Response to the Draft Innovation Strategy for Northern Ireland - Part 2 - Knowledge Generation

Andrew Bolster

Data Scientist at Sensum Co., Founder/Director at Farset Labs

See Part 1 for an introduction to this series.

Response to Part 1

Two things came out of my posting of Part 1;

I was “strongly encouraged” to have a look at the evidence pack as well as the initial strategy document (unfortunately changing what was intended to be a 3-part break down into more like a 8 part). So I’ll plod on through the rest of the strategy as read and then go through the evidence pack and see what got lost in the wash.

A particularly poor choice of phrase was pointed out by a good friend, that has since been clarified. I suppose it’s worth repeating that I’m a self-described overly-honest cynic and I apologise in advance if I offend anyone, but these are my current thoughts with the current amount of information at hand and I’m more than happy to recant or correct anything if someone gives me more information, or to clarify anything I’ve worded ambiguously.

Without further ado…

Knowledge Generation

Overview

This section starts off with a overview table, highlighting “What do we want to achieve” and “What are we going to do”. Most of these fall back into the “generic good stuff” argument, but a few good and bad ones caught my eye, not in what they said, but what they didn’t say.

For instance, under “What do we want to achieve?”, two jumped out at me as “missing a few words” (Emphasis adds words I’d like to see)

More companies, particularly local SMEs, investing in ambitious R&D

Universities generating more world class research and graduates

This smacked me as almost the height of this strategy missing the point; innovation doesn’t appear by curating this generation of businesses or ideas, but instead comes from a long term perspective on R&D, meaning that not only do you have to accept usually massive losses in speculative and ambitious R&D projects, but there needs to be a generation of academically trained graduates, both in research and in the business community that is world class. **That **should be the aspiration, not just “more of the same please”. Oh, and this whole strategy could have been improved by slipping that word “ambition” in a few more places, such as the following verbatim from the “What are we going to do”

Encourage more business to innovate and carry out R&D

It’s not all bland though, and one sentence that I was happy to see was:

Our health and social care (HSC) organisations as magnets for R&D investment

Can’t argue much with that, however as a cautionary word, interaction between the private sector (even the voluntary sector) and HSC needs skilful (and patient) facilitation and political support to prevent “commercial exploitation” overriding the operational requirements of such organisations.

The summary then presents a series of proposed metrics under the banner “How will we know that we are on target?”, which in and of itself is refreshing to see policy inserting self-correctional metrics, and whatever I think of the specific metrics, the “between the lines” reading of “we’ll be watching this as we go along to course correct” is great. But this attitude shouldn’t have been between the lines (or maybe I’m reading too deeply into it… let me know!)

Anyway, the metrics consist of the usual fare, R&D expenditure, both Total and the un-defined BERD (Business (Enterprise/Expenditure on) Research and Development, aka “Privately funded Research”), and annual STEM graduates (THANK YOU). Nice solid dependable numbers.

Then there are the other two; “Firms with Innovation activity” and “Number of R&D based companies”. I fear that these may be ‘self fulfilling metrics’ where all that’s required to have massive on paper increases in these metrics is to redefine innovation activity. I imagine teams of abbreviated consultants coming in to assess existing business practices to tell their client that “they’re already innovative! You started a coffee club on the 3rd floor using Excel to coordinate costs” or some such. (As for working out the proportion of these consultants fees would come from the company or INI is an exercise for the reader).

It all comes back to subjective assessments of innovation which are always difficult to argue about, but I hope DETI are sensible in their ‘practical’ requirements for satisfying these standards.

Oh, and a final worry about the lauded “STEM Graduates” count; this doesn’t take quality, competitiveness, and destinations of those students into account; it would be completely within the realm of possibility (but would probably constitute some kind of fraud) for our universities and FEC’s to lower entry and exit standards to increase numbers, then simultaneously under-invest in teaching facilities and staff while also bringing across big-money overseas students (standard oversees fees go at about £13-15k compared to the £4k (ish) for local students) who disappear back to their home nations. Personally, I think the better measure would be “STEM Graduates working in STEM organisations”, similar to the metric used in the NISP CONNECT Knowledge Economy Index, which does a darned good job of collecting that subtlety.

Why is Knowledge Generation Important

Beyond the summary (I promise there’s not much more of this section I hadn’t already touched on, bear with me), the report explains that:

Knowledge Generation is the catalyst for future economic growth. To grow Northern Ireland’s economy we need to create an environment which encourages research and creativity to equip young people and our workforce with the skills and attitudes to succeed

Mostly couldn’t agree more, although personally I would have avoided segregating the focus across “young people / workforce” and a much more pragmatic action would have been to say “our current and future workforce”. Trust me, there is nothing that will lose the respect of a young person is when you forget that in not too long, they’ll be running the show. This ‘skills shortage’ or whatever you want to call it, isn’t going to be fixed by piecemeal projects targeting specific groups; there needs to be a continuum, right from primary school up to post-university professional accreditation. W5 STEMNET is doing pretty darned well up to the university stage (through the use of undergraduate and graduate volunteers as “Ambassadors”, a vocation I’ve done myself for about 7 years, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun and would recommend it to anyone).

