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


Angel investing taking rapid steps forward


Now far from its origins as a side-line for rich single investors, angel investing is becoming a collaboration between different contributors and a major supporter of fast-growing young businesses

Since its re-launch last year, the UK Business Angels Association has increased its strength by opening its doors to related organisations working in its field, and has thus become more comprehensive and more influential.

Angel investing appears to be expanding – with more deals and more angels in the market – helping to fill the hole being left by the continuing decline in bank lending to SMEs, and as  the economy begins to pick up. The arrival of a new breed of Super Angel combined with the continued rise of syndicates plus leverage from co-investing funds (at least one VC has a panel of co-investing angels) are ‘pushing Angels up the value spectrum’ (according to Deloitte’s recent report.)

The Association is attracting widespread support – for example now from most of the big five ‘accounting’ firms (and soon all?), and from funders big and small; and it is generating new initiatives.

By their involvement, and by virtue of their related experience, Angels are increasingly themselves generators of added value; and are becoming increasingly sophisticated investors in young businesses.

The Association has set up a “walled garden” website for its members in order to help in the completion of funding deals. It enables them to share information about part-funded deals – to help close those deals and reduce the number of deals that fail to complete.

The Association is forming The Business Angels Institute – an organisation designed to help people understand and learn about Angel investing – with several meetings already planned this month. It is working with PWC to support a programme of increasing access to identified Angel-backed businesses for corporates seeking acquisitions, and is running workshop on trade sales. And it is setting up local meetings for Angel investors to meet sources of deal-flow and key players such as the Angel Co-fund, the Business Growth Fund and HMRC.

‘Managing’ Innovation – Applied Creativity, July 2013


* Everyone involved in innovation needs to help focus innovators onto issues of strategic importance rather than allowing them simply to pick off quick-wins (item 1 below).

*  However much we identify and develop new opportunities for innovation, we need people whose role is to get them into widespread use (Item 2).

* Accelerators are using all sorts of ways to support innovators (Item 3); and they are getting more choosy about who they accept and what kinds of opportunities they will support (Item 4 below).

*  And if there are many aspiring entrepreneurs who do not get accepted for an Accelerator, here is a FREE website that can do a lot to help them develop their idea (Item 5).


Applied Creativity

Briefings from

John Whatmore at

The Centre for Leadership in Creativity

July 2013


Join the discussions at


                                  *                                    *                                    *

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? What can we learn from EPSRC’s week-long ‘Sandpits’, Watershed, Bristol’s Sandboxes, Tom Inns work with AHRC, IBM’s UK Laboratories and Future Centers work? (


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, for the embattled members of their staff whose job it is to build innovation into their organisations. (

We are planning to run one or more seminars in the Autumn for CEOs and Heads of Innovation – people whose role is to deliver innovation


Curating support for inventers, innovators and creatives

Leaders of Incubators, Accelerators and Science Parks provide opportunities for their participants to learn from others – other innovators, creatives and mentors, as well as to reflect on their learnings. What makes for a good cocktail of support?


 Accelerators getting more choosy and more targeted

Accelerators attract quantities of applicants, a number of whom have ideas for new businesses that are very evidently non-starters, some even barmy; many have ideas of limited scope, some of whom present poorly. A few have an immediate appeal as really disruptive, or as having an innovative approach to a big issue, though not necessarily demonstrating outstanding entrepreneurial qualities. How are selection processes trying to deal with these issues?



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. It offers some of the guidance that incubators and accelerators provide,

and it does so free of charge. It 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. (


The Centre for Leadership in Creativity (a ‘virus for creativity’) carries out research and provides con-

sultancy and peer-to-peer learning for organisations looking to enhance their creativity and innovation.


Copyright John Whatmore 2013

The Centre for Leadership in Creativity      138 Iffley Road,London W6 OPE           

Tel: 020 8748 2553                          E-mail:



The latest co-working spaces: what makes them work?


Flexible work spaces, motivational atmosphere, ideas-two-a-penny, bewildering variety of expertise, learning regimes, compelling visions, inspiring visitors: all of them pressure cookers for hot ingredients.

You might think that internet connectedness was the antithesis of co-working, yet co-working spaces have never been more popular. Above all their users are about enterprise and innovation; and all the co-working spaces – whether corporate, geekish, get-up-and-go, dedicated or whacky – exude a culture of passion and determination.

Below are descriptions of Level39 in Canary Wharf, of Google Campus in Tech City, of Telefonica’s Wayra Lab, of Watershed in Bristol, of The Royal College of Art’s Incubator, and of a co-working space at London University; and Nesta is building one of its own. And there are Creativity Labs in several universities and other locations. And now ‘Hubs’ – large co-working facilities along with specially adapted meeting spaces – have arrived in London, as they have all over the world; and of course in Silicon Valley there are co-living spaces.

What are they designed to do and what makes them work?


