Sweat, blood, sweat, tears, sweat and more sweat
03 July 2020 by David Bott
Not sure what went wrong, but I ended up in Swindon on a Monday morning in time for the “start the week” meeting. It was followed by a number of internal meetings – one in particular with a brace of Davids on the links between design and our programmes where FL had pointed Design London at Knowledge Exchange and so they had received the full weight of the Death Stars charm offense (another “give us the money or the kid gets it” routine) and needed to know our intentions – culminating in Fearless Leaders copy of the St Crispin’s Day speech before we went into another EMM Pre-Meeting.
First up was a discussion about _connect and Holly. The discussion on the vision for _connect was useful and overdue. We debated how far we wanted to take the development of the platform and ended up (I think) agreeing that we wanted to make it primarily a lever for our other activities and not an end in itself. There were some interesting ideas and robust challenges about balancing investment and return and how our activities would be viewed by others in the area. The presentation on Holly resulted in a less satisfactory discussion. I am sure others thought I was having a bad day, because I suddenly realised that I was fed up of being fed excuses about why things aren’t where we were promised they would be and the use of an allegedly quantitative graphic proved an excuse to express my frustration – one I am pretty sure is shared by many in the organisation who want to use this sort of tool.
The final activity of the day was to brief FL on the progress of the Emerging Technologies and Industries activity (with the young padawan) and prepare him for the OSCHR Board presentation (where Doctor Z, the new head healthcare dude, also joined us). On the “Emerging” front, we had the first meeting of the Steering Group the other week, which was fractious and unproductive – but then so are the first meetings of many such committees – and had given rise to some negative feedback. We worked out a way of addressing the shortfalls in internal activity and committee nobbling and will either get it back on track or abandon it as an activity by the end of Autumn. On OSCHR, we are making solid progress, but there are those outside the organisation who would rather we just handed over our money and let them run it. Hopefully, we loaded up FL with the arguments about our role and our progress. We all agreed that if the meeting went wrong it was his fault. (Isn’t hindsight wonderful? )
Tuesday started in London with a trip out to City Hall for the London launch of the Smart car component of our Ultra Low Carbon Vehicle Demonstrator programme. Andrew and I were cleaned up and primed but Lady Claire came along to make sure we didn’t screw up. The sharp shower that coincided with the planned timing of the interviews meant we all drank coffee a bit longer but eventually we did our piece to camera and schmoozed the various Mercedes people and the recipients of the first cars. As with other such occasions, we had rent-a-Quentin there and had a good chat about all things low carbon – he is a bit of an enthusiast, so we invited him to Swindon to learn more about our activities and steered him towards writing to George Osborne – on the assumption that one celebrity is worth at least 10 people who know what they are talking about!! Lady Claire was doing her usual media prowling and we suddenly had an extra Guardian interview – with the amusing sight of the proper media handler trying to end the interview and Claire throwing herself between the handler and the interview so that we could finish all our arguments!! Getting back to Tracy Island to realise that (almost a month in) we still don’t have Wi-Fi there, and any work required a trip back to the hotel where I could get both Wi-Fi and air-con and thus do productive stuff. I took a phone call from Victoria Atherstone (of Urbanites and Scooters and associate of Doug Richards) about her plan to bring the production of electric scooters to the UK and did a bit of “connecting”. Suitably refreshed and accomplished, I ventured down to the RCA. First up was to watch Nurse Jackie do the standing up and looking sheepish bit of awarding the Technology Strategy Board Prize as part of the Helen Hamlyn Awards ceremony in the sweaty and airless Senior Common Room of the RCA. Then it was off to the RGS next door for the Innovation Night lecture. As last year, it’s really an interview with the subject, who this year was Chad Hurley. Whereas last year, Jonathan Ive simultaneously impressed and worried, Hurley was a bit flat (a view shared by Rory Cellan Jones and Mike Butcher to name(drop) but 2!). It is difficult to see why YouTube is the success it is based on his description and performance. Then it was back to the Summer Show at the RCA. As last year, the close confines of the foyer/display area, the outside temperature and the large number of people conspired to make it sweaty, loud and draining – a situation only balanced by the amazing ideas and their initial implementations on show. I noted Nick Leon of Design London looking for David Coates, but also that David was having too much of a good time for me to shop him!
