You learn something every day if you pay attention
24 July 2020 by David Bott
Another Monday morning and I made the trek down to Swindon. Thankfully, Cyrus was in charge of the “start the week” meeting, so it flew by. He used a new technique whereby he got Karen to check all our diaries before the event, so it was more of a test of whether we knew what we were doing than an exchange of activities. That led seamlessly into an Innovation 2010 Steering group, where we seemed to go over some old details. I get the feeling that we make decisions in the meetings and then someone questions them afterwards or something, but we seem to be not moving as fast as we need to do to deliver on our aspirations. That led again into a meeting of the Heads of Innovation Programmes, where (a bit like the polite invitation from the Senate to Kenny MacAskill) they had asked to find out what we were doing about “strategy” so Strategy Man had agreed to take part (actually it was partly his idea!). It was a lively meeting, with some hard questioning about why they weren’t involved more directly, why the Strategy review and the Comprehensive Spending Review activities appeared to be totally uncorrelated from where they sat in the organisation, why the list of objectives was actually a list of tools and that sort of thing. I think Mark was beginning to enjoy the debate because he has promised to come back to the next few meetings until we are all on the same page!! I had to leave on time from that meeting because my next meeting was a telephone conference with the public sector stakeholders in the Energy Technologies Institute to prepare of the ETI Board meeting – that Fearless Leader was attending but since he couldn’t make this meeting, I had to impersonate him and brief him before Thursday! The amusement was mainly derived from the bid by ETI to become the delivery arm of the Green Investment Bank. They had put in a Board paper (and, it subsequently turns out, written to Bob Wigley expressing undying loyalty) with that aspiration. This caused some ribaldry about piss-ups and breweries but it seems that although most of the public sector people think ETI is rapidly becoming a failed experiment, they are unwilling to address the issue because they don’t want to upset the companies involved. Meanwhile, we have had discussions with 3 of the 6 companies where they have expressed the desire to bail out but don’t want to upset Government. Weird or what?
Next up was a Funders Panel for the Smart Meters(ish) competition. This was given added frisson by the breaking news that the original £5m we had been promised in the 2009 PBR might well be back on the table. We also had a discussion about whether the Energy Savings Trust (another quango we know DECC want to close) could lead a consortium and whether the Building Research Establishment (who were leading 3 successful proposals) actually had the project management skills to run one, let alone 3! Then we found a mathematical error in the master spreadsheet so we had a bit of everything in the meeting!
After a couple of internal meetings, we met mob-handed with a contingent from Manchester. They started with the old canard that during meetings with Fearless Leader last year, he had promised to pay for whatever they wanted to do and they were here to collect. I am not sure they ever really told us what the aims of their activities were, other than to get more money in the Manchester area. We did the “we don’t do bricks and mortar” line, “we don’t do responsive mode” and “we are focussed on supporting innovative companies, not other bits of Government” lines and they eventually got the message – I hope. Of course, they could have written to FL saying we weren’t their friends any more.
Before I got to leave, Strategy Man got me for another quick conversation. The pace is hotting up, but we still don’t have full buy-in to the process and the progress we have made to date, so the need is still for maximum effort.
Tuesday saw a trip to London. It was one of those days where the original reason had been cancelled long ago, but all the ancillary reasons couldn’t now be re-arranged, so it happened anyway! First up was part 3 of my extended interview with the Innovation Investors Journal person – but this time in person! As with the others, it was more an exchange of ideas than an exploration of our underlying values, but he seems to record everything I say and is having it transcribed, so I hope the Media Police will help sort it all out later. Then it was lunch with the Government Affairs person from DHL. We have had 2 abortive attempts to engage, so I went in determined to get an outcome. As it was, a few texts with FL might well have got her a visit to the A380 at Farnborough, so we went on to close a deal. In a few months time, a small party of us will see the small deliveries/collections part of the business, the major national distribution centre and then the international distribution centre over a 12-hour day. We will then go back to their Innovation Steering Group with suggestions for engagement a month later. Walking back down Victoria Street, I noticed a small queue at the O2 Shop, so got my iPhone 4 and played with it on the train home! I also got a troubling call from Communications man and media Girl. At face value, their pitch was that the lobbying contract had been stopped so they were looking to lessen support for the competitions process. Through the “not-spot” that is the Chiltern railways line, I tried to understand the linkage and make the point that the way we “do” communications about our major activity is not an add-on but an integral part of the process. It is a strategic question as to whether we stop competition launch or competitions result press releases, since both serve an important purpose. I expressed my worries before the signal went completely and will await the result!
