Rowing back from the waterfall
09 April 2021 by David Bott
Monday has now degenerated into a routine drive down the Fosse Way with nothing to report about the journey so, once again, I joined the “start the week” meeting with a coffee in my hand. Given the output of the Governing Board, David Way had elected to extend the normal TIC update to probe the team most closely associated with the exercise on what we could/should do next. The problem is that the Board effectively advised us to use a particular process in January and then didn’t like the output in March, so wanted us to go back and use a different process. This is actually a good use of the intuition and experience of the Board, but difficult to manage against a tight(ish) timeline and some alleged political pressure. I am not sure in hindsight that we resolved the inherent conflict of pressures, other than to agree that the only area we all feel could go forward for the next announcement is a better defined “offshore engineering”.
I galloped through the PDR with Digital Man, and spent some time anticipating the TechCity LaunchPad announcement planned for Monday evening, said a passing hello/goodbye to Eric Mayes and caught a train to London with FL. Scurrying on down to Tracy Island, our first meeting was with Alan Rutherford of NaREC. It seems that ETI have now decided that NaREC should negotiate the contract for Project Fujin, but NaREC have decreed that the previous negotiations were all wrong and have to be redone – effectively putting another months delay into the process. FL tried to query whether this analysis had any basis in revenge, but didn’t get far. It does feel like the relationship between ETI and NaREC has gone past the “mendable” phase! We also agreed to add NaREC to our North East agenda next week – putting pressure on our travel advisors as we changed again! Almost as soon as we had ushered Alan out of the door to Room 5N, in came John Higgins. This meeting, now destined to be an interim one, was the result of a couple of queries from Intellect where both sides realised that, although we do a lot together, we had no idea what one another’s strategies were! We discussed the role of Intellect in the digital area and agreed to turn our next meeting into a wider strategic engagement.
FL and I then made our way up to TechHub for the announcement of the LaunchPad. We were there a little early and had coffee with Eric van der Kleij (now formally announced as the CEO of the TechCity Investment Office) who was very “up” on what we were doing. David Willetts arrived and we all mingled – Zoe and Nick having arrived as well. The UKTI inspired organisation of the event was a little confusing, but FL and Eric formed a sort of Praetorian Guard for Willetts as he talked about what the Budget had done for entrepreneurs and (rather woodenly) announced our competition. Elizabeth Varley obviously thought that he hadn’t been bullish enough and asked FL and Eric to say a few words. Once we got to questions, we got an odd response. We had tailored this competition to some specific requests from the actual TechCity folk, but people started criticising it for those exact reasons. We wanted to encourage the cluster so had gone for encouraging collaborative projects – the questioners all wanted single company support. We wanted to support those who hadn’t yet received funding – the questions asked if they could apply if they already had money! We wanted to celebrate the ideas and so proposed to use the video post method we had used last year – the question wanted to submit in private. If I had been there representing a private investor, I would have just cancelled the competition on the spot, but as a government agency, we have to take the criticism for not being able to satisfy everyone and carry on.
A small knot of us then caught a taxi to Congress House for the next event. Graham Brown-Martin of Learning Without Frontiers had fixed for Guy Kawasaki to speak (as well as launch his new book) and Elizabeth, Eric and I (and allegedly Ed Vaizey, but he bailed) were on a panel afterwards. Guy comes from the American “business guru” school of activity, but mixes a superfluity of personal charm with the usual bullshit. You can watch his talk here - http://www.youtube.com/lwf#p/u/1/PF2HPtSgbas and the panel discussion here - http://www.youtube.com/lwf#p/u/0/H4QIqByou_U (for the record, the Victoria I am threatening to kill is Victoria Atherstone of Urbanites + Scooters and a good friend of Doug Richards!). Eric, Elizabeth and I went off for a delayed dinner – and were joined by Mike Marcus, who had just finished a photo shoot with Kate Bush. Weird life these days!
