A rushed Sandpit and dysfunctional government
06 March 2020 by David Bott
Yet another chance to escape the rigours of the “start the week” meeting, although I am not sure that it’s worth giving up most of a Sunday to do so. This time, I had to go down for the pre-meeting for Mike Biddle’s Plastic Electronics Design Workshop (which used the 3 day sandpit format). There was added amusement in that the hotel we were using didn't officially open until the Monday morning so, although we could sleep there and get the room ready, we had to eat in the sister hotel across the street. Monday started with the influx of 28 bright-eyed attendees a mixture of technologists and designers, of business people and academics, and of people who wore ties and jackets and the designers! As with all these things, the first day was getting the group to realise that, although they are very good, so was everyone else in the room and that listening is as important as talking. Once again, I was impressed to realise that the important person all those in the field said had to be there but who the psychologist said wouldn't be a player turned out to be a miserable non-joiner-inner!! We also began to notice that the one who introduced himself as an entrepreneur had not worked out that the idea of generating new ideas was core to the sandpit process and that constantly coming up with ideas and presentations he had prepared earlier was not winning him friends or collaborators (he subsequently was rejected from all groups and went away empty handed!). We also made a mistake with our evening speaker, an ex-BT futurologist, who could bore for England and, on this occasion, did! Wacky or what?
Tuesday morning I had to duck out to open the Generation II Workshop across London, and have now invented the rule that no members of the mentor team should ever leave a sandpit, especially a 3 day one (but more of this later). The meeting, set up by our team and facilitated by Rob, had a really good feel to it and the energy level was already up by 10 o’clock. Many of the same people from last weeks European Future Internet meeting but a completely different dynamic. I rushed back to the sandpit and tried hard to catch up with all that I had missed (2 hours). The challenge of a 3 day sandpit is that the normal convergent-divergent process doesn't get more than 2 cycles, so, as you are trying to get to the implementation plan, ideas are still falling by the wayside or arising from the ether. We had managed some acceleration, but were still having to be fairly brutal in our feedback as to scope and achievability!! Also, the group generated feedback was being ignored and not followed up as much as in a normal sandpit. To compound matters, I had been called by Brian Collins on the Monday about how we assess the scientific and technical stickiness of our projects. The Minister for Science had apparently strongly requested that a couple of large projects were re-evaluated, one after it had been announced, and the already febrile atmosphere in BIS was getting fractious!! I was therefore summoned across the bridge to a meeting between the Low Carbon Group and the Chief Scientists Unit about the one we were shaping up to be the funding conduit for. Actually, we spent most of the time on the other since it was assumed that our process would magically be okay. Back across to the sandpit, groups were still building and breaking but the ideas were sounding better by the hour. I can't even remember dinner that evening!!
The next morning, and with an early start because Mike asked for it, we started on a round of mentor feedback, where the teams (13 of them!!) came in for individual discussions. Compared to the evening before, some had gone forward, but others had lost their own plot!! This lasted all morning and then we got into the open presentations and decision time. There were 4 we real liked, 5 more we let through and 4 we decided to put out of their misery. The post meeting went on to a couple of hours and I missed the EPSRC drinks I was supposed to go to – I wonder if they even noticed? The mentor team and the facilitators all agreed that a 3 day sandpit was probably not a viable way to do this, so we will never entertain the idea again!! Instead of free drinks, I had an evening in a hotel room catching up with e-mails. Lordy!!
Thursday started in Tracy Island reading the 90 odd pages of the bid that – having agreed to pay for it – BIS now want us to assess and act as the route for funding. I should start by saying that moving the European R&D for a major Japanese player in wind energy to the UK has to be a good idea, but BIS seems to have a knack of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory!! We played a game of “how many senior officials does it take to meet the government affairs guy of a Japanese company”. We had the head of the Low Carbon Unit, the BIS Chief Scientist, the Director of Innovation and his bagman, and Heidi and me. In addition to the said government affairs guy, they fielded a junior accountant. The promise of senior officials (who had come across to agree the £30m) melted in the sun. The Low Carbon guy told them that the red and blue dudes were discussing it to ensure continuity if it was needed and then handed over to us. Heidi described the “large projects” process and they looked a little bemused. There was an agreement with Treasury to pay it all up front, but it looked like they had assumed the “technological assessment” would be a formality. We had been careful to make sure all the BIS people realised we wouldn’t act as a money laundering organisation and would apply our normal rigour. The government affairs guy now started back peddling – they weren't sure they had enough resource, could they call off the money over the next year as they defined the work packages. We agreed to meet whenever they were ready but subsequently Heidi got a delaying e-mail. If only BIS had involved us earlier, much of this would have been avoided, and it won’t fail because it’s a good idea and has high level backing, but it’s hardly the way to run a country.
By contrast, Thursday afternoon was one of those meetings it’s a pleasure to be part of. The LCV team have been building strong links to Mercedes Benz and they wanted to field their European Director to discuss their proposed bid into the IDP4 to check alignment. The proposal, to use a range of UK based companies to develop a range extended version of the Vito taxi has much to recommend it and is so quintessentially British it hurts! We explained that we weren't the assessors – which they knew – but discussed what we were trying to achieve. The only downside of the meeting was that it was in Milton Keynes!
That evening, Fearless Leader, Penny and Meredith and a few others went to the second most famous jazz club it the UK to support the first comeback tour of the young padawan and his band. For some reason the publicity had wrongly attributed leadership to the piano player but we all knew better and, although the backing musicians were tight and the piano player played well, we all (those of us from the TSB) knew that Paul was the main attraction. For those of your who couldn't make it, here is a picture from the evening of Paul wearing his stage make-up.
Because I didn't listen to my body and go to bed early, the 8.30 meeting Lisa had arranged for Friday morning was a rude awakening for my brain – especially when Cyrus also turned up. Such is the speed with which our understanding of our finances is changing, my delivery plan of 2 week ago is already out of date and we need to work out what we have actually promised to do, what we have implicitly suggested we would do, what we would like to do if we had the money and what some people who regularly smoke dope would like to do but haven't worked out our purpose in life. We started the process but I will return to it more this afternoon.
Next up we had a another text book example of BIS efficiency. Zahid, Merlin and the late Joe McNamara met with the assembled ranks of the BIS Bioscience Unit. They expand every time we meet in everything except understanding. Most of the meeting was us explaining what we are doing but we had a short section at the end on how their remit is expanding and how they want to do more!!
A quick meeting followed with SmartMeterGrid boy (also known as mild mannered people Graham Hitchen, not to be confused with not mild mannered Graham Hutchins) to go through his fast expanding view of what we are doing in this space. It was then on to meet Danny Wootton, the top innovation dude at Logica. Zoe and I took him through our high level and specific plans and offered the now standard “meet the relevant technologist” meeting. Although we don't talk about it any more, the Business Engagement process is alive and kicking.
The final formal commitments of the week were a brace of “mission” related meetings. First up was a review and forward plan for our (ragingly successful so far) media campaign. We agreed to try for a quick “we’re back” meeting with the press and then organise a more measured feedback of the learnings (and an announcement of our next mission) at Innovate. I think, let’s see how the minutes get written. This segued into early planning for next years mission, which will be based around medtech. This occasioned a debate on the best place to go, the best definition of scope (these last 2 rotated in importance over 60 minutes) and how to progress. We have a plan. Finally, I had a drink with Long Jeremy Silver to reflect on how the Digital Britain Bill is progressing through Parliament and our growing insight into the bizarre nature of government!