It is better to be happy than right
07 August 2020 by David Bott
Monday saw another perfect Swindon day, starting with an awe-inspiring “start the week” meeting (what is there left to say about this cornerstone of our joint existence?), followed by a death-defying Innovate Steering Group meeting (where we kept polishing the competition and programme details), a jaw-dropping Heads of Innovation Programmes meeting (where we went through the latest version of Mark’s strategy presentation and debated its content and implementation), a stomach-churning “learn without lunch” about the RDAs (with very strong attendance even thought there was no food!), a slight diversion from the mass meetings for my catch-up meeting with the headmaster, then back into Cyrus’s unexpurgated “how we are going to do things around here” pitch on competition planning. By the time I got to 5 o’clock I was ready to drop (or boogie, can’t quite remember) so the appearance of Richard Archer to remind me how depressing the Living with Environmental Change Business Advisory Board is was not really what I wanted. Richard had missed the first meeting but attended the second, and I was not prepared for his almost immediate threat of resignation on the grounds that he perceived that NERC and the assembled research councils were using the BAB to lend an air of credibility to an otherwise thin and undemanding narrative. I talked him through his reservations – Sustainability Man was held up to be the only good thing in the meeting – about the core LWEC personnel and their grasp of the reality he recognises. He has agreed to engage more and help steer LWEC into more useful territory or stand around when it dies and salvage the good bits. I made it home without too many tears.
Tuesday was a later start because I was going to Qinetiq at Malvern. This is part of my remedial programme to learn why some things just don’t work. It started with a canter through the Advanced Sensors Programme. Their system to make sure people don’t go into MRI rooms carrying any form of magnetic metal was a good example of knowing that there was a need and having enough technology to be able to meet it – turns out it was an external company that came to Qinetiq for help. Next up was a biomarker assay system. Their understanding of the DIIA market was perfunctory and their prototype was about 4-5 times too big to be portable, but they are trying. After more coffee, I got to sit down, and things got better. Freeflow was a project run under the Future Intelligent Transport Systems call – the first to happen under the ITSS Innovation Platform. It was based on the Qinetiq sourced battlefield management software (rebranded as situational awareness software) to help towns manage their traffic flow. They showed the system under test in York and the early stages of the implementation to manage Hyde Park Corner – which is very much the main test of what they are doing. It looked good and they seem to have lost the sand coloured background that took a long time to leave the Iraq based prototype!
Next came a very strange man talking about modelling security systems. I am not sure I actually understood a word he said, but he gave me the papers!! I thought it couldn’t get worse, but the talk on quantum keys showed it could. In a great example of policy-based evidence, this nice young scientist, who obviously doesn’t get out much, told me that commercial organisations were champing at the bit to implement this technology and the refusal of anyone to fund it showed real short-sightedness. Since we, in the guide of the Network Security Innovation Platform, had talked to most of the main bank clearing houses who want the technology suppressed because of the cost of change, I asked him who he was talking to? He couldn’t give any examples but kept repeating his assertion.
After lunch, we got another example of why Qinetiq is mostly failing in the commercial markets. They have a really nice programme that takes the transponder data from ships to track them over time. They then analyse the tracks for anomalous behaviour – going slowly up the coast could be smuggling or cruising, fishing boats losing their signals just outside restricted fishing areas for a couple of hours and so on. Really good coastal defence/coastguard type needs. They then went on to assert that this technology could be used to identify wind-farms on air traffic control systems. They were worried that they were in conflict with a programme that Qinetiq were running with Vestas to use stealth technology to make the wind-farms invisible. I asked what the relative price was. They didn’t know. I asked why the ATC operators didn’t know that the signal than wasn’t moving was a wind-farm. It got quite embarrassing.
