If you misuse the words, do you devalue the concepts?

Monday was unusual in that I actually attended the “start the week” meeting. It was followed by the pay review meeting, which showed what the value of preparation would have been, a telephone interview with Technopolis about the KTNs and a lot of paperwork. 

Tuesday started with a meeting called by Allyson to align our own planets ahead of a meeting she was having with the supposed great and good of BERR and DIUS. The apprentice Dark Lord of BERR had put out a presentation purporting to analyse the past investments of the early Technology Programme and show that they had gone to “not quite the right places”. The presentation itself was messy and suggest that presentation skills training would not go amiss in BERR, but the discussion we had was productive and effective – the sort of thing we ought to do more often. This was followed by a preparation meeting for Andrew Everett who is sitting on a panel discussion for the Freight Transport Association later in the month. Then another Executioners Meeting as we grapple with the detail of our future and how we pay for it!! The best fun of the day was the Innovate08 planning meeting. The task Lisa set us was to agree a theme for the meeting. As well as the predictable “connect and catalyse” (so, last month, darling!) and a horribly self-centred “history of innovators”, we had two real options. One started with the ‘sustainability’ theme but was broadened to make sure the whole triple bottom line argument was covered, the other was concerned with ‘mass customisation’ and the increased ability to deliver ‘personalised solutions’. After a spirited debate, we agreed on the wider sustainability theme with a counterpoint of the “how does it balance with the increased desire for individualism”. If we could capture the energy and the passion in that room at the meeting, we would become legends!! 

Wednesday started with work at home (more catching up) and then a trip to the big city for the launch of “Total Innovation”, the latest NESTA blockbuster. Introduced by Phil Willis, we had short speeches from Mike Harris of NESTA and Mike Carr of BT and a lot of wine and canapes. This part of the series is a better written version of the infamous “Economics Paper 11” which got the Advisory Technology Strategy Board arguing about investment in aerospace and pharmaceuticals. However, I was reminded of Chesbrough’s advice to those who wanted to make a name for themselves these days - “find a new adjective to put in front of ‘innovation’ and propose a new way of working”. The meeting was notable, to me at least, for the sidebars. The apprentice Dark Lord himself lasered in on me across the room to discuss what ‘my man’ was doing on food. He maintains his equilibrium by having only one ear and two mouths and never knowingly supporting anyone else’s ideas, so I was a bit concerned. But he can recognise a bandwagon at 50 paces, and so it was. Dropping John Beddingtons’ name several times, he suggested that BERR should set up a food sector team to support our work. He spent some time working for Quest, so has reasonable connections into the food industry, but I told him we were looking at the whole supply chain from field to store (sorry, I don’t know the alliterative version) so he would need to tread on DEFRA’s toes to make it happen properly. He went off with a new mission. I then touched base with the soon-to-be-ex Richard H on the BERR Services report. This is a classic defrocked economist from the DTI production, with evidence assembled to support a pre-existing prejudice, and manages to conceal some interesting ideas in a sea of rehashed ideas and incomplete arguments. Shriti apparently doesn’t like the report (which was commissioned under her predecessor) and tried to offload it onto NESTA. NESTA provided some of the base data but do not agree with the scope, tone or detailed content, so politely declined. We (I say we, but Paul is the patient one, I have given up) have made several attempts to delete the actions for us, but he ignores all inputs that don’t align. I am not sure what the end game is here. 

That evening, I happened to eat at the same restaurant as the Industry and Technology Forum of the Royal Society of Chemistry – and a noisy lot they were. It did mean that I had a chance to speak to Jim Darwent of Unilever both in the evening and at breakfast the next day. He is going to turn down the offer of the chair of the Steering Group for MNT KTN because he thinks that, at 15 months into a 3 year contract, there is nothing left to steer and he doesn’t think they have achieved much. Jim is quietly despairing of the UK Governments ability to support nanotechnology in any meaningful way, but realises that personalities in the community bear some of the responsibility. 

Thursday saw a meeting of the Operational Advisory Group for the RDA/DAs. Having assembled a mass of data and (seemingly) convinced ourselves that we already have more than the required £180 million aligned, the question of what we actually do together is starting to be addressed. Everyone was very polite, but I am not sure what was agreed. I managed to touch base with Sue Creese on the out-turn of the Valencia gig. Aside from the fact that DIUS will pay my expenses (but not my time) and that people went on asking Innovation Platform questions after I left, we are now in the “waiting for the phone call” bit of the relationship. Ian McConaghy and I the interviewed someone for 6 months of work to build up the Detection and Identification of Infectious Agents Innovation Platform proposal and I went off to end that day at another NESTA event. Since I was hanging around Kingsgate House, I took the opportunity of meeting Jane Hartshorne, the DIUS connector for the Design Council (and NESTA). I explained our “problems” with the DC and she sounded sympathetic. 

This was fascinating one. Billed as “Entrepreneurs – are they born or trained”, it was really a thinly disguised launch of Elizabeth Chell’s book “The Entrepreneurial Personality: A Social Construction”. After a short precis of the book by Elizabeth, there were words from John Bates (currently at London Business School, but associated with my alma mater and at least one of its progeny (Multimap), and ex member of a NESTA committee and involved with the Design Council), Alastair Wilson (Chief Executive of the School for Social Entrepreneurs) and Rajeeb Dey (ex-President of the Oxford University Entrepreneurs Club). As the discussion developed, a couple of interesting things became apparent. One was that the word entrepreneur has become just another way of describing people who do a good job. Bates described the need for teamwork and flexibility of approach, Dey talked about questioning the way things are normally done and Wilson talked more about tackling social problems in a novel manner. Questions from the floor became increasingly bizarre and everyone sought to be included in the definition of “an entrepreneur”. The other thing that gained wide acceptance was that the current educational system did its best to drive any spark of entrepreneurial behaviour out of children. The metrics used to define “productive” schoolchildren were judged to be entirely opposite to those that might lead to more enterprising behaviour, let alone entrepreneurial activity!! Some of the after meeting drinks revealed some more prejudices of the assembled throng. There was a lot of criticism of our Venture Capital community – they were dismissed as largely financial, using the balance sheet to drive decisions and not the people involved, and compared unfavourably to their “Silicon Valley” counterparts, who are mainly ex-technical people who have worked in business rather than banks and consultancies. There was a particularly interesting debate when one guy from Capital Partners managed to get his facts very wrong and was intellectually torn limb from limb by some of the would-be entrepreneur trainers. I came away feeling that the question framed in the title had not been answered but that the evidence pointed to the fact that entrepreneurs, both in the specific and newly evolved all-encompassing definition, were born and had to be nurtured – but that you cannot make a donkey into a tiger!! I was also disappointed that yet another word in our space is beginning to become misused as a general rather than specific term and that, like ’innovation’, it might one day cease to have the impact it once had. 

Friday started – at Heidi’s insistence – with a check on the development of the MNT Centre Review, was followed by a quick chat with Fergus to follow up the earlier conversations about the BERR Services work, the Food Sector idea. That was followed by the visit of Philip Esler, and the “prime Mike Biddle for the Select Committee” meeting. 


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