Innovation is as evanescent as a flash of lightning – and as powerful
06 November 2021 by David Bott
Although it was Monday and I left the house in more or less the direction of Swindon, I didn’t make it to the “start the week” meeting. Instead, I ended up waiting at Pangbourne railway station for Transport Man (who was only a few minutes late) and Technology Man (who was 20 minutes late) (both due to train delays!) before we rendezvoused with Energy Man and Manufacturing Man for a visit to Castrol’s Research Centre. This was the latest in a series of meetings with large corporates that has become known as “doing a Cisco” after the first such event in the Autumn of 2009. Castrol is perhaps unique in that it has realised that its days of making over £1bn profit from selling petrochemical based lubricants for internal combustion engines are limited and setting up a team now to work out what its options are for the next 30 years! Sadly, aside from its leader, we found the team to be underwhelming and riddled with the sort of large company attitudes that will allow Castrol to slip quietly into the night! That said, I think we made enough points about options, attitudes and actions to make them (their leader anyway) think about how to actually deliver on their remit. As usual with these events, I come away more impressed with our team that the hosts!
Back in Swindon, I had particularly upbeat catch-ups with Energy Man and Finger Man. Energy Man is beginning to see the light at the end of the TIC-induced tunnel and has started to get his head around the strategy refresh and Finger Man spent last week smitten by man-flu but seemingly it didn’t affect his imagination!!
Tuesday saw the half-year Away-Day all-staff update meeting (we must find a better name!). I was probably the most productive and enjoyable one I can remember because it actually focussed on activities since the one in March, mixed up people again and ended up with more actions to implement the thinking we have done through the project teams. The project teams updated us all with their thinking and (in some cases) recommendations. It is important that we think hard about how practical they are with our existing resources and either implement them or explain why not! Highlight for me was the discussion on values. Although it was never properly explained, the list we started with were FL’s own values (which made some of the better comments on word-smithing quite amusing). Whether we recognise it or not, the values of our 4 years under Iain have been guided by what he thinks is the right way to do our job. What I found enlightening (and heartening) was quite how close these now “outed” values are to many of us in the organisation. I left the day with a renewed sense of optimism about whether we can go on delivering at the breath-taking pace that has marked the last year and reflecting that we may actually be as good as our hype!
Wednesday was in London and started with being taken into Policy Exchange by Socrates Wife as her “show and tell”. I met 2 very bright young ex-civil servants and talked for an hour on what we did, why we did and the beginnings of us understanding what the outputs were. They seemed to find it helpful. I then went across London to meet up with Healthcare Man and the MRC dudes to discuss what we are all doing about TICs and any extra money we might (jointly or not) get in the next few months. They still seem to be looking to pump extra money into their Developmental Pathway Funding Scheme and (probably) get frustrated with our unflinching opposition. Other than that, we got them up to date with the thinking on the Cell Therapy Catapult, and discussed how much of any extra money we would use to scale existing programmes and how much to put into new ones (hence the DPFS discussion, or lack of it). Nice gaff too!
Then it was back to Tracy Island, first for a discussion with Dominic Tildesley about the e-infrastructure stitch-up. It appears that no-one is particularly happy with what the EPSRC and the BIS Universities teams have done about the £145m investment announced by the Lord High Executioner the other week. The lack of access for business was the subject of this telephone call, but the academics and even the other Research Council representatives all appear to be worried that it doesn’t deliver anything more than maintenance funding of the existing set-up and shows no strategic intent to change! I got away in time to meet with Susie Hughes, from an US PR agency that is opening up in London and wanted to pick my brains for the best companies to contact for jobs. I explained that we didn’t do that sort of thing directly, but our published lists of competitions winners might be a useful starting place for her.
I then wandered across to the tradesmen’s entrance of the Treasury to meet FL and Lord Jonathan for a meeting with the ex-CEO of the FA. LJ’s footballing interests came out in the lift, but once in the meeting and all relaxed, he allowed FL and me to make our points. It felt like an extremely effective meeting. Because of Ian’s patronage of (and therefore familiarity with) the early Technology Strategy Board, we got what we wanted and offered many connections to move things forward. I can imagine the e-mails now – “it’s only a suggestion that you meet these guys, but look who’s making it!”
