Vegetables that grow in the sand.....

This was always going to be an odd week, because it was focused on the Digital Economy sandpit. Formally, the participants were to arrive on Monday morning, but the mentors had to meet with the facilitation team the evening before to plan the first day in more detail. Given that this was about design in the digital economy, we had set up a blog, a Ning space (user configurable social media space) and built a section of our Second Life island for interaction. The Ning space was by far the most used, with people arranging shared travel plans and taxis from High Wycombe railway station and Heathrow!! 

Monday morning came and we were about ready. The first part of a sandpit is to get the participants to understand what they all bring to the event. From mid-morning until early evening, we used a series of interactive exercises designed to get people to talk to one another – and more importantly, listen to one another – so that when they started working on problems, they had an idea of where to go for specific expertise our understanding. Inevitably, people sat with the people they knew at first and we broke them up again and again until they had met everyone else. Sorting by height, postcode and favourite colour were all used (we stopped short of colour of underpants, but that has been used too). In each of these exercises, we got them to imagine relevant “ideal states” - we might call them “what success would look like” but the facilitation team used the phrase “wouldn’t it be nice if “ which got abbreviated to WIBNI. The other thing we needed to get them to do was to let go of any risk aversion, so the first evening was a giant ukulele orchestra learning to play basic songs together. There is a video, and yes, Heidi and I did join in!! 

Having got them closer to the fully interactive state, we then started to try to understand what a suitable problem definition might look like. This involved taking the WIBNIs and working out what the barriers to achieving them might be. To do this, we had invited in a series of external speakers to give them a view of the digital economy that might add to their own. We started with Sebastian Conran, who explained his “design equation”. This breaks down the perceived value of any object (real or virtual) into various aspects of its appeal. Next came Alan Newell from Dundee University. Alan is a Emeritus Professor and has been involved in the Digital Economy programme to speak for the digitally disenfranchised. His talk, with video of an old lady being unable to cope with her new digital television, was a role model for grumpy old men the world over!! Next came, Bronwyn Kunhardt of Polecat (proving that she is a Philip Pullman fan) who talked about the ability of the semantic web to join ideas in the way we can currently join images (see Photosynth nee SeaDragon and Infinite Images nee Seam carver - :// ). Next up was Richard Halkett (lately of NESTA but now of Cisco) who talked about how education needs to change to become more effective – best quote was “modern children can get access to more information, more enjoyably and more relevant to their needs outside of school than within it”. The came Simon Phipps of Sun, the guru of Open Source, who made the point that open source didn’t mean free but did did enable everyone to innovate with software – and that it changed the prevailing business models. Finally in this section came Nicola Smythe of the BBC, who made the point that most of the BBC content is no longer “broadcast” and that new communications models (the Sarnoff, Webster, Reed network evolution I have talked about before) are what they need to work through. By now the participants (and the mentors) were suffering from intellectual indigestion, so we asked them to once again address the WIBNIs are define them more as challenge statements. As a reward, we made them paint for the evening and exposed them to Evil Tim’s exercise in the use of painting and ownership as a metaphor for ideas. It works. It always does. And just to prove that entrepreneurial behaviour is there in the university system, one participant got Sebastian to sign one of the pictures he had contributed to and rushed off to her hotel room with it. A little something for a future Antiques Roadshow, I suspect, or maybe a more immediate e-Bay posting? 

Wednesday started too early, as we all boarded a bus to New Malden (note to self, never have a plan that involves going round the A404 and M25 at rush hours). The nascent theory of sandpits says that you try to get through a series of divergent-convergent problem solving activities in the first 2 days and then take the pressure off – but make the displacement activity relevant. What we had organised was a trip to the BAe Apex Centre to experience a synthetic environment. Under different guises these have been around for a long time – you can probably quote Microsoft Flight Simulator as an immersive synthetic environment if you want to be geeky – but powerful modern computers and large size displays have made them the problem solving solution du jour. We had some theory and then pitched our academics into running the emergency services for Surrey for a couple of hours. It was fun to watch them go from stand-offish behaviour to screaming into a microphone “I requested an ambulance 10 minutes ago and I have an injured man who urgently requires medical help” in the first hour and then realise that the system depended both on the communication, the availability of real-time information AND other people. The road to Damascus was never so crowded. We “gave them permission” to pick their own groups and pick the problem they thought was the most important/attractive and work on it for an hour. It was at this point that most of the projects were born. The drive back to High Wycombe was a lot faster and there was a fair amount of discussion except at the front – where Sebastian fell sound asleep!! Once back, more time was give over to developing the ideas and how they might be addressed, before the dinner and the inevitable evening exercise. This time it was group making of deserts, judging and then eating them. The sight of 31 academics and an assorted crown of mentors all wearing disposable plastic ponchos running into the bar for drinks did cause some consternation among the other hotel guests!! 

