Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed
16 June 2022 by David Bott
Another week and another cunning way to avoid the “start the week” meeting. This time, it was the old “I have to go to Sheffield for a Council meeting” excuse. Oh, no, wait, that was real! I caught the train going in the wrong direction from Warwick Parkway and walked between Moor Street and New Street in Birmingham and settled down into an almost deserted train. That all changed at Derby when a very large number of Scottish people, all wearing black and caked in mud (for further information, there were a large number of Metallica, Slipknot and Megadeath t-shirts and lots of piercings) got on, only to be turfed out of the seats by those with reservations at the next stop. I suspect it was Download (see – http://www.downloadfestival.co.uk/line-up/) I was glad to get off the train after a couple of hours – they all had another 5 to Glasgow in front of them! The Council meeting was an “extraordinary” one because the Executive wanted Council to discuss at length and buy into the plan to develop the old Engineering site. The logic for this expenditure was based on the growth of student numbers, the increasing need to satisfy the “student experience” requirements that everyone seem to anticipate will come when they start paying £9000 a year for their degrees and the fact that they have over a £100m in cash!! It was interesting to hear the different factions argue their cases, but it sounded like a good plan to me.
I left about 5 and caught a taxi into town to catch a later version of the train I arrived on. Because it was a 5-hour trip, Jools seems to have persuaded Cyrus that I could travel First Class, so I settled down into a deserted train again for the trek north. After an hour or so of reading, I decided to fire up the Mac and then discovered the electricity didn’t work – or the Wi-Fi! I accosted the chai wallah and complained and was offered a seat in the other carriage (which was similarly deserted but with full power and Wi-Fi). That was the last time I saw any seat service and discovered after 7 – when I tried to find the food – that all service had ceased. I was, therefore, quite hungry at 10.30 when I arrived in Glasgow Central. I caught another taxi to the hotel and was told that the place would be heaving because there were X-Factor auditions in the SECC next door and a Scottish Fashion Awards dinner in the actual hotel. Luckily, they served food in the bar until 11, so I joined the strangest collection of people I have ever shared space with for life-giving sustenance. It truly was a sight and I felt for the next table of Polish blokes who obviously thought they were on another planet!
Tuesday morning saw me wandering about the SECC looking for the Scottish Technology Showcase – which means I had to go past the annual conference of occupational therapists! Eventually I found both it and Brain and then exchanged pleasantries with Jan Reid, Paul Lewis, Jim McDonald and John Swinney. The meeting opened with the Lewis-Swinney-McDonald triple whammy – all of who name-checked the Technology Strategy Board – often to justify their own activities. Jim even told people to listen to my upcoming talk to find out more about how we do things!!
Although the next speaker was Ian Phillips of ARM (purveyor of the best digital Christmas cards ever!), I had promised to go down to the new Headquarters of the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult, so I left discretely with Garry and made my way across Glasgow. The office is nice, albeit deserted, and we met the main occupants. As we talked about various aspects of the Catapult activities, I became more and more worried. Although David Currie continues to impress, but some strike me as being very lightweight and others (who at first was useful for his attention to detail) seems to have now become worryingly fixated on irrelevant details and is missing the main goals of the organisation. Some respite from the gloom came when we talked to Ellie Jones who has joined to look after PR and Communications. I do not think that they are on track for a powerful and effective opening unless we take a stronger lead in the process – and content!
Another taxi took me back to the SECC in time for the end of the morning session and an opportunity to wander around the exhibition. Then it was time for the afternoon session. I had been allocated 15 minutes to describe the work of the Technology Strategy Board – but then asked to frame the afternoon session on Global Challenges, which required a couple of extra, untested slides. What with that and delivering on Jim McDonalds promises of the morning, I ended up running over time, but since the guy following me was unsure of how long his talking to someone else’s slide-set would take and then it was the Fraunhofer guy, I wasn’t too fussed. I started thinking about my trip home and decided to cut out earlier than planned (getting home of the last train from Birmingham didn’t enthuse!) so made my way to Glasgow Central again and caught the 4 o’clock train. The first part of this trip was only 4 hours but once again I discovered food wasn’t on offer. Since I got to Birmingham New Street just before 8 and had 40 minutes before my connection, I had time for some fast food! Bizarrely, FL was somewhere in Birmingham this very evening and we both noted the old steam train in Moor Street. I managed to get home just before 10, so had enough sleep before the unreasonable early meeting FL had called the next day to discuss Catapults!
