The week when Government Leadership changed our world – maybe!
06 November 2020 by David Bott
Another Monday, another “start the week” meeting. What is there left to say? The fun started immediately afterwards. As part of David way’s new role as Obersturmbannführer Centres, he now has to deal with all the people who want a slice of the £200m TIC pot. Mostly they can be dealt with by telling them we haven’t actually issued the specification, or just a simple “have you read how Hauser defines a centre?”, but now and then a situation arises that requires a group response – and the second hour of last week demanded that response. Qinetiq are closing several parts of their Malvern facility and among the activities due to finish are those involving III-V compound semiconductors. A few weeks ago, we decided that it wasn’t a TIC shaped activity but since then various lobbying has gone on, a brace of Chief Scientific Advisors have got involved and a company has made a proposal that we support a stop-gap activity. So it was that 4 of us had to sit through what was a very good description of why III-V’s were a good business investment for IQE, butt-joined to a request for £3m for a year before we made the decisions to fund a full TIC in Wales in the area. It was not convincing in the least, but possibly a sign of times to come. As an observation, if you know you have an hour to convince us, taking 50 minutes on foreplay is not a sensible use of time!
Next came a meeting of the “Heads” for Innovation Programmes. We had 3 issues. First up was the move from the balanced scorecard that hardly anyone reads anymore to the new dashboard approach. Our “programme” approach has been tested with the EMT and Governing Board and accepted (or at least not rejected) but we are still pondering how to capture progress in Technology and Development. Since Jools has to submit soon, she was anxious to make sure we all knew what we were doing. I think we got a result but, in the search for a really good answer, there was a tendency to keep revisiting the decisions once made. Next up was a discussion of the development of the strategic objectives as part of the overall strategy development. Sustainability Man described the status, although it seemed like he hadn’t heard back from Strategy Man after the last EMT discussion, but since that was basically “the third criteria needs to be better explained and 8 is too many objectives” we didn’t take too long to nail that one. After a bit of pre-amble, David Way and Mike Oldham joined us for a discussion on TICs. Since the last Board had decided that TICs wouldn’t happen unless aligned with our strategic priorities, we have had to work out how to build that decision loop into the process. At the moment, the vast majority of “suggestions” are from existing centres (where the inertial expense is much larger than the available money) or from universities who want an extra pot of money to do what they were going to do anyway, so we need to introduce a bit of tension into the area by setting out our future plans and thinking what a centre might contribute to them. This will not be an easy path but should make us look like heroes in 10 years time – although we will probably have been lynched by a consortium of existing centre managers and vice-chancellors long before then!
Another joy for the afternoon was a run-through of what we were going to do and say at the 2nd Emerging Technologies and Industries Steering Group. The first was an unmitigated disaster, so the young padawan has been coaching his troop into a more informative and “progressive” set of activities to report back on. Aside from some extensive IT problems, I left wondering what excuse I could make to be somewhere else!
At 4 o’clock, the meeting of the week started. Heavily trailed at the “start the week” meeting, this Competitions Sign-Off meeting didn’t make as much progress as I had hoped because, the famous master spreadsheet still failed to include some of the stuff we agreed last time, and the Heads – in their quest for more appropriate and effective competitions – had changed things anyway! Still we were making real progress under the whip of Cyrus when I had to leave (at the time the meeting was supposed to end I might point out). The pressing case to move was a telephone call with FL and Adrian Smith of BIS and David Clark of ETI. There is a long running problem with NAREC and whether they are capable of hosting an ETI project. It’s a Catch-22 situation where they need better forward financials to be able to discharge the project but won’t have them unless they get the project. Both sides are therefore shadow boxing about what is, or isn’t, going to happen. Since our good friends in DECC think we should just give them some of our TIC money and make the problem go away and I’m going to front for us at the next ETI Board Meeting, I am quite interested in developments in the area. Adrian told DC that there wasn’t a pot of extra money in BIS and FL told him that we wouldn’t be making decisions on TICs before next April. So the monkey was still at the ETI – for the meanwhile!
By now I had a voicemail, 2 test messages and an e-mail from Bob Driver at UKTI. Their initial invite list for Thursday (see later in the week) had been approved the previous Friday but was coming up underwhelming and they wanted help with exciting business people in London. I forwarded FL’s list of 50 neat things in London (he had drawn up for this London Week appearance a few weeks ago) and a brain dump from my address book.
Late on in the afternoon, I also got a voicemail from Gordon Murray Design saying that because they were going to run T25 in the RAC Future Car Challenge the following weekend, they had decided to change the engine and therefore I wouldn’t be able to drive it the following day, but was still welcome to come. Rats!!
My drive to the South East of England was enlivened by several phone calls, not least one from the wife of Socrates, who asked all sorts of difficult questions about how we present ourselves to Government – and why our website is pants!
