« go back

Great Expectations

Great Expectations

It was February 8th 2007, when I first discovered the power of a brand. It was the day when the merged UK Cable TV industry rebranded as Virgin Media with Richard Branson hosting the launch from a see-through Cube in the middle of a snowy Covent Garden. Immediately following the rebranding the number of customer complaints leapt higher, not because the service had suddenly deteriorated but because customers now expected much more of a “Virgin” company. To my surprise, only two people joined the senior team to effect the transition to Virgin Media (Ashley Stockwell and James Kydd). It didn’t need an army to effect a culture change, everyone understood the promise of the Virgin brand and you had no choice but to live up to the expectations it created.

Last autumn the Technology Strategy Board rebranded as Innovate UK. Once again I felt an immediate impact from this new brand. It didn’t come with its own existing momentum but its simple, elegant and powerful message spelt out a promise that everyone could understand: Innovate UK was here to make change happen; to challenge the status quo; to transform the UK.

The new brand came to life for me at Innovate UK 2014 - our joint event with UKTI, which puts the global spotlight on innovation in the UK. I had the pleasure of chairing the final afternoon. The line up spoke volumes to the great expectations that would be inherent in our new brand’s promise. George Freeman, in his ground breaking role as the world’s first Minister for Life Sciences focused on how the UK bio economy needed to take on the global human challenges around food, health and energy. Mariana Mazzucato, the RM Philips Professor in the Economics of Innovation, reframed the role of the state in innovation: from a passive agent which addressed market failures and then “got out of the way”, to a pro-active entrepreneurial agent taking on early stage risks in order to crowd-in private investment. The session finished with a stunning display from the Unseen, London College of Fashion and Cute Circuit on the results of mixing high tech with high fashion. It was an afternoon that really spelt out for me the vast breadth and depth that Innovate UK must now live up to.

How do you do justice to the great expectations of our new brand? In my experience, the first step in addressing an enormous challenge is to find a way to elegantly divide it up into smaller ones. And it was a discussion over lunch with Eddie Obeng that gave me a starting point. He drew a 2x2 grid, which he calls  a ‘SparqMap’, with Technology versus Human on one axis and Push versus Pull on the other. No 2x2 grid can be a complete model of a complex reality but the four quadrants that these different perspectives created gave me an insightful way to divide up the incredible scope of Innovate UK’s mission.

Technology + Push is all about Revolutionary new Capabilities- discovering new technologies and finding ways to successfully apply them to real life problems. The quadrant mirrors Innovate UK’s partnership with our research base and the journey from discovery through translation to commercialisation. It is frequently a difficult journey as disruptive new ideas will create fascinating opportunities but they will often also demand completely new business models and ecosystems to bring them to fruition.

Technology + Pull is all about Evolutionary new Capabilities – if technology push is centred on revolution, then technology pull is centred on evolution. Formulating a direction of travel, a roadmap, pulling through the technology required to satisfy the needs of an industry. This quadrant mirrors Innovate UK’s work with industry sectors, many of which now have their own innovation centres and institutes such as the Automotive Propulsion Centre and the Aerospace Technology Institute. This is a natural outcome in a Technology Pull quadrant where the direction of travel is better understood. However established industries must resist the temptation to focus solely on technology evolution - leaving them blind to the competitive risks and opportunities created by the other three quadrants.

Human + Pull is all about Societal Challenges and Consumer Insights. This is another very familiar quadrant to Innovate UK, which has frequently used grand challenges in order to stimulate business-led innovation - such as our programmes on low carbon vehicles or low impact buildings. In one of Eddie’s diagrams, he used the word “Insight” to capture the essence of this quadrant and that neatly adds the opportunity for Big Data to now capture the human pull of consumers, complementing the human pull generated by our citizens and policy makers focused on the challenges facing society.

Human + Push is all about Fashion and the Creative Industries. This final quadrant in Eddie’s SparqMap made me smile as the team who look after this area in Innovate UK have been pushing for much greater prominence and this framework gives them their very own quadrant. Indeed, the UK not only excels at the disruptive research skills required in “technology push”, but it also excels at the disruptive creativity which underpins the “human push” that can so completely redefine our desires and needs as consumers. As I noted earlier, a simple 2x2 grid is always going to be a crude approximation of our reality but an elegant one encourages you to not only look at what you are currently doing from a fresh perspective but requires you to think about those things you are not doing.

So as we start 2015 as Innovate UK, I am confident that we have a mind-set with which we can rise to the challenge of our new brand’s promise and meet the expectations of our innovation partners whether they are in research, business, government or the creative industries. Lets get to it.

Kevin Baughan

To see videos from Innovate UK 2014:

To find out more from Eddie at   Download the free e-book “Who killed the Sparq” from