A Surfeit of Priorities
05 September 2019 by David Bott
An unusual week, in that it started on a Tuesday, so even though I was in Swindon, I was not able to take part in a “start the week” meeting. Instead we had a meeting about the business engagement process. It feels like good progress is being made, but we are still a bit uncoordinated about what we do. The lack of a CRM system – or rather the existence of an interim one while we develop the proper one, was mentioned but I continue to plough through SharePoint to find the contact reports the Technologists write up – although think I note a diminution of their commitment to the process because finding things is difficult. One day....
Next up was another unfinished discussion of the progress towards a coherent story for the Governing Board Awayday. We still can’t agree on the historical data and the debate draws energy away for the real discussion we should be having on what we want to do in the future. I had to leave to have just such a “future” conversation with the Low Carbon Vehicles team. They have invested more than usual this year and need to balance their stewardship of the ongoing programmes we now support with the desire to start new things.
After lunch I had a series of quick fire meetings on “learning from the exceptional projects process” we have been running in LCV and LIB, planning the resources with the Innovation Programmes group to deliver on all these promises we seem to have been making recently, and then a funders panel on the Gordon Murray Design/Zytek project we assessed last week. These all overran to a certain extent, but the effect was cumulative, and the time set aside for scorecards got a bit squeezed. I then had a nice talk with the man from Omega, who is trying to rebuild his case for funding after the meeting at the DfT the other week. I (once again and in more or less the same words Fearless Leader allegedly used) explained to him that we would not be funding the work but we saw its potential value in the area of sustainable aviation. This caused him to tell me that the Defence and Aerospace KTN were planning an Innovation Platform in the area to start soon – cue another conversation about how decisions were made and who did what!!
The day ended with a meeting about our links to STFC. It is my personal belief that we are in danger of going too far to help them achieve the alignment targets and it will distract from the things we have prioritised, but I am (by now) used to the effect my Genghis Khan approach has, so I made my excuses and left.
Wednesday was a London day. First up was a meeting organised by Sebastian Conran in his role as chairman of the Design and Technology Alliance (of the Home Office). I met with a couple of people from ICAN the charity that focuses on helping children with communications difficulties. Sebastian quoted the statistic that there is a similar percentage of those with dyslexia, dyspraxia and other learning difficulties in HMP Holloway and the RCA. The logic presented to me was that identifying those with communications difficulties early on in life and providing suitable flexibility in their education might lower the number of criminals. I did point out that it might also lower the number of artists, but Sebastian promised me that artists were those who had been identified and helped!! The idea on the table was to sponsor the development of software that felt like a game – and so would be used – but probed the underlying communications capabilities of the child. This is not as simple as it first sounds, so we agreed that someone had to do some investigation and analysis first. Given that this is moderately well related to the idea of Technology Enabled Learning, I suggested that that we might be prepared to fund an initial study, so ICAN have gone off to make a proposal. As we were leaving, Sebastian called me back and presented me with a turbine blade from a jet engine. This was based on a discussion we had had the other week about how designers and engineers thought, but I still can’t see what I got a pressie for!
Next up, Jim Clipson had invited me to meet a guy from the Scottish Government who has been working on SMART awards (which never went away north of the order). It was a fascinating discussion about processes, how to deal with “crazies” and how national plays regional considerations.
After lunch, I went down to DfT to meet up with Michael Hurwitz. Michael has been the head of the Low Carbon Vehicles effort in DfT and is slated to be head of the new Office of Low Emission Vehicles, although it hasn't been announced yet. The first item was the need for us to provide better financial data to them from our shared projects. Michael explained that the whole DfT accountancy system is geared around the national rail franchises and so monthly budgets and forecasts are de rigeur. If he cannot demonstrate that he is managing his area, his flexibility will be curtailed. Since he has several times been able to add a million or two to our competitions when the proposals are good, we care deeply about him losing this flexibility, and so the finance guys at Great Minster House will be “seen” by Cyrus. Other than that we managed to be polite about ETI for a whole 3 minutes before he asked me what I thought of their latest publication, which has a “in the beginning was the word, and the word was ETI” feel to it. It sounds like OLEV will take full responsibility for the next stages of the low carbon vehicles journey and that they see us as an important part of the team. As we walked our Michael pointed out the wry humour that it was necessary to walk through the aerospace part of the DfT to get to the environment bit.
