You cannot fall to the top of a mountain
10 December 2021 by David Bott
Monday was, for me, that rare thing nowadays – a Monday in Swindon. And to compound the weirdness factor, because both FL and Cyrus were elsewhere, I had to chair the “start the week” meeting! After that and the Catapult update meeting, I had to spend some time reading and assessing the contenders for the Rushlight Award (see – http://www.rushlightawards.co.uk/). There were some amazing entries from across the various sectors – and some of them we know well, having helped them on their journey. That took a lot of time though. Sustainability Man and I got to meet MD’s recommendation for the media person to help support the Clean and Cool Mission in March, and the Strategy Man and I got a (rare) chance to catch up at leisure! And then it was the end of Monday!! On the way home, what is known in my house as “the expensive warning light” came on in my car, but it seemed to drive okay, so I soldiered on.
Tuesday was a more ambitious day. I started in Swindon for a Funders Panel on the networking and evaluation parts of DALLAS. El Presidente took us through the logic of a procurement exercise using the language of a normal Funders Panel. It worked quite well and we support his decisions. Then it was a quick trip to the local Audi dealer so that they could plug my car into their computer and tell me how expensive the fault was. It was apparently a problem in the same system as last time, but since I had paid lots of money to have it repaired already, they simply reset the warning system and sent me on my way! I then drove down to London (don’t ask why) arriving a bit late for my overdue courageous networking with Sarbjit in the BIS canteen. By then more contenders for the Rushlight Award had come it, so it was another session reading and assessing. I then had a rather odd invitation to meet the “Creative Advisor” for UKTI, but was chaperoned by Bob the Driver! It turned out that they have been asked to put together a “6 screen” movie for the embassies in the run up to the Olympics to showcase British innovation. As is usual they have gone a long way down the track before they ask for help, so there was a strong element of “have you thought of?” before we got to the areas where they have less engagement. I seem to have a long “to do” list as a result of the conversation!
Then it was joining FL to walk down to Transport House to meet Theresa Villiers (see – http://www.dft.gov.uk/ministers/theresa-villiers/). It was an amusing meeting. She started by being gushingly enthusiastic about a Transport TIC, but obviously hadn’t been briefed that well on what it was, so FL waved the idea imperiously aside. Then she tried the “we are offering you £10m if you have a Transport TIC” approach, which we countered with the need to justify a “centre” to our Governing Board. Finally, she tried the well trodden “I’m a Minster, do what I say” approach, albeit nicely. FL was warming to his task of not making a decision before the Board meeting and he countered effortlessly. We were shown the door as she went off to campaign in a by-election. We had over-run a bit so I was late to the second of the KTN Chairs dinners. It was a lot more crowded than the first one and the tenor was set early by Graeme Armstrong when he assumed that “his” KTN was largely independent of the Technology Strategy Board and there to deliver projects for the chemistry using industries. As is normal with meetings like this, the basic argument was then played out to different degrees, but by the time I had to leave, there was no comeback about how the KTNs were the eyes and ears of the parent organisation.
I had to leave because the mystery problem that plagues Outlook (the disappearing meeting) had removed the KTN dinner from my calendar at some point and Jools had added a dinner with Sebastian Conran and Mat Hunter. FL had been added on our side, so it was that we met late at Tom Dixon’s Dock Restaurant (see – http://www.tomdixon.net/projects/the-dock-kitchen). As is usual with Sebastian, the discussion ranged far and wide, from the latest Apple gadgets and applications to the impending “launch” of the catapult brand, but with an interesting side bar on how the Design Council is trying to get more Government money to do what it always did, despite having been de-quangoised.
Wednesday morning saw me braving early morning London traffic on a personal matter, but I did watch the consultant play my Mother the X-ray movies of her operation and mentally added up the gigabytes of storage that he was carelessly consuming.
