The road to mediocrity is paved with good intentions (still)
26 June 2020 by David Bott
I had not one – but two – reasons not to be at the “start the week” meeting but only played one. Instead I got up early and drove to Hursley to the IBM HQ to present to the “Europe Technical Leaders Meeting”. The invite came courtesy of Rashik Parmar who works for His Spittleness but who we have been getting to know directly of late. The talk was a riff off the one I gave at SciTech the other week with an added bit on convergence – done largely with a couple of cute pictures and a lot of questions!! I got a lot of discussion and it slowly dawned on both sides that we had a lot in common. As IBM move further into the “services” business, they have come to understand that whereas being first in a product market is quite good, being first in a services market is everything. They quote that the first mover gets about 75-80% of the market and the latecomers squabble over the rest. They are therefore always trying to spot trends, understand what political influences may play and generally trying to get ahead of their competitors. They are doing it for a global computing services company. We are doing much the same for a country. There was also a lot of tension between the acquired PWC bit of the business – renamed Global Business Services – and the old software development bits. It felt like the bought PWC to get them a bigger presence in the “services” sector, but they haven’t yet properly integrated their new front end into the old capability. The day went well in terms of general awareness and should provide a basis for an enhanced interaction on several fronts. Rashik is still having difficulty building the internal case for the third stream of Digital Cities work (where they have to cough up money) and asked for our help in persuading any random senior IBM figures that we know.
I left at the afternoon break and drove to London (there was no other sensible transport option for the first half of the week). I had bought the congestion charge indulgence and made my way down to the QEII Hall for an EPSRC Low Carbon Economy Meeting. From the invitation list they were obviously seeking to influence policymakers, so it’s a shame none came. Instead we got a pretty high level video (with the obvious questions on why so much money was spent on influencing funders) and a nice speech from Dave Delpy. Neil was there, pressing the flesh in his new role and seemed to be making lots of new friends. I wandered in on Julia King giving Rob Margetts a hard time over ETI bad-mouthing us – we had been asked to help them with one of their electric car usage projects but no-one had either wanted or been able to help them so it got reported as the Technology Strategy Board has caused their project to go over time and over budget. Derek had spoken up at the Technical Committee and it had largely been resolved, but the wider energy diaspora is now catching up so we have to sort it out all over again.
The next morning was off on one of my other jobs, but in the afternoon, I drove down to Shalford to visit Gordon Murray Design. John had told us that Gordon wanted to catch us up so Heidi, John and I duly turned up. We got to see the T25 prototype complete with bodywork and fully functional, and the T27 mule in an advanced state of production. The design is a thing of beauty, with the integrated battery/power unit a self-contained T-shape that fits neatly into the chassis and contributes to the structural rigidity of the whole car. We then went a watch a couple of Gordon’s movies. One showed driving the T25 around Guildford and looking pretty cool and very nippy. The others showed (in a Second Life sort of way) what a factory would look and operate like. I always like the product side of things, but the fact that GMD can envisage how a factory might operate – with timings and costs – still impresses me. They are in negotiation with both manufacturers and “brands” who might market and sell the vehicles – and it sounds like both American and European connections are strong. They are still looking (and hoping) for a UK based first operation and wanted to entreat us to help more. Gordon had driven to work that day in the third McLaren FI prototype, so we all played petrolheads for a few minutes at the end of the day.
Wednesday saw me on the train back down to London. First job was to pick up with Lisa and others about the discussions on strategy from Monday afternoon that I had missed because I was in Hursley. Then I met with the mysterious Mrs Webster (FL eventually worked out who we were all taking about) and Rowan Gardner and Sharon Vosmek of Astia http://www.astia.org/ . This had come about when I joined in a twitter muse about why our meetings are mostly full of white, anglo-saxon men of a certain age. This had been picked up by Rowan, an awkward exchange of e-mails had followed until we decided that both sides’ intentions were honourable and this meeting set up. It was a fascinating discussion and we could both see the imperative and the ability to work together more. Mrs Webster agreed to go to their pitch-fest the following afternoon and was apparently very impressed. It was only afterwards that it was explained to me that I had demonstrated real commitment to gender equality by taking a meeting during the England match!!