Wednesday started with the bizarre event that is the Energy Technologies Institute Virtual Board meeting. The theory is that – at the same time but all over the country – the Board members (and I sub for FL sometimes) sit down and read the papers and think about them. Presumably it’s all a bit Derren Brown, but the only thing of note is that their chairman is up for re-election and I thought that he was biased towards the private sector stakeholders and we ought to rattle his cage. I shared this thought with FL and he countered with a note from Adrian Smith saying that the chairman did a good job, so what do I know? Marie-Anne McKenzie was chasing me, so since there was still no Wi-Fi I agreed to meet with her. What she showed me was the Manufacturing Strategy they have submitted – which has significant elements that only WE can deliver. There are clones of the Composites Grand Challenge and flagrant copies of Collaboration Nation, so it looks like we have at least one fan in BIS! Next up I got a Direct Message from Socrates Wife who wanted to talk to me. I understand that FL is making eyes at her, so I agreed. It was a fascinating mix of geek-talk (she has an iPad with an app that shows the tides in the Solent) and high politics. I was bemused to learn that she was reasonably ignorant of what we actually did so tried to fill the void.
The final act of the afternoon was the follow up to the Jonathan Porritt Masterclass from last November. Many of the participants gathered in the sweaty top floor of Wallacespace to hear and discuss the views of Chairman Porritt. After a round table discussion on how things have gone since last November – remember something happened in Copenhagen in this time – Jonathan launched into an analysis of the key “green” figures in the Coalition Government. He started with the Green Investment Bank announcement of the previous day, and we debated how good it would be to take all the money currently incoherently invested by quangos and give it to a cabal of bankers who want to be unaccountable to Government (recommendation 9) – in passing, I will note that we are the only organisation that is mentioned in the recommendations who are not cited in the list of those consulted, so either we dropped a really large ball, or have been stitched up by the Carbon Trust. The insight into the leadership of CLG and DEFRA would have been amusing if it hadn’t been so damning. Since I am not known for my discretion, the fact that I am not recording it gives a clue!
I made it back to the hotel to dump my bags and walk down to my evening assignation – with FL and Cisco. The first stage process we now use with all large corporates was first run with these guys, which is why we often refer to it as “doing a Cisco”, but this was a request from them to go to the next level. Their offer was to work more closely with us to drive our common agenda. We discussed the Olympics, the link between “performance” and technology (shades of our Bloodhound activities) and exciting young people to follow careers in STEM subjects. They mentioned their interest in “digital cities” a couple of times but we couldn’t find a way to explore whether they knew of the IBM-Imperial activities and might be interested in joining in some “pre-competitive” manner. The evening ended with mutual back-slapping but the curry later got its revenge!
Thursday meant a trip down to Swindon and my first job was to act as a judge for the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership Innovation Awards, a role I shared with Neville Jackson and Jon Maytom. Bizarrely, we all started with different “first choices” but the judging process ended up with one none of us had as number one, but all had as number 2 or 3!! I had time for a cup of coffee before the first act in a multi-stage visit by the leading figures of NIHR and i4i organised by Zahid. It seemed to go well and I sense a lot of commonality with the new head of i4i!
I then spent some time being prepared for my role as guest chairman for the Assisted Living Innovation Platform Steering Group – Joe had been unavailable and too many activities needed input from the Steering Group, so I was dragooned in. Mike took me through the issues and personalities so that I wouldn’t embarrass him the next day! Then it was the Funders Panel for the Trusted Services Fast Track competition – round 1. The problem with this sort of 3 stage competition is that many potential applicants think about it early, but most apply late – so it was that we had over 100 downloads (usually a good indication of interest) but only 7 submission. As it was, we only let 3 through. This was swiftly followed by a discussion about the SWRDA contribution to the Marine Energy Competition. They had committed a sizable chunk of change to this (before the change of administration) but their ability to operate independently had been pulled just before the end of the competition and so we had only announced the results for our own money. They persist in the belief that they have the money but this is somewhat countered by intelligence from BIS (it’s not often I will use that phrase) so we have had to tell them they will probably need to fund the remaining project (which is the one they want to fund) outside of our competition. I then made my way back to London for the dinner of the Detection and Identification of Infectious Agents Innovation Platforms Steering Group. We learned a long time ago, that “socialising” our Steering Groups gives us better decision making during the meetings and since they nearly all act for us pro bono, 2 or 3 meetings in we usually host a dinner. Admittedly the timing of this one is a bit embarrassing but from the level and subject of the discussion, I am confident that we got value for the public purse on this occasion.