I walked across to the Treasury for a meeting with Liam O’Toole of OSCHR and ran straight into the security people practising for the G20 meeting. Liam wanted to get me onside with the OSCHR approach to Issue 3.9 on the OLS Blueprint – the one about the need for a deep and sustained collaboration across industry, academia and the NHS. OSCHR is nothing if not determined and their current determination seems to be to wrest responsibility for stratified medicine away from the MRC and give it to us. This will not go down well with the MRC and its CEO in particular! The mechanism they are trying to use is a “national plan” for coordinating resources and targets (although it is currently written without the necessary quantification). We discussed the axes of their plot, with disease states sensibly as one axis (although without the potential cost of inaction and the potential savings from action) and infrastructure and communications as the other axis. Liam was trying to work out how stratified medicine fitted into the diagram, so I suggested another axis to describe the framework approach to the challenge – once we used witchcraft, then we used natural drugs, now we use uniformly prescribed small molecule drugs, next comes coarse grained stratification, it is refined and then eventually we get to totally personalised medicine. We also discussed whether small molecule drugs and stem cells (and any other therapeutic tools) should be added to infrastructure (code for universities want more big kit) and communications (code for universities want more money to go to conferences?)
I had a quick catch up with Jeremy Silver on the Creative Industries area over a beer before going home.
Thursday started with a reprise of the Board Awayday presentation discussion. There was an amusing moment when a certain ex-CEO tried to add £100m to our commitment in 2011 without realising the terrible consequences such a move would have. He has now been inducted into the wonders of Cyrus’s model of our financial future, which (for the first time since we started) do what-if scenarios of our thinking about future competitions and other investments. I am still concerned that the “commitment” slides will confuse but seem to be in a minority, so it’s obviously my stupidity!! :-)
I then took part in 3 interviews. The first was good and we need to find a way to engage the candidate for a couple of years before he makes enough connections to get his usual salary back. The second made me consider how to fake death and be given an excuse to leave the room, and the third was a nice young person who was marginally good at the required technology area but almost totally unfamiliar with the business side of the area. Then I met with Paul and Heidi again (missing Will who is on holiday) to talk about HR forms, the prevailing air of absolute urgency about everything and to agree what OUR priorities were. Finally, I had a quick word with our nurse about how to progress her triumph at the Design Council!!
Friday saw the trek back to London. As most of our colleagues have moved out of Fortress Kingsgate, it was a bit empty. Lunch saw a meeting with Bob Coxon, both chair of CPI and the ONE SIC (great acronym, eh?). Mike Biddle talked him through our view of the whole UK landscape in plastic electronics, how we are proposing to drive coordination and that we would like ONE to cough up some extra cash to align with ours. I see real potential for Mike as a corporate schmoozer!!
Back to the increasingly deserted Fortress, I met with the Government Affairs guy from Cisco. We are after a Cisco panellist at Innovate and so I bought the coffee in Prêt! I also tried to progress the business engagement agenda with him, so once again have been doing Fearless Leaders job on his behalf – while he is off meeting important international members of Cisco, I meet the grunts. I need to negotiate some kind of transfer rights!!
The final task of the day was a Funder teleconference on the AIM C4 proposal. This was a bunch of house builders getting together and aiming to achieve Code Level 4 (the 2014 target) by using the fabric of the building alone. This would be an important milestone in Low Impact Buildings and we (again) used the exceptional projects process. The assessment was that the proposal was well targeted but would need strong project management and we need to rigorously enforce the no-no go gate. We agreed to customise the offer letter.