Sharing ideas in science, technology and innovation

Monthly Archives: July 2012

Pondering my imminent holiday, as with every holiday, my mind turns to finding cultural hotspots- museums, galleries and sites of historical interest- to marvel at. After five months at Birmingham Science City, my ‘cultural top ten’ is looking rather different. This is not so much because my tastes have changed, but it’s because my definition of ‘culture’ has deepened to include things that have radically altered the course of how we live, through science. Never again will I look at an aqueduct or a cathedral without being amazed at its engineering, the use of natural and man-made materials and the impact of these innovations on economies. No, I am not taking my job home, it is more profound than that.

Roman Aqueduct, Segovia, Spain

Culture is important not just because it is interesting. Ultimately, it is a wonderful thing because it is humanising – it helps us to appreciate and, essentially, contribute to the world around us. ‘Being cultured’ usually means being knowledgeable about things like languages, art, music and theatre- ‘the arts’. But I would argue passionately that it is only right to place the sciences under the cultural umbrella, too.

“A Philosopher Giving a Lecture on the Orrery” by Joseph Wright of Derby

Reading Christine and Rhiannon’s recent blog (below) on their work experiences in STEM areas, and talking to my sixteen year-old step-daughter, Erica (who did work experience, at Aston University, on science commercialisation), it was heartening to hear genuine excitement about their discoveries. All three young people clearly enjoyed taking science out of the classroom and applying their knowledge and problem-solving skills in environments where they could have fun whilst making a difference to our everyday lives.

I was lucky enough to attend the recent opening gala of the Thinktank Science Garden. The weather was characteristically torrential, which is never a good omen for something outdoorsy. But rain seemed to enhance rather than stop play. A very substantial crowd of people of all ages and from all backgrounds came along, interacting with the science exhibits and each other. Science seemed to be uniting people across a diverse spectrum, tapping into something deeply subconscious. Special guest, Dr Alice Roberts– the University of Birmingham’s Professor of the Public Engagement in Science, spoke about seizing the opportunity to interact with science as it is ‘all around us’. She urged us to jettison the image of the lab-bound scientist operating in isolation from the world. All of us can and should be scientists- we ‘do science’ daily, even if we aren’t conscious of it. And, clearly, it can be enjoyable and life-changing. That the exhibits outside in the Science Garden were closely related to the technologies used to power some of the great innovations inside the Thinktank Science Museum, was a fact not lost on those in attendance.

Giant Hamster Wheel at the Thinktank Science Garden, Birmingham

One very interesting new development on the Birmingham Science City radar is the Digital Heritage Demonstrator, at the University of Birmingham. Its aim, as the name suggests, is to enhance access to and engagement with culture and heritage with the help of digital technologies. It will provide digital businesses with ‘tailored support from a wide range of experts in the field of digital technology and innovation and provide access to a suite of innovative multi-user, 3D multi-touch technologies, mobile devices and tablets, advanced user-testing facilities and augmented reality tools, all integrated into a unique digital prototyping lab.’ This will give these enterprises the opportunity to develop commercialisable innovations. It will therefore offer those wanting culture a whole new level of user experience.

Science does have purely practical and physical elements to it- getting us from A to B, curing sickness and building structures for us to live in- all hugely beneficial and definitely not to be underestimated. But science is also a deeply social thing. Rick and David’s blogs below illustrate how it helps us to communicate, and how it can be the prompt and the solution to us becoming more social and socially responsible- making cities (and indeed homes, hospitals, offices and so on) better places to live and work.

If we want to consider the civilizing and humanising forces for good in society, science needs to be considered as more than a helpmeet. It must be rewarded its place along with the arts, at the heart of culture.

All the best and happy holidays!