The evening was equally interesting. For some time now, Sebastian Conran has been trying to arrange a meeting between Deyan Sudjic, the Director of the Design Museum and us. He has also been pointing out the impending move of the Design Museum to the old Commonwealth Institute building (put these co-ordinates into Google Maps 51.499904, -0.200152 ). What this dinner was all about was finding out if we might be interested in helping source and celebrate good UK based technological design. I carried out the usual “we don’t have lots of money, we don’t do bricks and mortar, we support innovative businesses” health warnings (which, to be fair, I have been practicing on Sebastian) but then went on to describe some of the better examples that might go into the Museum. I think there was general agreement that the idea could be developed further. The move isn’t scheduled until 2013, but we could jointly put together an exhibition in the Shad Thames site in early 2012 to make the point. The next steps would be to take Fearless Leader to the new site and think high level thoughts, whilst simultaneously getting some the Technologists together to think through what we might like to “show off” on behalf of our community. The opportunity to upgrade our approach to case studies in the meantime wasn’t lost on me!! I tried to walk back to the hotel to save money but only made it half way before passing out from fatigue and catching a taxi anyway.
By now it was Thursday and my diary said I needed to be at the Economist UK Energy Summit at the Dorchester. It was hosted by Roger Harrabin (the BBC Environmental Editor) and a glance at the attendance list revealed that I had been sold a bit of a pup. The room was full of people selling their activities and the meeting was a glorified club meeting. Nevertheless, it opened with Chris Huhne and an invitation from Rog to use an appropriate hashtag. I did so and was bemused to find that, other than the Economist Intelligence Unit, I was the only one tweeting!! Huhne made some good points that wouldn’t be out of place in one of our presentations and then “announced” the Green Deal. This sounded to my obviously untutored ears to be a retread of stuff Denham had announced only a few months previously – and it chimes very closely with what we are doing in Low Impact Buildings so I’ll let it go. He was followed by David King in barnstorming form. His first slide, with a timescale that covered 300 billion years of our planets history, presented the usual anthropomorphic argument in a way that left sceptics little room for manoeuvre. It is interesting to contrast David’s style with that of his successor, who still feels than academic assertion will always win the day. David has learned “marketing”.
The first panel was about who would pay for all the necessary activity. The star was Tom Burke of E3G http://www.e3g.org/about/Tom-Burke/ who consistently said the unsayable and kept the debate moving. By contrast, Malcolm Webb of Oil and Gas UK http://www.oilandgasuk.co.uk/news/malcolmwebb_biog.cfm , managed to come across as an apologist for a dying industry and Sam Laidlaw of Centrica http://www.centrica.co.uk/index.asp?pageid=802 appeared bloodless. It’s no wonder business loses out to lobbyists if this is how we put the arguments!! The next panel was supposed to be about how energy efficiency played into current business practice. Roger handed over to the lesser being that runs the EIU. The panel consisted of Bob Simpson from ASDA (this was the best I could do outside of LinkedIn) http://www.wrap.org.uk/construction/halving_waste_to_landfill/halving_waste_to_2.html who basically said that it was a no-brainer to save energy and materials because it improved the bottom line, Andrew Stanton of TfL (who isn’t important enough to be on TfL’s page of important people http://www.tfl.gov.uk/corporate/about-tfl/1434.aspx who parroted standard corporate speak on energy costs and Heiko Lehmann of Deutsche Telekom who, at least, introduced another aspect when he talked about the importance of communications and information in controlling systems for maximum efficiency. The rough diamond in this panel was John Miles of Arup (you’ll be amazed by how informative this web page is) http://www.arup.com/About_us/A_people_business/People/John_Miles.aspx who kept challenging everything and managed to make what could otherwise been a showcase for corporate greenwash at least vaguely honest. The lunchtime gave the Economist Sponsorship group to hit on anyone who they weren’t already bleeding dry, but I did stand next to a journalist from Cleantech Investor http://www.cleantechinvestor.com/portal/ who started making eyes at me, saying she would like to run a piece on the Technology Strategy Board and organise an event for her community to make them more aware of what we did. I e-mailed the media dominatrix to see if they were kosher but couldn’t supply her name and didn’t think staring too hard at her name badge was socially acceptable after my time with Astia! I subsequently identified her as Anne McIvor http://www.cleantechinvestor.com/portal/index.php/component/content/article/921-about-us/74-anne-mcivor . After lunch, there was a panel with John Banham, who was there to give a poorly briefed puff about John Matthey’s fuel cell activities - he so got some of the answers wrong and lost credibility fast, Bernie Bulkin, who managed to conflate his activities as an advisor to DECC and to venture capital but sounded very authoritative and David Clarke of ETI. Why the hell weren’t we up there? I made very sure David knew I was in the audience and reminded him of their recent SNAFU (see Monday) to ensure he didn’t accidentally misspeak. I then had to leave….