Friday was another London day, and stared with a phone call form Ensus, who appear to be stalking me. After my chat with Rob Margetts the other week, I am now the subject of a campaign to convince me of the potential beneficial impact of Ensus activities on several of our activities and an invitation to visit the plant (much more effective to kick the tyres than read the reams of propaganda). That lead into the Assisted Living meeting I was chairing. What I noticed straight away was they were pretty incoherent. There are obvious factions and it feels like they have never had the important basic debates about what they do and how they do it. It was Mike’s first meeting and he had charted out an approach to impose some order on the chaos. Because we need to debate the basics, we started to drift behind time but I managed to place some issues carefully in the “next time” box and focus on the advice we needed. As we discussed the “demonstrator” part of the programme, Mike had to remind them of what they had previously agreed – and was published in strategies and papers – and I had to point out the parallels with the LCV and LIB demonstrators. Nevertheless, we had a few offers to resign and several huge pouts as we took them through the logic of what we were doing. We got them to a “happy place” just in time for the presentation from the Design Council. Although a good idea, we were looking at some serious mission creep and although Godber did a good job and fielded Michael Wolff as the “inclusive design champion”, there was obviously the need for internal blood-letting before we could make a decision. I drew the information part of the discussion to a close and thanked the Design Council mob so that they could leave. We then got back to a serious discussion about who made what decisions. I think we managed to draw it to a form of conclusion, but I suspect that we ought to look hard at the sitting chairman and maybe upgrade, since it appears that we haven’t made as much progress with this Steering Group as with many others! In the meanwhile, we need to go back to the Design Council, point out to them what is in and out of scope, check how much of the proposed programme is going to them for management fees and how much would go to the designers and companies we are trying to bring together and tidy up the proposal before we even consider funding it. It was now late afternoon on a Friday, but I had one more meeting to go to. I thought I knew its purpose but got confused quickly once it started.
What I thought was that it was a follow-on from a discussion Andrew and I had with Ford a few weeks ago about a potential materials safety problem with their flywheel project. I had offered a bit of help from me (from the days when I knew some science) and John Morlidge to unpack the problem. When their 2 Dutchmen turned up (during the match I might point out) the introductory remarks made me doubt my sanity. They started with along description of the whole flywheel programme at Dunton and took a long time to get around to the specific problem. As I probed, it turns out there was a wider picture. Within Ford, they are rationalising their low carbon activities and the bulk of the “electric” stuff has gone to Dearborn. The flywheel programme (both mechanical and electromechanical) is centred on Dunton. If there are shown to be show-stopping problems with the flywheel programme, Dunton make take a resource hit! We talked and talked and it appears that a bunch of engineers with little materials expertise and no chemistry have a problem and no idea how to explain it. The further confusing problem is that we fund one project but the other is private between Ford and Williams (or is it Flybrid?). Anyway, we suggested that they make those on the Technology Strategy Board funded project aware of the potential safety problems and suggest they talk to us. John (who after the Composites Grand Challenge knows just about everyone working in the field) will arrange an assessment by a couple of academic experts under confidentiality and then Ford will use that information to inform their private partner. We also suggested that they look into the issue of theoretical energy density comparison between the battery and flywheel systems – which they don’t appear to have done!! The meeting ended with Graham Hoare dialling in from somewhere else in the country, so it feels like they place a lot of importance on resolving the situation.
This being Friday, and me being increasingly bad at planning, I caught the train to Swindon to collect my car and drive home. The air-con on the train was not good and sweat was, once more, the order of the day. When will I ever learn?