The next day, I was busy in the morning, but picked up a number of telephone conferences through the afternoon. First up was Andrew Bud calling about the Media Institute in London. This has been on and off the radar for more than a year now, and suffered quite a blow when the BBC decided not to be an anchor tenant but to centralise their activities in London at White City. The Institute seems to be recovering and may well resurrect itself – although doing so in a time of diminished public support does look like carelessness of the strategic variety. Then I had the second of my monthly discussion with David Way. It is amazing both of us how we ever got along without these!! Then I had a long conversation with Nigel Shadbolt. The history of this is that the “previous administration” had decided to give him and Tim Berners-Lee £30m to set up an Institute of Web Sciences. It was driven through by Number 10 against the recommendations of BIS, so they took a bit of joy torpedoing it once the Coalition came into power. Unfortunately, it was basically a good idea (merely derailed by the power of egos) so once they thought about it, the new guys decided to resurrect it. Of course, they have to make it look different, which is where we come in. Rather than being an academic driven centre, BIS seem to want a more output driven entity. Thus I had to wade past the extreme name-dropping and get them to understand how to frame the same ideas in a “challenge led” language set. I think Nigel got the idea very quickly, so we agreed the path forward – but then he issued a mildly recursive e-mail to all and sundry, so perhaps I was in too benign a mood that afternoon? To finish off the day, I got the chance to brief FL about the ETI Board meeting he was about to go into. Talk about just-in-time!!
Thursday was supposed to be a nice day, with a lie-in because my first meeting was at 11! Unfortunately, with FL in Loughborough, the need to be represented at a BIS/DECC/DEFRA Breakfast Briefing fell to me, so I got up at 5 o’clock and drove to Guildford (all will become clear later) to get a train into London. Actually, aside from the austerity breakfast, I think it was quite productive. We were allocated to tables and the 3 ministers (Prisk, Barker and Lord Henley were due to rotate between us. We got Henley first. The woman from the Ceramics Lobbying Cabal managed to turn every question into an opportunity to make her prepared points, although ruined the effect by reading them out from her script. Colin Smith of Rolls-Royce managed to absent-mindedly drop into the conversation that he had just come up from Farnborough in a helicopter but also managed to say that we should have more money, Mark Clare of Barratts made some nice supportive points about our work, Rhian Kelly of the CBI was similarly appreciative of what we had done and thought we could do more and Bob Watson made the point about our breadth of impact. In the break Brian Collins told me that his table had seriously bigged us up to Prisk, so when I saw that for the second shift we got Prisk, I was pleased. Although the question was subtly different the answers were the same (especially the Ceramics robot). We were joined by Jon Moore of Intelligent Energy who said that if it wasn’t for us, they would not be so far advanced, Mark Clare made the new build and retrofit points – and name-checked our programmes (which gave me a chance to express sorrow that Prisk had missed our opening last week – to which he said he wanted to do at least one but that a 3 line whip trumped his personal interests). One way and another, I left feeling that all the right noises had been made and that catching the train back to Guildford after the first 4 hours of the day and feeling a little weary had been worth it. I got back to Guildford, picked up my car and drove to the Science Park for the first meeting – rendezvousing with Zahid to meet ReNeuron. In-between some interesting science stuff, the main messages were about 2 major impediments to innovation. The first was about the time it had taken to get approvals. They had got the MHRA approval in about 3 months, but then had to go through an ethical approval process run by a largely academic agency (UK Gene Therapy Advisory Committee (GTAC)), which did not accept their original data set and required it to be reproduced, and then argued all the way to approval. I think it is fair to say that they still harbour some resentment that a regulatory body can so inhibit innovation and put other activities at risk. We requested a record of the events, so that we could use them to point out some of the problems of making headway in such an advanced area. The second problem was more directly troubling. Although ReNeuron had been successful in the first 2 stages of the Regenerative Medicine, they had decided not to submit an entry to the third (and most valuable) stage. It turns out that if they take a state aids exempted grant for a project, they cannot claim R&D Tax Credits for that project – and, depending on the keenness of the HMRC Inspector, for any related work. They were worried that if they won the grant, they would be charged for more than its value in subsequent years. We will check this out, because they claimed the Ceres Power also knew of this problem.
