Category Archives: innovation

Metaphor and Strategy in Digital Britain

metaphorsThe use of metaphor in strategy and business and in the media is widespread and often annoying.  Narrative is used to illustrate choices and “It’s been a long journey” is regularly heard from both reality TV participants and news media people who ought to know better.  But there are many more forms of narrative than the journey story – and richer archetypes we could think about.

But maybe we could recast or re-interpret some of these metaphors to help see problems in a ‘new light’.  There, you see; I’m doing it now.  What if we could ‘think our way off the Pendulum’ of boom and bust?  How about ‘painting ourselves Out of the Box’?  And how about making the ‘Playing Field’ more mountainous for players with too much market power?  What if we could harness our knowledge of systems dynamics so that things spiral into control.

And then we come to the Patchwork Quilt analogy I came up with as one of the scenarios for Digital Britain.  The industry seems to want to interpret the Patchwork Quilt as a ‘bad thing’.  Actually it’s a good thing because it’s a manifestation of the coming wave of localism.  Design your own patch of Digital Britain to respond to local conditions and make sure, though, at the edges it joins up with the other patches.

So, the next time you hear a metaphor being used to describe strategy or choices; generate the anti-metaphor in your mind and see where it takes you.

b.tween09 Collaboration interspersed with shopping

colllabInsights from collaboration experience

Really good discussion with interesting ‘play’ between arty publishing people on the platform and ‘geek-ridden’ audience.

A lot of the geekier people want to use lots of wizzy social media tools.  Speakers suggested it might be a good idea to sit round a table and talk to people before haring off doing systems development.  One thing I do agree with is the need and importance of chemistry – between the people  – in making collaboration work.  Session a bit on the ‘rose tinted’ glasses side of things.

The Connected University – Driving Recovery and Growth

“Lord Sainsbury and NESTA are launching a report exploring the vital economic contribution of the UK’s universities today, 30 April 2009.

Lord Sainsbury, Hermann Hauser, co-founder of Amadeus Capital Partners and Michael Kitson, Judge Business School, University of Cambridge will debate the role of Universities in regional economic growth. Jonathan Kestenbaum, NESTA’s Chief Executive will moderate.”

I blogged the event live and my notes are here.

As a summary here is a wordle of my notes:


Three key areas for action

Lord Sainsbury highlighted three important things:

  • Increasing the scope for technical or business Universities to interact and link with SMEs – but not all Universities should have same mission.  Sainsbury argues that there will be a ‘Top 30’ of Universities who do ‘world-class’ research.  Other Universities  should not compete but differentiate themselves. It’s not necessary to ‘create new research’ – but we do need to improve the implementation of existing research.
  • The importance of science and innovation campuses – such as RAL, Daresbury, NIMH in St Pancras. Clusters of real expertise and these places can provide tremendous opportunities but it needs government drive to succeed.
  • FE colleges are important but neglected.  Government and RDAs need to focus on this.  We need a Further Education Innovation fund (like HEIF).

Sainsbury concluded by noting “We can’t predict which sectors new businesses will come from but we can predict that they will come from the high-tech clusters surrounding our Universities.”

Who was there and who wasn’t?

Consideration of the attendees (from the printed guest list) is instructive; representatives from the case studies were there; Cambridge, Southampton, Bristol, Bath, Newcastle, Manchester, Sheffield Hallam, Dundee, Daresbury. And I suppose it would be a bit odd if they weren’t there.  Others: Nottingham, Oxford Brookes, Queen’s Belfast, Wales, Bangor, Imperial, Liverpool Management School, Northumbria, Greenwich, Sussex, Ravensbourne, UCL.  Oxford present through Oxford Innovations.

Various representatives of the societies (Royal Society of Chemistry, the Royal…), RCUK, quangos and consulting odds and sods (like me).  A few venture capitalists.

Interesting to note the Universities not present and also the pattern of other attendees.  I assume (and it seems likely) that the Nesta invitation went out pretty widely.   Nesta has a good approach to openly promoting their events and in my experience, their events are very well run and the quality of speakers and debate is high.  For events of this type, the Nesta CEO, Jonathan Kestenbaum, is very active and visible.

Better Connections between the Universities and the economy is a UK strategic issue

Nesta is right to identify the importance of the connections between the Universities and the economy.  It’s a big issue for the UK and no matter how good we feel we are at it (and I’d say at best it’s patchy) we need to be better.  While there were representatives from HEFCE and DIUS, only 2 RDAs turned up (SEEDA and Advantage West Midlands) and no one from BERR.  No Government Ministers.

There was also much talk of the ‘Top 30’ universities. This seemed to raise a few hackles!  Eric Thomas from Bristol sounded a negative note by indicating that Universities are not ‘recession proof’ – look at what’s happening in the US.  And I think he was right in sounding a cautionary note as I felt that there was too much complacency in the room and too much of an ‘even keel’.

As far as Nesta’s report is concerned – it’s a very valuable contribution and a good source of ‘food for thought’.  But I feel Nesta ‘pulled its punches’.  I think that the evidence in the report could support a much firmer line from Nesta in pushing harder to define what the role of Universities will be in future as part of our economy, as Lord Sainsbury hinted in his remarks.  We are in the NBAU world – there is No Business As Usual and this needs to be true for our Universities just as much as it is for the rest of us.

e-static shadows at the Dana Centre

An exploration of electrostatics and their role in sensors, technology and art

static shadows installation
static shadows installation

A beautiful installation by Zane Berzina latterly of Goldsmiths called Static Shadows

Wide bands of specially made fabrics with >1,000 LEDs each controlled by a single transistor. Conducting wires embedded in the fabric pick up changes in the electrostatic fields near the fabric. As the fields change, so the LEDs change in brightness. Big changes (such as a charged rod) produce quick rapid changes. Small charges (from your hand say) produce slow shimmering changes. You don’t need to touch the fabric – it works because the fabric is sensitive to the electrostatic fields in the environment. Lovely analogue technology and completely captivating.

