I wonder whose Zeitgeist I was surfing!
11 December 2020 by David Bott
The week started in an odd way because it had been re-arranged several times during last week to accommodate the magic BIS Manufacturing Event that seemed to have become “spastic in time”. At the point where it had been scheduled for Monday, I arranged other London events to coincide, so that when it was moved to Wednesday (before being cancelled completely) I had a “polo” day with lots of London meetings in the morning and afternoon but a hole in the middle!
The first meeting, which had also been arranged in a hurry, was with Sharon Vosmek and Katie Nittle of Astia. I am not sure really why, but they seem to think we are an important player in the UK and to help Obi Wan with his ecosystem leadership quest, I am playing along. We are going to be involved in their June London “Doing it Right” event and I was playing tag with Zoe who went to their European Advisory Board meeting later in the day. We also talked about the Missions and them getting more involved with the San Francisco end. I then made it down to Tracy Island and installed myself in a room to take part on the Heads of Innovation Programmes meeting by telephone. Sustainability Man, the latest to get a lurgy, was similarly virtual but Obi Wan was in the room to continue the discussion on strategy. We ended up with 3 actions – to record what has worked (and what hasn’t) over the last 3 years as the beginning of a good practice guide, a stakeholder mapping (although I think we all had a different view about what this meant) and a first cut of prioritising the portfolio. We also talked about the impending tsunami of TIC lobbying once the prospectus comes out next week!
I got out of this telephone conference in time for another – with Kate and (new Steven) Ruth about LWEC and the BAB. What we are realising is that NERC are completely missing the point about what the BAB is for and are trying to use it to justify their existing programmes. Since this was the charge levelled by the one or two members who wanted to resign after the first couple of meetings and who I persuaded to stay because that wasn’t the case, I am a bit sensitive about the issue, so Sustainability Man and I are trying to head off a disaster where they rehearse the academic view in front of Willetts and precipitate an argument which results in mass resignation! Ruth seems a huge upgrade on her predecessor but still sees the BAB as unpaid consultants and not an advisory board!
Another victim of the manufacturing induced re-arrangement was a Funders Panel on Collaboration Across Digital Industries. It was never going to be ideal to take part from the back of a cab, but the usual late start severely limited my involvement to the point that I don’t actually recognise the outcome and have severe reservations! It’s my fault though. We have yet another instance of where the Panel start to make decisions that I believe they should not be making and so are effectively perverting the competition process.
My engagement was truncated by the formal opening of the Future Health Mission (look for it under http://www.futurehealthmission.com/ and not http://www.fhm.com/ !) The judging is over, the offers made and in 5 weeks the 20 companies will all be out in San Francisco strutting their stuff. It was a fun evening, with each of the companies explaining to one another what they do and where they are in their growth. For a list and the formal press release go to http://www.futurehealthmission.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/Future-Health-Mission-Press-Release-FINAL.pdf . There were a few stand-outs but mostly, they will need to (and undoubtedly will) get a lot better at pitching if they are to keep up the tradition of success – the first 3 Missions have now raised over £100m in funding since taking part in their respective trip. It is worth pointing out that buddi, a company run by Sara Murray, who is on our Governing Board, is going but that it was the judgement of the other panel members that made it so. The same might be said about Doccom, but since Nick Buckland is not actually going on the trip, we have less of a PR bear-trap to avoid! The evening was also notable for the winner who told me that she was best friends with the hot redhead that the young padawan had gone out with at university and that I should pass her regards onto him!
I left the group in the capable wallet of Oli Barret and wandered down to the National Gallery for the Finmeccanica Christmas bash. I was idly wandering about with a glass of champagne in my hand looking for my presumed host when I ran into Chris Crockford (some months ago he had been a strong critic of our competition process, our feedback and our general bureaucracy). We talked about a variety of things but ended up talking about process transfer – McLaren are interested in “selling” their innovation process to those who want to be as innovative as them, but are having difficulty thinking of how to frame the offer. I told him about Du Pont Safety Training and explained how they operated an equivalent process, effectively downloading a culture by means of practices. I think he is now my best friend. When Ray Kingcombe arrived, I made my excuses and left! Eventually I found my host, with Energy Man quaffing champagne next to him. I then had a bizarre conversation, with a guy from Finmeccanica that I recognised but couldn’t remember, about my blog post from the previous day – apparently he has our blog page on RSS!
I also took a phone call from Andrew Haslett who characterised the ETI bit of the NAREC situation as “we have realised we are pregnant by the village idiot and are awfully grateful that the squires son has offered to make an honest parent out of us”.
