UK Plc Technology Strategy Board meets at Lords

In the hallowed surroundings of Lords – the Cricket ground not the upper House – somewhere high up in the Grove End stand, not far from the Old Father Time bar, in a meeting room called the Writers Room, an earnest crowd gathered yesterday under the auspices of the Technology Strategy Board.

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As a fluourescent jacketed groundsman, drove hypnotically around and around the sacred green square, rollling the grass with zen-like languor, the questions the assembled company were struggling to answer were simple but large: “What are the technological challenges and opportunities facing Creative industries in becoming more successful?” Wow! The spirit of cricket is all around us. Let’s not look back in anger or forward in trepidation. No fear of shying away from the big questions here. But hang on a minute, haven’t we all been working with and in technology for at least the last 20 years? Arguably the arrival of the personal computer changed Creativity for ever and certainly the last 10 years of the Internet has transformed every aspect of business, society and the global economy? If you’re reading this then you’re hardly going to argue that one. Surely, we should have reached a stage where the questions we ask ourselves are a little more sophisticated and focussed than this. Even the timeless groundsman on his roller is now wearing an iPod full of downloaded tracks from BitTorrent? But no, when it’s a matter of public policy or Technology Strategy , our facilitators apparently want the funnel to be as wide as possible at the top. So who is asking this question of questions?

The Technology Strategy Board – and what sort of an institution is that you might well ask? Is it like the Milk Marketing Board? No they’re long gone. Or maybe they’re more like Philip Pullman’s Oblation Board “which finds out all about dust”? A quick google of UK Boards does reveal an Engineering and Technology Board, a Health Technology Board, a Defence Technology Board – in fact an amazing plethora of such august bodies – particularly Technology Boards. They all appear to be hard at work in the heart of British society, no doubt struggling with other equally difficult and wide funnel questions as these. It is a grand old English tradition this – faced with the horrible and confusing prospect of the impending onset of something ghastly like change or “technology” in a variety of monstrous forms, the best response is the establishment of a Board. With a few good public sprited men and women on it – sensible folk – drawn from the ranks of academia, r&d and a few good trade association bods added in to spice it up with a touch of commerce, a good Board can put the world right in the space of a few committee meetings – or at least someone can be said to be handling it.

Having spent the last decade working in the “creative industries” (as media, publishing, music, film, design and the arts generally – are now apparently called over here in current Government speak), I have probably spent longer than many of my colleagues addressing how the music industry, in particular, can interface with technology. I have to say, throughout that period, the music industry has ignored most of what people like me and a lot of other more illustrious and eloquent people have being saying and so has the Government. Arguably, you’d wonder why they would even be interested – until their pain threshold was reached – of course the music industry losing 30% of its global value in five years – probably does represent reaching the pain threshold. But it has not until recently seemed necessary or even likely that we would think of looking to the government for guidance on strategy. We might look to Government for changes in legislation to reflect the changes in IP status, or changes in trading laws to reflect the new globalism, or even for licenses to use technology in a particular way – 4G anybody? But “technology strategy”? Hmm – what should we do about technology, chaps? Hmm, good question, pass the port.
Well, now, it appears there is somewhere to go for help – and even money to encourage us to go there. In the words of his first annual report,

the Chairman of the TSB, Graham Spittle explains: “The establishment of a business-led Technology Strategy Board provides business the opportunity to directly influence Government and to work together on common agendas where both Government and business stand to benefit. Since the Board was established…we have spent valuable time understanding the challenge we have been set and the levers and mechanisms at our disposal to influence change. I believe we are now in a strong position to really drive the agenda forward, to deliver a technology strategy for wealth creation and to position the UK as a global leader in innovation.”

In other words, they spent a year trying to work out who they are and now they know what their “levers and mechanisms” are, they’re going to be able to “position” the UK as a global leader in innovation. Wow! and double wow! Have we returned to the 19th century? What happened to the Empire? Where is Silicon Valley exactly – is it near Basingstoke? Don’t worry – tell them it’s all in the interest of “wealth creation” – that’ll get those commercial chaps’ attention.

Apparently they have picked a few non-cultural areas to put some money into already (about £350m actually) and yesterday, in a spirit of extraordinary candidness and humbleness, Mr Spittle drew together a group of executives from the “creative industries” in a Day of Engagement as he put it. He stood before us and explained that the TSB had up until now, ignored the Creative Industries completely and that now they had decided to focus on them, they had absolutely no idea what they might do or say on the subject. This was enlightening if not entirely encouraging. And so it was that the biggest of big questions – “what do we do about technology?” got asked – again.

To help us along the way to answering this, a fabulous array of new technology was deployed. Wireless laptops that sent output straight to a big screen for all to see and which captured the rambling outputs of the feverish discussions which ensued. Of course, the facilitators were more concerned with explaining how the technology worked, how the session was going to run and what the structure of the day was to be, than actually allowing much time for discussion between explanations, but nonetheless the crowd overcame their verbosity and got down to it.

Predictably of course, familiar issues emerged fairly quickly. The content folk didn’t value the technology (just a means to an end) the technology folk didn’t value the ip in content (just content after all). The only business model that seems to work in the new economy is an advertising model (Googahoo) so how do we find our way out of that? Is this British Government as concerned as it seems to protect the interests of existing big businesses even if their business models are crumbling rather than to support new models and encourage risk taking?

And then it was time for lunch – and a tour of the cricket ground!

Perhaps the Technology Strategy Board is a good thing – certainly its members are well meaning and eminent – if somewhat biased towards the boffin r&d engineering crowd, rather than the high tech innovators. They do have a few members of the UK VC community in their midst too including Anne Glover who is one of the founders of Amadeus Capital Partners. Perhaps spending getting on for half a billion pounds of UK tax payers money on stimulating innovation is a good thing, but when it comes to talking with the creative community this was not the most auspicious start. If there is a cricketing metaphor that comes to mind it was more a matter of “bad light stops play” than anyone being hit for six. Meanwhile, the gentle eloquence of the Lords green and its distant echo of willow knocking against leather somehow dulled the pain and rendered it all a wonderfully English affair and – as long as it’s reasonably innovative – no one will question too closely how we spent the money.

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