Connecting Great and Enabling Technologies

Isn’t every great technology an enabling technology? Superficially yes, but these terms are being used by support agencies, government and the European Commission to describe, in some cases, quite different areas of technology which will be the focus of significant targeted support and funding. To maximise synergises between different technologies, industries and economic support from the UK and Europe, it is essential to understand how ‘great technologies’ and ‘enabling technologies’ related to each other and to the markets and problems they aim to impact.

The Context

For the first decade of the 21st century the UK, and many other governments, focused on the grand challenges faced by society – the environment, the aging population, the rise in healthcare costs etc. These challenges define the problems to be solved and they remain true today. However, focusing on grand challenges was a luxury embedded in times of economic prosperity. The focus in the current economic climate is on on growth and job creation, without which the UK and other western economies will stagnate. There are no jobs in problems, rather jobs are created from solutions which add value when they are brought to market.

As a result of the economic imperative the task of stimulating economic growth has shifted to getting more solutions to market faster. As emphasised in the conclusion to “Eight Great Technologies” (2013) report by Rt Hon David Willets MP and in the conclusion from the European High Level Working Group (2011), the UK & Europe excels at finding scientific solutions, turning these into growth and jobs requires bridging the “Valley of Death” between discovering a potential solution and realising its commercial implementation.

To understand where support will be most effective at stimulating long term growth, both Europe and the UK government have analysed which technologies are essential for future economic prosperity. This has resulted in the identification of six Key Enabling Technologies from Europe, four Enabling Technologies from UK Technology strategy Board and eight Great Technologies from the UK government (see side boxes). It is clear that the results will have a significant impact on where future EU and UK government spending is targeted. However, the greatest gains will be when EU and UK spending is targeted in the same direction leveraging each other’s resources for greatest combined impact. As industry looks for guidance on where future opportunities lie, and as support agencies develop their growth policies, it is essential to find the relationship between the 8 great technologies defined by the UK, the 6 key enabling technologies defined by Europe and the 4 enabling technologies identified by the Technology Strategy Board.

Common themes – differing detail

The figure illustrates how in general terms almost all of the ‘great’ and ‘enabling’ technologies can be grouped into 3 broad themes:-

  • Advanced Materials
  • Life science technology
  • Data related technology

These same broad classification were highlighted in the “Eight Great Technologies” (2013) report by Rt Hon David Willets MP. Other areas followed from these broad technologies e.g. satellites were highlighted one of the biggest generators of large observational data sets and hence linked to big data.

Within the themes of advanced materials and life science technology the figure above shows a clear mapping between most of the great technologies and the enabling technologies. The descriptions of these technology differ only in how they are summarised and which individual sub areas are separately detailed e.g. nano-technology or energy storage.

Within the area of (big) data the connection between enabling and great technologies is more complex. The 8 great technologies in this area have a greater focus on higher level applications technology areas e.g. satellites and robotics rather than the electronics, photonics and software technologies that are behind them. For example, satellites generate large quantities of data using high resolution photonic cameras equipped with precision lenses, process this data with embedded electronics and software before transferring it using a combination of optical and electronic communications. Similarly energy efficient computing increasingly uses optics to transfer data even short distances, and will shortly use optics even within the processor chip. Thus developing opportunities in around big data is heavily dependent on exploiting advances in the background technologies. The differentiation between the 8 great and the enabling technologies in this areas depends on where once takes a slice through the supply chain. To those working in photonics and electronic, satellites and robotics are applications. To those working in satellites and robotics these are technologies being applied to manufacturing or monitoring applications.

However, the linear grouping of enabling and great technologies above does show the full impact of enabling technologies. Enabling technologies have impact in multiple supply chains and into multiple applications areas. As illustrated above for photonics, each enabling technology provides essential core technology into all of the eight great technologies

The explicit identification of manufacturing technology is the final area where the European assessment of enabling technology differs from that of UK. Rather the TSB recognise high value manufacturing as cross cutting competence which takes technology through to high value products and is reflect in the support of a High Value Manufacturing Catapult centre. However, it is important to stress that enabling technologies, e.g. laser processing, can have a major impact on the manufacturing efficiency of all products from low to high tech e.g. textiles to automotive assembly. Indeed substantial economic growth can be gained from advancing and incorporating enabling technologies into manufacturing tools and this has been a major export area for the UK and Europe.


There are three common high level themes evident among all the various assessments of which technologies will be key to future economic growth- advanced materials, bio technology and data related technologies. However, the assessments from the UK and Europe differ not just in phraseology and level of detail, but also where in the complex supply chains they choose to identify and group technology.

The economic imperative remains job creation and growth. Technologies both great and enabling will be key to providing solutions that create those jobs. However to get maximum impact in number of jobs created in the shortest time, it will be essential to connect and fully recognise the role and interdependence of great and enabling technologies, so that support for each can leverage off the other. Only then will we achieve great enabling technologies that embed the next generation of supply chains in UK and Europe.

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