Focusing Intensive Development programmes onto issues of strategic importance


In selecting candidates largely on the basis of their ideas for generating a new business, Accelerators have focused more on quick-wins than on major social, economic or cultural issues. How could aspiring entrepreneurs be encouraged to work with issues of major strategic importance? EPSRC’s week-long ‘Sandpits’ are about identifying important areas for research, and Watershed, Bristol’s Sandboxes have aimed to identify problems or opportunities and to develop ways forward. Tom Inns work with AHRC takes such issues a step further forward – by building the specification for a programme and eliciting ideas. Several individuals and several organisations have used the internet with some success to encourage people first to identify ‘good’ issues – among them IBM’s UK Laboratories. And Future Centers have tended to focus on more complex and longer term problems. What can we learn from them?


EPSRC’s Sandpits – a process for identifying important issues

For ten years, EPSRC has run ‘Sandpits’ – week-long residential workshops, as part of their Ideas Factory. The objective of these is to bring together people from different disciplines, to work on significant problems, and by breaking down barriers and building new relationships to find new approaches and solutions and identify new areas for research.

Sandpits are distinctive in that they start with relatively large groups (20-30) of scientists, who do not know each other, selected from their own submissions – to achieve  diversity in the group, and for their suitability for the process (‘arranged marriages’). They know that they will have to work on a significant ‘real world’ problem and that there is a considerable pot of funds immediately available – for those projects that will be decided upon by agreement at the end of the week.

The ethos is one of self-management, but the process is shaped by a Director, Mentors and Facilitators – leading participants through and on to an understanding of the opportunities and problems, and arriving at a Problem Statement; and thence to the formation of ideas, around which smaller groups begin to form. Finally proposals are short-listed and ranked before a final funding decision is made. Pre-work, speed-dating, site visits, games, challenges, visitors from alien fields (poets, ethicists, IT experts) are all designed to help with the process. They are run in various locations (including once at Royal Mail’s Creativity Laboratory at Rugby).

Originally designed to bring scientists out of their silos and to help them to think creatively together, the programme ‘has resulted in ambitious, innovative research without boundaries, and lasting legacies of new relationships and new ways of thinking’.

Watershed, Bristol – innovation in media and the arts

Watershed’s iShed takes aspects of the Sandpit concept and gives them a new and fuller life. It does this by:

– providing a much longer development period – of three months

– often (but not always) by extending the inter-disciplinary nature of the arena by

virtue of housing together and in the same big room a (carefully selected) number of

complimentary projects

– by providing support that is relevant to the particular moment of each and

every project

– by ‘curating’ a space and an ambience that includes happenings designed to

stimulate creativity, openness, sharing and development

– by requiring everyone to identify their learnings, which are then e-disseminated to

a wider audience.

Tom Inns and Theatres of Thinking at Dundee University

Tom tends to run big workshops eg of fifty academics, mainly in the world of academia and quasi R&D (he has run a number of workshops for AHRC), where his aim is to build future platforms, interests and collaborations.

His work is in the field of inter-disciplinary initiatives, where benefits are likely

*            to be different from those that are expected;

*        not to be expressible in terms of the discipline that originated the initiative;

*            to involve new questions, or reformulation of objectives;

*        to be in the form of capacity to respond to future events, not past ones;

*        to arise after a long time – perhaps long after the initiative has formally ended (‘Creating Value across Boundaries’, Nesta, 2010).

He talks about exploring a potential project; about building a specification for a programme; about eliciting responses and ideas about a possible project. He will often explore drivers of change and trends; and he sees the workshops he runs as themselves drivers of change; and as providing an opportunity for exchanges that would not otherwise happen eg people from different disciplines (arts and humanities), from different sectors (academics and industrialists), and around particular strategic issues that cross domains (eg climate change); and with people who are often notorious for working in silos.

Focusing innovations with the help of e-workshops

IBM’s UK Laboratories have a culture in which people work independently of one another, but they do use the net for what they call ‘jams’ – periods of time during which ideas are sought (on the intranet) – on any subject. Open for a limited period of time, they are said to capture thousands of ideas and to be used to fund sizeable innovation activity; and they are often used by very senior level managers.

Future Centers have focused on business, societal and organisational issues

The core business of Future Centers is developing innovative solutions to challenging business, societal and organisational problems – and especially solutions involving the active, intelligent cooperation of diverse stakeholders. There are more than 30 Future Centers in Europe and Asia, (of which two are in the UK: the Royal Mail’s Creativity Lab in Rugby, and BIS’s Future Focus in London) They are operating in government (in some cases they are embedded in government departments), in the private sector, and in the academic world. They deal with real issues relevant to organisations, projects and people; working in the area of economic affairs, transportation, public works, nature and environment, social affairs, education, and employment, pensions and welfare – to develop new products, services and work processes that enhance the innovation capacity of business, government and society.


A website for aspiring entrepreneurs – who have no money!


A website is developing fast that can help the many thousands of people in the UK who want to start their own business. These aspiring entrepreneurs would benefit from the guidance that incubators and accelerators provide, but they do not have the means to get it. The website uses a collection of information to provide an assessment of the maturity of the enterprise – as a venture, and to help raise that profile. It will become increasingly widely useful.

