26 February 2012 by David Bott
When we first started thinking about the need for physical centres to support innovation in the summer of 2009, we had some very specific ideas. At that point, we had been an agency for just over 2 years and we were beginning to understand the specifics of several of the areas we were supporting – and saw what adding a physical centre to the infrastructure could achieve. We also had the heritage of the Micro- and Nano-Technology Centres to deal with – where one version of a centres concept had been implemented in too distributed a manner – so had developed very clear views about the need for focus and clarity of purpose.
The use of centres was not a new insight, and others had developed the idea before, but we saw real complementarity with our existing tools and we talked about our new enthusiasm to anyone who would listen. The Government of the day commissioned Hermann Hauser to investigate the potential for centres as a new component of the UK innovation landscape. His report was duly delivered and proselytised. Meanwhile, James Dyson had been looking at innovation and published a broader view of the innovation landscape but nonetheless made similar suggestions about the need for centres. Although the change of government caused a slight delay in the process, the Coalition recognised the logic of the argument and the Prime Minster announced the setting up of an elite network of technology and innovation centres in October 2010 – and gave us responsibility for making it happen.
The first phase was conceptually easy – although it turned out to be fraught with practical challenges – because we had in mind our ideas from the previous year. Centres would have a strong element of shared equipment – whether it was expensive, fast developing or difficult to operate didn’t matter that much, it was equipment that was vital to achieve fast progress. There was also an element of the need for multidisciplinary working, but we were aware of the counter argument that, in a globally connected world, this could be achieved virtually. The High Value Manufacturing Catapult and the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult are good examples of this sort of centre. In both cases, the importance of providing central resources had been already recognised – and so there were already centres out there, distributed around the UK localised in areas of strength. The development of the Catapults in these areas will be largely concerned with coordinating, extending and building upon these existing activities.
The Cell Therapy and Satellite Applications Catapults represent a subtle evolution of this concept. In addition to the need for shared equipment, because they are less well established as areas of activity, they are much more dependent for success on multidisciplinary working and have complex supply chains that have to operate synchronously for the final products and services to be delivered. They also share a high cost of final testing – either for safety and efficacy in humans or by launching into space! Both these Catapults are being set up as single centres to maximise the focus for the totality of UK activities, and they need to build inclusive communities around them.
The Catapults in the next phase, the first of which was announced a week or so ago, are different again. Over the last year or so, we have been consulting widely on where we should focus this third tranche of centres. We have, not surprisingly, had a lot of suggestions about where we should invest the money and effort. Because we stimulated the thinking in several different areas, we got a lot of comparable feedback from different areas in at the same time. That enabled us to see patterns in the responses we might not have seen if we had carried out the exercise over a longer timeframe. What we saw was convergence in several areas – and it is in those areas that we are proposing to set up Catapults.
It will not have escaped anyone’s notice that the digital world is inexorably melding with the physical world. The music industry was first to notice the effects – the need to develop wholly new business models, the challenge of controlling distribution rights for a product that is inherently digital and so on. The rest of the media industry is now on a similar path. The retail industry is already changing and who knows what will be next. Many other sectors are capable of being “digitised” and going through variations of the changes that these areas have already gone through. Already we are seeing the transfer of knowledge and practices between these different markets, and we are noticing that those who learn from the earlier transformations seem to be taking advantage of the change rather being adversely affected by it. This need to transfer insight and knowledge from one area to another – very different – one, combined with the range of technologies needed to make the changes, is why this new Connected Digital Economy will be the subject of a Catapult.
The final 2 areas will be announced in the coming weeks and have similar characteristics to the Connected Digital Economy Catapult.
There were other areas that we looked at as possible Catapults. The same consultation process has led us to believe that in these areas, although there is strong potential, centres are not part of the answer at the moment. Instead, we will implement programmes using our conventional tools to address the innovation challenges we gathered from these communities.
The quest to implement a new network of centres to accelerate innovation in the UK has been a fascinating one. We have learned that many of the assumptions we started with are not universally true and that centres are not always the answer. The timescale over which we have carried out the consultation has also given us a novel view of how apparently different areas can come together. As a result, we are excited about the Catapults we are now helping into existence - and better prepared for the problems we may encounter as they grow.