When they make the film about us, who will get to play Wallace Wells
28 August 2020 by David Bott
Another Monday and I demonstrate my continued support to the “start the week” meeting by driving to Swindon even thought I am fairly sure very few people are going to be there. I am proved correct but as a “reward” for my conscientiousness, the Gray Fort appoints me as chairperson. I find that I am not in Cyrus’s league but can close the meeting in 27 minutes. The final speech was from the newly ennobled Jools II who told those who were there that the Competitions Team was about to go seriously sub-critical in resource terms and asked for our help to ensure that we don’t have to shut up shop until November! We all expressed surprise that this HR situation was a surprise but then started to get sensible about help – if the Competitions Team cannot function then the rest of us are pretty much at a loose end as well!
After the obligatory instructions download from Jools the Original, it was then in to the Forum for the Future workshop. Comprising of the majority of the Heads (minus Energy Man, who had unexpectedly contracted a virulent stomach bug) and the “self-selecting tree huggers” the goal was to work how to specify the high level direction and specific work-streams that will lead to us having a better definition and an overview of what constitutes a “sustainable economy”. It was a lively discussion but the guy from Forum proved he was an able chairman because we completed the agenda and finished on time!
Then followed a couple of catch-ups with Digital Man and Technology Man – we are all discovering that things are moving so fast at the moment that we need to take extra care that we remain aligned. Nick brought me up to speed on the Test-Bed – now irrevocably named “ICTomorrow” and the proud owner of a tiny robot motif – and the evolving thoughts on how best to run the suite of competitions we have in the pipeline and which are well signposted to in the nearer community (see more later). Will also brought me up to speed with the goings on in the technology group – lots of great stuff that often doesn’t get recognised as widely as the showier challenge led activities.
The day rounded off with a training session with Lady Claire – those nice people in Comms had arranged for me to give a background interview to Pallab Ghosh, but since Claire knows the dark arts of the BBC she thought a bit of practice answering off the wall questions (from our point of view) might be a useful preparation! I must have done okay because she didn’t hit me!
Tuesday saw a ridiculously early start to catch a plane (I know, I am ashamed of my carbon footprint, but there is a lot of water in the way which sort of dictates the mode of transport) to Dublin. I rendezvoused in the airport on the other side with Digital Man and Energy Boy (Energy Man still being on low reserves!) and met up with Sustainability Man at the IBM Science Park. This had originally been part of IBM’s campaign to get us to understand why their joint bid with the Death Star was a good one, but since they had withdrawn a day before the competition closed, there was an air of “why?” at least in my mind. Rashik gave a high level and slightly “sales” pitch about IBM commitment to Digital Cities, then left the heavy lifting to Lisa and Pol from the Dublin lab. They painted an interesting picture – but seemed not to understand or admit that lots of big companies in the space were on similar paths. After lunch they wheeled in 3 projects to demonstrate their credentials. The first one, assembling a series of data sources about the city of Dublin, from traffic to water flows, felt grounded and the guy knew the scale of the challenge. The second was more about traffic and the guy started by assuming that we were thick. This didn’t work for 2 reasons. Firstly, it pissed us off a bit and secondly, some of us weren’t. Sustainability Man started the interrogation but Energy Boy and Digital Man also joined in exposing the assumptions and short-cuts in his thinking. The final project – about controlling the heating systems in IBM buildings was uninspiring and so close to Sustainability Man’s previous existence that he decided to have some sport. We left with the impression that they have a good idea where they want to be, either don’t know or aren’t admitting what their competition are up to and haven’t yet made the link between the high level vision and the work on the ground. I wouldn’t buy stock as a result of this visit. Anyway, the work is outside the UK - which we did repeatedly tell them!
We parted at the airport, Nick to Bristol, Andrew to Manchester and Richard and I back to London. We got in late and grabbed a quick meal – disturbed only by FL, who had been following me on Foursquare and was worried that he had confused his dates and should have been with us!!
Wednesday started with an interview by a PhD student from the Centre for Technology Management at Cambridge who is researching the commercialisation of materials research by university spin-outs. She had found me through some friends with companies, so I did 2 interviews, one as part of a few start-ups and one as part of the Technology Strategy Board.