You first have to register on Dreamstake (some 9,000 people have done so), and provide a substantial amount of information (some of which can be imported automatically from your entries on LinkedIn and TechCruch), and when you have provided the essentials, the site uses an algorythm which its founders have developed – based on the ‘Startup Genome’ (using such things as team composition, number of pivots, extent of funding to date etc) to provide you with a rating about your business’s maturity. And it helps you to determine what to do to enhance that rating.

The site also guides you to:

* seminars on specific topics – at Google Campus in London

* a skill search and swap function (just added) that circulates your

requirements for expert help on eg Facebook and Twitter

* certain sources of potential funding, such as Start-up loans

(16 achieved in the last three months).

* selected firms providing advice.

The site enables early-stage ventures (of which there are now some 400 on the site) to assess their progress and look for help and advice – all free of charge.

It does not as yet make any distinction between sectors, types of product/service, or degree of innovation; nor does it yet provide a route to appropriate mentors (eg a general adviser plus links to an ever-changing array of needs for specific help); nor to financing opportunities (eg that specialise in your sector, your type of product, your business’s maturity); but it is likely to do so as soon as its algorythms succeed in linking emerging needs (for example in product development eg seeking an expert in cardio-diagnostics) with management’s progress in tackling them (for example in marketing, such as actually obtaining a customer). While the network does collect much of this data already, it does not necessarily include it in the rating.

Already of use to universities (with their booming Entrepreneurship Clubs, to Incubators (as a source of self-help for incubatees), to the Department of Work and Pensions (to help with youth unemployment), and to schools (always weak on career advice), the site is likely soon to become valuable to Angel organisations and venture capital companies.

Innovation in the UK badly needs ‘pull’ as well as ‘push’


Innovation in the UK has suffered a short-term decline in expenditure. In continuing to attach high priority to innovation CEOs have evidently been distracted by the need for fire-fighting. While Nesta and the TSB seek to chart the paths forward for innovation, CEOs need to provide support, as does the Association of Managers of Innovation in the US in its own valuable way (1), for the embattled members of their staff whose job it is to build innovation into their organisations. (Join our Autumn Seminar for leaders of innovation – see below.)


It is widely reported that most CEOs now see Innovation as their top priority, but there are few signs of this. Nesta reports that investment in innovation in the UK has fallen sharply since 2008; and that investment in fixed assets fell and became increasingly dominated by bricks and mortar at the expense of technology. Geoff Mulgan, Nesta’s CEO, has observed that Research & Development has been declining in productivity, (though expenditure on innovation may be ten times that on R&D), and that the innovation spend has been increasingly oriented to social and public services and user innovation.

CEOs have evidently been fire-fighting rather than focusing on innovation; and where corporate responsibility for innovation is delegated to others, those people find themselves ill-supported, with fragile budgets and in constant competition with those running existing parts of the business.

Innovation has been led by the rapid evolution of communications technology, and in the process it would seem to have left the development of applications of those technologies languishing in its wake. In rating Innovation as their top priority, CEOs evidently expect the rate of change they see around them to generate rising demand for innovation. So how do we re-ignite innovation?

The two main instruments of innovation in the UK have been Nesta and the Technology Strategy Board, each working in rather different ways on different aspects of innovation. Nesta, now a charity, is almost exclusively a research organisation, working on policy more than on practice (with some exceptions, especially its leading-edge work on Accelerators), and working mainly in the field of social and public services.

The TSB’s main role, with funds several times those of Nesta (on which it has calculated that there is a handsome return), aims to seed technological innovation in areas of potential economic advantage to the UK, which it does through competitions, grants and the funding of organisations (the Research Councils, KTPs, the KTNs and the Catapults) on specific technologies and initiatives.

Both organisations are essentially about ‘push’ rather than ‘pull’, about identifying the future rather than about encouraging the various elements of the economy to adopt leading-edge practice. Neither seeks to raise the level of innovation practice among individuals and organisations up and down the country.

The Association of Managers of Innovation in the US is at the opposite end of that spectrum. Its objective is to provide a forum in which practitioners can learn from each other’s experience. Its members are leaders of innovation in organisations, whom it supports with e-distributed information and communications, educational programmes, member interactions and personal support; and it brings its members together in twice yearly meetings held throughout the US. As it moves into its fourth decade, Stan Gryskiewicz who founded it when he was at The Centre for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, has been reflecting on its processes.

Two vital principles of the AMI community are:

1. Dialogue of differences – the valuing of and seeking of cross generational, cross disciplinary, and cross industry dialogue; and the unique perspectives this dialogue engenders, and

2. Reciprocity – as a way to facilitate learning, members share with each other their experiences of managing innovation – both their current problems and opportunities and their successes and failures.

A global association of the world’s leading social entrepreneurs, called Ashoka provides a useful model for the AMI learning community’s meeting process: it seeks to build communities of innovators who work collectively to transform society – by bringing people together who are not typically gathered; by breaking down the walls between them; and by engaging ‘applied empathy’ when contemplating change – meaning that the agent of change must comprehend and be guided by how their action will impact everyone around them and into the future.

In the UK, while Nesta and the TSB work to identify and pioneer leading-edge practice, leaders of innovation often function in desperate isolation, when engaging with others – especially with those who are in a similar situation but different context – might be both valuable and stimulating. Turning ideas into innovation and research into practice might benefit from the principles and aspirations of AMI in the US.




We are holding a Seminar in the Autumn for leaders of innovation – to provide opportunities for them to exchange experience (under Chatham House Rules) and to learn from each other’s strategies and tactics, and successes and failures – typically about initiatives, budgets and support.

For more information, contact me at