Nevertheless, I did go to Shalford and was treated to a fascinating update on where they are on the project and getting financial support for their next phase of development. They are going for a moderately large VC round and are now confident of getting it – but all from outside the UK! We talked through the developing options for manufacture and branding and they showed me their corporate videos of how the factory would work but, as always, it was the time spent in the workshop that left the warm feeling. I played with the chassis of the T27 I will drive as a fully finished car early in the New Year, and looked at the one that I might drive as the mule, back to back with the T25 before Christmas. We looked over the T25 that would be faster than FL’s Liberty Range Rover in the RACe, and generally behaved like electron-heads. It’s always good to go out and see what real companies are doing and the words “if it wasn’t for the Technology Strategy Board, we wouldn’t be where we are today” never fail to thrill! As I left, I found I had a “call me” voicemail from His Spittleness, so I did so. He had already talked to FL and his agitation was because several people had told him the decisions we had made about TICs were wrong. FL had explained the situation (that we hadn’t made any decisions but that lobbying was evolving into an art form) and Graham did commiserate!! And I got a chance to drive the M25 at rush hour!
Wednesday started as a Swindon day, but the first meeting was not a good one. It was a Funders Panel for the Low Impact Buildings “Building Performance Evaluation” and after 10 minutes of chaos – no scene setting introduction, no obvious correlation between what was in the master spreadsheet and the money we were supposed to be allocating, discussions about commitment and spend rate getting confused – I decided I had better things to do and asked to reconvene later it he day when we had prepared properly. Next up was one of the strangest interviews I have done recently, when the interviewee had lost about 18 months of their 7 year career and couldn’t explain it! There were also other reasons why they won’t be joining us, but it was at least original!
Then it was down to BAE Systems in Bristol – or “just near my old office” as FL described it! We have had intermittent conversations with BAE Systems over the years but mostly about specific competitions and why we weren’t giving them money. This meeting, a useful juxtaposition of a long term commitment from the Managing Director of Technology and Engineering Services and a chance re-meeting with the Technical Director of their Advanced Technical Centre, who I once collaborated with (26 years ago!), brought together some of their senior guys and gave me a chance to explain the wider context of what we do and how we do it. They, like many other “defence” companies, are trying to understand the adjacent and accessible markets and are beginning to understand that selling their existing products is not the most effective way to engage – and that they need to learn new language to understand what these markets actually might buy from them. It was a good and potentially productive meeting and the next step is for me to reprise it in front of a wider cross-section of BAE technical managers.
It was then back to a re-run of the morning meeting where everyone had prepared properly and which therefore went very smoothly. On reflection, I wonder if we ever stop to realise that the Funders Panels are among the most important meetings we hold, because it is where we make real decisions about an awful lot of money and we owe it to both the taxpayers and the companies we fund to make sure we think thoroughly and effectively about how best to invest the money, based on the input of the assessors and the panel. The final act of the day was to commute to London for an early start the next day!
And lo, the next day came, and I went for a breakfast in the Economist boardroom. As they say, there is no such thing as a free breakfast and this was not an exception. It was a small gathering tasked with discussing the format and content of the 2011 Economist Energy Summit. It was very interesting discussion. The oil company representative thought an electric economy was nonsense, the electricity regulator believed in strong government intervention, but the electricity company person didn’t, the PV guy wanted more clarity on feed-in tariffs, the fuel cell guy wanted more micro-generation – you get the picture. I found myself cast in the role of champion of the markets and consumer (not sure how that happened, but I asked a question and had to defend my premise, I guess). Anyway, I look forward to what the nice people from the Economist dig out of the discussion. On the way out, David Clarke briefed me on the latest about NAREC. BIS had confirmed there was no money, and the Scottish Government was offering inducements for ETI to move the project to Rosyth. This would torpedo the finances of NAREC in the short term, and possibly precipitate a problem between the private and public stakeholders in ETI.
I walked across St James Park to sneak in the back of the BIVDA AGM, but managed to get there in time to be seen and press sufficient flesh to be supportive of them and Penny – who was talking later in the meeting. I stayed long enough to learn that the bribery laws are changing, but then snuck off to BIS to rendezvous with FL.