Wednesday allowed me to discover that an early trip down the Fosse Way was less crowded than my usual trip, and I was there in time for the meeting. The point of this meeting – squeezed before the EMT meeting – was to work out how to present progress on the final phase of the Catapults to the Governing Board in a few weeks time. We had started off aiming for “outline business plans” but the delay caused by the diversion on process had lost us valuable time and we needed to agree what would give the Board sufficient confidence that we knew what we were doing (and that is correlated with what they thought we ought to be doing) and should be allowed to continue through the 3 month interregnum of the summer. FL asked for the elevator pitches for the 3 Catapults and we all poked holes in them, trying to emulate the unreasonable, unprepared nature of questioning that they can achieve when they are in a bad mood. Much of the confusion in the process has been caused by us not telling them things they think they wanted to hear, but instead telling them what we thought they ought to want to hear (read that again, it does make sense!).
The EMT that followed was as good as usual. After a brace of PAFs, an old friend gave us a talk on KTPs. I guessed from some of the banter that an earlier version of this interaction had not gone so well, but this one worked for me. The basic premise is that KTP is a good mechanism for companies that do not have the internal resource to engage in modern innovation practices. The conundrum is therefore how to identify those companies, since they probably don’t know they don’t know how to innovate! This led to various points being made – that identification by universities of projects was probably wrong, that companies should not have multiple KTPs (except when they covered multiple aspects of the same need!) and a lot of detailed questioning of KTP metrics.
Next came an update on Innovation Vouchers. There are lots of existing schemes already out there, driven by local needs, and whatever we do has to clarify rather than add to the confusion. The twin approach of our own national scheme (focused on food in the first place) and a “portal” that allowed companies to see everything that was available to them sounds good, but the portal idea needs a damn sight better IT support than we currently give our own products, so the capacity for disaster is definitely there!
Then there was a discussion on the Delivery Plan as we strive to not lose all the early progress and drift towards being late (again!) and another go around the question of intervention rates for competitions. Cyrus had redone his numbers since the last meeting, but they still differed from “back of the envelope” calculations done (independently) by David Way and myself! We are circling an answer!! By then we had timed out and avoided the discussion about the Communications Strategy. There was just enough time in the next meeting to discuss what Mr Smith might have meant by his desire to discuss “branding” at the next Board meeting and agree a common path forward to roll back the “decision” on our Networking Strategy that “we had to leave the KTNs as they are!” It was still going on as I walked out the door to catch the London train!
I was then the happy recipient of several e-mails from Chris Crockford, who had tried to enter a competition late (as usual), had some problems and then found our support less than helpful – they even sent him an e-mail with the wrong e-mail address in it. We do seem to do it to ourselves at times. I forwarded the thread to Cyrus who tried to sort it .
That evening, I met up with FL in the shiny new Doubletree Hotel in Westminster (was the City Inn and then the Mint Hotel before that, but now you get a cookie when you check in!) to discuss the evening activity – the inaugural meeting of the Connected Digital Economy Catapult Interim Advisory Group! After some confusion in the Governing Board, we had ended up with limited (and unattractive) choice for a Governing Board member to act as co-chair, so FL has stepped into the breach. I therefore had to help him practice the history and goals of the group and work out a plan of campaign for the evening. The meeting was in the Sky Lounge of the hotel, spread between the 12th floor (for cocktails and early discussion) and the 13th floor (for dinner), this has to be one of the most distracting, value-for-money locations we have ever used! The logic of these meetings is amongst our most important learnings from the last (almost) 5 years. If you gather a group of well-connected and knowledgeable people together to advise on anything, the first (and sometimes the second as well) meeting is all about allowing them to establish their own pecking order. It pays to ask questions and then let them vie with one another to state their prejudices and compete for superiority. At the second meeting, they usually remember and feel a bit sheepish and so behave better and in a more aligned way. By the third meeting, they are very effective! This one went to form, with one or two people taking more than their fair share of the air-time but gradually some kind of logic started to emerge. FL chaired well at the beginning, lost it a bit when he was eating, but then managed to draw it all back together towards the end. A small subgroup went on to the bar and some of the issues re-emerged, this time powered by alcohol. Progress though!
The next morning started with a breakfast meeting with David Pearson of InnovITS. He had written to FL querying the apparent delays through the last few months, and the lack of consultation with long-term connections like InnovITS. And it was his birthday! I talked him through the process, the role of the Interim Advisory Group and what I thought the timetable would be from now. He understood it all but observed that we have been truly awful at keeping the various communities up to date with our thinking and activities.