The latest co-working space is ‘Level39’, half way up one of the towers at Canary Wharf, and in the middle of a cluster of the offices of a number of international banks – host to a recent Accelerator backed by the Mayor and Accenture aimed at helping some SMEs to market new products to big banks ( Unlike any other, it is more like a boutique hotel than a sandpit – laid out with a sitting area supplied with the latest iPad controlled coffee-making machine, an area of small meeting/ working rooms, an area of larger meeting rooms and a big event space. Level39 is focusing on accelerating young businesses in financial, retail and future cities technology areas. The space has been provided by the Canary Wharf Group – in the hope of attracting new businesses to the area; and it is overseen by Eric van der Kleij, previously Head of Tech City.

Tech City’s co-working spaces like TechHub, Central Working, Innovation Warehouse and Google Campus are a long way from the Common Room – if that was an early version of the co-working space; and a long way from most incubators, one of the more recent versions of co-working spaces, which were essentially small flexible spaces on short tenancies, with services on tap – for growing SMEs.

In its basement, Google Campus in Shoreditch has a large area of desks and soft seating – regularly packed, mainly with individuals working away on their laptops, alongside a café; it has a medium size presentation space on the ground floor, where there are presentations of all sorts at least once a day; and its upper floors are used for the cohorts of longer-term development programmes, each with their own regime – like Seedcamps, Springboard and Bethnal Green Ventures, the latter two being 13-week Accelerator programmes.

With desks close to one another, Bethnal Green Ventures was ‘accelerating’ six teams, developing ideas for social ventures which they would eventually pitch to investors. At the entrance was a large kitchen, where much discussion took place. ( (Uden Films once converted some small premises in West London so that there were large kitchens at the end of each corridor, where staff not only made tea and coffee, but also cooked their meals, thus ensuring that they spent more off-beat time together, from which ideas might spring.)

Telefonica’s Wayra Lab in central London, its tenth Accelerator world-wide, has spaces for 20 teams (of 2-5 members), each one partitioned off from the others, around the outside of an enormous single-floor area; and in the middle of this area are recreation facilities (eg table tennis, darts etc), informal meeting and sitting areas, and an ‘Agora’ – a large open space where meetings of all kinds can be held. Each cohort has six months in the Accelerator, with the possibility of a short extension. (     And it is in the process of duplicating this on a lower floor – for its collaboration with UnLtd for accelerating social ventures under a contract with the Cabinet Office. The Royal College of Art’s  modern Incubator in Battersea (for 2-year residencies) has a similar lay-out – on a smaller scale.

Nesta is in the process of fitting out a state-of-the-art area to accommodate the ten teams it is in the process of selecting for its first cohort in its Accelerator for social enterprises under the same contract.

Watershed’s Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol has a similar physical lay-out, though of fully open-plan space – recently expanded from 30 to 42 places – each in residence for 3 to 12 months; and contrives its own regime for getting the participants to use each other’s knowledge and experience, and for introducing them to experts from parallel fields in which ideas can soar. (  London University’s Centre for Creative Collaboration at King’s Cross, has a similar space for a few small businesses, with no limits on duration of tenure, and ‘no rules’!

Then there are spaces that are designed and equipped for specialised meetings such as Creativity Labs and Future Centres (for brainstorms and concentrated thinking – especially about strategy) such as Royal Mail’s Creativity Lab, BT’s Hothouses, and their equivalent at Essex University, Norwich University, Coventry, Liverpool et al.

Our burgeoning entrepreneurial world has given birth to myriad small businesses frantically seeking to fill emerging niches, for which The Hubs are purposed – as ‘spaces created for peer-collaboration where inventions and innovation are taken from idea to impact’. They ‘are designed to foster a unique culture of learning-by-doing – a workshop cum laboratory cum headquarters – a Superstudio for pioneers’. A very recent creation, there are now over forty all round the world, all owned and funded locally, of which three are in London.

Westminster’s (partly funded by Westminster City Council as well as  private funding) positively throbs with enterprise: there are 160 places at hotdesks or reserved spaces, available on all sort of flexible terms, with access to meeting rooms – of various sizes, with break-out rooms, a ‘greenhouse’, ‘collaboration booths’, an event space and a circular-style ‘strategy theatre’, plus a café/lounge, and of course fast internet connections. Every day there are inspiring, practical or creative events of different kinds including Hub Network lunches, with leaders, experts, gurus who have ‘done it before’ or seen it before (or else done something strikingly similar.)

There is a Founders’ Camp, which introduces founders to one another; there is ‘Academy at the Hub’ – a drop-in education programme for entrepreneurs; there are hosts and facilitators, and there are plans to set up a mentoring regime. The Hub both hosts and runs Accelerators (curated 13-week programmes of intensive development for new businesses); and it runs a Summer School. When it comes to ongoing funding, there is a network of investors; there is a Social Enterprise Investment Fund and a Crowdfunding platform. Seemingly every element available on hand for those seeking to develop ideas into innovations, and an ideal location for those many laptop workers currently to be found in Starbucks, Café Neros and Costas.

At the other extreme from Level 39, are co-living spaces – which have become popular in Silicon Valley. Designers, engineers, entrepreneurs and their ilk having found that their motives, their aspirations and their lifestyles were sufficiently co-incidental for them to come together and pool their money to take one of the large and less popular houses in the area. They claim to ‘gain an instant circle of fellow technological thinkers, brainstormers and tinkerers with whom they can dream and invent’ (See Over the Rainbow –, published 30.6.12).