Thursday, I had to get up early to make my escape to London. After a meeting a couple of weeks ago – caused by JLR saying we weren’t moving fast enough – Lord Drayson had requested an update. It started with him giving the chair to Fearless Leader (since the TSB was basically in charge) - this caused an hour long rearguard action from an ex-civil servant with strong chairmanship drive. The first topic was the AWM £90m centre, which was neatly and effectively kicked into the long grass. Next came the roadmap for Low Carbon Vehicles, where the NAIGT were told to get it published and available to the TSB and the wider community so we could get on a implement it. Finally, there was a discussion about infrastructure issues, where Fearless Leader was tasked with getting recommendations to Drayson before the next Cabinet Meeting on Science and Technology, which is to be sometime in January. The meeting was also notable for his Spittleness basically kicking ass in a manner that would bring joy to the hearts of his tribe. 

I had also promised to give a talk at the BERR organised Serious Games Workshop, so I hurried down to the 1 Vic St Conference Centre - the land that security forgot! I arrive din time fro lunch and got networking. As luck would have it, I spotted John Beddington escaping from the CST meeting to make a telephone call and we talked a bit about the agri-food area. I brought him up to speed on our thinking and the bones of the Board paper and he complimented us our about progress and commiserated about DEFRAs intransigence. At this point Sara de Freitas of the Serious Games Institute recognised me as a potential source of funding and homed in on us. I had great fun trying to introduce the pair of them and get Sara to realise that John would be a bigger catch than me. John seemed interested in talking to Sara and they ended up swapping cards and agreeing that John should visit the SGI. Back into the workshop and a talk by the Director of Interactive Services at the Central Office of Information. There is obvious potential for some SBRI activity here so I schmoozed the guy and will forward details to Will. Next came a series of short presentations from Imperial (they get everywhere, but in this case it was Dave Taylor, who was at NPL and is a Second Life fanatic), 3MRT ( ), TruSim/Blitz (who have a grant from us and make the Triage software – see and remember that is Leamington High Street after a bomb blast), MoD (who don’t like the term games, although they did admit that Salisbury Plain is a synthetic environment) and Caspian ( ). More networking was followed by Dog Brown of BECTA giving a refreshingly frank challenge presentation, a breathless Fergus announcing some new initiative and yours truly proselytising about our wonderful activities and hinting that we might be looking at Immersive Education. The presentation is attached and it is worth noting that the CEO of Immersive Education was in the audience and agreed that she wouldn’t prosecute us under copyright laws – quite the opposite. As I was starting, Tom Watson, the cabinet Minister responsible for Transformation Government (and Owner of the Power of Information Report - ) was ushered in so had to listen to me. He took notes (or was writing out his weekend shopping list, I couldn't be sure). He gave his prepared speech, which is available on Google Docs - – but noted my use of a twitter address, quoting almost similar thoughts to ours about Obama’s use of social media. I quickly found him on twitter and as he finished sent him a note. I was also got a tweet from Dave Taylor and have been accumulating a variety of interesting people as followers since the meeting including a Director of Cisco!! Tom was besieged by fans, so I talked to his diary secretary and opened up a dialogue. He would be a useful link on Immersive Education when we get farther down the line. I then hurried back to High Wycombe to catch up with the days progress and mentor until just before midnight. The night was eventful. We went to bed to the strains of the disco for the stiffs who hadn’t liked our ponchos the night before and who have awful taste in music, had a fire alarm at 1.38 and then again at 3.30 – it’s an old CIA trick to keep waking up people every 2 hours so they never sleep properly, but I hadn’t thought the facilitation team would use it this time!! 

Next morning and most of the sandpit participants looked like s$@t, but we got down to more intensive mentoring – this involves giving roughly the same set of comments to everyone but shading them so that the project we like get adventurous and those we don’t start cutting costs. Many skipped lunch and the presentation started again at 1 o’clock. Obviously, our mentoring had been superb because the final project proposals came in just £100k below the money available, allowing enough for a networking grant as well. There were 7 projects. One was close to being commercial and Heidi and I kept dropping hints about asking for help if they wanted to move faster. Even James Lawn, who came in with Alison Starr to take part in the Thursday bits I missed, liked this one and offered to help. There are 2 others I thought were really cool and potentially valuable to us in the future and 4 more that felt like academics doing research for the sake of it – but good research. The back slapping and champagne drinking (it’s a research council event, what can I say) went on a bit so we mostly drifted away to catch cars, trains or planes. The really good news is that Heidi now has her Sandpit Director badge and can run the next one – it’s too emotionally gruelling to do it too often and you do need to give up the whole week or you lose the picture to an extent. 

The drive home led to a session catching up on e-mails (I had missed a few and because Jools was off they stayed missed) and now obligator twittering with my new cyber friends. 

The title? That’s because Tom Watson twittered about my presentation saying that I “knew my onions”. I am debating with FL whether this is an oblique reference to the agri-food area or some quaint local saying. In the spirit of cyber democracy, what do you think?  You can work out the sand bit yourself 

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