Ministers, Gurus, Entrepreneurs and the Media - but where's the beef?
24 January 2020 by David Bott
Monday started without any dire warnings about the weather, so I made it down to Swindon for a slightly depleted “start the week” meeting – lots of people were elsewhere. After a rare meeting with Jools, I went into an interview. It wasn’t that impressive so being hoicked out to talk to Paul Drayson was a bit of a relief. Paul was in his usual mildly combative mode, and asked about what we wanted to do better, then homed in on what it was like to work with different government departments. We told him the truth (with the result that various civil servants bombarded us later in the day with requests for clarification and suggested ministerial actions – when will they realise that openly discussing a challenge doesn't mean we have an answer and that the discussion is a subtle form of lobbying, but that we sometimes see challenges without easy answers and are working to address them?). We also pointed out that we could use £10-20m extra this year to make things happen and he responded that if we gave him the ammunition, he would fire it. The Innovate 2010 planning meeting that followed seemed mild by comparison but we are groping towards a theme – and using the Creative Problem Solving Skills we worked so hard to inculcate in the team!!
In the afternoon, I drove up to Cheltenham to meet with Jonathan Porritt. This had come out of a brief conversation at the end of the Masterclass in Sustainable Development I had attended last November. I took Jonathan through the history of the Technology Strategy Board and its precursors, the progress we think we have made over the last 30 months and laid out the challenges within sustainable innovation that we can already see. We crossed all the areas we are working in and I think I surprised him a bit with the combination of strategic vision and detailed activities we have achieved already. He had obviously done some homework on our growing impact and suggested that he, and Forum for the Future, would like to work more closely with us to support our fledgling steps into what is effectively his territory. The next stage would be for his to bring the head of FftF Green Futures and Corporate Relations people down to Swindon to meet some of the Technologists and expand our shared contacts and activities.
Tuesday started with a drive to Abingdon to rendezvous with Grumpy Worsley and Happy Biddle (God knows what that makes me!) at Toumaz Technologies. The first surprise was that Woz Ahmed of Imagination Technologies (who turn out to be a shareholder in Toumaz) came too. The story of Toumaz and its presence in the use of low power radio technologies in both medical and consumer products was enlightening and the link to Imagination and their plans became pretty obvious. There are links into Assisted Living, Low Impact Buildings and Digital Britain that we need to explore further.
I then drove back to Warwick and caught the train down to London (enhanced car placement planning is now on my personal risk register) so that could attend the final day of the 1-5-1 Digital Economy Sandpit I was the Director of. At the last moment, I realised I had to say some words, so I had to forego the free booze until after I had spoken. The 7 projects have all progressed well, especially my favourite that invented the next stage of augmented reality before it had been coined as a phrase!! Aside from the actual project teams, the EPSRC had assembled an interesting additional cast and the evening was a great networking occasion – I even watched a newly galvanised Sebastian Conran giving the ICKTN staff an “attaboy”!!
The next morning, I was on Happy’s staff to attend the second design and technology workshop that sets the scene for the plastic electronic sandpit in early March. I caught the train from Euston with Sebastian, who has apparently proved quite a draw for the Northern design community. We spent the whole journey talking about the Home Office Design and Technology Alliance that I have been invited to join. The meeting itself was great. The warm-up was a nice young woman being made to wear what looked liked a badly designed dress whose only redeeming feature was that it was made of electroluminescent materials and glowed when plugged in. I don't know what we paid her, but from the body language it wasn't enough!
I kicked off the meeting with the standard “we’re surrounded by challenges and each is an opportunity” talk, with a few gratuitous plastic electronic slides grafted onto the end. I was followed by the man who had made the dress, but had also done lots of other interesting product developments, some of which aligned with the challenges I had described. He was then followed by Sebastian giving a development of his “design equation” talk which gave people an integrated approach to addressing challenges. It looked like we knew what we were doing, but of course it was mainly down to Happy briefing us all properly!! Other highlights were a man from LOCOG (@balf) talking about social media and the Olympics, and a person from McCann talking about the development of user involvement in the development of prophylactic products. The trip back was mainly spent negotiating Sebastian’s daily rate down to something we could afford for the sandpit!!