Tuesday saw the long trek out to Excel for Technology World. Huw the Event was out there already and our stand was in a good spot, just behind the UKTI stand. This positioning turned out to be a less than perfect because although we were right where everyone could see us, we were also the next thing the freezing wind that blows through Excel saw after UKTI. All day we were wearing coats! As a speaker, I was whisked off to the VIP room, a small space delineated by 4 wobbly walls but just as cold as everywhere else, to prepare. Bob Driver had called in with a tooth abscess, so Simon Carter was unexpectedly (for him at least) in the driving seat. The plenary room was mostly full (about 450-500 people) for the opening talks. Larry Hirst read the talk mostly written for him by UKTI a bit stiffly and the temperature meant that many had kept their coats and hats on, so I had a job to raise any interest. I used a cut down version of the new introductory presentation (although it hadn’t been sanctified as such yet) and tried to balance blatant promotion of the Technology Strategy Board with some humility about our part in the innovation ecosystem/infrastructure. I was followed by Simon Jewell from BAe Systems who used a couple of flashy videos, but didn’t really say much other that “look how good BAE Systems are!”. Afterwards, I was approached by a number of people who liked the presentation and said things like “refreshingly honest” and “insightful” so since I stole most of it out of the shared strategy work I thought I would pass the praise on!
The day became a blur of meetings with Japanese, Taiwanese, Chinese, Poles and Australians in-between trying to stave off hypothermia. One of the better distractions was to go and tease Gus Desbarats of The Alloy and more recently the new IT Innovation Guru for David Cameron – see http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sponsored/motoring/ford-future-sessions/Future-of-technology/8176800/Meet-the-Prime-Ministers-IT-guru.html Since I knew Gus to be a useful mentor for the Creative Industries KTN and the recently appointed Chairman of the British Design Institute, I had been a little bemused by his elevation, but he had shared a letter of complaint to the Torygraph, so I (personally at least) forgave him.
I also had a series of conversations with Larry Hirst about UKTI, Education and Digital Services, both during the afternoon and in the bar of his hotel (which was warm) before we headed out to the Painted Hall of Greenwich for the Gala Dinner. At this point it turned out that the footfall had been about half that expected/desired and that some of the Indian delegation had refused to attend the dinner because George Osborne wasn’t going to (funnily enough, I had the opposite thought) and hadn’t thought substituting Lord Brittain was good enough. The Willetts ducked out too and was replaced by Edward Oakden and so Patricia Hewitt also bailed. Considering the goal was to drive trade with other countries, it seems sad that petty politics is seen to be more important than turning out to meet those who have travelled a long distance to see what the UK has to offer! The dawning realisation that the immersive cold would continue and that there were few important people left drove misery further into the souls of those who now couldn’t escape! The compere for the evening was Elizabeth Varley of TechHub, in an attempt to prove relevance to the Shoreditch phenomenon and change the demographic, and John Higgins of Intellect at least tried to be positive. I had a weird exchange with Tom Wills-Sanford who complimented me on the presentation but expressed sadness that, on the ground, we still behaved like part of the DTI. I considered hitting him, but didn’t. By the time I got back to the hotel, I wrapped myself in the bathrobe and crawled into bed thinking I would never be warm again!
Wednesday proved that frostbite is a state of mind and that I had survived, so I made my way up to the Carbon Trust for a meeting of the Low Carbon Innovation Group. The main goal of the meeting was to agree what a Technology Innovation Needs Assessment (TINA) actually was, and what we would jointly use it for. There is a history that DECC wanted to use this process to justify their existing decisions and then impose their limited world view on the other funders, but successive meetings (and some fine work behind the scenes by Neil, Richard and Andrew) has got us to a better place. That still meant we had to spend 30 minutes putting DECC back into their box as we went over the definition piece. DECC had amusingly inserted a governance structure that gave them sign off of any TINA but Alison Wall spotted that one, so it was consigned to the “nice try” box. Then we came to look at the Offshore Wind exemplar. It only took 3 slides before Andrew (more brains than Willetts) Haslett started in – requiring a clear demarcation between assertions that could be backed up by facts and those that were the product of the febrile minds of DECC hobbits. We limped on before we all realised that the Carbon Trust analyst had not done a very thorough job and that the DECC timelines for making their Minister happy with facts was not going to happen! That led into some questions about TICs. It looks like the various bits of BIS we deal with have the discretion of a public address system and that everyone is aware of our thoughts from a few days earlier – and don’t believe that they were emergent and possibly surpassed! Finally, we learned that the “ministerial meeting” was once again likely to be missing any Ministers and that the replacement civil servants were well below even DG level and so there was really no point in the various CEOs making the effort to attend. There was a question of just how important the ministers (and their advisory officials) though the low carbon agenda was and whether they really wanted this meeting!
Back to Tracy Island, for a meeting with Marie-Anne MacKenzie, who we have been working with on the Manufacturing Framework – which by now had been cancelled again! I was once again quizzed on TICs – even though she had been in the BIS High Level meeting where we had discussed them the week before, she had obviously not clocked what we were talking about.
