A name indicates what we seek. An address indicates where it is. A route indicates how we get there
11 September 2020 by David Bott
Another cheap excuse to miss the “start the week” meeting – I was in London! I was there for Obi-wan’s “Innovation System” meeting, but it would have been too complicated to go to Swindon then London then back again to go home at the end of the day, so I cut out Swindon! This also gave me the chance to catch up with a couple of people. First up was social media good-person Kathryn Corrick - http://kathryncorrick.co.uk/blog/ - for a glimpse of how we look from (just) outside the tent. It seems the news is modestly good, in that our digital team is coming across as thoughtful yet action-oriented. Good job none of them read this or they might ask for a raise. A quick changeover saw the appearance of Socrates Wife after her meeting with David G. All too soon it was time to take my medicine and mosey on up to NESTA. Obi-wan had assembled the innovation “usual suspects” to nominally discuss what was going on in innovation space. Of course, his inscrutable other goal was validation of what we wanted to do anyway – which he achieved (more Francis Urquhart than Humphrey Appleby). However, the format of people being allowed to state their prejudices without justifying them meant that all the included audience of in-worlders got was stuff they knew already and no real movement in thinking. For those that want the highlights, it’s an organic not mechanistic place, how do we recognise proto-gorillas (and do we need to?), should we concentrate on big or small companies (like, they’re not inter-related in any way?), (after prompting) challenge-led is the way forward. There was a constant refrain that it needed leadership and it should be us, but when acquaintances tell you that it’s in your best interests, you should really check with your friends.
Tuesday saw that most precious of gifts – a cancelled set of meetings – so I got to catch up with things at home before catching a flight (and, yes, I am ashamed of my carbon footprint on this one) to Edinburgh to rendezvous with Energy Man, who was on a missionary visit to the untamed North. Tuesday evening was spent debating how best to capture the progress of Innovation Programmes on a dashboard that was simultaneously a useful management tool but also clear enough to let the Board know where we were content and where we were worried.
Wednesday started with a visit to Aquamarine Power - http://www.aquamarinepower.com/ - to find out more about what they do and to listen to what would make them go faster. That may have been our intent but we spent some time getting them to understand that we were more interested in learning what they thought – because it would form part of our forward strategy in the area – than telling them where we were next about to invest money! They are having a problem with our current competition because they can’t find anyone to collaborate with. They don’t want to work with universities (they have enough fundamental knowledge) but haven’t twigged the supply chain angle – so hadn’t thought of components manufacturers or energy companies. In fact, as they described the development pathway from Oyster 1 to Oyster 2, it sounded like a closed innovation process where they want to hold all the IP – even if it takes them longer to get results.
Lunchtime saw a taxi ride (sorry, Chris, it was the only way to do it in 15 minutes) across town to the Institute of Energy Systems, hosted by Robin Wallace. Robin had been the star of the energy section of the Governing Board visit to Edinburgh back in February and Energy Man has been grooming him as a result. It is nice to talk to an academic with a broad vision of the challenge but who also has the guile to build as many of the building blocks as he/she knows they can master and then work with others who have the other bits of the puzzle. As well as some great slides which managed to imply total mastery without ever explaining anything, the tour was notable for the visit to the wave tank - http://www.mech.ed.ac.uk/research/wavepower/new%20tank/curved%20tank%20working.htm , It was great fun to see the understanding of wave dynamics translated, via computer control, to the ability to “manufacture” any wave set desired. Whereas I saw the best executive toy ever, it apparently has a serious use in testing new systems for extracting energy from waves, the stability of offshore structure and so on. But it definitely rocks!
After a detour back to Aquamarine to pick some stuff up, it was down to Leith docks to visit Pelamis - http://www.pelamiswave.com/ . The basic approach was to understand where we were going, so that we could follow, so we pointed out that we were there to see how far they could go and what was stopping them (this is a microcosm of the funding agency to innovation agency journey!). That said, their response to the same competition that Aquamarine found problematic was much more positive – they understand the need to build supply chains and to work with customers (energy companies) and continue to extend the knowledge base. As with Aquamarine, there was nothing to see, so I missed my chance to see engineering porn once again! Energy Man was by now beginning to realise that the boat trip at EMEC http://www.emec.org.uk/index.asp would not be a smooth ride and would be supplemented by a trip to the top of one of the wave machines, and everyone was enjoying winding him up!
The trip home was uneventful although I did emit 80kg of carbon (allegedly)!