However, my only criticism of STEMNET is that it doesn’t (and in the current funding environment, can’t) continue professional development into the “current workforce” (other than the feedback loop of being an Ambassador). I’m not sure how it would work but the idea of a relatively cohesive and inclusive educational programme running from ages 5-35 sounds like an exciting prospect to me.

Encouraging Companies to Invest in Innovation/R&D

There’s also blurb about InvestNI providing in my opinion the worst phrasing of the document, “innovation Escalator”, which is basically admitting that they operate as a production line. Argument for another time maybe. Anyway, they do go on to say that the usual collection of mentoring and support tools will be available (hopefully available to those outside Bedford St too).

We will incentivise research performers to engage in networking / mentoring to increase the technological activities and capabilities of industries

(Emphasis theirs) I really hope this doesn’t mean “We’re going to use the universities for what current market says are sexy tools and when that goes bust, ahh well”, but maybe I’m being paranoid. I do think that a greater focus on the collaborations similar to the ones we’ve seen in the construction industry can be applied to our research base, but we’ve got a lot of cultural issues to get over first (do I really have to sign an NDA to chat about your project? If I can copy your idea from a 3 minute description, it’s not a very original idea).

Then there’s a lot of congratulation about increases in R&D spend, but in a rare instance of candidness, it highlighted that 60% of R&D** spend** is from just 10 firms out of 430 companies stated as undertaking research (from a sample size of 990) meaning that that 60% comes from just 1% of (respondent) companies overall. Also, the majority of this expenditure is being made by FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) by external companies rather than local firms. Hopefully the department will come through in it’s promise that it’ll encourage more pure R&D, however looking at the details of the source report it looks like local SME’s don’t (or can’t) do real experimental R&D rather than basic iterative “tweaks”, and one wonders how much innovation can really come from there. (For anyone thinking about Innovation Vouchers, from my experience on both the supplier and prospective customer side of the table, there’s little “innovation” you can buy for £4k)

Focusing Resources where we have the Greatest Opportunity

In a touch of what I hope in irony, in the paragraph titled “Focusing Resources”, there is this brilliant sentence… (emphasis original)

Therefore, building on the initial technology capability study undertaken by MATRIX (the Northern Ireland Science Industry Panel), we will undertake a new research and technology capabilities study across the public and private sectors

The report that is being spoken of is an in-depth 300+ page document (hidden behind a flash-applet for no real reason, but I digress) based on reports from 250 leaders in business, government and academia.

Why on earth don’t they just listen to the study they’ve already got and “Focus resources” instead of another 3 years of navel gazing? I may be missing something in my naivety but this sounds like duplication of effort and potentially a demonstration of a lack of confidence in what I thought was a thoroughly thought out capability study.

The report goes on to discuss the prioritised areas for funding and support;

  • Transport
  • Advanced Materials
  • Agri-food
  • Life and Health Sciences
  • ICT (vaguest… abbreviation… ever)
  • Telecommunications
  • Sustainable Energy

I felt this was a fairly comprehensive list of areas of existing success within Northern Ireland but it appeared to miss one major existing area of “innovation”, and another where I believe there’s great scope to commercialise our existing infrastructure. These are “The Creative Industries” and hosting/data centres.

Northern Ireland has a glut, both in Belfast, Derry, and a few smatterings around both, of creative industries, be these design houses, games dev, and the more ‘artistic’ edges of the STEM ecosystem (or STEAM if you prefer), and for a document that espouses the integration of good design into existing and future R&D processes, this seems like a strange oversight (although this is partially addressed later in the document).

With the successful launch of Project Kelvin, making Northern Ireland a critical trans-atlantic network hub, there’s an opportunity for leveraging this position through the creation of on-island data-centres and server hosting facilities. With “Big Data” in vogue at the minute, this also seems like an oversight. (However you could argue that this falls under the Telecommunications, if so, this rant can be ignored)

New Global Opportunities

Recognising the global nature both of the Knowledge Economy as a whole, and of the occasionally FDI-heavy state of the NI economy, the continued feedback loop provided by MATRIX in terms of identifying new and emerging technologies is given support. I was glad to see this but I’m concerned about what happens to the findings generated by MATRIX, and how they’re disseminated to both the MATRIX industrial panel, Government, and especially the wider community of business and academia. There’s a clear need for foresight, but the outputs from this process need to be both useful and widely distributed. (PS NISP have resurrected the “Frontiers in Science and Technology” programme, well worth checking out)

Enhancing Northern Ireland’s World-Class Research Base

This is an interesting section for me as an ex-ECIT researcher (reasons for leaving are here), which boasts CSIT, the UK’s largest cyber-security university lab, and I had the pleasure of working with some really talented and truly “world-class” researchers.

The main take away from this section is the intention to double the number of DEL funded PhD studentships to 1000 by 2020 (I assume this is per annum but this isn’t stated clearly), and specifically focusing 60% of these new studentships in “areas of economic relevance”. Can’t agree with that enough, however, the fly in the ointment in my experience is that it is extremely difficult to entice undergraduates just about to leave 3-4 years of studentship into postgraduate work when on the free market their current skills would net them a very healthy salary compared to the (tax free) sub-£15k salary most students get.