FL went off with LJ to look through the bins on the park and I went back to the hotel, but then got 30 minutes in the bar before FL and I separated again. I went to the KTN Chairman’s Dinner (Part 1). It was an amusing and diverting evening, but I worry that David Way had to work hard to keep us focused on the KTN agenda and that our three exalted chairs ranged far and wide over issues in our space. I think Strategy Man and I may have got more points out about other areas, but there were some telling points about KTNs and their place in the pantheon. When I got back to the hotel, FL was in the bar, so we spent a while putting the world to rights.
Thursday was another London day but started with an extended catch-up with Manufacturing Man – passed off as a PDR! Then Manic and I met with the guy leading the local bits of BIS – to discuss where we might next run a LaunchPad. We had to explain what we were talking about but once understood, he took the idea and fitted it into his thinking about “core cities”, “mayoral cities” and “local enterprise zones” and went away to get data! I tried to call the DECC guy as agreed but he had apparently forgotten, so I got away early and made it home as dusk fell.
Friday saw me returning to London, but with my car in a more convenient place for later. First up was a TIC inspired (it’s external) meeting with a journalist from the Times to talk about what we are doing with centres, but in the context of our wider activities. As with all these meetings, I am very impressed with the sort of journalists we are meeting these days, very bright, woefully unknowing about us but amazingly quick on the uptake. It’s great to watch them “get us”. Then it was back to Tracy Island for a couple of coffee meetings – first with Daniel and Paulina of Granttree (see – http://granttree.co.uk/). I have talked to them before. They help SMEs turn their ideas into grant applications and are therefore very familiar with how we operate, how we have changed and what we still could improve. They went through a list of things they think we need to consider (which aligned a fair amount with the presentations we heard on Tuesday) and agreed to write them up for us to look at in slow time. Then I met a guy who had won a Feasibility Studies grant, presented at Collaboration Nation and then come to Innovate. He was concerned that his product was sufficiently similar to _connect that he ought to talk to us. I have to admit I think I have seen a lot of digital service products in the “match needs and capabilities” space recently, but his was nicely laid out and seemed to offer some relationship to a perceived problem (matching academic capabilities to business needs) and he appeared to have got his head around the key challenges, so offered to get him to meet the right people within our organisation.
Then I met with Sustainability Man, the Media Dominatrix, Cities Boy and his friend and James Lawn from Polecat to discuss the next Mission. It’s in the Delivery Plan, so it must be happening, but now requires detailed planning. We agreed timing, over-arching protocols, responsibilities and resources. Polecat are stepping down from the administrative role, but Long Run Ventures will take that lead, and because the Mission will coincide with an ALIP “spike” we will need to bring in a “campaign manager” to implement MDs Mission Media protocols.
On Friday evening, I caught the train to Brighton – timing it badly enough that I hit the combined force of the commuters and the tourists but did get a seat after Gatwick! I checked to a charmingly be-scaffolded and run down “4 star” hotel that our travel agents had booked me into and then walked along to the half mile to the hotel where everyone else was! The evening pre-dinner was for RAC Future Car Challenge (see – http://www.futurecarchallenge.com/) but I was there a little late so, after a few quick words with Gordon Murray, my co-driver (the Chairman of the Lightning Car Company, see – http://www.lightningcarcompany.com/Lightning/Lightning.html, Iain Sanderson) and I decided to go into the Lanes and seek out proper solid food.
The next morning I woke before the 5 o’clock alarm call, showered and walked back along the seafront, through the crowds of (by now less than) beautiful people leaving the clubs, reeking of vodka and Red Bull, and met up with Iain for breakfast. Paul Drayson was there (he was driving a road legal racer) and said hello. Gordon had the T25 and T27 there but was driving the T25. When I challenged his lack of loyalty to our shared dream, he pointed out that the driver in the T27 was significantly lighter than him and winked!
