Just how many types of economy can we have?

The week started on Sunday afternoon, with a rather surreal trip to Bristol. For some reason or other that made sense at the time and set me up for the rest of the week’s travel, I drove to Swindon, parked in a desolate car park and rendezvoused with wrongly spelt Ian to catch the train to Bristol. Sunday train travel has always had (for me) a feeling of holiday travel. It probably goes back to student days back-packing around Europe. But our fellow travellers obviously had pressing reasons to be hanging around Swindon railway station on 5 o'clock on a Sunday, which didn’t seem to involve having a life. Ah me!! Anyway, we arrived at the hotel and carried out the last minute planning of the Gravel Pit with the facilitators, Knowinnovation. 

The next day, we had a early start made personally bearable by being on the premises. The actual Gravel Pit was an important development in our evolution as an organisation, and we only had a few last minutes drop-outs. We started gently, with Andy Burnett and I telling people “not to worry” (we were, of course, lying!). That was followed by a warm-up exercise to get people to think about, and vocalise, their hopes and fears for the organisation/event. This is what is described in the trade as the “bring out your dead task”, where you get people to unload their prejudices and preconceived ideas as much as possible. The first main event was David Sproxton of Aardman, talking about innovation in his field. He was quiet but authoritative, describing the development of the company, how they worked on Morph, Sean the Sheep and Wallace and Gromit. There were lots of important messages contained in what he said, and the message that people had to listen was mostly adhered to. Part of the process we had designed was to distract people from the real question by getting them to do other things, so the personal manufacture of a Morph during the talk meant they engaged a bit of their brains they perhaps don’t usually use – to listen without hearing. David even talked about this, but no-one averred!! Having made the Morphs, the next task was to use them to portray their worries about the TSB. The resulting tableaux are on the Ning space as pictures, but the descriptions were chillingly good and the recipients of this note (and me) need to hear what they are saying about us as leaders. After lunch, we had engaged Eddie Obeng to “mess with their heads a bit”. Eddie gave us a mildly personalised version of his “world after midnight” riff - see (www.worldaftermidnight.com) . There was some questioning from the group (well actually only one person) but most people got that Eddie was trying to unsettle them and get them into a place where they would think differently. Dinner was followed by “Evil Tim’s” party piece. The ability of people to not notice where he is going with the analogy between painting and ideas never ceases to amaze me, and if they then to forget the lesson the following day, I am driven to despair but, hey, that’s life!! The next day, we started the real business of looking at the slightly more uncovered hopes and fears. We took the goals people had written in the Ning Space and asked them to cluster both the goals and themselves. This produced the first set of WIBNI’s (Wouldn’t it be nice if?). Just as they thought they were onto the answers, we unsettled them again – this time with people from outside the organisation but who knew us. We had Nick Knowles from Kizoom and Clive Card from Lotus. They are both relatively good friends, but could still tell us things we don’t want to hear – we are still seen as bureaucratic, they really only want our money, the connections stuff is secondary and so on. This caused another restructuring of both the goals and the people before lunch and the final straight, where we told them that it was THEIR problem as well and they had to come up with solutions that THEY took part in. This is always the worrying part, but we got as far as we had hoped – and farther than we had feared – by close of the Gravel Pit at 4.30, when David, Allyson and I snuck out the back leaving wrongly spelt Ian to make the “thank you”s and close the event. We had to hoof it to London for the Governing Board dinner. 

Luckily the great god of First Great Western was smiling and we made it to the restaurant with 5 minutes to spare before John Denham turned up. The dinner was mainly about his Spittleness trying to get a better feel for how far the Board could push DIUS into giving us more money (he was being very good at it!!) but I managed to get Anne Glover to understand our new-found virtual and social interactions – she had chivvied us a year ago about this, so it was nice to “surprise and delight” her with our progress. 

The Board itself felt a bit muted after the last, highly interactive one. We had Colin Drummond and David Kynaston in to talk about the KTNs. They were doing well until they fell into the trap of using the event to tell the Board they needed more money, and his Spittleness remembered that afterwards!! 

Dinner on Wednesday was with Tony Ryan, now pro vice chancellor for Science at Sheffield University. We talked a lot about public engagement. Tony was the Royal Institution Christmas lecturer many years ago and still does a lot of this work. He offered to come down to Swindon and give a talk, then explain why it was constructed that way. Might be a good opportunity to engage the technologists. Or might not. 

Thursday turned into a preparation day for the Low Carbon Summit, with David G and I slaving over a hot presentation while Fearless Leader had fun elsewhere, meeting interesting people and giving out awards. :-) By way of reward, I got the chance to go to the Design Business Association Awards at the Royal College of Art that evening. It was really neat to see young designers given the chance to address the needs of those with a sedentary lifestyle (either by choice or enforced by disability or illness). The opening address was about “Change 4 Life”, the DoH/NHS campaign to get people to address the problem of obesity. In the end I found it disappointing that the winner was a cushion and not one of the interesting ways suggested to change peoples behaviour. 

Friday was the Low Carbon Economy Summit and we all had to be there early so missed the fun and games as the Ministers arrived. The opening session with Brown, Mandelson and Milliband (Ed) made all the right points but felt curiously flat. Perhaps it was the all too obvious attempts to slap one another's back during the speeches or claim that it was bad, but not too bad, but I didn't feel enervated. We then went into the workshop about 15 minutes late, so Fearless Leader galloped through the presentation to get to the engagement part. The first 3 or 4 speakers from the audience had not grasped the “short and snappy and end with a point” request, so we had one guy reading from his slides at the back of the room to lay out why his company wasn’t making money. We need to understand what he was saying, but my first pass interpretation was that he didn’t understand the underlying technology he was talking about. Luckily, no one on the platform did and admitted it, so we were spared a detailed debate. As it was, we got 6 speakers and remarkable similarity of response – confusion about Government initiatives, uncorrelated and contradictory Government regulations and difficult finance for new stuff. I was left wondering what we had added to the debate other than the general raising of the issue in times when other issues seemed all pervasive. 

As the crowd died down, I made my way up to Kizoom. There were two reasons for the visit, but they were related. The other week, I was raving about MyRailLite on the iPhone to Nick Knowles when he told me that the NRE had withdrawn their licence to access the base data set. There are probably complex arguments on both sides, but the way they see it is that NRE are aiming for using their information site for selling tickets so what to take all the other players out of the market so that the consumers have no choice but to use their information service. I had previously tried this problem out on Brian Collins who immediately offered to take up cudgels. In the meanwhile, Kizoom have had to withdraw their application for the iTunes App Store, so I went up both the get the latest information on the situation and the latest software. This goes along with things we have heard abut Ordnance Survey and the Meteorological Office, where data paid for with Government money is then sold on for local profit, denying access to many small companies in information space. 

My final task for the day was to take part in a panel discussion on “an inclusive digital society”. This meeting, organised by a part of the EPSRC led Digital Economy (see http://www.iden.org.uk/default.asp). It was unsettling for many reasons. The first is that it is a community I don’t often interact with, so I had to learn their vocabulary and approach. The second is that they deal with things we mostly like to forget – the disadvantaged parts of society. I met a woman from Help the Aged (boy, do they have a brand values problem. As if it wasn't bad enough to start from the premise that the old need help, they are now part of Age Concern, which proves that we should worry about the old!), the guy who is trying to make the BBC accessible in a fast moving world of technology, and someone from Ofcom who doesn’t have horns!! Best of all, they seemed to know Jackie and Graham, so we must be doing something right in terms of engagement.


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