It was then down to Tracy Island to meet with what Fergus described as the chief priest of the undead – Nigel Shadbolt. He had earned this soubriquet through the history of the Institute of Web Science. Originally conceived in the Cabinet Office in a discussion between Tim Berners-Lee, Nigel, some guy called Brown and a couple of officials, it’s £30m birth was announced around this time of the Budget, only for it to turn out that no-one had been consulted and it was widely hated by those outside the inner cabal. As was always likely, the incoming blue dudes killed it on principle, only to have second thoughts a few weeks later. This led to our involvement – our task, should we decide to accept it, is to resurrect the idea, add our own distinctive cast to it, make sure it is significantly different for the original to avoid political embarrassment and to get it ready for announcement in October to soften the kicking the universities are going to get (allegedly). It turns out that Nigel, although he did feel the need to tell me several times how he was on first names terms with most of the Ministers that we work with, gets the overall story and is wiling to take advice to get his own way in the end. We started assembling parts of his proposal with what we were intending to do and have come up with an idea that Fergus dubbed “plausible”. The “ask” of BIS from the IWS is £10m for the first year, followed by £5m for the next 4 years. This would act as the core for EPSRC grants to be part of a hub and spoke structure to includes individuals and departments who could contribute to the development of the underpinning science in the area. We were already intending (CSR willing) to run a £10m competitions mid next year on the “Internet of Things” (it’s a logical development of our evolving Digital strategy and fits with our already published ICT strategy. We would “point out” the advantages of those companies who wished to move into this space of working with the IWS (as Garlik did only a few years ago) but not be too prescriptive. If the EPSRC adds an academic call with similar enticements, then we might assemble an appropriate centre for the UK. Of course, it could all go very wrong, but….
The next meeting was a partial EMT meeting to catch up after the retreat that Strategy Man has been on. We balanced adherence to the process, recognition of the main players foibles and the need to not to spend every waking hour wondering why we are doing what we are doing.
By now, I had received the “Dear John” voicemail from Pallab, but I had also got a text from Godber asking for an urgent meeting, so I sat with him in some comfy chairs in Tracy Island. It turns out that the Design Council had voted to disavow (not really sure what the right word is, but if this one is good enough for Jim Phelps and Ethan Hunt….) its NDPB status. That means it cannot pass on grants but it can receive them itself, so it seems a bit of a cop-out. They are also going through a review of their options (see last Friday). They are now looking for what their relationship with us might be. I talked the various things we have done or are planning over with David and he then wrote them up – requiring moderate editing – to be discussed with FL and Jester. All along we have stressed that we see them as a route to engage the design community with our technology community, but there always seems to be the temptation for them to claim all the money for themselves and count it as income before passing some of it on! Despite the fact that I copied FL in on my reply to David, he started getting phone calls from Jester and other Council members that we were saying different things! Aaarrgghhhhh!
Wednesday evening was a wet one, so Digital Man, the young padawan and I holed up in my hotel and ate a subsistence level dinner – the young one and I regaling Nick with stories of the cultural clash that was Courtaulds Performance Films, where a global company interacted with small town Virginia, with tales of gunfights, illicit stills, waitresses and alleged bestiality.
Thursday appeared to dawn slightly drier and we all assembled in Tracy Island for a couple of digital-education meetings. First up was Tim Pearson describing his understanding of what might constitute “technology enabled learning”. He has unpacked a confusing but potentially valuable market – and begun to scope out how it might evolve. This was followed by a meeting with Dominic Flitcroft from the Department of Education. It was Dominic who got us started in the area a couple of years ago and it was he who re-engaged the other week. It sounds a bit bloody in DoE, with Ministers saying that they don’t trust officials because they were too complicit in the decisions of the last administration, with everyone being given terms and told to expect 30-50% redundancies. Nevertheless, Dominic welcomed our continued engagement in the area and promised to set up various meetings – but did ask that we got BIS Ministers to engage with DoE Ministers in this area – so I quickly briefed Mani and asked for help.
The rest of Thursday had undergone rapid re-allocation of time at the beginning of the week and Jools the Original had built in a meeting that Nick Stuart of UKTI had requested. It turns out that they were as disappointed with our May meeting – in that it didn’t seem to lead to anything – as we were. Nick wanted to know what they had to do to build a framework between the 2 organisations that we could better fit and organise joint activities under. They believe that they will be virtually unscathed by the CSR and want to start working with other such organisation – and believe we are in a similar position. We talked about the Missions as a “handover” event for companies moving from our support to theirs, about links over inward investment and so on. We (as the Technology Strategy Board) need to build a stronger, more effective links to UKTI and start realising the vision of joined up Government!