Susannah Goh


Birmingham is making some great progress as a Smarter City this year, with announcements such as the City Deal; the launch of the Green Commission; and investments in ultra-fast broadband infrastructure. And the buzz is spreading. I was one of four speakers in the “Smart Cities” session at the recent Base Cities London conference. All four of us were involved in some form of “Smart” initiative in Birmingham; prompting one of the first questions at the subsequent panel debate to be: “Everyone seems to be working in Birmingham; will it be the world’s next Smart City?”. Of course, my answer was “Yes!”

(In fact, I was even cheekier. I claimed that Birmingham had invented the modern city. Citing the respected urbanist and economist Edward Glaeser I referred to the fact that Matthew Boulton’s commercialisation of James Watt’s uniquely efficient steam engine during the formative years of the Industrial Revolution was a fundamental innovation that led to cities being built “up” around elevators rather than “out” around horses and carts).

There are a variety of historic, scientific and contemporary sources that can inform Birmingham’s approach to reclaiming that role as a world-leading Smarter City innovator. I considered some of them this week in the following post taken from my personal blog,

(Photo of Kowloon by Frank Müller)

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I recently read Geoffrey West’s fascinating paper on urban scaling laws, “Growth, innovation, scaling and the pace of life in cities“.

The paper applies to cities techniques that I recall from my Doctoral studies in the Physics and Engineering of Superconducting Devices for studying the emergent properties of self-organising complex systems.

Cities, being composed of 100,000s or millions of human beings with free-will who interact with each other, are clearly examples of such complex systems; and their emergent properties of interest include economic output, levels of crime, and expenditure on maintaining and expanding physical infrastructures.

It’s a less intimidating read than it might sound, and draws fascinating conclusions about the relationship between the size of city populations; their ability to create wealth through innovation; sustainability; and what many of us experience as the increasing speed of modern life.

I’m going to summarise the conclusions the paper draws about the characteristics and behaviour of cities; and then I’d like to challenge us to change them.

Professor West’s paper (which is also summarised in his excellent TED talk) uses empirical techniques to present fascinating insights into how cities have performed in our experience so far; but as I’ve argued before, such conclusions drawn from historic data do not rule out the possibility of cities achieving different levels of performance in the future by undertaking transformations.

That potential to transform city performance is vitally important in the light of West’s most fundamental finding: that the largest, densest cities currently create the most wealth most efficiently. History shows that the most successful models spread, and in this case that could lead us towards the higher end of predictions for the future growth of world population in a society dominated by larger and larger megacities supported by the systems I’ve described in the past as “extreme urbanism“.

I personally don’t find that an appealing vision for our future so I’m keen to pursue alternatives. (Note that Professor West is not advocating limitless city growth either; he’s simply analysing and reporting insights from the available data about cities, and doing it in an innovative and important way. I am absolutely not criticising his work; quite the oppostite – I’m inspired by it).

So here’s an unfairly brief summary of his findings:

  • Quantitative measures of the creative performance of cities (such as wealth creation or the number of patents and inventions generated by city populations) – grow faster and faster the more that city size increases.
  • Quantitative measures of the cost of city infrastructures grow more slowly as city size increases, because bigger cities can exploit economies of scale to grow more cheaply than smaller cities.

West found that these trends were incredibly consistent across cities of very different sizes. To explain the consistency, he drew an analogy with biology: for almost all animals, characteristics such as metabolic rate and life expectancy vary in a very predictable way according to the size of the animal.

(Photo of Geoffery West describing the scaling laws that determine animal characteristics by Steve Jurvetson). Note that whilst the chart focusses on mammals, the scaling laws are more broadly applicable.

The reason for this is that the performance of the thermodynamic, cardio-vascular and metabolic systems that support most animals in the same way are affected by size. For example, geometry determines that the surface area of small animals is larger compared to their body mass than that of large animals. So smaller animals lose heat through their skin more rapidly than larger animals. They therefore need faster metabolic systems that convert food to replacement heat more rapidly to keep them warm. This puts more pressure on their cardio-vascular systems and in particular their heart muscles, which beat more quickly and wear out sooner. So mice don’t live as long as elephants.