LEDs react as fields change
LEDs react as fields change

Zane describes the blend of technology and craft fabrication as ‘High Craft’ as opposed to ‘High Tech’. The audience asked loads of questions about how and why it came about and the practical and esthetic applications of the approach.

The World HiTech Forum – Focus India

Inspired by Muhammad Farmer Director of ‘BITE’ (the British Institute of Technology and E-commerce) the forum and took place in London on 8 October 2008.

Shiv Shankar Mukherjee High Commissioner, Republic of India speaking of the role of government said

“The future skilled workforce of the world will be even more Indian than it is today” and called for better collaboration between India and the UK: “The UK is 3 or 4th largest technology provider to India. We need to deepen this collaboration.”

Speaking on ‘The Knowledge Gap’ Prof S Ramachandran, Vice Chancellor of the University of Madras, painted a contrasting picture of highly skilled people and poor people.

“While we produce a large number of graduates – it is the quality we are concerned about.”

He argued that India’s higher education system today does not produce all the skills required at the workplace and spoke frankly of the challenges faced by the Higher Education sector

“About 25% of our technical graduates are regarded as ‘employable’ – and while the others may be well educated, they don’t have the skills needed by the market.”

Here are more detailed notes of the event:

The Role of Government

Shiv Shankar Mukherjee, High Commissioner, Republic of India

Shiv Shankar Mukherjee
Shiv Shankar Mukherjee

India is still experiencing very high rates of growth. The future will be about moving away from the ‘heavy hand of government’ – liberalisation in India is as much about ‘mindset’ as it is about changing government or operational structures especially in innovation.

We all accept that technology change and innovation are key drivers of economic growth. Now we have self-confident global companies but we also have 300m of the world’s poor who need to see that the fruits of globalisation come to them as well. Nehru identified the use of science and technology for growth and this has continued. Diversity in India means we will have to constantly innovate.  Look at Japan and Korea as examples of the benefits of investing in education and technology.

India is emerging as a gobal R&D hub – over the past decade this has accelerated and contributed to economic growth. A large chunk of patents. Our advantage is the availabllity of highly educated english-speaking maths and science graduates.

The sustained growth of 8.6 to 8.8% over the past 5 years is as much about the development of commercialisation and research as it is about liberalisation.

“The future skilled workforce of the world will be even more Indian than it is today”

Skills and education are central – we produce more graduates every year than all of Western Europe combined. But while we have quantity, the quality is not uniform. We accept that this is a big challenge. The Knowledge Commission, which advises the PM, points out that while India has 300 universities, we still need 1,500 more if we are to meet the needs of the future economy. We will need to move very fast to improve provision and ensure quality. Skilled people are what we need and we need to get back to developing that. India is beginning to outsource to Mexico for example.

View from the Conference Centre
View from the Conference Centre

The role of government will continue to be central in terms of the priorities and spend on improving the spread of quality education across the land and to continue to provide the educated people we need. As well as the highly qualified people – we also need the ‘building blocks’ of technical and support workers – this is an area the state has allowed to become moribund.

“UK is 3 or 4th largest technology provider to India.
We need to deepen this collaboration.”

‘The Knowledge Gap’

Professor S Ramachandran – Vice Chancellor – University of Madras

Professor Ramachandran painted a contrasting picture of highly skilled people and poor people. “While we produce a large number of graduates – it is the quality we are concerned about.” India’s higher education system today does not produce all the skills required at the workplace.

“About 25% of our technical graduates are regarded as ‘employable’ – and while the others may be well educated, they don’t have the skills needed by the market.”

“Where we do produce good quality education this is also too expensive. If we want to sustain the growth we are seeing, we need to ensure access to high quality education. There is a potential for a ‘demographic dividend’ as we have large numbers of younger people. We can only turn this into an advantage if we can ensure the quality is good. Teaching quality is also an area for us to focus on. Need to invest more by paying good teachers better. The Knowledge Economy has to be supported by the update of core knowledge and update the curricula. Alongside the hard core of discipline knowledge, we also need to make sure we build on skills.”

A recent jobs fair which 30,000 students attended with 20,000 jobs on offer – yet only 25% of the students ended up in jobs. They lacked the skills needed by business – communications skills, verbal skills and synthesis skills were all lacking. It’s not that the students were poorly educated – they just weren’t what the businesses needed. This was a wake-up call and the University has worked closely with the Indian Confederation of Business to overhaul courses.

By 2010, we will have a shortage of 250,000 skilled graduates. And it’s very hard to find students who want to do a PhD and learn to develop new knowledge. Moral imperative for government to improve access to PhD courses through improved scholarships. Need improved support from Research Councils. While the education system is strong in the country we need to work hard to ‘fine tune’ it to the needs of both the economy and the need to generate new knowledge.

India needs 1,000,000 new teachers by 2010 – 2012.

Q – From the audience “What to do?”

A – Need to turn graduates as ‘job-seekers’ in to graduates as ‘job-providers’ of 5m graduates a year only 1m go into jobs. We need revolutionary reform to boost their confidence and make them more entrepreneurial and get them to generate new businesses and new jobs. Can’t happen overnight – the numbers are large but we need to make progress. The education sector is the most neglected and it’s difficult to attract teachers to teach – they don’t get paid enough. We have vacancies and they are generally applied for by teachers who are not qualified.