Are NESTA beginning to specialise in amazing but irrelevant speakers at their events?
15 November 2018 by David Bott
Another Monday, and another “start the week”. Once over, I got to meet Steve Price, Cyrus’s secret weapon in the war against ICT inertia. I sat with him and Tim (?) and talked through the needs (and frustrations) of the Innovation Programmes team and heard nothing but good sense and good ideas in return. Maybe one day we will have a CRM system.
Then we were visited by David Willets. The body language was superb. He came in with his Chief of Staff, crossed his arms and dared us to impress him. Fearless Leader went through the increasingly creaky corporate slide set and he sat po-faced, making the occasional snipe. Luckily, Guy had given us a brief on his interests, so we knew he was a non-executive of a Cambridge start-up, which we had actually looked up. When the appropriate moment, came, I carelessly mentioned the relevance of their core technology and his mood changed. Fearless Leader moved in for the kill!! The result was an invitation for FL to take his Spittleness for dinner with some Conservative big-wigs. Mind you, the RDAs sound like they’re going to have a more difficult task!
I was marooned in Swindon for the evening, but David Golding had slipped me into a joint EPSRC-India Science Bridges dinner at the Pear Tree. By chance I ended up sitting next to Dr T Ramasami, who is the Secretary of the Department of Science & Technology. We had an interesting discussion about why India signed up for the science bridges scheme. It is not actually to swap science but to expose Indian academics to the more research-oriented atmosphere of the UK. Indian universities are mainly concerned with turning out as high a number as possible of graduates to man their growing industries and so are very good at teaching, but have less experience of research. I wonder if EPSRC ever asked the “why?” question?
Next morning, I had an hour with Celia Caulcott and the BBSRC crowd about the agri-food area. BBSRC have been very helpful in helping us understand the underlying technologies that they have developed to impact on this area and have been very critical of DEFRAs inability to implement any of it. Although they might be accused of a mildly “technology push” approach, their institutes do give them a lot of practical experience at the farming end of the supply chain. There have been changes within the BBSRC (Celia is new) and some high level desire for action (not always taking account of history of circumstances) so Celia asked me to explain how I saw the area. I went through the whole “what is an Innovation platform?” thing and she seemed content, even helping us prioritise our crystallising themes in terms of capability.
Then back to base for the visit by some of the Board. We started with 40 minutes of Cyrus and I doing a double act, trying out some of the new ideas for introductory slides (courtesy of the sustainability group) and quick review of the past calls and what we might do in the future. It was good discussion, with the usual wide spectrum of views from the Board (they don’t get to work too much as a team, so still don’t know one another that well). They gave us good feedback on the evolving picture of how we explain ourselves to the outside world – both those who think they know us and those who have never heard of us – and debated the programmes, asking us for a better understanding of what we are already supporting. The main part of the day was their meetings with the technologists. As far as I can work out, although they were very impressed with the people they met, the Board thought we were still too high level in our strategies and were encouraging us to pick areas where the criteria are satisfied and back them to the hilt. That said, I also got feedback that some Board members who had been reasonably involved in some strategies showed no understanding of their key drivers or themes, so perhaps they were just responding to the circumstances rather than offering strategic advice?
Next day was in London. It started with Innovation Live -I am not sure how I heard about it, but it looked relevant to our health interests and had a NESTA imprint, so I went along. My first observation was that I knew almost no-one there. The second that it was easily 80% female and everyone was a health practitioner of some shade or other. The third was that the exhibition was close to what we would have liked to do – in terms of breadth. There was design for usability, social marketing, funding for new ideas, new ways to care for the sick and infirm and so on. I was really impressed and my hopes were raised. The meeting itself was a strange mixture. Bernard Crump, the CEO of the NHS Institute for Innovation and Implementation, said almost nothing, Jonathan Kestenbaum made some incisive comments on the trendiness of innovation (and then left), and Kathy Sykes was radiant (FL likes her, so I have to be nice). We were then subjected to the best emotional mugging I have ever received. Gail Hicks is the sort of human being that makes me feel inadequate. Having been seriously injured in the July 7th bombings, she has recovered to become one of the best speakers I have seen. Her story of recovery, peppered with stories of love and kindness from her friends and those in the emergency services who saved and nurtured her was delivered with warmth and humour. She showed a strength of purpose and humanity we could all aspire to. (okay, I’m gushing, but she really was amazing) That said, the references to innovation were gratuitous and hollow and jarred with the rest of the story. Interestingly, I overheard some people comparing it to the big NESTA event at the Festival Hall, where Saint Bob had given a rousing speech which had nothing to do with the rest of the meeting. :-) The panel discussion, where the star was Professor David Colin-Thome was more down to earth, and one question from the floor, from an NHS employee who has had a series of less headlining but equally debilitating problems and received no real help from the NHS highlighted the spectrum of performance with the NHS and its almost institutionalised inability to transfer best practice. Part of the deal for the day was that you had to sign up for workshops, so I duly went along to “Scaling Innovation” which sounded relevant. What I found was a group of about 8 psychiatrists and clinicians who were trying to tackle the problem that, in the crush of modern medical teaching, there is no time to let trainee doctors and nurses learn to how to deal with difficult patients – as people. They had set up a series of scenarios, the ones I saw were based around Horace, an Afro-Caribbean male, with HIV and anger management problems. Over a series of short scenarios, we discovered that he had been upset because the doctor had inferred that he was gay, that he wasn’t gay but went with men, and that he couldn't tell his mother because she was strongly religious and thought homosexuality was the devils' business. The workshop discussed each step of the interview, and saw alternative approaches. It was powerful to see how these vignettes provoked real discussion and debate between other professionals who had faced similar problems. I learned a lot. Aside from this new life skill I have acquired, I realised that this group were effectively working in isolation, that their access to modern ICT tools was minimal and that others were doing similar things. A fertile ground both for the basics of KTNs and Immersive Education?