Further, more complex mechanisms are also involved, but they don’t contradict the idea that the emergent properties of biological systems are determined by the relationship between the scale of those systems and the performance of the processes that support them.

Professor West hypothesised that city systems such as transportation and utilities, as well as characteristics of the way that humans interact with each other, would similarly provide the underlying reasons for the urban scaling laws he observed.

Those systems are exactly what we need to affect if we are to change the relationship between city size and performance in the future. Whilst the cardio-vascular systems of animals are not something that animals can change, we absolutely can change the way that city systems behave – in the same way that as human beings we’ve extended our life expectancy through ingenuity in medicine and improvements in standards of living. This is precisely the idea behind Smarter cities.

(A graph from my own PhD thesis showing real experimental data plotted against a theoretical prediction similar to a scaling law. Notice that whilst the theoretical prediction (the smooth line) is a good guide to the experimental data, that each actual data point lies above or below the line, not on it. In most circumstances, theory is only a rough guide to reality.)

The potential to do this is already apparent in West’s paper. In the graphs it presents that plot the performance of individual cities against the predictions of urban scaling laws, the performance of every city varies slightly from the law. Some cities outperform, and some underperform. That’s exactly what we should expect when comparing real data to an analysis of this sort. Whilst the importance of these variations in the context of West’s work is hotly contested, both in biology and in cities, personally I think they are crucial.

In my view, such variations suggest that the best way to interpret the urban scaling laws that Professor West discovered is as a challenge: they set the bar that cities should try to beat.

Cities everywhere are already exploring innovative, sustainable ways to create improvements in the performance of their social, economic and environmental systems. Examples include:

(Photograph by Meshed Media of Birmingham’s Social Media Cafe, where individuals from every part of the city who have connected online meet face-to-face to discuss their shared interest in social media.)

In all of those cases, cities have used technology effectively to disrupt and transform the behaviour of urban systems. They have all lifted at least some elements of performance above the bar set by urban scaling laws. There are many more examples in cities across the world. In fact, this process has been taking place continuously for as long as cities have existed – as was described recently in a Centre for Cities report on the development and performance of cities in the UK throughout the 20th Century.

(That report contains a specific challenge for Birmingham, by the way. It shows that in the first part of the 20th Century, Birmingham outperformed many UK cities and became prosperous and successful because of the diversity of its industries – famously expressed as the “city of a thousand trades”. In the latter part of the Century, however, as Birmingham became more dependent on an automotive industry that subsequently declined, the city lost a lot of ground. So the great steps that we are beginning to take here are vitally important in order to re-create a more vibrant, diverse, innovative and successful economy).

As cities everywhere emulate successful innovations, though, they will of course reset the bar of expected performance. Cities that wish to consistently outperform others will need to constantly generate new innovations.

This is where I’ll bring in another idea from physics – the concept of a phase change. A phase change occurs when a system passes a tipping point and suddenly switches from one type of behaviour to another. This is what happens when the temperature of water in a kettle rises from 98 to 99 to 100 degrees Centigrade and water – which is heavy and stays in the bottom of the kettle – changes to steam – which is light and rises out of the kettle’s spout. The “phase change” in this example is the transformation of a volume of water from a liquid to a gas through the process of boiling.

So the big question is: as we change the way that city systems behave, will we eventually encounter a phase change that breaks West’s fundamental finding that the largest cities create the most value most efficiently? For example, will we find new technologies for communication and collaboration that enable networks of people spread across thousands of miles of countryside or ocean to be as efficiently creative as the dense networks of people living in megacities?

I certainly hope so; because unless we can break the link between the size and the success of cities, I worry that the trend towards larger and larger cities and increasing global population will continue and eventually reach levels that will be difficult or impossible to maintain. West apparently agrees; in an interview with the New York Times, which provides an excellent review of his work, he stated that “The only thing that stops the superlinear equations is when we run out of something we need. And so the growth slows down. If nothing else changes, the system will eventually start to collapse.”

