Nick has extensive experience in creating and fostering innovation ecosystems, having led initiatives including Bristol’s Engine Shed and SETsquared Centre. But how did Nick become so good at advancing innovation, and what potential does he see for digital engineering and CFMS?
How did you develop your passion for innovation?
I’ve always had a desire to experiment, try things out, build things – and see whether they worked. That’s innovation, isn’t it? Well, actually it’s not the whole picture – innovation needs taking something you’ve made and applying it, deploying it. I’m actually better at the first bit than the second, but what I learned in my career – first at Inmos, then in the company I co-founded and more recently with my brilliant team and co-conspirators in and around Engine Shed – that the trick is to be creative on the ideas, do the experimentation, and then encourage others to take my ‘prototypes’ and take them to market, so to speak. So, I’m passionate about innovation – but only as a team sport, which of course is the only way.
Who are your role models for innovation?
I think innovation applies to ways of working and societal activity, not just products or technologies. I also think the most important part of innovation is to challenge assumptions about “the way it’s always been done” and think differently, not just invent something new and the hardest part is the bringing that to life, and so I have huge admiration for people who continually innovate, like some of the social engineers like the Cadbury family who built social housing for their chocolate workers in Birmingham in the 19th century. I also learned from, and respect, all of the technology entrepreneurs who I’ve had the privilege of working with over the last 15 years as each one has had a different set of barriers to overcome and most have done so. The ones I have most respected though, are those entrepreneurs who have tried, tried again with some help, and then established that it’s not going to work and come to a ‘safe landing’– knowing they have had a fair crack at the challenge, but been honest with themselves and others that it’s best to move on.
What are the key ingredients for turning great ideas into successful innovations?
People, people, people. And, for those people, an appropriate mix of clarity of vision, creativity, self-awareness, dogged determination, humility and care about what they’re creating. Having people, or a team, around you to get all the different things done that need to be, is one thing, but being able to utilise the skills around you is not always in abundance.
Why have you decided to work with CFMS?
I have known CFMS from the very early days of the Regional Development Agency (RDA) and seen it evolve from a concept to the thriving business that it is now, serving its customers and the innovation ecosystem well. It’s an innovation in its own right that has achieved a lot. While I was at Engine Shed I had a lot of interaction with the team and saw the entrepreneurial appetite for collaboration – and that told me a lot about the culture of the organisation. Having done a few bits of work for Sam and Ian over the last year, I could see the potential for helping the business grow further and deliver on its vision and I’m keen to bring my experiences both of working with SMEs and in regional partnerships to support that. As with any role at any level, it’s also a learning opportunity and I look forward to working with the other directors to help take CFMS to the next phase.
Where can digital engineering be used to innovate?
The opportunities are boundless – perhaps by definition! So are the challenges that we need to solve. Whether it’s climate change – where digital engineering can help create more efficient products and manufacturing processes that consume less or be re-used more – or creating more employment through higher levels of productivity where digital engineering and automation can allow businesses to grow.
I think more efficient and smarter design techniques, using tools and methodologies that reduce time to market, create products applicable to more global markets and at lower build or running costs will also create greater entrepreneurial opportunity – and I hope as much of that will be targeted to socially valuable products.
How has the pandemic changed the ways we innovate? Any thoughts on what the 'new normal' for innovation will look like in future?
The pandemic has surfaced a number of really tough challenges and severely tested our health and economic systems. But it’s also shown how resilient people can be to adapting to new ways of working and, I hope, broadly seeing what’s important in our world. They say that necessity is the mother of all invention, and I think that we will see more people inspired and empowered – and in some cases forced - to innovate, with applications targeted at newly exposed challenges. If there is a new normal – it’s that we all accept that we can rely on little, so there is no time like the present to ‘do stuff’ – and that what we know today will be out of date next year, so we all have to continually learn and collaborate to solve common challenges.