I then got walked down to the photonics lab to see a satellite system used to stabilise swarms and arrays in space. The technology and the explanation were both high quality but we couldn’t see any non-space application that required the level of accuracy – shame!! More coffee and it was back into the meeting room for an explanation and demonstration of a dynamic router. For those of you who haven’t tried to configure a home network you might not know that most routers work off routing tables and take about 30 seconds to re-route if any part of the system goes down. This system works off rules and so can dynamically re-configure within milliseconds. The demo was impressive and the energy of the 2 guys from Portsdown was inspiring. It turned out that Peter Truss hadn’t seen the demo before and asked them to stay so he could show more Malvern based people.
So, the score was 3 excellent presentations, 2 with real commercial potential, 3 where the presenters live in a different world from me, and a clutch where they are leveraging their capability against outside derived needs. They’ve improved!! On the way out, Peter asked if we were interested in secondments despite our experience to date. I told him that there were some job descriptions on our website and he should call if he thought he had credible candidates. I offered to take the Portsdown guy in a heartbeat but I think he sees the value of keeping that one internal.
Wednesday was a “down to London” day that I had mixed feelings about. The meetings were good but dotted around London and I had stood on a nail at the weekend and it hurt to walk. I compromised and took taxis!! First up was the demonstration of the digital test bed. Although the Detica dudes could have done with more practice, the basic functionality shone through and it seemed moderately intuitive to use. Digital Man’s explanation of how the whole competition ecosystem (see, now I stopped gagging whenever I use the word, it’s cropping up everywhere!) fitted together but the main event was the name. The agency woman explained the theory and forgot that not only does it have to be attractive to users, but also to content and application sources and – because it is paid for and through Government – it has to be something that a Minister wouldn’t look stupid talking about. So out went “Jack”, “Bloom” and “Digital Trifle”. In fact, out went everything they suggested. The sandwiches were a bit poncy too! I left Digital Man a bit deflated but was confident he would have another go!
It was off to the City to rendezvous with FL and meet the maritime cabal. We both hung around 28-29 Royal Exchange because it’s at the bottom of Threadneedle Street before getting phone instructions to find the place that both taxi drivers had got wrong! The meeting was fascinating. We were handed the BIS Maritime Strategy (not previously seen by either of us) and the Maritime Technology Roadmap (probably ought to be a better name under the circumstances, but not a good time…). Interestingly, they “own” the offshore renewable energy area so they will need to meet with Neil as well as Andrew. Careering across London (scrounging a lift in FLs taxi to save money) I arrived at DECC for a meeting with Derek, some nice young men from DECC and a strange fellow from Carbon Trust. He (the carbonaceous one) started by saying that the Low Carbon Innovation Group had agreed that we would all use the Carbon Trust methodology. I pointed out that I was a member and we had never discussed it. He said he had talked to Fil and she backed it, but from Derek’s rolling eyes, I divined that this was not necessarily true either. Instead we went back to the difference in goals between the 3 organisations, the importance of markets and so on. I thought we had made our point, but he then sent me his pre-prepared presentation afterwards anyway without referencing the points we thought we had agreed. On close examination, it looks like Carbon Trust is trying to squeeze DECC for 9 FTEs to do the work! I think not!
Finally, I limped back to Tracy Island to meet up with the CEO of Seedcamp and a couple of Anne Glover’s henchmen from Amadeus. This was occasioned by Anne suggesting that we gave Seedcamp some money, and FL asking me to “deal with it”. I had gone to Seedcamp as an apprentice mentor last year and the amazingly young Alex and I had a few meetings with BCS, Seedcamp, Entrepreneur Country and Google a few months back trying to get them to work with us in the Creative and Digital space. In truth they all have their ways of working and don’t see the advantage of working together, so it stalled. It was obvious that Reshma knew very little about what we actually did and just regarded us as another source of money for her pot. The Amadeus guys were similarly in “you have taxpayers money, give us some” mode, so a lot of time was spent explaining what we could do, what we were trying to do and so on. Eventually, we “discovered” that Seedcamp was both a fund and a separate organisation that runs the meetings, so we discussed whether they would be interested in running similar meetings for us – and for the companies we were already funding. I think they just wanted a cheque, but they seemed to see some value in bending a little in our direction, so perhaps this time it’s right!!