Back in London FL had called together the brave gladiators for the TIC/Catapult discussion at the Governing Board meeting for a final alignment of formats and goals. Our understanding of what would make a sensible use of a physical centre to address the challenges of any area has come on leaps and bounds over the last few weeks and there was a growing feeling that what we had put in the Board paper a week or so back had been overtaken by that understanding. FL showed his scene-setting slides before we rolled through the presentations that now followed a similar basic pattern were gone through one by one, with the presenters all clocking techniques for maximising impact. There was quiet satisfaction with how Michael built the satellite applications case, howls of delight greeted Finger Man’s use of a scrolling list of company logos, Sustainability Man had coined the term “City Observatory” to describe the focus of a physical centre and Transport Man was much further on in the equivalent for integrated “multi-modal” travel needs. At the end of the 3-hour session, we agreed that although the arguments for the Satellite Applications centre were the easiest to access, there were strong elements in all 4 and that we should go forward with the recommendation to develop 4 separate centres – and that all 4 were, to a degree, inter-related!
The gladiators all went back to rewrite parts of their presentations for the following day, whilst I went back to my hotel to prepare myself for a very different set of discussions and arguments.
Because we had arranged the Governing Board in Swindon for the December 8th, it came as a bit of a quandary to find that BIS had decided to launch their Innovation and Research Strategy in London on the same day. Given my aversion to Swindon based meetings, FL had decided that I could be him at the London events, so I had press releases, Q&As and all sorts of documents to absorb in order to be able to answer any and all questions.
First up on the Thursday morning was a press conference, with Vince Cable, David Willetts and me, held at the Science Media Centre at the Wellcome Trust. I was chaperoned by MD, who was in indomitable mood and ready to capture all journalists! Cable kicked off with some warm and mostly accurate words (sticking, for once, to his brief – one of the documents I had absorbed the night before) and then Willetts filled in a bit more detail. The first question was about the commitment to make all publically funded research open access, a subject that apparently got the guy from the Times in a twist. That was followed by a question about prizes from the Guardian – why was NESTA doing it and not the TSB? Willetts passed it seamlessly to me and I said we were working with NESTA – in fact that we were working with all of the various players in the innovation space because we had committed ourselves to do so in our strategy – it was joined up Government. Vince smiled. There were various questions about how new things were (Clive Cookson), whether the strategy was adventurous enough and so on, most of which Willetts either answered or passed to me. I think we did okay. Afterwards, MD was working the room like a sheepdog so that anyone who might be a journalist got our press releases as well as BIS’s and her card for further contact. I teased Clive Cookson about his question, and caught Fergus telling Alok Jha that the graphene centre would be announced before Christmas (cue sharp intake of breath from MD!)
Now we knew the sorts of issues that might come up, MD made me tell her what I might say at the official stakeholder launch and write it all down – then re-arranged the order to be more punchy. (she was right too!). Just before the appointed hour, MD, Government Boy and I wandered down to the Work Foundation for the launch. I met Michael Hunt of Reneuron across the road in the Starbucks and we got ready. The meeting was hosted by Will Hutton, showing a degree of animation he had failed to display at Innovate. He introduced David Willetts who talked about the Innovation and Growth Strategy (see – http://www.bis.gov.uk/news/topstories/2011/Dec/multi-million-package-announced-to-boost-innovation-and-research). He talked about the various components of the strategy and but overemphasised the “pro bono” nature of Sebastian and Michael’s contribution to the naming of the Catapults. Rather than getting his retaliation in first, it managed to sound a bit pathetic. He answered a few questions then left through the secret door (that also led to the toilets). Hutton handed over to his lieutenant and she introduced first Rick Rylance, who gave a nicely balanced talk about the role of the creative knowledge base alongside the more name-checked scientific one. The David Kester did was he does best – embarrass everyone including himself. He started with a video produced by the Design Council to showcase how wonderful they were – not the companies they support – the Council itself! (see – http://designcouncil.info/ftp/Final_films_231111/DC_Film_1.wmv). This took 6 minutes, but it seemed longer. He then said a lot of words before showing another video about Gripple (see – http://vimeo.com/17919911 for the movie and http://www.gripple.com/ for what they do!). This took another 5 minutes – nicely going well over time! Then it was my turn. I realised the power of the preparation when I started talking with a set of scribbled notes in front of me. I emphasised that we were final piece in the jigsaw of government support – that we took things through from potential to delivery. That this extra money was to extend and enhance things we had already proven to be effective. That we had actually been given the vast bulk of the extra money (over £200m over 3 years) and that we intended to deliver. I do believe I saw David Sainsbury smiling at me! Rather than a slick video we had Michael Hunt of Reneuron, who spoke eloquently and briefly about why the Technology Strategy Board had been the most important government activity in the field of stem cells, that we were listening to the companies and doing things that would help them. He basically aced it! Because Kester had over-run, we finished without time for questions, but I got lots of people asking me questions afterwards. It was also nice to be able to get Michael to talk with Bob Driver about links into China!
