The Connected Digital Economy Catapult (CDEC) workshop for SMEs at the Bath and Bristol Science Park last Thursday, May 10th, was the latest in a series public consultation exercises the TSB is currently conducting as part of the planning phase to establish the Catapult. General feedback from previous consultation days has indicated an appreciation of the spirit of openness in which the TSB are conducting the project roll-out.
Following the responses to the Registration of Interest, the focus to date has been largely on engaging the bigger players who in terms of their finance / resources clout are, of course, a vital success ingredient. Yet as the UK’s primary innovators, SMEs will also have a unique contributory role. Successfully engaging them as delivery partners will be critical for the CDEC to align the pace of its commercial R&D with the universally-acknowledged high velocity innovation environment that is the current digital economy.
Arguably the most-recurring of topics throughout the day’s discussions was that of the CDEC as a physical centre. That it will be a physical centre is fact but as regards other factors such as, for example, the whereabouts, decisions are pending. In that the final shape of the physical centre will also cut directly across the parallel challenge of orchestrating big conversations between very diverse sets of people, clearly the importance of consultation here cannot be underestimated.
So the questions flowed and not always inbetween the presentations – but that's par for the course when you have disruptors in the house. Would there be a virtual integration coupled to a physical location? How do you serve a national community of SMEs with a single centre? How do you create interactions, maintain all the conversations across the country? A Graham Hitchen tweet it was that most effectively summarised the nature of the challenge : “#cdecatapult debate highlights the difficulty of creating operational model for Centre which purports to have micro/SME culture at its heart”.
Yet as is the brio of such occasions, possible solutions leapt back. Dr Mark Swift of Warwick University tweeted the suggestion of “using business platforms such as the WMCCM”. (This is the West Midlands Collaborative Commerce Marketplace, a free online meeting and collaboration place for all businesses in the West Midlands established and operated by the Warwick Manufacturing Group at the University of Warwick.) @EIP_Digital tweeted that their company collaborate with many SMEs from different national offices – "tools and solutions exist”. Marek Pawlowski’s Twitter recommended linking with “existing regional hubs to make accessible to the wider constituency”.
Other themes in search of answers also repeatedly interwove themselves into the general fabric of the day’s discussions, as if the omniscient kind of clarity that is invariably elusive at the outset of most grand designs might at this event be somehow obtainable – how to balance the interests of all stakeholders, the IP conundrum, IT security, how to mix bureaucratic processes with the freedom to play and innovate, to link or not to link with what’s already out there. Incidentally, with regard to the latter theme, previous advocacy (via audioboo) from Dr Brian Condon, co-founder of the Centre for Creative Collaboration ("C4CC"), that the TSB should “have confidence to develop its own model….to do its own stuff, build its own thing” found further resonance in a tweet from @anthonystory "...The Centre should...be bold in vision and don’t just do what’s happening already. Make it special."
Yet it was in the afternoon workshop session where what seemed like a breakthrough occurred. Temporarily diverted from our search for absolutes, we were asked to conduct the small group task ‘What would you like the CDEC to do for your SME?’ Interestingly, this anti-JFKennedyesque approach suddenly took us into new territory. By considering the CDEC from a specific (even if hypothetical – we became a ‘design consultancy’) SME perspective, we were able to switch from trying to perceive the CDEC as a kind of ‘everything for everyone’ institution to a more dynamic type of facility that could offer comprehensive early stage gap analysis. Fluent channels of a more unequivocal, detailed type of language began to cascade. We were no longer talking about ecosystems, infrastructure, collaboration, content value chains. Instead we were now considering the possibility of dictating funding priorities i.e. pitching, having quick access to strategic collaborators and other forms of expertise, transferable accreditation requirements from other professional bodies to unlock investor interest, all time input as financially recoverable, fast decision processes with minimal but purposeful paperwork, management of delay from other funding sources e.g. EU, the CDEC potentially setting up club membership as bar to entry...
Even the thorny IP question was now more inviting – subcontracted service could be a straight deal with 100% SME retention, projects with 50% / 75% TSB match funding to have 100% / 50% SME retention, IP could be brought out by the TSB on completion of the exploitation plan, if a central exploitation would be more effective than the SME could deliver, TSB as ‘IP mortgage’ broker etc. etc.
By the time it came to feeding back, the collective mood of the delegates was now noticeably allegro. In short, it appeared that by focusing less on abstractions and more on the concrete details we had to a degree become released from the thinking constraints that can sometimes result from dwelling too much within the language generalities of big picture conceptualisation. In the final half hour it was as if the overriding CDEC vision ("We want the UK to be the first place in the world where companies choose to innovate, try out new ideas, and find ways to make money in the connected digital economy...") was with each reported group scenario now beginning to acquire tangible thrust. A few of the parting tweets seemed to agree:
"Interesting to see how #CDECatapult progresses – broad themes emerged & there was momentum at end of day..." (@EIP_Digital), "Using scenarios and user journeys proved a powerful framework for generating ideas for #cdecatapult – we need more models like this..." (@frnboy), "Good to see initial scepticism #cdecatapult can help SMEs being overcome by story telling workshop focusing people on real possibilities..." (@marekpawlowski).
Further information about other forthcoming regional CDEC events will be available via the Special Interest Group site and also via CI KTN Events.