But I’m an optimist; so I look forward to the amazing innovations we’re all going to create that will break the laws of urban scaling and offer us a more attractive and sustainable future. It’s incredibly important that we find them.

(I’d like to think Dr. Pam Waddell, the Director of Birmingham Science City, for her helpful comments during my preparation of this post).

In the last few weeks you may have noticed a few more youthful than usual faces at work or in your local shop, hairdresser etc,  as many teenagers have been out and about doing work experience.  I am sure that for many the routines, customs, hours and interactions will have been an eye-opener.  But for a few it will also have been a chance to get an in-depth experience of the types of careers that studying STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Maths) can open up.  Great work is being done by organisations like Thinktank in Birmingham and  STEMNET, Big Bang, the British Science Association and FutureMorph across the country to excite youngsters about great career opportunities in STEM.  They variously work through fairs and festivals, web-based information, hands-on activities in schools, science centres and at fairs.  However, should these organisations, together with business,  professional bodies, schools, universities and others work to enable more young people to experience of STEM in a real work setting?  The experience of two 15-year-olds over the last 2 weeks, entirely in their words, certainly persuades me we should:

Rhiannon and Christine’s work experience:

‘Between us, we have been to three different companies involving STEM, including Goodrich Actuation Systems, Atkins, and Daden Limited.  Each company had something to different to offer us, allowing us to truly understand the world of science.

Goodrich Actuation Systems is an aeronautical engineering company in Wolverhampton. It offered examples of the whole engineering process, from design to manufacturing and testing; this meant that a wide range of skills were required. Maths and physics were needed to calculate the performance of the product and the properties the material would need in order to withstand the stress. However, creative skills were also used during the design process.

Daden Limited specialises in immersive visual analytics and virtual realities. The week I spent there involved using a brand new data visualisation software called Datascape, in which I analysed, compared, photographed, recorded and wrote about various types of data – including data collected from Twitter, Boating Competitions and Protein data. The skills that I mainly needed to use were my creative analytical skills and ICT skills, which enabled me to make interesting comparisons with the data. The whole experience helped me to see how new technologies can be used in everyday situations, especially within the social media.

Atkins is a large civil engineering company of which I have been working in the geotechnical engineering section. Sitting with a different person everyday has allowed me to witness and experience many different projects and aspects of the industry. For example, I have worked on foundations for railway line cable supports – (which was more fun than it sounds!), and had to look at multiple factors that affected the design, including the geology, slope dimensions and flood risk of the area.


In truth, science in school isn’t always that engaging, but going out into the real world and experiencing it first-hand, being physically able to apply our knowledge, has helped us to understand the importance of STEM, because it not only affects life within a particular industry, but everyone’s daily life. It is often hard to visualise the application for things that we learn in a school environment as we don’t get the opportunity to apply and utilise our knowledge. These experiences have allowed us to try out unique software that we would otherwise not be given the chance to use.

Our work experience placements have encouraged and inspired us to continue our studies of the sciences and maths into A Levels, because there is such a huge variety of careers that involve them.’

Pam Waddell, Christine Turner and Rhiannon Davies

A diverse cross-sector audience recently had the opportunity to meet with the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) and find out about its priorities, activities and funding programmes at Growth for Innovation, held recently at Staffordshire University.  This was a very timely event in the run-up to the publication of the TSB’s Delivery Plan 2012-2013  this week. ‘Innovation is a team sport’, commented Sandra Booth, of Staffordshire University, in an opening addresses. And, certainly, a team approach was very much the theme of the day.

Changes to the public funding and innovation support landscape for science and technology have been significant in the last couple of years. For businesses, universities and research institutions, it has become more challenging to detect where the best opportunities lie for not just funding but also non-financial activities that bring innovative and economic benefits.