We drifted back to Tracy Island and our thoughts turned with what might or might not be happening in Swindon. What colour would the smoke be?
It was weird back in the Innovation Group area because they had all gone out to their Christmas lynch – yes, civil servants still have time to celebrate pagan rituals that have been adopted by modern religions even on the day when they might be thought to be manning the phone lines! Twitter had noticed our renaming of the TICs and the amateur brand managers were all having their say – it was fun to tease them in less than 140 characters! We also discovered that the Catapult website hadn’t been properly road-tested, so effectively demonstrated our lack of preparation.
The evening was spent with the late Bob Driver understanding what all that video stuff had been about, what was in store for Strategy Man, Government Boy and I at PA on Monday morning, updating one another on the Missions and the latest organisational changes and having a nice curry.
Friday was anything but anticlimactic! I started with a phone call with my fellow judges about the Rushlight Award, then dove into the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult assessment panel. Bob Sorrell made a good chair and the panel was made up of people who had strong opinions but who listened to one another. The presentation was a lot better than the paperwork (which always makes me wonder about our standard selection process!), but there were still lots of unanswered questions, so we had them back in for a second go. I think we came to the conclusion that the overall consortium has all the right companies in there but that the representatives are not necessarily the right ones from the companies. We ended up with what Bob characterised as a “yes, but…” decision, which means that we will need to take a much more involved and directive role going forward. There is a pattern emerging for the Catapults that we are moving inexorably from the competition process we started with to a more community building one. As was the way with this week, I had to leave before the meeting had really finished to make my way to the next meeting – this time one of a series organised by Finance Boy following his holiday in Israel. I joined the digital-creative discussion with Lucy Blechner, Finger Man, Creative Boy and Frank Boyd (the new and much appreciated Director of the Creative Industries KTN). It was a nice, relaxed and open exchange of views about whether and how we could build links between Israel and the UK.
I left it to meet up with Sir Richard Heygate (see – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Heygate and http://www.debretts.co.uk/people/biographies/browse/h/363/Richard%20John%20Gage+HEYGATE.aspx for the modern and traditional views on him! We had met through Stephen Rockman, and both of us took the meeting on trust, but then had a whale of a time discovering shared prejudices as well as interests. I’m not sure what to do with my new friend but it’s nice to have him as one!
My final meeting of the week was with Julie Meyer. She had invited me for coffee a few weeks ago on the strength of a quote in some newspaper and – although I really don’t like her work at Entrepreneur Country, where I think they are ripping off vulnerable people – I took the meeting to see what she wanted. We met at the Green Park Hilton for tea and scones and talked about what she wants to do and how much she admires what we have achieved over the last 4 years. I almost began to like her, but then I always was easy to fool with flattery.
Due to a variety of travel reasons, I had my car in London and so, a 7 o’clock on a Friday evening I began the trip home. Despite heavy traffic on the West Way and into Gypsy Corner, I made it home before 10 o’clock. Yeh, it’s a weekend!