Tuesday morning required an early(ish) train back to Swindon for the Objectives and Delivery Plan Workshop (that’s what it’s still called in my diary, although we largely changed the intent some time ago!). After the obligatory Walsh-induced personal interaction, FL started with a review of our first 1373 days and a high level version of our strategy. Then we broke into Directorates. Our intention was that we would spend some time all together then break into smaller groups, but instead I ended up answering question for what felt like both forever and not very long, as we explored what the strategic thrust and the “we wills” actually meant for us. I probably ought to admit at this point that I have an almost pathological aversion to team building events (I was forced to endure many of them in the US and have come to recognise the PA playing “Simple the Best” by Tina Turner as the trigger for enough drinking to wipe out the previous 24-48 hours!) but thoroughly enjoyed the discussion with the Innovation Programmes team. The Directors took the initial outputs of the separate groups and tried to parse them into some structure for the second day, whilst the rest of the organisation were introduced to one of those simplistic psychological instruments that are meant to act as the basis for discussion but usually end up being mistaken for reality and used to drive massive and ill-judged changes. Back in the bunker, the main problems we saw were the need to balance a fairly flexible external approach with the process and audit trail driven approach required of a quango if it is to avoid censure and the need for a set of management tools that enable us to manage.
By now we had discovered that the mildly antagonistic questioning of the night before had turned into some vituperative bloggage. Luckily, Mike Butcher of TechCrunch and a co-founder of TechHub was on our side and offered us a guest post. I turned out a basic draft and then inveigled Nick, Zoe, Claire and Glenn Shoesmith (for local knowledge) to help hone it to a reasonable state.
Dinner conversation was (instead) driven by the need to unpick why the Business Planning group wanted to be more loved! Bar conversation dove fast and deep – I think those who heard Tim’s recounting of David Alvis’s elephant story will all avoid both of them in bars in future!
Wednesday mixed up people between the various teams and they tackled the cross-cutting questions. Feedback was mostly well-pitched and we all left promising to change the world and make things better. This time we HAVE to follow through.
After a brief interlude at North Star House, I caught the train down to London with FL and we fitted my PDR into the journey. I then went on the Living with Environmental Change Business Advisory Board dinner with Sustainability Man. The ritual sacrifice this time was Professor Sir Mike Gregory, who started by telling people he had been briefed that LWEC was a loose rag-bag of academic projects using company engagement as a fig-leaf. That went down well with the business members of the Business Advisory Board but the LWEC Executive looked a little pained. Mike mainly talked about the framework of innovation and how the Institute for Manufacturing used such a framework to help people plan/design more effectively. There was an interesting dynamic between the BAB and the members of the Partners Board who turned up – particularly Mike Parker (DEFRA) and Nafees Meah (DECC) who continue to be open and interested in what the BAB is aiming for. Mike, SM and I also got into a sidebar discussion about TICs.
The next day, the meeting proper had 2 main items – The joint DEFRA/DECC/BIS Roadmap to the Green Economy and the DEFRA Adapting to Climate Change programme. The former was a bit wish-washy, with no real clarity or conviction, and a general feeling that they were stitching together things that were already happening rather than laying out a coherent, strategy-driven vision. The DEFRA presentation was much more compelling and I got the feeling that they guy giving it understood what he was talking about and truly believed it was necessary to prioritise it.
In the remains of the meeting, we got the feedback that Colin was a good chairman, but the BAB are not convinced they are having any effect on the LWEC programmes. Unfortunately, I had to leave so missed whatever summing up Colin made and the free lunch. Instead I tubed back to Tracy Island for a telecon with Healthcare Man and the GE people about regenerative medicine and engagement both with our programmes and the TICquest. I also caught Greg fresh out of the KTN Directors Meeting, and got some down and dirty feedback on both that and the AwayDay. From our high level discussion on Tuesday, I had ascertained that the Technologists relationship with the KTNs was variable. Some, the MBE KTN in particular, had real support from the inside team, but others seemed to feel that the KTNs were too often following their own agenda rather than aligning with ours. We also talked about the competitions process and agreed that we ought to set up a joint Innovation Programmes/Operations tiger team to build a modular competitions process that had been talked about a lot at the AwayDay – and start as soon as we can. I have already talked to Cyrus about this and I think/hope he will kick it off. I had time for more answering questions on our TechCrunch post, but started having Wi-Fi problems at BIS, so went back to my hotel – where I had a real, old-fashioned wire to connect to!
