Top digital expertise to drive the digital world

Top Digital expertise to drive the digital world
The new Digital Catapult Centre in London aims to tackle ‘obstructive problems’ whose solutions will unlock digital futures, and to enable expertise in the digital world to contribute to that work and to benefit from it – by supporting digital development in all kinds of organisations. And it aims to spawn similar centres in the regions.
Next week: The Satellite Applications Catapult is charting new applications for satellites and facilitating path-finding initiatives in technology, markets and finance.

The Digital Catapult Centre (https/::digital.catapult.org.uk), surprisingly the seventh Catapult to be created by InnovateUK, opened its doors only in November 2014, at the very top of a building with a magnificent view onto the British Library and Euston and Kings Cross Stations in London.

It is permeated by the philosophy of Neil Crockett, its boss, whose strong belief is that innovation is born essentially of physical encounter and interaction – hence its location beside the stations and with as good access as is imaginable to most of the UK and to Europe and the City of London.

As such, it is meticulously designed to look very modern but with user-friendly touches – such as lockers, bookshelves and kitchen space. It is made up of a collection of different size and style spaces, each of which can be re-ordered for a variety of different purposes. Wiring is self-consciously exhibited; screens – of different sizes and surrounds (tablets, mobiles, hybrids etc) are everywhere, presenting all sorts of different material and high-lighting the leading-edge work of a changing quorum of SMEs; and everything is designed to capture data.

There are two sides to the work of the catapult: there is research work and there is the generation of innovation – through interaction with the digital community and the digital industry. Research is focused on ‘obstructive problems’ – those issues that get in the way of the progress of the digital economy. There are four themes to these:
• removing obstacles to the sharing of personal data
• facilitating the exchange of proprietary data
• enabling the sharing of creative content, and
• establishing regimes for sharing private data.
There are currently some twenty topics, and each project might take between 6 and 18 months; and there is a permanent invitation to come in and wrestle with a problem with those who are working on it in the Catapult.

The research area is mainly made up of rows of desks, butted up to one another, but there are parleying seat spaces, sticky note spaces and small group spaces, as there are meeting rooms of all sizes, from very small group right up to conference size.

It is this latter section that is the encounter area. Intensive marketing about the topics being addressed via the many contacts – of all involved including the large Advisory Board and their contacts (gatekeepers) and via social media has brought over five thousand visitors in the first four months of the Catapult’s existence to the large number of events held there – sometimes several a day, the prominent of whom are invited to add their names on a huge Signature Wall!

Around two “Pit Stops” (for ‘refuelling’) are to be held each month (each of 2 to 5 days duration,) which bring together cohorts of SMEs and startups with a prototype at testing stage with possible collaborators and partners – larger organisations and device manufacturers, university researchers and deep domain experts – to solve problems and do business. Their aims are:
• to refresh approaches to creating breakthrough digital products;
• to benchmark services against industry standards and peers;
• to boost performance metrics; and
• to obtain exclusive access to partners, new markets and funding opportunities.

Pit Stops are designed to provide in-depth advice and interaction with high calibre experts and partners, providing hands on help with your specific issues around growth and scaling. Sessions are designed to provide insights and consultation around design, user research, software development, security, personal data, trust and privacy, big data / data science / machine learning and architecture.

These Pit Stops – of value to CEOs, CTOs, heads of business development as well as researchers – are focused and facilitated, and include parallel sessions of workshops, demos, talks, pitches and 1:1 sessions – to fire up new solutions and directions. (Some Pit Stops are closed ie on behalf of individual organisations and with specific invitees.) A recent Pit Stop was on digital health and included 35 innovators from startups and 40-50 mentors (including investors, successful entrepreneurs in that space, people from the NHS and Department of Health, experts in design, psychology, personal data and security.)

Despite the extensive reach of this location, Neil Crockett is clear that other centres are necessary if the Catapult is to achieve adequately wide-spread outcomes, the first three of which (in Brighton, Sunderland and Bradford) opened in March. Each one is a cluster including local enterprise partnerships, universities and local innovation organisations.

If data comes in digits, Neil’s infectious enthusiasm is an all-embracing spirit that fills the Centre and inspires his way forward, which he describes as like landing on the moon – constant adaptation.

John Whatmore
February 2015

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