The Spaces Inbetween

We are all familiar with the optical illusions where by if you look at the black shapes you see one thing (e.g. two faces) and if you look at the white space you see something else (i.e. a candlestick). This seems like an apt analogy to start to talk about the recent announcement to invest £200m to set up a national network of Technology Innovation Centres across the UK.
 
Whilst I have some sympathy with the arguments that public investment in the economy should be more focussed on capital investment (such as transport and communications infrastructure i.e. if you give people the ability to connect, physically or digitally the rest will look after itself), I am also wary that ‘a bunch of buildings’ will somehow be the saviour of our economy.
 
This was reinforced by some of the commentary afterwards which was asking whether, in a connected age, spending money on bricks and mortar is really the best and most cost effective way to spark innovation in the UK. In summary, we need a thriving network and ecosystem that connects up large and small businesses, universities, investors etc for an economy to thrive.
 
Mind The Gap
 
I feel strongly about because I often describe what we do at 100%Open as trying to bridge the gap between (usually large and small) organisations. This sounds easy and obvious but it just doesn’t happen as much as it needs to and I think we are part of a wider trend towards a network of intermediary organisations that act as facilitators and connectors at both a local and global level.
 
 But the other reason I feel strongly about this announcement is because I’ve seen a similar inititaves fail in the past. A few years ago I was responsible for setting up a network of incubators and investigating the possibility of setting up a science/knowledge park on behalf of the London Development Agency. The vision was to set up 8 incubators and 1 science park in the capital, but in the end (due to both budgetary and political constraints) we managed to set up 3 incubators and no science parks. In each case the money would almost always only be enough for the construction phase and then the new centre would inevitably be forced to run as commercial property, and therefore essentially rather than sparking innovation, they became simply subsidised workspace.
 
 It’s always an easy photo opportunity for an MP (or even a Mayor or PM) to point to the shiny new building that they have paid for as a signal of what they are doing to regenerate an area or rebuild the economy. It’s much harder to point to the real value that these buildings have created, which depend far more on the informal networks that really make them really work. These require commitment, empathy, lateral insight that are much harder to simply throw money at.
 
Clients not Cash
 
Once upon a time the smart strategy was to focus innovation investment on the most promising companies in an economy and try to grow them. However the days of picking winners is long gone, partly because government has a terrible record of spotting winners, but also because it is much too expensive. For example it is much more cost effective and beneficial to connect a university spin out with a client who wants to buy what they have to sell, rather than to give them a grant of say £100,000 to develop their technology or IP. And yet why is it that the vast majority of publically funded innovation initiatives resemble the latter strategy rather than the former?
 
In summary, we need an agile and connected economy that reflects the networked way the world works and whether David Cameron and his advisers come to the same conclusion about investing in Technology Innovation Centres in a few years time remains to be seen. But either way I would urge them to focus on the spaces inbetween, more than the centres themselves, if this policy is to be a success.

Comments

  1. I completely agree with your comments about the folly of massive capital spend that pays little attention to the need for an integrated service-rich environment that incorporates the essential networking and relationship building activity to which you refer. The other issue about ‘shiny new initiatives’ is that in an effort to differentiate from what has gone before, there is a risk that many existing excellent initiatives (both bricks & morter and services) are side lined. Where excellent sustainable models already exist they should be recognised, re-badged and brought under the TIC umbrella to maximise the impact of what will inevitably be insufficient cash.

  2. Hi Kate,

    Thanks for your comment. Agree that there is a danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater with any new initiative. Re the ‘folly of capital spend’, that’s not quite what I meant as I actually think capital spend in say high speed broadband infrastructure or an integrated transport infrastructure would be well worth it. My worry with capital spend on buildings in particular is that it is very expensive and generally inefficient.

    All the best,
    Roland

  3. One of the great things about the web has been it’s no longer necessary to have an office to be in business. My clients don’t care where I work as long as I’m professional and deliver. The rise of co-working spaces seems to be the answer to what you are describing and that seems like a very sensible place for government dosh. For exampe, the Olympics media centre sounds like it would be a great place for an affordable co-working venue. Whenever, I visit NESTA, I always think that vast foyer, with its grand pods, could be better used to provide 100 hot desks right in the centre of town.

  4. Hi James,

    Thanks for the comment and totally agree about the Olympic Media Centre. That sounds like a great idea. Just hope they have enough plug sockets for all the freelancers.

    Re Nesta’s rather palatial surroundings, I take the point however the one thing that I think they did really well (when I was there at least), was have tonnes of interesting and mostly free events so the space was certainly well used and did act as a bit of a hub, which is partly what I fear the Technology Innovation Centres won’t do, but let’s see.