As though that wasn’t enough, I then went on to meet Sebastian Conran, David Godber and Gloria Laycock. On the agenda were the Design and Technology Alliance, the “design vouchers” concept the Davids and I have been working up and the Review of the Design Council that FL had been interviewed about that afternoon (and had sneakily texted me about afterwards so that I was prepared). It must have been productive because I didn’t drink! Gloria (ex- Home Office) undertook to find out where the Alliance stood in CSR speak, both David and Sebastian expressed undying support for the vouchers scheme and everyone was confused by all the rumours about the Design Council – going to the part of NESTA, split between us and NESTA, split between us and Design Museum, NESTA relocating to Bow Street, Design Council relocating to Paddington, joining with Carbon Trust (that’s the odd one out, I haven’t heard it yet!).
Thursday started in London with a visit to OSCHR to make sure we were still on the same page. FL had been ambushed a bit at the last meeting and Monika was at pains to tell me that it happens all the time and it would be our turn to shaft someone else soon. We talked about the Cluster Manager – who will be paid through the Healthcare KTN (she did moan about the overheads) – the Stratified Medicine Innovation Platform, but most of the time we gossiped about the Comprehensive Spending Review. Being in the Treasury they hear a lot of indiscrete conversations!! The move of MRC to DoH is off the table at the moment, Sally has been monstrously effective at ring-fencing her money and John Bell is being setup to arbitrate any disputes. Then it was back to Tracy Island to meet up with a researcher from Freshminds who wanted to sell me their policy analysis. I don’t think he liked my response! However, he did impress me and they are on the BIS Framework, so we can use them without competition, as I understand it.
Next up was the lunch with Maxine Horn of the BDI that FL has stuffed me with. It turned out to be a weird event. Maxine’s organisation had issued a press release earlier in the week - http://www.britishdesigninnovation.org/?page=newsservice/view&news_id=5870 - and, as CEO, she had taken some flak for it – especially from our friends at the Design Council. As a result, she was curiously quiet and circumspect and not criticising us!! This meant that I got the chance to allay some of her misconceptions about how we operated and convince her that we might just be relevant to her members.
After lunch I did a telephone interview by someone from SPRU – who had obviously looked at our website and got confused. She was interested in whether any SME with no innovation capacity had benefited from our support. We had a debate about what “innovation capacity” was and then I told her about not just the Innovation Platforms she started with but KTNs as well!! I think I managed to big up Retrofit for the Future as well because she has written to me since asking for more information!
The final task of the day was to meet with Marie-Anne MacKenzie and discuss the Growth Paper and the Manufacturing Paper and whether they will become one or not, whether we are ever going to charge them for the Composites Grand Challenge and I admitted I had failed to find anything about the sector survey she had mentioned to me last week. She told me that she had discovered that it was linked to a discussion between FL and Philip Rutman and that Tim Goodship and David Golding were working it up to be a joint workshop in the Autumn. Amazing what being honest gets you.
Friday was a ”working from home” day but the telephone calls made it a bit odd. First was the guy who called to complain that the Carbon Trust wouldn’t fund his project to turn water into enough energy to power the electrolysis cell that turned the water into hydrogen and break the laws of thermodynamics. I tried to tell him that comparing basic thermodynamics to people not believing you could fly was a stretch and then we got onto why we don’t do responsive mode. Luckily practice on all these questions (we do actually get the occasional perpetual motion machine proposal) makes me depressingly plausible at arguing people down!! Then came the call from David Gann wanting to run the proposal they are putting into the big digital call past me. Actually, it sounded quite good but no amount of explanation would persuade David I didn’t make the decisions. I did discover he has bought himself a secondhand Aston Martin for his 50th birthday, so have future blackmail capability. Finally, I had a long one with FL about the Design Council, Seedcamp, BDI and so on so that he isn’t dumped in it whilst I am away!