TSB provides many opportunities.  It is not a catch-all for everything innovative – ‘’we cannot make innovation happen alone, but we can help’’, says Iain Gray, TSB’s CEO.  It is not gatekeeper to all of the funding and support channels to science and technology success.  However, it does provide a plethora of enablers, for example, challenge-led funding options and information and discussion portals.  These can kick-start market-led innovations, create new business opportunities and stimulate economic growth. Indeed, this resourceful approach aligns much with the active standpoint we have taken, as Birmingham Science City, since our inception in 2005.

In the not so distant past, public grant funding was pretty readily available. Getting funding was a devil-in-the-detail business, but a very worthwhile one as the public sector and its purse were dependable and fruitful sources of strategic support and investment.

These days, after significant economic belt-tightening, the world of innovation investment and development is a tougher one.  But we must remember two things.  The piggy bank is not actually empty, as the TSB Delivery Plan 2012-13 confirms, £250m will be made available to support market-led innovation through 60 new competitions.  Second, the government is actively promoting greater freedom for collaborative innovation partnerships to determine their own course.  From sceptical quarters, there are moans in favour of more structure and more instructions- as per the old days- and comments that the government is somehow stuck for words as it fails to identify market solutions, as it used to.  This return is simply not an option, ideologically or practically. More money isn’t always the solution. Moreover, it is no more the government’s job to find all of the answers and provide all of the resources, than it is for only batsmen to win a game of cricket or only strikers to score a goal.

TSB’s Director of Enterprise and Communications, Allyson Reed, underlined the need for businesses, universities, RTOs and public sector organisations to understand business success in the long-term: this cannot mean government filling in all the boxes and being heavily prescriptive. Space is needed to create ‘‘holistic rather than ‘point’ innovations’’.   Ewan Lamount, whose company Legendary Games has been recent beneficiary of TSB support and funding added: ‘’The TSB phrases broad questions to encourage innovative thinking, collaboration, market contextualisation from ‘people who know’’’- these being suppliers and consumers of innovative products and services.

The point is that private, public, HEI and research sector innovators get together and decide how to answer the questions, by redefining and refining them and then providing the answers.  The rules of the game are changing so these cross-sector and cross-disciplinary teams need to be more collaborative, more imaginative, and more realistic than ever before in what they can do.  This year’s TSB Delivery Plan is especially emphatic about all of this, in strategic and operational terms, as it strives to connect business with better brokering and support services, public funding, private capital and the government as a lead customer.specially emphatic about all of this, in both strategic and operational terms, as it strives to connect business with better brokering and support

So what does the TSB have to offer? Emily Nott, TSB’s Research Base Liaison Manager, gave us a comprehensive summary:

SMART-For SMEs to help with proof of market, proof of concept and development of prototype.

SBRI– Grants to lever public procurement budgets to stimulate innovation.  SBRI provides a route to market, 100% funding and a lead customer in the form of a public sector organisation looking to procure innovative products and services.

Collaborative R and D Funding– Supports innovation through business-to-business and research base-to-business collaboration, around thematic priority areas.  Available for all sizes of business, academic and research transfer organisations, with 50% match required from private sector partners.

Launchpad– This supports clusters of hi-tech companies in a specific locations and is designed to benefit small and medium sized businesses. (There is no Launchpad website, but there will be announcements made through the TSB website, when competitions arise.)

Entrepreneur Missions– These are delivered in partnership with UK Trade and Investment (UKTI).  Groups of companies are taken abroad and introduced to new markets and business cultures.

Innovation Vouchers– TSB will re-launch this popular Vouchers scheme in September, targeted towards one specific area, yet to be announced.  However, an Innovation Vouchers Portal will be provided, to signpost to local innovation schemes with foci wider than those of the TSB’s specific concentration.  Further information will be announced, soon.

Competitions  for TSB funding.

Knowledge Transfer Networks and Special Interest Groups-Virtual ‘spaces’ to get innovators talking to one another and provide opportunities for networking, notifications of funding and/or partnering opportunities, information and news, and updates in policy and regulation.