By the time I had walked upstairs again, she had obviously passed it around on the 4th floor and I got a call from Jane Whewell of the Automotive Unit, who wanted to tell me that a single manufacturing centre just wouldn’t work because the automotive guys just couldn’t work with the aerospace guys and therefore they should have separate TICs. I explained the money driver and the Hauser criteria to her and made my excuses…..
For the next hour I listened as Mani took call after call about TICs, and then I walked up to the Royal Society for the FST Christmas Lecture. I had a few words with Sandy Thomas (apparently, David MacKay had trashed the latest Foresight publication – he should have seen the earlier draft before the young padawan suggested they weren’t making sense!), Brain Collins (about Infrastructural things) and Nigel Shadbolt (who was talking). Nigel’s talk was pretty much what I had seen before, and he persists in confusing the use of semantics with the use of large datasets and fails to take account of which services consumers would actually pay to have. In the austerity reception afterwards, only mince pies and not much topping up of glasses, I met the Scientific Attaché of the Czech Embassy, who told me that he was compiling a dossier on us to submit as recommendation to his government as a model for their innovation agency. He then told me that our website was the worst he had ever seen and offered cost effective programmers to put it right. Peter Saraga also wandered up at one point and told me that the Assisted Living team were becoming the most popular people in Europe and suggested we enter them for the Eurovision Song Contest!
Thursday required an early start to make it down for a few hours of the Executioners Meeting, where we talked about the actions from previous meetings and the dashboards before I had to leave! I had been “volunteered” by FL to be him at the meetings of the BIS Innovation Family, snappily entitled something like “conducting the orchestra, raising the volume and choosing the right instruments”. It seemed (in hindsight) to have forgotten the bit about taking requests, but maybe that’s taking the metaphor too far. It was opened by Stian talking about high growth companies and how we needed to support them, although he admitted privately afterwards that you can only really identify them with hindsight. He was followed by John Alty talking about the Intellectual Property Office, before I gave a short version of the strategy paper with some key challenges FL and I had agreed the afternoon before. I was followed by David Kester, who tried too hard and whose technology failed – with Michael Bichard grinding his teeth in the audience. Then came a quartet from the National Measurement System. By now I realised I had got my presentation all wrong and I should have pushed for more money and used figures that asserted that a £ of investment would yield at least £26 in return. This approach continued with British Standards and the UK Accreditation Service, all of who would obviously make profitable private sector investment vehicles, so successful are they are generating returns. At the break, I was getting a bit down, but afterwards I was in for a pleasant surprise. The head of analysis in BIS has a sense of humour and actually understand the links between economics and innovation – or rather he admits that he doesn’t understand the link and acknowledges that no-one does! Even the waffle on the growth agenda couldn’t dim my mood as our new DG took the stage. Admittedly he moaned because the research councils weren’t there but then talked mostly about us and even borrowed some of the points I had made in our presentation. The obligatory and completely non value-adding syndicate session was mercifully brief before we broke for austerity wine and nibbles. Obi Wan, who was there in his own right as an innovation Jedi, and I both made a beeline for Adrian and had a nice talk with him before setting right the world on our own.
I had to leave to get down to the Strand for a Forum for the Future party (it’s that time of year, what can I say?). I had nice chats with Jonathan and James (who gave a great talk on the future of sustainability) and was collared by the sustainability guy from ADS. I then walked back through Covent Garden, Leicester Square and Regent Street (apparently narrowly missing the assassination attempt on the heir to the throne) to the hotel. Wherever I went I saw good-natured students trailing their banners around looking for food, drink and the usual, all with smiles on their faces. I was a little bemused to turn on the TV and see the scenes from Parliament Square!
The next morning, I took a telecom with TIC Boy in my hotel before setting out with Sustainability Man for just another meeting, albeit with Marks and Spencer. We have been dancing around M&S for about 6 months and promising to do something, but this was it. After a rendition of the new standard presentation, we then sat through a rotation of senior M&S people on clothing, food, construction and IT and managed to have to be stopped when the allotted 4 hours ran out, with people still queuing to meet us (or was it for the cheap wine next door?). We now have a list of extra things to do and possibly a commitment to run a private SBRI competition with them! Excellent meeting.
I then got back to Tracy Island to catch up with e-mails before walking up to Covent Garden but not connecting with the Design Council Christmas party – because they started late! Then it was up to TechHub for the first of a series of “launch” events for WebMission 11. The Media Dominatrix was in unstoppable form, interviewing first the principals and then any would-be entrepreneur we could put in front of her. We made connections with the Wall Street Journal, BookingBug, GroupSpaces, BBC Research and WebFusion before the evening degenerated into alcohol fuelled idea generation. I started to feel my age and set off to catch the penultimate train home and not get marooned in London. I kept getting texts from the Design Council which were very attractive but I had nowhere to stay and no spare socks so I left London 108 hours after I had entered it on the Monday morning. Great week!