In the evening, I met up with Michael Wolff and Sebastian Conran, fresh from their engagement of TIC branding. To that I added Ellie Runcie, one of the Design Council people who does what she says she’s going to and Nurse Jackie – because I had pitched “Parole” to Michael and Sebastian and promised them a shot at it if they did the TIC thing for free! The feedback from the day was interesting. Michael was adamant that the whole area should be forward looking and that naming it after a dead guy was counter productive. He and Sebastian were obviously still baking their thoughts, so I didn’t get much fully formed stuff, but I sense we will need to meet them halfway if we are to resolve properly. I also got a side order that our basic branding was less than impressive too! On Parole, they are now completely caught, and will do anything Nurse Jackie wants them to do – the basic plan (as I understand it) being to build a viral vision of good and bad futures for old people and use the tension between them to drive the market. We will need to engage with many other players in this space and DALLAS will provide the excuse to share with the media. Meanwhile, I brought Ellie up to speed with our idea in getting early stage engagement of designers with technology companies.
When I got back to the hotel, I swung by the bar and the barman told me FL had gone to bed already, so I didn’t get a nightcap! Since I had offered to pick up an iPad2 at the Covent Garden Apple Store for him but he had declined in favour of a Bristol bought one, I assumed he was looking at Apps in his room!
Friday morning saw a re-arrangement of my plan to go back to Swindon for the Forum for the Future meeting. FL had an invitation to accompany David Willetts to Number 10 to meet Stephen Hilton – see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steve_Hilton and asked me to go too. We met with Mani to understand as much of the background as we could, practiced some snappy phrases to encapsulate our strategy and moseyed on down to the centre of power. Part of the learning from Mani was that BIS had sold the idea of TICs to Number 10 by telling them that there was pent-up need for these things, that they were mostly ready to roll and all they had to do was open up the Treasury coffers and economic growth would start the next day!! With friends like that…. We were ushered into the Cabinet Room and Willetts told us were his Daveness sat, so that when Hilton came in we recognised that him taking that chair was a sign of consequential power. He started off pretty confrontational – what had we done? why were we so slow on TICs? why were our universities so poor at moving towards commercialisation – unlike the USA!? FL had difficulty getting our message in against a barrage of unfriendly questions and it was difficult for anyone else to get a word in. Eventually, Willetts got some air-time and made some important points about universities, Mani pointed out the budget line was building over the 4 years and I made some points about aligning the communities behind one centre in each field because the sight of new money got everyone into competitive mode. Rohan Silva joined us, and the first point he made was to thank us for the TechCity LaunchPad – since it put real money into the overall TechCity effort. He also commented on the net traffic, but in a “we get this stuff all the time” sort of way, so I guess he understands that giving money to pullovers is an uphill struggle. Unfortunately, he then got the output of the Olympic Park discussions wrong, citing a TIC in Sports Science and I had to try to put him right – that it was a potential TIC in Cell Therapy. This got him quite excited, but Willetts pointed out that it was an open process, and that Scotland would be bidding to host as well, and suggested Rohan went up to Scotland to see what they were doing in this area so that Number 10 could at least appeared even-handed! We then got onto the potential for a TIC in “smart cities” and they seemed to buy the need to build the community over a couple of years before actually starting the selection process. Overall, I think we were told to pull our fingers out on TICs, to announce one or two more pretty soon and lay out a convincing path to the full 6-8 (Hilton started off wanting 12!) by the end of this year. Although there were some positives, I came away felling we’d been told we weren’t performing and to get better or else. It wasn’t a nice feeling.
FL and I had a chat with Mani and then retired to the BIS canteen to consider options. I then caught the train back to Swindon. I was very late for the Forum for the Future meeting but did catch Jonathan Porritt leaving as I was arriving, and could make enough of a presence to support (as Sustainability Man told me I had to) the fact that we intend to build the process we have developed together over the last 6 months into all we do. After a few more mindless tasks, I left the building. For the evening and some of Saturday, I continued to ride shotgun on the TechCrunch post with Nick to make sure the community knew we were engaged. I am, however, getting fed up of being called a bureaucrat!