Due to superior calendar management, I then drove 30 yards to Detica to meet with Digital Man for a discussion about how we intend to use the Digital TeStBed and kick the Detica tyres a bit. The discussion with our “account manager” was useful for Nick and I to develop our ideas and get them to understand what we can – and cannot – do. We then ended up seeing some of the hardware they make – both for submarines (coloured a snazzy blue-grey) and the spook world (coloured an appropriate black). Much as the message from Surrey Satellites a few week earlier (and about 100 yards away) they start with available components first before involving the expense of custom build.
Friday was my day at Farnborough. I have avoided it over the last few years because it usually involved being lobbied about large projects, but I had meetings planed with Qinetiq and Finmeccanica, so doing them with noisy jet fighters in the background seemed worth the trip. My text exchange with FL on Tuesday had also given me an appointment to look over the test A380. I wandered the exhibition halls first, bemused by the truly international flavour of the stands – although slightly baffled by the regional ones for the UK competing with the national one!!
I turned up at the designated time at the Airbus chalet, which was at the time besieged by children and some strange men in blue spandex (all over – doing the superhero look). I was immediately accosted by Jenny Body and Gareth, who decided to schmooze me about large projects. I think I scored points by admitting that I had never been around an Airbus production facility but had been around Boeing and McDonnell Douglas. Anyway, I seemed to get the royal treatment, being taken around in a very small party by the actual test flight engineer. It is an amazing sight, and it turned out the rest of the party was from the Futures Group at Filton, so we got down and dirty about materials selection, use of sensors, large data-sets and so on.
I had enough time to avoid the puddles in the static park before I was due to meet Dolores at the Qinetiq chalet for lunch. I came with questions about Malvern, but she was buying lunch and she wanted to talk about Farnborough. It turns out that with the move of the dstl part of DERA to Porton Down and the already enacted and impending downturn in MoD funding, Qinetiq are looking to set up the eastern wing of the Cody Park as a science/technology park/incubator. She said she didn’t want money from us, but was interested in what we would do to get such an establishment on the map. We talked about equivalent places, various forms of marketing and whether such a location would attract companies. I was worried that they were firmly stuck in the “adjacent to aerospace” markets rather than making the links between the sorts of technologies they have and new markets. I think I earned my free lunch. After watching the Typhoon make lots of noise, I wandered up to the Finmeccanica chalet, where Paul Beck had promised me better coffee. Up there already were Neil and Andrew, and a lot of young women – which must be another thing Italians like. We talked about the “Nuclear Feasibility Studies” competition, where Paul was worried about the strong steer from the 4-pager and the briefing that this was intended for SMEs. He (rightly) made the point that large corporates can drive a supply chain in such an area and that many SMEs have insufficient project management skills. He also expressed some concern about our Smart Meters competition – since it was obviously aimed at new technologies – possibly even a new interpretation of what a smart meter might be – whilst at the same time DECC are propagating a regressive definition of smart meters. Would, he wondered at me, the boring imposed definition of currently available products limit the opportunity for innovation and would there need to be a wholesale ripping out of old technology in a few years time because DECC had got there standards badly wrong?
Given that it took a fairly long time to get off the Farnborough site, another long time to negotiate the roads around Farnborough, even more time to get around the M25 (in fact, I dodged off at Junction 13 and rejoined to M4 at Junction 5 to miss the worst of it), I thought it was unfair that the final 3 miles to my home should take almost 45 minutes to negotiate because Ragley Hall is playing host to the CLA Games Fair and a large number of people with caravans!