Thursday was a trip down to London for a relocated Executioners meeting. It had undergone this translocation because FL was in front of the Science and Technology Select Committee first thing. First up, though, I had a full Low Carbon Innovation Group telephone conference. Mark/Benj, Andrew and I had talked the other week about what was important and set our working agenda, but DECC (who had volunteered the secretariat) ignored that and issued their own – and then ignored it! There were 2 main issues – the Technology Innovation Needs Assessments (TINAs) and co-ordination of activity. The TINAs are being led of Carbon Trust but are intended to help DECC prioritise its probably limited innovation funding post the CSR. The methodology was developed originally by Carbon Trust for their own needs and we are having great difficulty with thinking of it as a serious analysis. (It makes our first attempts at impact assessment look rigorous!). I once again raised this point and got strong support from Andrew and Gordon Innes of BIS!! We kept coming back to the point that DECC have one specific goal – lowering energy use and carbon dioxide emissions and don’t really care about economic growth! Once the point was made – and hopefully accepted – we got onto Paul’s other point – that once the TINAs were agreed, could we co-ordinate our programmes? This time it was Andrew who led the charge. We had just had the debate about the different goals of the different organisation and once again DECC was trying to impose one set of goals – theirs – on everyone else! Once again BIS was very supportive of the stance taken by 2 of its agencies!! After 75 minutes, we ended and hoped that the record of the meeting will be honest!
It was then into the Executioners meeting on strategy. Strategy Man has been trying to draw us back to the agreed process after we all went walkabout over summer and had 4 questions to answer – What should our role be in the innovation system (see Monday)? What should our programmes be and how should be decide? How can we use Government procurement to drive innovation? And what is our international strategy?
We kicked around the first question for about 4 hours, did the programmes bit in another hour, tackled procurement for a further hour and abandoned international because we were dying of hunger and FL had a dinner to go to! We now have more metaphors (a figure of speech in which a term or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable in order to suggest a resemblance), aphorisms (a terse saying embodying a general truth, or astute observation) and apothegms (A terse, witty, instructive saying) than we know what to do with and are groping our way towards the light. I added to the general usefulness of the day by having left my car near home, so I had a 90 minute train ride and a further 90 minute drive before I arrived in Swindon!
That said, I then only had a 10 minute drive to work on the Friday morning!! After some handle-turning stuff and a queue of people wanting to tell me things, we interviewed a potential person for stratified medicine (for those of you who don’t know, Joe has gone back to MRC and Angela is about to go back to AZ). I took a few minutes out to introduce the practice sessions for the regenerative medicine collaboration nation event on 21st, but still managed to form a favourable impression of the person we saw. Let’s hope the current intransigence at BIS passes quickly!!
We also managed to squeeze in a Funders Panel for Energy Efficient Whitehall, where the slightly downsized funding £2m overall rather than the original £2.75 – those nice people at DECC saying one thing and doing another – was used to fund 9 rather interesting sounding projects, 2 really cool BHAGs and 7 more pedestrian but less risky ones. We need to follow these closely because they have the potential to be very interesting to many outside government and technology – in fact anyone who works in a building!
The final meeting of the day was with Communications Man and Media Woman, and was starting the process of rethinking how we maximise our impact in the outside world. One of the potential pitfalls of inheriting a going concern is that we carry on doing things like they used to be done because we think it is the best way. What Paul and Claire persuaded me is that – particularly when it comes to competitions – book-ended press releases might not be the best way. We need to go back to ask the question “what are we trying to achieve?” and start from there. Ever since we started, every morning I get one or more read-outs of how we are reported in the media. Many of our competition announcements get reported in the Leicester Mercury and the Redditch Advertiser and are therefore read by dogs and cats up and down the country. When we assemble a story, weave in an event or series of events, and relate it to real people, we get into the big newspapers and even on the TV and our reach suddenly goes large. Perhaps press releases aren’t the best way to announce a competition was their test challenge to me. At the other end of the process, do we produce press releases to celebrate the success of the companies and consortia, or are we doing it for self-promoting organisational glory? Why is it that (even though many of us believe it to be a legal requirement) we don’t just publish lists of winners on our web site and issue a standard note pointing at it. Going back to the media read-outs I get, our profile and consequent reach goes up with the strength of the relationship to the journalist involved. Should we take our early relationship building with key people in major newspapers, the great and glorious BBC and some specialist journals and put more resource into that because then we get our STORY across rather than list our activities, there is more impact. After the allotted hour, I am not sure we have finished the discussion, and I have this vision of the pair of them sticking pins into an effigy of me over the weekend (that pain in my arm, for example) but I think we are now closer to agreeing a very productive path forward.