I couldn't stay for the afternoon because I had been summoned to meet Simon Edmonds. Simon is not very happy with the output of the KTN review and is telling everyone who will listen. I suspect that he is more worried about the long-term relationship between BERR and the Technology Strategy Board and this is a just a convenient excuse to voice his concerns.
Finally, Will (the new Neville) and I took part in a joint DIUS/BERR/OGC/DEFRA meeting on procurement. They are putting in a paper to be part of the PBR (although the paper is several pages long, they are aiming for a single paragraph in the PBR and know full well that the Treasury will edit it to fit their own understanding – so the paper is to educate the Treasury!!) We (Will and I) made two contributions to the debate. To remind the rest of them that this had been on the agenda for 3 years and no-one had actually acted, and that whatever list that went forward in the document had to be illustrative and not prescriptive. I had a good conversation with Neil Thornton in the wings about how no-one in DEFRA ever responds to our letters and e-mails!! He seemed to care and promised action.
Thursday was a Swindon day. After a short time to catch up with e-mail, I scrounged a lift with Paul down to the football ground for the joint RDA-RC meetings. It was mainly a series of presentations (of varying degrees of insight and capability) on the cross-council programmes and the RDAs mainly responded by marking their territory. It shows the real advance this group has gone through that this latter process no longer involves urination.
Later that afternoon, Em and I went to bond with LWEC. We had a meeting with Andrew Watkinson (the new Director), Dan Osborne and Simon Jackman. It still sounds like a mostly academic pursuit but Andrew obviously sees this and is looking for traction. The problem is that to fully support LWEC in the way they may want will require extra resource – I suspect that we joined up expecting to mainly add our own programmes to the mix as part of the delivery mechanism.
Last duty on Thursday was to attend the Lord Stafford Awards ceremony at Worcester Cathedral as a guest of AWM. It was an interesting evening, but decidedly “local” (in the Little Britain sense). The master of ceremonies was Kay Alexander, who does the Midlands Today news, the band were Planetarium (so obscure I couldn’t find them on Google) - you get the picture. One of the first prizes was for John Bailey, the outgoing PVC of Aston, who made the voucher system work. It turns out Julia King was a judge! The main speaker was meant to Adam Hart-Davies, but he cried off with bronchitis (he would have got hypothermia if he had come) and was replaced by Johnny Ball. I stood at the back until I realised that he should have retired and doesn’t believe in climate change and then joined the flood of those leaving early!!
Friday was a Birmingham day, so I got a lie in until 7 o’clock. Yeh!! First up was Ofwat. This had been set up by David Rawlins, although I had met George Day before at the Water UK dinner. One of the problems of Innovation Platforms is that we understand what they are – and are not – so we often fail to realise how difficult it might be for our audience to catch up with 3 years of thinking. So it was real pleasure when the 3 Ofwat guys understood and played back the message after 30 minutes. They see real potential in working together and have offered to set up a meeting in February where they get all the main agencies and players together to go through the logic of an Innovation platforms had derive the high level road map.
Finally, I went over to AWM for the Phil Extance memorial handover meeting. Phil had set up a series of presentations and discussions about the Low Carbon Vehicles Innovation Platform, the Manufacturing Technologies Centre, the Digital Media activity and the Quantum Technologies Partnership. There are still mixed messages about funding in all these areas, but AWM seems to have a more grown up approach to picking their areas of activity and don't want to do everything – although I did get a bit of kick back on my comments about the proliferation of MNT Centres.
When I got home, the Cenex electric Smart car was delivered and I spent some time learning how to use it. This morning, I went to the gym in it – isn’t that just so smug – I went to the gym in an electric (climate loving) car? Anyway, when a round trip of 22 miles uses 40% of the charge and the car keeps tripping the circuit breakers in the house, I feel there is still some work to do on usability!!! It also almost didn’t go up Red Hill, which might have been embarrassing!