and deliver live events to homes and mobile devices across the world.

Now the Games are over and the focus has turned to their legacy, the challenge facing those organisations either involved with or inspired by the 2012 Olympics is to keep the momentum going. By building on the strong start the games provided, they’re hoping to foster more innovation, entrepreneurial spirit and success for UK businesses.

Innovation took many forms when it came to delivering the games, in particular through the application of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills. Perhaps the most visible example of this is the Olympic Park itself, a giant civil engineering project by any standards that required the building of 30 new bridges, restoring 8.35km of waterways and building 1.8km of sewer tunnels, on top of demolishing hundreds of buildings and cleaning up over 2 million tonnes of contaminated soil.

“Our day-to-day lives depend on the infrastructure around us that is designed, built and maintained by civil engineers,” says Professor Barry Clarke, president of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE). “Unfortunately it’s often only when things go wrong that the work of civil engineers is thrust into the media spotlight. The London 2012 Games changed this – showcasing and celebrating the work of these often ‘unsung heroes’, while at the same time helping the public understand more about what civil engineers actually do.”

Around the site itself innovative technology played a huge part in the success of London 2012, from the unparalleled connectivity offered by the media centre to power generating pavements that used the footfalls of pedestrians to generate electricity.

But there was also innovation away from the site, as while many of the transport problems predicted before the Games never arrived, some companies embraced working practices that helped their staff avoid the crowds by working remotely. The technology solutions company Citrix saw a 38 per cent increase in use of its virtual meeting service, GoToMeeting, over the Olympic period, while a YouGov survey of London small and medium enterprises found that some 47 per cent of those adopting flexible working practices during the Games intended to introduce them permanently.

“This is excellent news for business,” says Andrew Millard, senior director at Citrix. “Just as the huge investment in infrastructure is expected to provide an important legacy in terms of housing, jobs and sporting achievement, so the adoption of mobile workstyles and more flexible working practices will also provide lasting change in making businesses more competitive and improving the work-life harmony of their employees.”

Whether through new infrastructure or fresh approaches to working practices, ongoing post-Olympic developments in science and technology are vital for UK industry. Some organisations are already focusing their attentions on the next generation. The Big Bang Fair, for example, supported by the ICE and other professional bodies, is designed to inspire young people to follow STEM subjects and careers. “We need to get young people interested in STEM,” says Professor Clarke. “If we want world-class infrastructure in the future, we must take action to ensure we have a world class workforce to deliver it.”

Other companies are taking a proactive approach to encourage innovative thinking and entrepreneurship amongst nascent businesses. The Cisco British Innovation Gateway (BIG) initiative is one example, with an awards scheme offering mentoring and funding to creative technology start-ups. The intention is to support companies – like the winning firm, the visual search engine Snap Fashion (see right) – that will ultimately contribute to the high-tech sector, and by extension the wider economy.

“We’re extremely proud of this competition,” says Phil Smith, CEO of Cisco UK and Ireland. “It has presented is with some truly outstanding talent and we’re delighted to offer our support to the winners.”

This support for entrepreneurs and new technology outfits is critical, suggests Sean Farrington, UK managing director and regional vice-president for Northern Europe for software firm QlikTech. “The importance of digital entrepreneurship and technology for business and economic growth cannot be underestimated,” he says. While stressing that the Olympic park is not the only option available to enterprising British technology firms, he believes that the ongoing redevelopment of the site will provide the kind of facilities and networks required to give new operations a boost. “Access to the right sort of networks has been critical for our rapid growth, and will be just as important for the success of the UK’s digital economy.”

Networks of a different kind, namely social ones, also benefited from the Games. The impact and relevance of services such as Twitter has been widely reported, but other platforms also saw their popularity soar as users were inspired by the activities of the athletes.

“We really felt the effect of people being motivated to get active,” says Steve Reid, CEO of Tribesports.com.

The site, a social platform that encourages users to achieve their fitness goals through a combination of challenges, games and competitive leaderboards, hopes to combine the enthusiasm for sport created by the Olympics with fun, innovative technology that will help users stay active.

“But that’s not the only thing that technology can do,” says Reid. He believes it can create value through developing new approaches and new business models. “Innovation in technology is perhaps our greatest opportunity for growth.”

Victor Malachard, CEO of mobile advertising company Adfonic, agrees. “London has the chance to create an impressive tech ecosystem,” he says. “So much talent in such close proximity will breed innovation and attract the attention of global corporations. Facebook and Amazon are already taking advantage of London-based tech talent.”

This is both a benefit and a challenge to home-grown technology companies, as larger firms could prove to be more appealing employers to those with the STEM skills required at all levels, who are vital to the success of smaller enterprises, such as Adfonic, Tribesports and, of course, organisations like Cisco or ICE. All of these things point to the shortage of STEM-skilled workers and highlights the critical need to use the Olympic Games to inspire and encourage more young people to pursue the STEM subject path.

“It’s estimated 820,000 science, engineering and technology professionals will be needed by 2020, with 80 per cent of these required in engineering,” explains Professor Clarke. “Young people start to make choices which affect their career path at the age of 11 – more than 10 years before they graduate. It’s at this age we need to capture their imaginations.”

So while the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games fired a starting gun in terms of encouraging innovation, supporting new firms with better infrastructure, and acting as a flagship project to engage the next generation by showing just what can be achieved through the application of STEM skills, there’s a lot more to be done.

“Having more people in the UK with STEM skills is crucial if companies are to provide innovative technology and contribute to the digital economy,” says Malachard. “The London Olympics showcased the UK’s formidable expertise in digital media, engineering, and technology – now the challenge is to build on that success by widening participation in STEM subjects.”

 

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