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July 7, 2020updated 14 Jul 2020 3:37pm

Engineering the future: Lord Browne on why Britain should create again

By Alec Marsh

Engineering and tech should be at the heart of our future planning, the former BP boss Lord Browne tells Alec Marsh

‘Can you hear me?’ asks Lord (John) Browne. He’s sitting in a white leather chair in the chic workspace of his Chelsea home, but he’s been muted for about a minute. ‘I can hear you!’ I fire back with unmodulated joy. ‘Can you hear me?’

‘I can now,’ replies the chocolatey voice.

The former BP chief executive, 72, looks relaxed in a blue and white gingham shirt. Our interview is taking place over Zoom – appropriate since we’re here to talk, in part, about the transformative capacity of engineering to improve our lives. Fortunately I’ve found the button labelled ‘join with audio’ – so we can begin. I start with his book, Make, Think, Imagine: The Future of Civilisation – the reason we’re talking today. What’s it about? ‘

Redefining civilisation

‘My objective was very simple,’ says Browne. ‘People think of civilisation often as being built on important things such as music, art or drama.’ But he says, ‘Civilisation is built on a platform of engineering – engineering makes it possible to take the fruits of discovery and science [and] convert discovery into something which people can actually use.’

The pandemic is a case in point. ‘The absence of an industrial context is shown, I think, in the contrast between how Germany dealt with Covid-19 and how we did,’ he says. In Germany they have ‘a fully distributed, up and running business’ in all aspects of ‘medical equipment, testing in laboratories’. ‘And they were able to very rapidly deploy all these things and put them in a very good position with containing and controlling the virus.’ So the erosion of Britain’s industrial base contributed to the tragic toll of fatalities from the disease here?

‘Yes, I think so,’ states Browne. ‘Everyone says we’re a service economy. It’s a pity, because for a nation of our scale – we’re not after all Monaco or Luxembourg, we’re a much, much bigger nation – for the sustainability of the nation, we need to make things. We need to have activities which are diverse.’ He points to two areas of British manufacturing strength – cars and aviation – and notes that both are suffering because of Covid-19. ‘And so that affects us disproportionately. We need a more diversified base. You can’t live on services alone.’

5G geopolitics

These days, of course, Lord Browne of Madingley – as he became in 2001 – counts among his activities the chairmanship of the Crick Institute, but also of Huawei’s UK subsidiary. Why does he think people are so suspicious of the Chinese communications giant?

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‘It’s a much bigger issue than the company,’ he begins. ‘It’s an issue between the United States and China. The United States has always had, I believe, a real doctrine of technological supremacy – engineering and science supremacy.’ It began with Sputnik in 1957 – when the Americans discovered they were losing the space race. ‘At that moment, the US said, “We’re not going to be beaten when it comes to our brains applied to science and engineering.” And consistently the US has done that.’

Browne, a former director of Intel, recalls the US government’s drive into semiconductors, which ‘created an industry – actually created a revolution in the way in which we do everything.’ But this supremacy in telecommunications unravelled with the ‘break-up’ of the telecoms giant AT&T, which saw Bell Labs (which garnered nine Nobel prizes and counts the development or creation of the laser, transistors and computing languages Unix and C+ among its achievements) acquired, eventually, by Nokia in 2016. As a result, says Browne: ‘They [the US] lost control of 5G and it got into the hands of Nokia and Ericsson by many acquisitions – and also in the hands of Huawei, who had 25 per cent of the intellectual property licences to cover all of 5G.’

The US’s desire to ‘control its own technology… is the start of all this’, he insists: ‘It’s become very electric. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life, where a company is a football between two great powers.’

In May it was announced that the National Cyber Security Centre is to review the government’s decision to let Huawei build up to 35 per cent of Britain’s 5G network – possibly to pave the way for ministers to require its involvement to be reduced to zero by 2023. What is Browne’s view?

‘That would set us back a very long way, and cost everyone a fortune. The key is, when do you want to have 5G, how reliable do you want it, and how many times can you get it done? I think Huawei is regarded as a high-risk vendor because people regard it as coming from a high-risk jurisdiction. Nobody trusts anybody nowadays, really. You have to go back to the old Ronald Reagan point, which is “I trust you as long as I can verify”. Certainly, the UK government has been verifying Huawei’s activities for a long time.’

It strikes me as odd that someone with Browne’s reputation would get involved with a company that generates quite so much hostility. Why did he take the job? It was 2015, he says, so ‘before it was that sensitive’. ‘I thought it was a very interesting company to be involved in because it was doing a lot of very leading-edge activity,’ he adds. ‘When I joined, no one really could pronounce the name.’