Then it was in to Tracy Island and after a quick exchange with Fergus and his young apprentice, I hosted Imran Khan (but not the famous one) from CaSE (see – http://sciencecampaign.org.uk/) and Louise Marston from NESTA (it’s been so long, you might need to refresh your memory – http://www.nesta.org.uk/) about how to persuade the Government to invest the 4G income into science, technology and innovation (they’ve added that recently, a small victory for us) so that they can sell something off in the future. Given what we hear about the Treasury, it seems a forlorn hope, but it was fun to kick around ideas about what the future might look like and how to frame valuable challenges.
After that, more interactions with our sponsorship team led on to David Way and I having our monthly catch-up over a sandwich in the Tracy Island canteen (which made me think of this – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sv5iEK-IEzw which is presumably how it is in Imperial College!). Not surprisingly, we talked about Catapults and the Networking Strategy!
Back upstairs again for a public sector meeting to consider the Energy Technologies Institute Mid-term Review. These are usually fairly bland events – which is why FL dumps them on me – but this one started with Paul Hollinshead of DECC basically asking why we needed ETI in the first place. His argument was that the environment has changed so much since they were set up, and he and John Dodds worked themselves up into a bit of a lather over the fact that the prospectus for ETI, which they have now seen promised a completely different organisation from the one we now have!! Given that 3 of the 6 private sector organisations involved have told us (privately) that they were never told about our existence and would far rather work on a project basis with us that the subscription model used by ETI and you have an interesting discussion! It was almost a shame that we finished!! I am truly not sure if anything will come of this sort of discussion, but it is re-assuring to know that civil servants sometimes talk sense!
The final meeting of the day was with Paul Campion of IBM. Paul had been at the dinner table on 24thNovember last year for the KTN driven lobbying for a Transport Systems Catapult. His name resurfaced a few weeks ago when His Spittleness called me (presumably because FL didn’t answer his phone immediately) to ask what was going on with the Catapults because Paul had asked for a meeting with him! Paul was interested to describe what he thought IBM could bring to the table and seek guidance about what he could do next. As with David, he seemed curiously unaware of what we were doing and what would happen next. We really need to up our game on communicating to the core communities.
My dinner date for the evening cried off with some excuse about being in hospital, so I got to go home early. As I got off the train in Swindon (bad planning again) I met Healthcare Man getting off the same train and FL arriving to catch his train home. Quick consultation on matters Healthcare ensued!
The Friday was supposed to be my reward for 4 days of 6 until 11 work – I got a lie in and had to be in Birmingham for a 10 o’clock meeting – of the Birmingham Science City Board.
It was chaired by Norman Price (see – http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/council/membership/norman-price.aspx) with an almost manic fervour – everything was wonderful, exciting and valuable. Except is all a bit tawdry. The first discussion, on the Science City Research Alliance (see – http://www.birminghamsciencecity.co.uk/research-alliance) which doesn’t actually include more than 2 local universities, and seemed to be gloriously unaware of similar programmes going on elsewhere. Then came a presentation on the EoN Sustainable City Partnerships (see – http://www.eon-uk.com/about/6427.aspx) which was allegedly started because Stoke wanted to be more like Malmo. Talking to the leader afterwards, it turns out that he knew nothing of our activities in Retrofit for the Future, AIMC4 and even the Future Cities Catapult and Demonstrator (he does now!). The final set piece was a presentation on the Climate KIC (see – http://www.climate-kic.org/) a European construct that seemed to be about getting more money but with no stated idea of what they would do with it. I know I don’t have much nice to say about LWEC, but these people didn’t even recognise that it existed, but were setting out to build a network that covered academe, government and industry!! By the time we had gone through the action list, I was ready to open a vein – this is truly depressing, with locally driven activity that has no idea of the context it operates in and no sense of self awareness. They think that the Advanced Manufacturing Supply Chain Initiative is a dramatic vindication of their past activities (in contrast to the text I got from Cyrus on its progress), that they were unfairly omitted from DALLAS and that they are a better place to develop new therapies than London or Boston. I talked to a number of the participants afterwards and they seemed more sanguine, but as a Board it struck me as self-delusional!
But I did get home by 3 o’clock and had a chance to catch up with e-mails, so it wasn’t a total disaster!