Iain and I made our way to the Metropole car park, unplugged the Lightning GT and drove down to Madeira Drive for the start. By now the dawn had broken and the presence of the Lightning was more apparent.
It is a big car, with looks reminiscent of the Aston-Martin, and was the only real credible “super car” in the rally. We had seen the first prototype at the Ultra Low Carbon Vehicle Demonstrator Launch back in 2010 but it had not been drivable – which upset Paul Drayson no end at the time. This was the second car, built more as a demonstrator than a show car and run without problems for the year of the programme. It is still not fully developed with lower powered motors and half the planned battery pack but it still shifted. We got lots of attention on the grid and Iain is a born bull-shitter so there are lots of great (but probably unsubstantiatable) quotes.
We left the starting line at 7.50 and I navigated us away from Brighton, through a special route designed to make life difficult. We kept coming across electric cars dawdling along at 30 mph to conserve energy, and the man who wanted to build an electric supercar showed that he has the attitude to drive one by overtaking them all, swearing about image problems. He has a point. We made it to the Crawley half-way point in just under the hour, parked up, plugged in and went for a sausage butty and coffee, engaging in banter with other drivers about the degree to which the bacon in a good bacon butty should be “crisped”. We returned to discover that the RCD on our electricity supply had tripped and we hadn’t added any charge to the car. We moaned a bit, but then went off (we had 65% charge) – with me driving. The official film actually shows me pulling away. It was at this point I discovered that Iain had no real idea about navigating in rallies, so I had to rely on spotting other rally cars and follow them. He also started pointing out that we needed to conserve electricity and that I shouldn’t accelerate as much as he did, so I settled down to hypermile the next 30 miles! When you are driving the car, you are acutely conscious of people stopping and pointing, or small boys (of all ages) staring open-mouthed, with that “I want one of those” look in their eyes. Except in Brixton, where someone asked if my manhood was extremely small! Eventually, we drove up Whitehall, debating to the last whether getting a speeding ticket would be good or bad publicity and pulled into Waterloo Place. We still had 24% charge on the dial. After a weird debate with a long-haired bloke who insisted that only nuclear power would save our society, we drove around to St James Square for the mandatory car valeting before driving in convoy onto Regent Street. We wove our way past loads of Jaguar E-Types (50th anniversary), Minis (any excuse) and the many Vintage and Veteran cars for the following days event, to take our place in the best car park in London – the middle of Regent Street! The next few hours saw a video interview with an electric car website, lots of chats with people from the EEMS Accelerate Project, car nuts we know through the Low Carbon Vehicles Innovation Platform and general punters who wanted to argue about electric cars in general. It is worth recording that everyone I met who knew about us was complimentary – especially about Transport Man and his team. One of the better points was when Stephen Rockwell brought his son up and I wangled for him to sit in all the cool cars (the son, not Stephen!). Stephen then started discussing investment opportunities with the CEO of the Lightning Car Company – you can’t keep a good entrepreneur down! I quit about 3 o’clock and checked into my hotel to lie down!
That evening, I spruced up again and went down to the RAC Club for the dinner. Downstairs was the Vintage and Veteran crowd, some wearing period dress and upstairs where the Future crowd, who showed no interest in wearing Star Trek uniforms or whatever, but wanted to drink and see who won! The Rally was heavy monitored and the goal was to use as little energy as possible. I pointed out to my co-driver that we probably should have read the rules at some point because all those overtaking manoeuvres were probably not a good idea in light of them! The T27 picked up 3 awards, including best of all, but Gordon’s “sorry I can’t be there, but here are a few words thanking the Technology Strategy Board” speech got lost in favour of internal RAC jokes and the carriages really did come at 11 o’clock. To round off the weekend, I discovered that “engineering works” had extended my trip home on Sunday morning by 2 hours but the sun shone and I did get to mix my transport modes, so it can’t be all bad!