Cars, nanotechnology, science, broadband and security - nothing out of the ordinary then?

My week opened with a meeting in London with members of the New Automotive Innovation and Growth Team (NAIGT) Technology Working Group to discuss our support for their move to low carbon vehicles.  When we started the Low Carbon Vehicles Innovation Platform, the world was a different place - sub-prime was a term not many people recognised - and we had a strong response from the UK automotive industry. Today, they are suffering from the economic situation more that most and it is investment in the future that always comes under scrutiny in business in such a situation. On Monday we were also all suffering from a surfeit of snow, so the meeting was a bit sparse.  Nevertheless, we discussed the issues for several hours and are moving towards a situation where we can support their efforts to lay the foundations of a very different car industry.  Evolving from a petrol/diesel based fuel to one more based on electricity is complex. Putting the cars on the roads with no infrastructure will lower market uptake - would you buy a car you can't use more than 50 miles from your home? - but building the infrastructure before the cars runs the risk of building the wrong infrastructure.  Getting the balance right is more than important.  The Ultra Low Carbon Vehicles Demonstrator programme we are currently running closed for initial proposals the week before, so we were able to tell them that we had received 21 entries, totalling £43million of funding requests and potentially putting 695 low-carbon demonstrator cars on UK roads. The competition has £5m from the Department for Transport and £5m from us, so we are "a bit oversubscribed". It does strongly suggest that there is a strong appetite within the UK industry to get on with the task. 

The final area of discussion was the changes necessary in the supply chain. The last decade or so has seen a drop in the number of major suppliers to carmakers that actually do their R&D or manufacturing in the UK. We have been demanding low prices as customers and the market works quite well - so the supply has largely gone off-shore. The changes coming in the technologies that make up a modern car give us an opportunity to build the new supply chain in the UK, so we agreed that we need to analyse what potential we have to do that.

That afternoon, we intercepted Chris Borroni-Bird, the Director of Advanced Technology Vehicle Concepts for General Motors, on his way to the FT Energy Conference.  We discussed the GM model of the convergence of transport, energy and information flows and the consequences of taking a longer-term view to plot the short-term path.  A fascinating discussion in a largely deserted DIUS building at the end of Monday ended up in a curry near his hotel.

Tuesday was the second day of the review of Micro- and Nano- Technology (MNT) Centres. These had been set up around 2004 as part of the effort to consolidate the UK position in Nanoscience.  The first day had been delayed by the weather - like most of London!! - so they were actually getting to the afternoon coffee break from Monday when I joined them. The consultancy who are doing the heavy-lifting in the review, Yole, have done a great job talking to the centres themselves, their primary stakeholders and the wider community.  As we went through their reports on the 31 original MNT centres and some equivalent centres that the RDAs had added, several basic business plans became apparent, with both strengths and weaknesses in approach and performance. The discussion within the steering group we have assembled to help us in the review was probing and resulted in some more work to be done, but I think that we, as an organisation, now have a better understanding of where we can go with this form of support.

Tuesday evening saw a train journey out to Didcot to take part in a 2 day UKTI meeting.  The Tuesday had focussed on low carbon vehicles and the second day was aimed at advanced engineering.  Iain Gray was giving one of the dinner speeches (along with Lord Davies and Patrick Head) and I was opening the second day.  The dinner was a powerful international networking event and the cubicle-based "speed dating" of the second day saw lots of new and unplanned interactions between UK and overseas businesses.   I couldn't stay too long because I had to get back for the first pass review and allocation of assessors for the proposals submitted under the Ultra Low Carbon Vehicle Demonstrator programme. There were only 2 proposals out of scope (we always get a few who don't read the specification!) and a range of size and ambition. The independent assessment will take place over the next few days and we will meet with the proposal leaders to resolve any outstanding questions before selecting the consortia who will receive funding.

On Wednesday evening, I was at the Royal Society for a meeting of the Foundation for Science and Technology on the subject "To what extent should UK funding for science and innovation be focussed?"  It was kicked off with a talk by Lord Drayson, the Minster for Science and Innovation.  It had obviously been well publicised because most of the scientific glitterati were there.  I was a bit disappointed that the initial response from the science community seemed to be a suspicion that the Government was trying to move money from science support to technology support, but that idea wasn't anywhere in Lord Drayson's speech and (having seen him close up in DIUS) I am certain that wasn't in his mind. That over-reaction was also prevalent in the BBC Have Your Say site. Having trained as a scientist, and having worked most of my career in industry, but close to universities, I find the internal debate rather disappointing and futile. Investment in the whole knowledge base (it is interesting to note how the social sciences and art and design, equally important in "doing business", tend to get omitted from the debate) is, and always has been, vital to develop ideas, understand what already exists and train people to the highest standard.  The point Drayson is focusing on is how to extract more value out of that investment for the benefit of society. As well as the main topic, the concentration of that many science and technology leaders made it opportune to build some more bridges. I was particularly pleased to be able to discuss the recommendations of our Electronics, Photonics and Electrical Systems Strategy document with the co-chair of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on the Draft Climate Change Bill, who has quite strong views on the subject of enabling the next digital revolution.

Thursday started with a breakfast meeting hosted by the Design Council at Number 11 Downing Street.  It was a fascinating event, made up of three examples of the embedding of design early on in the process of development and considering the final goal in the selection of first steps.  The case study on tackling Healthcare Associated Infections - Bugs Out - is, like our own joint DoH SBRI programme, part of a wider initiative by the NHS to engage all the relevant communities and solve the right problem, not the symptom.  The second, called Low Carb Lane, was explained by a representative of National Energy Action, who was keen to work with our Low Impact Buildings Innovation Platform on its latest demonstrator programme - Retrofit for the Future.  The final one was a bit different, in that it was about designing a purely service offering.  Called Make it Work, it showed how a holistic approach to the problem can improve quality of life for those affected by unemployment and get them back into work - with a measurable economic impact.  The discussion that followed focused on how Government can encourage itself to be more innovative in everything it does.

After a useful meeting with Nico MacDonald, who I met through Twitter, the day ended with a strategic brainstorm for the Network Security Innovation Platform. Like all Innovation Platforms, Network Security has a steering group made up of its major stakeholders.  This underwent a refresh about a year ago, and has had three meetings with its new, more business focused, membership. We are about to launch a call on Information Infrastructure Protection which is getting good reviews, so we all thought it was time to think about the longer term programme.  Allowing 15 minutes per topic to think through what could be the next big challenge, we started by discussing our involvement in the "hot products" thread of the Designing Out Crime programme. This led to a discussion of how ubiquitous mobile products are these days; a complete riff on "trust"; some serious questioning of why security seems to always be an add-on in operating systems; the role of gender and "generation" in attitude to communications and security and lots, lots more. These ideas will be captured and added to our evolving strategy in the area.

Friday was committed to getting home, which I managed to do without too much drama, and catching up with the backlog of e-mails caused by a week on the road with only an iPhone screen on which to read them.


Last updated on Friday 24 February 2012 at 10:31

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