The story of 5G illustrates his own point that the fruits of engineering can be double-edged. The example he uses is apt for a man who was chief executive of BP from 1995 to 2007 – a period which saw it launch a series of major takeovers and grow its market capitalisation from $71 billion to more than $200 billion. Hydrocarbons, he says, have ‘given us light, heat and mobility. They’ve lifted people out of poverty but actually they’ve done something very bad as well.’ And most of us now know what that is: climate change. Browne adds: ‘And we have to do something about it by more engineering, not less.’

BP’s ambitions

He had already made a start: in 1997 Browne rebranded British Petroleum, BP, for ‘beyond petroleum’. He also committed to cutting its carbon footprint by 10 per cent by 2010. ‘The American Petroleum Institute said that I’d left the church,’ he recalls. ‘I was actually trying to get the industry to be part of the dialogue about what to do.’ Looking back, does he wish he’d been more ambitious? ‘Had we all started doing this in 1997, we wouldn’t be where we are today.’

He therefore welcomes his successor Bernard Looney’s announcement earlier this year to make BP net carbon zero by 2050. (‘It’s a very good conceptual plan. He’s got to put more flesh on the bone and set intermediate targets, because 2050 is a long way away.’) Does he think BP will stop selling oil or gas-based products in his lifetime? ‘Probably not. I am sure that oil will be used, but the key is to get the amount down. That’s why we have to decarbonise and we have to capture the emissions. And those technologies are available – it’s just that they’re too expensive.’

Browne began his working life at BP in 1966 while still reading physics at Cambridge. I ask him to take the long view on corporate Britain. He thinks for a moment.

‘When I graduated, you looked around the UK and said, “Not too much is really going on here that makes a lot of sense,”’ he recalls. ‘So I determined to leave the country.’ He spent most of the next 20 years in the US, where he ‘found business to be much more innovative, exciting and can-do. There was a sense that actually everything was possible if you had the right engineering, science and money, and you understood how to align people.’

Things have changed since: the Big Bang transformed the financial sector, he says. And Britain today?

‘It still is really very good at science, which draws in people from all over the world who want to work with our great scientists.’ But Britain’s ‘real weakness’ remains its inability to take scientific discoveries and profit from them. He points to its strength in dynamic data science and AI and notes that of four great British companies in this field – such as DeepMind – each was sold to American interests.

‘It is because of culture,’ Browne explains. ‘If you look at the best of the best in the US, you notice that there are financiers who understand science and there are scientists who understand finance – and engineers who understand all three.’ In the S&P he says, ‘It was the case that more than 50 per cent of the CEOs have engineering backgrounds. Most of the CEOs in the UK don’t.’ Understanding all sides of the challenge means ‘you get a deeper understanding of where the risk is and how you can control the risk’. Britain is getting better at it, but there’s no quick fix to get a British Apple or Facebook. ‘It’s a bit like a lawn,’ says Browne. ‘Sow the seeds, come back 50 years later.’

For now, Boris Johnson’s government needs to control the pandemic and reset the economy after the lockdown. ‘Consumer habits are going to change,’ he says. ‘We’re not going from one extreme to another, it’s just nuanced changes, which would make very big differences to some business.’ He’s thinking of retailers and firms involved in tourism and travel – and their suppliers. Then there is wider strategic pivot of the nation away from the European Union, including ‘how we build a relationship with the great nations of China and the United States – can we maintain both? I hope we can. I don’t think it’s wise for us to pick, at the stage where we don’t know where the future really lies.’

This prompts a thought on the challenge facing leaders. ‘They have to make the right decisions given the uncertainty. That means they don’t make too big a decision sometimes. They have to feel their way through.’ Browne cites Keynes’s aphorism: ‘When the facts change, I change my mind.’ ‘A good point,’ he adds – and one that it will be well for Messrs Johnson, Cummings and Gove to ruminate upon.

Photography by David Harrison

Make, Think, Imagine by John Browne is published by Bloomsbury

This piece first appears in issue 75 of Spear’s magazine, out now. Click here to buy the latest issue and subscribe

Read more from the issue:

How HSBC’s team of advisers is preparing UHNWs for the future

Matthew Goodwin: Beware ‘confident’ predictions when it comes to Covid-19

Introducing issue 75 of Spear’s magazine

Cover Story: Is this the death of dividends?

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