Pushing on a piece of string
21 February 2019 by David Bott
The week started well. I spent some time being amazed by the lack of traffic in Swindon before I realised it was half-term. Cyrus’s ruthless efficiency meant we got through the “what are we doing” section of the “start the week” meeting in 15 minutes so could discuss the latest immediate request from Government. The rest of Monday was spent meeting new people, poking the edges of the box on plastic electronics and generally doing the job.
Tuesday was down to London – firstly for the Network Security Innovation Platform Steering Group. We lost the chairman at the last changing of the TSB guard, so I have been chairing the meetings – which is fun and gives me a good chance to understand what is a pretty arcane world. The addition of several business people to outnumber the Government spooks has resulted in meetings that discuss stuff, disagree with what we put forward and generally think about the issues in the real world. This meeting was no different and Andrew and Paul had to work hard to justify what they were proposing – I made it a draw with 2 of our ideas getting passed and 2 being sent back for rework!! I think I may have sussed who could be the next chairman as well. Tuesday afternoon was spent in Fortress Kingsgate, so lots of interaction with our fevered DIUS friends as they tried to make sense of the diktats from on high. The highlight of the day was a dinner that Zahid had arranged with Ruth McKernan. We have been trying to work out what we could do in the “regenerative medicine” area that wouldn’t go the way of our last efforts, so some meetings with key members of the community are our first step. Ruth heads up Pfizer's efforts in this area, so was an important person to snag. Since Zahid had foolishly relied on the GWR timetable, I got a 30 minute basic tutorial on the area while we waited!! Ruth agrees that we need to do something and that it needs to be more consultative and interactive than a normal competition. We started to evolve an idea whereby we get together the main players – not just the pharma companies but the IP lawyers, the regulators and so on – and run a pseudo-sandpit (I think we called it a “war room”) to define the challenge/opportunity. We then bring together a wider than the usual suspects community for the second stage of the sandpit to look for novel solutions. We would have to use less normal funding routes to make sure we could implement to overall plan. It would be important to involve DoH to agree to the “vision” for what could be achieved.
We would also commission a review of what hadn't happened so far – that’ll make us popular!! J
Wednesday was another London day – starting with a catch up with Peter Flinn, then more discussions with Mani and co., before a pre-meeting with Ben Reason of live|work - http://www.livework.co.uk/- on service innovation. I had met Ben at the Design Council breakfast at Number 11 the other week and discussed how many of these ideas get started but not finished, so he wanted to find out more about what we do. I can immediately see lots of overlap with Innovation Platforms and, if I had more of an imagination, probably everything we do. I think we need a wider discussion with him soon. We then joined a David Evans meeting on service innovation in the public service. We were joined by Michael Bichard, as a replacement for David Kester (??). There was a lot a polite stuff about the National School of Government and teaching civil servants the principles of service innovation, before Ben and I ruined it by pointing out the basics of ensuring training is applied by giving those who have learned a new skill the chance to apply it – and suggesting that this might not be an easy option to use in the civil service. This gave Evans the chance to hone his new found drive to build the credibility for the Technology Strategy Board in Government by suggesting that we used Innovation Platform stories and projects to do just this. Bichard pointed out that he knew David would be joining us, but that he still felt the idea had legs!! I have nasty feeling I got a lot of actions, but will wait until someone writes up the minutes before I worry too much. On reflection, I think it was more a “statement of position” meeting than a “agreement of actions” one. I had a (not so) quick phone call with the Ofwat guys about our upcoming workshop that kept me at Fortress Kingsgate past my planned time, so I was a bit late to my next event – the Sciencewise-ERC Awards dinner. I could be unkind and point out that for a group dedicated to public engagement the event showed a closed and cliquey group but the welcome I got suggested that they are reaching out but no-one is responding rather than they are inherently tribal. I met some interesting people, with wildly different skills and backgrounds from our usual fare, and only got hassled a couple of time by Karen about when we are going to “do” public engagement. Since I suspect the bulk of this role will fall on the Technologists, who are suffering somewhat from their current involvement in the KTN overhaul, we need to pick our moment and possibly “sweet-talk” them into wanting to do it. Karen did say she might be able to get Kathy Sykes to come and meet with them to talk about what they could do, how they could do it and the support that would be available if they did it. I agreed this would be a good plan and drank some more wine.
Thursday was dedicated to Food. The bulk of the day was the BBSRC Workshop on Food Security. It was shamelessly focussed on the BBSRC agenda and how they could build the knowledge base to underpin the response to this looming global challenge. This caused the other RC people I met some disquiet, but as a single issue meeting I think it did well. What is did demonstrate was the interlocking and often competing nature of the issues in Food Security. Sessions on Food, Livestock and Aquaculture and Crops all threw up us massive problems and the answer was often not genomics!!! Of particular note to us in the development of an Application Area or Innovation Platform in this area was the obvious need in the area of food processing to understand the balance of cost effective processing technologies, waste minimisation and maintaining a healthy diet. One thing that did come through loud and clear was a sizable opposition to the “we need to educate the consumers” approach with a more balanced “we need to listen to the customers” one. It seems that the GM debate left rather deep scars in the scientific community about their ability to frame an argument and engage in public debate – I sort of wished the BBSRC people had been listening to the ideas I had been hearing the night before!!!! I rushed away from the meeting to a rendezvous set up as part of Allyson's charm offensive on the Canadian Government. I met 3 people from the Agriculture and Agri-Food Research part of the Canadian Government with their UK base minder and talked them through how we do things. The basics took up the allotted time so I suspect they may want a reprise – possibly with better organisation.
Friday was our first (potential) Innovation Platform workshop on “water” – organised by Ofwat. They had used one of their graduate trainees and organised an eclectic group of people from across the water spectrum to discuss the area. After an introduction by Regina Finn, their CEO, I gave the standard introduction to the Technology Strategy Board and then we had 3 sets of workshops exploring that basic IP questions. The discussion reached debate level when it came to the belief (by the water companies as exemplified by Anglian Water) that regulation and the 5 year cycle inhibited innovation and (from the Ofwat side) that the companies were a bunch of duplicitous evil capitalists who would sell their grandmothers for a profit. I quite like the Anglian Water guy! We also had a rogue academic who had the revolutionary idea that maybe the industry should work out what its customers wanted and one or two very interesting people from the supply chain, who seemed to “get” the opportunity of an Innovation Platforms fairly quickly and watched a bit bemused while Ofwat and the water companies restated their previously held positions. We agreed to hold at least 2 more meetings – one focusing on the water companies and one on the customer end of the supply chain, and then Brain rightly pointed out that a couple of outliers in Scotland and Wales would leaven the mix.
Having sat and thought about it, a recurring theme of the whole week has been the importance of working out what the “unmet need” of the final customers is and not trying to impose your answer on them. Not a new thought, but considering the range of activities I have learned about in the week, it does strike me as one we have “front of mind” more often than we do.