And it’s not just a financial matter, in my experience, recruitment for PhD’s happens far too late in the year (around February time usually) by which time most of the ‘rockstar’ students have already been to at least 5 or more interviews and have probably signed up to someone already.

Creating “world-class researchers” means establishing a pipeline of talent. Hopefully this new found focus on this research base will encourage universities’ careers advisers (and academic staff) to more actively espouse the benefits of postgraduate research, on both it’s philosophical and long term financial benefits (17% increase in lifetime earnings (compared to an Undergrad degree) for an average PhD, which LSE calculates as being up to £76k [source], but this number does not include the “STEM premium” so would in reality be considerably more).

The next paragraph goes into Invest NI’s Competence Centre programme, which I had to Google for and found a definition in the Economic Strategy Action Plan.

Competence Centres offer groups of companies the opportunity to collaborate together with the local universities to undertake high risk, long term, strategic research work that will focus on the future needs of their markets. They bring together the experience, expertise and resources of industry and academia to achieve common research goals.

First off, I’d read that as being very similar to the TSB’s Knowledge Transfer Network programme. The plan was to have 4 such ‘centres’ (according to the Action Plan, dated the 13th of March 2012) established by Q1 2015 (although Cloud Computing may have been a fifth added according to this Assembly Hansard from  a couple of weeks later, 29th March ‘12)

Strange thing is that given their placement in the Economic Strategy plan, their treatment in this report is much more vague (Emphasis original).

We will continue to support the development of Competence Centres in strategically important technologies where a clear industry need or emerging market opportunity is identified

Seems a bit hand-wavey to me for what should have been a slam dunk for DETI saying ‘We’re doing these 4 (maybe 5) topics, come join!”

Enhancing Creativity and Design

This section confused me a bit. On the one hand, encouraging Creativity and Design skills as a pathway to innovative processes is a widely acknowledged fact, on the other hand, from a practical perspective it’s difficult to translate good words such as

[…] we will increase the capacity of the region’s Creative Learning Centres and maximise the potential of our cultural base […]

into tangible actions. The three current CLC’s (the Nerve Centre in Derry/Londonderry, Studio On in Crossnacreevy and the Southern Education and Library Board’s AmmA Centre in Armagh) were set up via Northern Ireland Screen to “deliver programmes for schools and young people in the use of new creative digital technologies” on behalf of DCAL.

Either way, it is great to see a joined-up approach to what’s termed “the eSTEAM agenda” (Enterprise, Science, Technology, Art, and Maths), however it does sound like a political version of what software developers call “feature creep”, and I can imagine the already labyrinthine path between “idea” and “support” for STEM/STEAM projects to be made even more difficult. (There’s a conspicuous absence of mention of the successful and ongoing Creative Industries Innovation Fund, another DCAL initiative, via the Arts Council this time)

Hopefully this maze can be aided by the stated plan to develop a “Creative Northern Ireland Framework”, which appears to again emulate the successful model of TSB KTN’s but for the creative sector.

Skills and Education to Support Innovation

There’s another recognition of the ‘limited growth in annual student numbers” in STEM subjects, and DETI appear to be putting their money where their mouths are, promising to fun an additional 12k places in this area, as well as an effort to push STEM down through the school system via the integration of improved ICT curricula as part of DEL’s Future Skills Action Plan. One quote got my attention though;

It is not just formal qualifications which are important for innovation, but also soft skills such as entrepreneurship, risk, and creativity which can be developed throughout the education lifecycle

I really want this to mean that government through various channels, are going to work towards the more effective goal of tacking what is widely considered the single biggest problem that Northern Ireland has with “innovation”, being “risk aversion”, and boiling this in to the education system will undoubtedly have long term benefits for everyone involved, even if it does increase the rate of occasional pain points. Maybe something like this should be printed off as a poster for every classroom in the province. That’d be something.

Failure-as-a-path-to-success

Conclusion

All in all I’m cautiously optimistic about the path being taken by government in terms of their long term plan for not only fixing today’s (some say mythological) skills shortage but also the engrained cultural changes needed to make innovation a natural property of us awkward provincials, however a lot of this beneficial work is being undertaken by DCAL and DEL respectively. Additionally, the Innovation Strategy Action Plan goes into the full breakdown of who’s doing what, and it appears to me that none of the actions proposed under Knowledge Generation are planned to go any longer than 5 years. I hope that this is indicative of a reflective/reactive future plan that is updated and maintained, but the lack of long term targeting is concerning considering that the some of the actions proposed won’t be able to be objectively assessed for at least a decade in some cases, meaning that programmes with great potential impact may be culled prematurely.

I’m particularly interested in the proposed Creative NI Framework, but since the only Google hits for it are this report and it’s evidence pack, colour me concerned.

Right, 3000 words is more than enough for one post, sorry for dragging it out and please argue with me on any points of disagreement. I don’t pretend to be right or informed and all comments are written from a personal perspective with limited knowledge and experience.

Published: November 01 2013

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