Catapults– Seven centres are being created to address fields of science and technology that will develop a critical mass for business and research innovation.  They will be available to help businesses access R and D, funding and new markets.

The rules of the market-led innovation game are in transition and the TSB provides plenty of options through which we can engage in and adapt to the new world in which we find ourselves.

All the best

Susannah Goh

I have been away for a while doing other things.

Now, to be back in the digital media and creative industries in Birmingham, I am more excited and invigorated than ever by the potential of the people I meet in (and outside) of Birmingham and the ideas they have. Put that alongside some amazing work of established companies it makes for a very exciting future ahead.

I recently read a book called ‘Start-up of you‘ (by the chaps that started Linked In). Once you get over the fact that it is one big advert for Linked In (which is not a bad thing) it touches on the importance of the people who are around you and what role they play in creating a dynamic and progressive economy.

It also discusses a ‘geographical density’. When you first read it you could be forgiven for thinking that it is trying to say “big buildings with lots of people working inside them”. I don’t read it like that in its entirety. What it is trying to say (and does quite well) is that a physical location(s) with lots of things happening in it gives ‘density’, and within which an opportunity rich environment can occur. (Dr) Rick Robinson (Dr because he is far better informed than I am!!) helpful pointed me towards some interesting formal scientific work to back the theory that the size and density of cities directly feeds their creativity.

This is where Birmingham does very well by these metrics.

It does very well because there is a very small degree of separation between everyone (giving rise to the concept of ‘everyone knowing everyone’) (if you don’t believe me plug-in InMaps into your Linked In profile and believe that).

Geographical density for technology, digital, media and creative industries is clearly achieved by the Birmingham Science Park clockwise round to the Custard Factory (17 minutes walk via Fazeley Studio, even less when you cut through Millennium Point). When you take into consideration the Jewellery Quarter, Moseley Exchange the emerging resource of University of Birmingham’s Digital Demonstrator and don’t forget the Independent Coffee Shop of Birmingham – you start to see not only a network of people, but a network of places with excellent resources available. (He writes sipping a coffee wondering how many businesses start with a coffee?)

However, for all the benefits, there are draw backs.

If everyone does really know everyone else then where do two worlds of experience and expertise collide to create something new?

I am always delighted when I catch up with someone that I have known for a long time and start looking at an enterprise with them … a sense of excitement and energy can be created so easily with a little imagination.

However, I am even more delighted when I meet someone that no one knows and bring them in. They are continually amazed by what they find in Birmingham.

I encourage everyone to bring in 10 ‘new’ people into these spaces and introduce them to your network. Show them what we have got. They will want to come back, and you never know, some of them will want to stay.

On that point, at the moment, I am not going to play the numbers game. Playing the numbers is a cyclic argument that ignores the reality of what is actually happening if you just see it for yourself. I’ll post another blog about that in the future – when I know what the numbers look like!

In the mean time, food for thought …

Business Birmingham report:

“23% of the digital media business increased their turnover by over 10% and staffing by more than 20% annually during the last three years”. They must know the businesses that they talked to.

The Guardian Report:

 “There are more than 3,000 tech firms in east London, employing up to 50,000 people in the digital economy. Here are 20 companies to watch out for” … with an interesting comment made by mrchristian99.

“Can’t a journalist even do the basics and research their figures, these opening stats of[…], are just completely made up stuff that the PMs office pump out as part of the TechCity programme. Like if a hair dressers has a web page they´re startup. Jees, if only the gov could create some jobs here.”

(I particularly like the idea of “if only the gov could create some jobs here” … I thought entrepreneurs created jobs …  mea culpa)

I report:

Come and see it for yourself. You only need one or two good people to make a business fly. The rest you go and get.

David Roberts is founder of drProjects Enterprises and is co-founder of Settle with three other people (Steffan Aquarone, Will Grant, Andy Smart) that he met in the opportunity rich, geographically dense Urban Coffee Company Church Street. I tweet @daviddrprojects. I use Linked In. Say hello.

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