I also managed to squeeze in a visit to TechHub with Digital Man. TechHub had hit on us before Easter for support as a pseudo-Hauser Centre. I had pleaded ignorance but expressed an interest in the concept. Now seeing what it is on the ground, I think it is entirely different. It is basically a large office space just south of Old Street roundabout that rents space to digital and creative start-ups. Nick described what we are doing in those spaces and we conceived the idea of an event at TechHub (following on from Google!) where we describe what we are trying to do, what we have done so far and what we are planning to do next to between 150 and 200 of the sport of companies that use TechHub, many of whom will be new to us. Might be a cheap way to meet some slightly more adventurous companies, and will get us better known in the London based community. If it works, perhaps we will invade Poland next? Because I had left my car at Birmingham Airport on Tuesday morning, the trip home was at least novel!
Friday was another Swindon day and one with a distinctly strategic feel. First up was a meeting on the Heads of Innovation Programmes – on the agenda were what our response needed to be to Jools II request for help on Monday, the problem with the Trusted Services proposal input system, engagement with the DECC deep dives (see last Friday), the potential death of a small forest to cope with the PRP system, the continuing quest for a working CRM systems – and the strategy process.
The competition problem was that 2 companies had submitted their forms through our system and the relevant academic forms through JeS. Unfortunately, they had not submitted the duplicate of their academic forms to our system, so the Competitions Team has excluded their proposals. The Digital team had requested that this decision was reversed, but it hadn’t been. Their stance was that there are instructions and if people cannot follow them, it is their problem. I think it is fair to say that most people in the room thought this smacked of the DTI “funding agency” approach and was not consistent with supporting innovative UK based companies. I have approached Cyrus to reconsider, and one of the companies has written to FL. This sort of event makes us all realise how far we still have to go in agreeing what our role and methods are and ensuring all the organisation understands them.
The PRP system is rapidly gaining the reputation of being overly complex. The young padawan and I had a good discussion about his performance the other week and he has now – by answering all the questions – produced 28 pages of reading matter. Since I was always taught that the output of a performance discussion was better performance not an audit trail of the discussion, I am finding myself prone to disenchantment.
The CRM system is another example of us not building what is needed. Sustainability Man risks a heart attack every time he starts talking about the subject. He was recruited into a User Group a year or so ago but reports that every time he tells them what we need (as a Technologist cohort) he is ignored. FL has now taken an interest and is supposedly filling in visit reports on the systems himself and would like the rest of the organisation to join him. Initial results are not promising, but he has asked the Boards Guardian to ensure that we get what we need, so we are all holding our breath. The sad fact is that I will have to learn to report meetings in this blog more sensibly, since Jools will be extracting them into the CRM!! :-)
On strategy we are making some progress. Will and his team are going through the older projects and assigning potential value (in the financial, environmental and social buckets) to them. We will then employ someone to call up the project leads and ask what happened after the project. Richard is trying to control a discussion about strategic objectives (what we want to do, which leads to us knowing whether we would know if we achieved them and a set of metrics we can all buy into). Paul, Zahid and Andrew are evolving the infamous “impact statements” to become what they always were – analyses of the potential markets we could tackle. Neil is making sure whatever metrics, dashboards and other management tools we develop are actually useful in judging progress and don’t fall into the trap of keeping senior management quiet without being any use to the rest of the organisation. Finally (because he wasn’t there) Nick is working with Obi Wan to try to understand what we could and should do with respect to the “innovation landscape/infrastructure/ecosystem (delete according to your religious leanings!)
This set me up for a meeting with Strategy Man and a wide-ranging discussion on what had gone on during his retreat.
Next came a provisional Low Carbon Innovation Group teleconference (that’s just Carbon Trust, ETI and us). The outgoing Mark Williamson was pretty hung-over, but Benj Sykes, who is taking over from him, seemed alert and engaged. Between us and Haslett, we discussed what we knew about our respective futures, what rumours we had heard about each others and what we are doing next. ETI believes itself to be assuming the status of Schrödinger’s Cat, with most people wanting to shut it down but not knowing how to – until the decision is made, they exist in statistical space! Carbon Trust believe that they are the delivery arm for DECC but that DECC have misjudged the discussion with Treasury and so will have no money to invest (through the Carbon Trust) in innovation. I was pulled out of the call to have a quick word with FL about the Design Council so never got a chance to characterise our position.
The final meeting of the day was another go around the strategic thought processes, with the added move of starting to link strategic objectives with critical success factors. Cyrus seemed bemused by what is going on and just wants to get on a enact it, and FL is trying to balance a whole truckload of factors to ensure we keep all our stakeholders (I know it’s a verboten word these days, but I can’t help using it as a protest),