‘Theoretical debates take place on the staircases, around the dinner table and by the grand piano. Whiteboards are scattered through the house with one covering the wall in the living room – floor-to-ceiling, where people do maths problems in different-coloured markers and scribble ideas for start-up companies. The residents host salon discussions once a month, inviting experts in politics, oceans or rocket launchers to lead conversations. A couple of times a year, they have a ‘hackathon’ when scores of computer geeks bring their laptops over and share some beers.’


Common to all of these spaces, especially those that take in cohorts for development programmes of fixed length, is that the participants are learning together and from each other. The extent to which each such space encourages divergent thinking may depend on how different their projects are, and on how radically participants are being encouraged to think.


If you run co-working spaces or are planning or developing a co-working space, contribute to the discussion here. (And if you manage co-working space, tell us who you are your most popular visiting speakers – experts from parallel fields, such as architects, theatre producers, chefs, artists, composers, designers or inventers.)



Curating support for inventers, innovators and creatives


Leaders of Incubators, Accelerators and Science Parks provide opportunities for their participants to learn from others – other innovators, creatives and mentors, as well as to reflect on their learnings. What makes for a good cocktail of support?

Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn is reported to have said that ‘Entrepreneurship is like jumping off a cliff and assembling a plane on the way down’. Figuring out how to do things you have never done before is of the essence in innovation – from opening a new payment system or pitching to a potential customer to using a new IT system or a new form of chemical analysis: who and what can best help you to figure out how to do it?

Some programmes now include a preamble at which experts in a particular field present some of the issues in that field (eg healthcare/energy/ communication) that are of topical concern, widespread interest and substantial benefit – in the hope that participants will focus on such issues, even though they may not be easy-wins.

Many of the great creative minds of to-day have had mentors – among whose contributions are feed-back, advice and contacts. In early stages, feed-back – about the advantages, risks and disadvantages of ideas and concepts can help in their evolution. As an idea matures, advice about how to take it forward becomes increasingly relevant; and then contacts – with those who can help to implement it – suppliers, experts, customers – are essential.

A regular mentor, in whom you can confide, is like a life-support machine: part friend, part supervisor, part coach, part super-fine address book. Technical help will often be necessary in the development of the product, as from time to time will be advice and help with the development of one’s team; and marketing soon becomes an area that demands continuing attention. In a period of intensive development, mentoring needs will come and go like the wing-beats of a butterfly, sometimes even before its author is fully aware of them.

Working in close proximity, for example in incubators, accelerators and laboratories (and often meeting in the kitchen), provides opportunities to discover that someone else has just the knowledge or experience that you need right now! And it makes it easy to gather together people with different backgrounds, with whom to tackle knotty problems – a recipe which the new Crick Institute for biomedical science is espousing.

BT Labs runs ‘Hothouses’, some of one day’s duration, at which plans and progress for the next 30 days are evolved; and some of two or three days duration whose aim is to bring all relevant parties together to develop solutions to major issues (rather than continue with iterative work on a problem only later to discover insuperable objections.)

EPSRC and AHRC run Sandpits of up to a week’s duration which aim to identify major issues of strategic importance that are ripe for solution, as well as to form teams with a remit (and funding) to tackle them.

Many incubators have frequent visitors who make presentations – Tech City’s ‘Campus’ in Shoreditch will have as many as a couple every evening. Most popular are people who have ‘done it before’, (and especially those among the pantheon of heroic entrepreneurs and inventers). Visionaries, inventers and reformers, even eccentrics are often invited (Watershed’s Pervasive Media Studio, IBM UK Labs) – in the hope that they may offer an idea that transfers, a technology that works in a different context or with a different effect, much as TRIZ does (Siemens). A high proportion of the problems put up on websites like Nine Sigma and Innocentive receive solutions from experts who have already solved them in other contexts. Among the visitors to EPSRC’s Sandpits are IT experts, ethicists and even poets. One of the explicit roles of the National Theatre’s Studio is that of curating creative collaborations – bringing together for example playwrights with people who resemble the characters about whom they are writing, as well as actors, directors and producers.

Carlsen, CEO of Stanford Research Institute required his scientists to pitch their project regularly to their fellow scientists. Sophia Antipolis in France is not the only incubator to enable its participants to get feed-back on their pitch from venture capitalists, entrepreneurs and bankers (and then to re-pitch their proposal). Carlsen’s rationale was that pitching reveals not only the strengths and weaknesses of one’s pitch, but also the strengths and weaknesses of the underlying proposal.

Watershed, Bristol requires everyone at its Friday meetings to talk about their progress and what they have learned in the past week, including their pivots – the changes they have made to their concepts, products and plans; and an edited version is then circulated on its intranet.

The emphasis of the curators of the various kinds of development programmes will no doubt depend on the objectives of the programme and the difficulty of the projects, and upon the capabilities of the participants and the progress of their plans.