Thursday started with a meeting with Wired UK. Situated in the Conde Nast building above Dolce and Gabbana in Old Bond Street, I got there on the dot of 9, to wait for a very tired looking editor to turn up looking like he had spent the night at an awards ceremony. Actually, he had spent the night preparing a presentation for an awards ceremony. He woke up slowly as I talked about our work and then perked up markedly when I started talking about the Clean and Cool Mission – it turned out Edelman had hinted that they might be invited, so I had to explain what it was all about. I also got 3 free magazines and was made to promise to meet up again and “leak” them stories about cool technology. I think I scored double points or something when he asked about our involvement in the Gordon Murray car and I dropped that we had been the midwives! To note that there is a very large model of the Millennium Falcon hung up in the office is perhaps the most accurate cultural reference I could make about Wired employees!
A catch-up in Tracy Island was followed by a meeting with James Lawn of Polecat, Lady Claire and Susan MacTavish Best from San Francisco and the first days’ anchor of the Clean and Cool Mission. We discussed the potential visits, the publicity on both sides of the Atlantic and Lady Claire described the social media plans for our publicity – full of words even I hadn’t heard from my children, so either they are really up-to-date or so passé that they don’t deserve repetition. From there I moved down to the Cinnamon Club for lunch with Alok Jha (and a slightly delayed Lady Claire). We have worked with Alok already and he is proving to be a good media friend, and was one of our real targets for imbedding in the Mission, so the meeting was fast paced and agreeable. We need to give him the ammunition to justify a week out of the office, but Lady Claire came up with a few exclusives to pique his interest. Having done my stint as a media tart, I thought I would be getting back into the real world but instead I had a meeting, with Fearless Leader and Will, at the Royal Society of Chemistry. This was “pressed for” by a Board member who is noted for his attention to business detail, so we arrived interested in what they were to tell us. It turned out to be another high level “chemistry is really important, talk to chemists” meeting. It was interesting that it was also attended by the Chair and Director of the Chemistry Innovation KTN, who have adopted a completely different approach of going down the supply chain and getting people to understand how they could contribute to their customer success. We showed them the opportunities that were available to the chemical sciences to contribute across our portfolio, but I am beginning to wonder what they (the RSC) can really contribute to OUR goals.
By contrast, the next meeting was hard core stuff. It was about our membership of the OSCHR Board, how that would operate, what responsibilities we had and what John Bell’s vision of the future was. We seem to be moving into the space that is labelled “OSCHR’s favourite partner” but we need to be aware that others might see this as a threat to their role in medical science research.
The evening was a dinner with Fearless Leader and Don Braben, he of BP Venture Research in the 1980’s and a tireless champion of dissenting science ever since. My experience of the BP activity was that it threw up more truly disruptive ideas than any other blue skies project I have seen and Don was keen to get the ear of Fearless Leader to make his case. Fearless Leader was in avuncular mood and the discussion developed a long way to the idea that we could work to help set up a scale experiment in this space, possibly to feed into our Emerging Technologies/Industries activity.
Friday started with a visit to some old friends in Oxford but then a trip home and lots of time at home consumed by telephone calls. The Clean and Cool Mission long list assessment had been finished and was communicated to the 138 entrants – and then James, Bron and I got some hate mail (with bad language and bizarre thought processes) from a couple of those who had not been successful. The young padawan and Le Golding had been in to see Lord Taylor of Holbeach, a scion of the horticulture space and threatened (by Horticulture Week) to be our worst nightmare. It sounded from Paul like a nice chat with his uncle, but that’s probably because we had managed to get people to understand better what we are trying to achieve, and that we are not a continuation of the old DEFRA Link programmes. My joy on this subject was complete when I read the flagrantly self-aggrandising piece in HortWeek (see http://www.hortweek.com/news/978581/Skirmish-success-R-D-funding-battle/ ) that re-interprets our earlier communications with them to be those of the enemy and their subsequent understand of our position to be a change in tack from us. Jaw-droppingly stupid really!!