The reason we were meeting up was to save money going together to Shoreditch to be part of Innovation Future, a Number 10 inspired, UKTI organised meeting about innovation (who’d have guessed that from the title?). It’s not a part of London FL goes to, so we took the tube to Aldgate East and wandered up Brick Lane, one of a limited number of “suits” in the area, all holding copies of the same e-mail instructions. We were deliberately early to make sure we found it, but ran into the Public Sector guy from Cisco on the same overall thought process, and at the same “we’ve found it, now we need a coffee” moment. There followed a discussion of TICs, what might have been an offer to give us a cut-price telepresence unit for Swindon and some general banter about Government. At the appointed hour, we walked the final yards and offered up proof that we had been invited and proof that we were who we said we were and entered the old Boilerhosue of the Truman brewery. Despite the panic on Monday evening, the room was fairly full and definitely humming. I found a lot of people who had been on our late list, so we can claim to have contributed (all that practice with late invites to successive Innovates has served us well!) and the mingling was useful. Eventually, we settled down and listened to Jeremy Hunt start the proceedings. The first panel had a guy from the Wellcome Trust, one from McKinsey, one from a company I hadn’t heard of and our own Minister! It was all a bit “corporate” and predictable and (like many in the room) I turned to twitter for some useful input. It turns out that the SME community in the room were committed twitterati and some great virtual banter started up, enabling us all to avoid fits of vomiting bought on by the saccharine sentiments of the panel. After the “guests” (it turns out that Dave had bought Boris along) arrived, they turned over to a couple of local boys made good for some relevant commentary. First up was Glenn Shoosmith of Bookingbug. Fixing the Smothers Brothers in the front row with his gaze, he set about demolishing the conceit that the government understood small business and was helping. His finest moment was the description of tendering for a government contract for his company and realising that there was “no tender process for innovation”. He was followed by a more sober version of the same argument by Steve Hardman of SocialGO before Dave got to announce £200m of new equity funding for early stage companies, £200m for Technology Innovation Centres – one of which could be in Shoreditch, an entrepreneurs visa and sponsorship by Google and others of the link between Shoreditch and the Olympic Park. This last bit has been heavily criticised in the blogosphere by the small companies because it amounts (in their eyes) to the corporates squashing their efforts to compete!
Dave was followed by Boris who announced acceptance of the £200m a year funding for a TIC in Shoreditch, a cable car between the Dome and the City Airport named after the Minister for BIS and that London would be the first 4G capital in the world. He then repeated his list of London firsts – penicillin, evolution, sewers and so on. After the important people left, a new panel of start-up people took the stage, Glenn and Steve we joined by Tom Allason of Shutl, Christian Alhert of Minibar and Holly Tucker of Notonthehighstreet.com and David Willetts stayed around – the whole thing being chaired by Hunt again. Lots of really good ideas for doing things differently and some suspicion of whether the top down approach outlined by the PM would actually work, or whether they would just enable the government to claim success for something that was already happening.
We left to get back to Tracy Island – FL to collect his stuff and migrate to Manchester for an evening of depravity and me to join the young padawan at the Emerging Technologies and Industries Steering Group meeting. I joined the meeting with unfounded trepidation and mostly enjoyed the next few hours – to the point that I decided not to join the Aardman/Wired party at the Covent Garden Apple Store but to stay and explore what we could do next. TYP and his troop have done an okay job of developing a process, to triage suggestions for the “next big thing” but the temptation to make it a process rather than a guide to real thought always looms in the rear view mirror. The dinner, which I ended up paying for on my credit card (11 covers, just under £600 but we don’t pay them for their time!), was a great discussion not just of emergent technologies but also government approaches to trying to provide support for them. One of things we discovered was that meanwhile, in Cambridge, the university was apparently debating how best to get their hands on the TIC money and had invited Hermann on the assumption that the Government still listen to him.
Friday mean a train ride to Reading, first for a catch-up with Zahid. Jools is getting increasingly inventive about how she slots the team together in an escalating game of geographical chess! We talked through the various healthcare programmes, our increasing problem of lack of human resource, the Future Health Mission and its demand for resource and publicity and which area he would pick from his programme for effective use of a TIC. Towards the end of this final bit, we were joined by ALIP Boy and Security Boy and I discovered that we haven’t really engaged the Technologist cohort in our centres thinking – and that they have some really good ideas! We were going to share a taxi, but Mike knew that there was a free bus to the Thames Valley Park, so we caught that and arrived at Microsoft with the warm glow of austerity travel painted all over us.
The visit, part of our wider engagement programme and delayed because their Public Affairs person kept delaying the meeting because she thought FL had to be part of it, was a good chance to explain to the dark lords of software what we do and how we do it (a theme is developing here, isn’t it?). They had sent us an agenda broken down into sensible areas with their names against the sections, but it rapidly transpired they had done no preparation, so instead, after a standard introductory talk, first Zahid, then Richard then Tim explained how we tackled healthcare, sustainability and education. They obviously have their own ways of doing things, but they do seem to be committed to supporting SMEs in their supply chains, they do have products and services in areas of mutual interest but (like all large companies) they will not entertain any ideas that aren’t theirs (especially if they might be from their competitors). I left feeling that one or two in the room saw the point of the meeting, but that many would need several goes before they saw the bigger picture.
A few of us dragged back to Swindon for an hour of two of cleaning up but then it was the end of the week for most of us – but not FL!!