Wake up and smell the coffee

As my regular readers will know, our strategy - Connect and Catalyse - builds around three specific themes: Technology-inspired Innovation, Challenge-led Innovation and what we call the Innovation Climate. In some ways the innovation climate ought to be the easiest theme to deliver on, and yet for many of us it is the most difficult. In a business world where there has rarely been a greater need to invest for recovery it is this fostering of a national confidence in the power of innovation which I believe is most important. It is a culture of enabling, celebrating and rewarding talent and innovation that creates the climate to attract funding and people, who in turn will create the economic growth.

Most investment activity under our innovation climate theme is directed towards our Knowledge transfer Networks and our Knowledge Transfer Partnership schemes. Last week a number of things prompted my thoughts on the importance of these as well as other ‘soft’ initiatives to encourage a climate of innovation.

Firstly I was fortunate to attend the Royal Academy of Engineering Awards Dinner, supported by many of the leading engineers in our country There were some great awards, none so impressive as the awards to the Young Engineers of the Year. I was also pleased to see OC Robotics receive a Silver Award – a long way from my first introduction to them at Innovate’07. There was stiff competition for this year’s MacRobert Award, the contenders being ARUP for the ‘Water Cube’ Aquatic Centre built for the Bejing Olympics, Orthomimetics Ltd for novel medical implants, Qinetiq for their automatic airport runway debris detection system and Rolls Royce for the Trent 900 engine programme for the A380. After an evening of suspense the MacRobert Gold medal went to ARUP.

The power of awards can be huge and it is incumbent on us all to talk about these successes in the same way as we would talk about the success of the OSCAR winners. I thought Vivienne Parry showed her excellent presentation skills throughout the evening and her grasp of the technology when interviewing the winners about their work; wouldn’t it be good to see her lead a next generation ‘Tomorrow’s World’ popularising technology and innovation?

The second point that made me think was during my visit to the Scottish Microelectronics Centre in Edinburgh, and in particular my conversation with Professor Ian Underwood. Ian was a co-founder of MicroEmissive Displays (MED) and is a worldwide authority on microdisplay technology, systems and applications. His office is littered with Fellowships, certificates and photographs of his technology achievements including a certificate of listing in the Guiness Book of Records for the world’s smallest colour screen - the best advertising he could get and it was free!

Ian had many observations about business and the lessons he had learned during the development of MED, but a recurring theme was the simple importance of providing places for people from different parts of an organisation to get together and share challenges and collectively come up with solutions.  The importance of the kitchen, the importance of providing coffee – good coffee – in a location that brings different factions of the community together to discuss and resolve challenges. It is the small things like that which can be the real enablers to knowledge exchange – and yet the coffee is often the first thing to go in tightening up the company overheads. It is important that we value these softer contributions to the culture of innovation.

The Scottish Microelectronics Centre is a great success incidentally, supporting research across microelectronics and particularly MEMS but also working with a number of small companies with good potential such as Pyreos.

The third thing which made me think about the innovation climate was my visit to the “Banksy” Exhibition in Bristol. There were big queues to see what I thought was an excellent exhibition, one to rival many of the international exhibitions held in places much better known than Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. I wondered just how many of the hundreds of visitors had visited the four storey Victorian Museum before – not many I would bet. And yet because of the pervasive nature of the “Banksy” exhibition across all floors, many were seeing other things in the Museum for the first time. If somehow we could do something similar for technology and innovation then perhaps we could open up a whole new audience for technology as well – now that would help build confidence.

Our innovation climate work does recognise the importance of reward, recognition and networking; that’s why we partner in events such as next week’s Entrepreneur Country for example, organised by the great entrepreneur Julie Meyer.

There is still much more we can do – but in the meantime, it is worth reflecting on the value of simple networking between individuals over a coffee in the kitchen.

 

Last updated on Friday 24 February 2012 at 10:17

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