My next meeting was with Gloria Laycock, Director of the Jill Dando Institute of Crime Science http://www.ucl.ac.uk/jdi/people/academic/laycock.php . This is all part of my induction into the Design and Technology Alliance for the Home Office and I was there to learn how criminals think. It was a fascinating tutorial which ranged from the basic premise of the DATA (that denying potential criminals the opportunity or obviously frustrating the reward would lower crime rates) to some intriguing thoughts on how crime is made easier in cyber space (I will get Andrew Tyrer to follow up on this because it sounded like a logical extension to our EPAC activities). I was obviously a good student because I mugged an old lady on my way to the next meeting (not taking taxis but walking is a good example of making crime easier to participate in).
I managed to fit in a coffee with an old friend (and one time DTI Innovation Unit contributor) who has now joined a university spin-out as its CEO http://www.endomagnetics.com/index.html . I heard once again of the challenges of this world but that we had actually awarded them a grant a couple of years ago. Good for us.
Next up was the bi-monthly dinner with CRUK. Since FL was delayed by a combination of Ministers and trains, I got to do a bit of connection and conveyed my new learnings about Endomagnetics to CRUK and passed on the CEO’s card!! They also took advantage of FL’s lateness to ask me 2 important questions – whether we were going to survive the current changes and why MRC seems to have developed into a completely bureaucratic, non-effective organisation. I, of course, answered both enquiries politely and swore them to secrecy. We had got bored and gone up to eat by the time a slightly sweaty FL arrived and we went through the same questions – which FL answered in an almost identical manner. We discussed the Scottish diabetes lobby, the need for us to focus on business interests and the likely timescale going forward (including allowing for the choppy political environment) and a variety of other aspects of our collaboration. We need to make sure we get into detail soon and drive towards a plan for either a one-off competition, or the first of an Innovation Platform series early next year. Since we were both staying at the same hotel, FL made me stay up and drink for another hour or so catching up with life, the universe and everything – including recruitment.
The next morning, it was up to catch an early breakfast and an appropriate train to Swindon. Our high ideals of working on the train were perverted as I gave FL a short tutorial into how to get the RIM twitter client working onto his BlackBerry so that he could not use his Dell either!! Once at Swindon, Zahid has learned that telling me what is going on makes his life easier, so he had booked some time with me and we did the “communications” thing. Then it was into a Governing Board preparation meeting. We continue to ride the two horses of developing a proper strategy and submitting a paper to BIS so that we don’t get too badly shafted in the CSR. I still need convincing that all the papers that are presumably being written by all the quangos will be read and understood by people who make informed decisions and will therefore influence the outcome, but it does serve the purpose of allowing us to debate what we would do in a variety of circumstances should an arbitrary and dogma based decisions be handed down to us that requires real change. What I am concerned by is the apparent lack of continuity between these meetings, when decisions I thought had been well discussed get resurrected at subsequent meetings. Process Man’s activities are lowering the likelihood, but it still gives me heartburn.
By way of contrast (am I sure?), the next meeting was to discuss the LWEC Business Advisory Board. Our loaner from NERC has screwed up the timing of the next one to conflict with an Executioners Meeting (and made Jools a bit irritated, and you wouldn’t like to make her angry!) so I had to work with him, Em and Sustainability Man (who will be my agent on earth for this meeting) to make sure the Director of LWEC doesn’t piss them off any more and make them resign as Board members. We came up with a couple of strategies to expose the issues without seeming like we have ignored them since the last meeting. I think I’ll owe Richard for this one!!
The final task of the day was to interview someone for an EGS post. The truth is that the guy was a little too much in transmit mode but certainly knew his stuff and was already T-shaped so will fit into the organisation well. I hope we can still recruit. My only real regret is that, after a week where I had to think about gender balance, social responsibility and other issues, we are about to take on another white, anglo-saxon, male of a certain age.