    Cheers,
    Roland

  5. If the TICs follow the model outlined in the Hauser review then there is less reason to worry. The Hauser review says little about investment in the fabric, and much more about assuring a sufficient and sustained level of government R&D funding over a period of up to 10 years. The lesson from other countries seems to be that providing that stable base funding as part of a mixed grant/commercial funding model, and focussing on areas of real national strength and global potential can be a very effective strategy. Let’s hope that’s what we get.

  6. I think it is very important that we don’t see the new ITC initiative as an “alternative” to the status quo. It’s an addition and a very important and welcome addition at that. Much better than pouring money into what we currently have, which has been diluted and is ineffective. The University industry interface in the UK is a real problem.

    They are nothing like anything we have seen before and so we can’t use past experience e.g. incubators/clusters as a marker.

    These are not going to be “administrative” establishments that could be operated in the cloud. We are talking about physical technology development here. This requires co-location in order to help facilitate synergies between technology sectors. Some fundamental and some more applied. Also these will be establishments that will I hope have a better industrial interface.

    Chewing the cud on ideas is fine and can be done in the cloud, networking hubs, University departments or whatever. Relationship building is fine but you eventually have to reduce ideas to practice and that requires bricks and mortar, with the relevant teams dynamically engaged in real-time development.

    These ITC centres bridge an important gap. But the truth is there are many different gaps and various ways they can be bridged. In the UK we have an innovation gap. We don’t do innovation effectively. That’s a tough one to bridge.

    I share some of your cynicism. But my main concern is this. The ITC idea is great but it’s going to be implemented by us the Brits. Do we have the expertise and culture to do this well? I’m not confident about that. We also have a real problem that our industrial science base is too small to make maximum use of these facilities. Our science based industrial ecosystem is relatively threadbare. We have many empty incubators. Nothing to incubate. Why grow food if you don’t have an ecosystem to feed?

  7. Hi Nick,

    Thanks for your comment and I think we are broadly in agreement. I didn’t mean to give the impression that I thought the ITC’s were a bad idea, rather that for them to succeed we need the ecosystem around them like you say. And simply based on my experience people tend to get preoccupied with the building and insufficiently occupied with everything else. Agree too about your point about culture and I’d like to see more to encourage and celebrate the entrepreneurs.

  8. I like the idea of drop in buildings with plenty of sockets, benches, creative areas and awesome broadband and screen/whiteboarding etc where you can collaborate.

    Admittedly nomadic geeks cannot turnup with all of the kit they need to develop some things – you need labs and workshops for that – but a lot of knowledge-work could be initiated and developed in these sorts of mash-ups. Perhaps they could connect to a network of facilities that can make stuff? Eg rapid prototyping?

    I guess it depends on what you are trying to create.

    A lot of good stuff is made in spite of the surroundings – in people’s garages 🙂

  9. Bradley – check out TechHub which has just opened in London. I’ve not been yet but heard good things including plug sockets hanging from the ceilings! R

  10. Hi Steve,

    Let’s hope so and must admit I haven’t read the Hauser review so am sure you are right and am reassured given that you are so positive about it.

    All the best,
    Roland

  11. Hi again Roland, I agree with Steve that the hauser recommendations are pretty sound – they recognise the need for long term investment in integrated models where academics, industry R&D people and commercialisation experts collaborate. I also completely agree with you that public investment in physical infrastucture such as broad band and transport is justified. Well designed buildings that support collaborative working are important and those that work well are where integrated business support services networking are part of the mix.

  12. Hi Roland,
    thanks for the posting which I’ve enjoyed reading. I support Steve’s point about Hauser which is a worthwhile read and makes sensible suggestions. The TSB has been given the task of implementing the review and it will be interesting to see how they take it forward. Essentially it calls for a more national, joined up approach, around key tech sector where we can demo global competitive advantage (like s.Korea has done in semi conductors). Dyson review also seems to be getting airtime at BIS and I agree with his comments on universities overpricing IP deals over collaborative relationships with industry. Best wishes, Jesse.

  13. Hi Roland, delayed response to a vibrant debate and agree with many of the points. Whilst I have never been a bricks and mortar man and in this day and age we should really need to be. It is fair to say there is real benefit in offering some form of facility that enables entrepreneurs, academia and other large organisations to meet and engage. One of the challenges I see with this is the balancing of the opportunity cost of travelling of the stakeholders you would like to encourage versus spreading the locations cross the UK.

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