There was a time when exhibitions were the places to go to see the latest technology and industry breakthroughs. It feels like that stopped about the same time as exhibitions started to be called ‘Innovation’ this or that. Today, you must look for specific-interest group conferences and seminars, and mingle with a crowd interested in similar things, to really see what’s going on. At Silverstone Technology Cluster’s (STC) first annual conference we saw real efforts to deliver against the innovation promise.

Last week, the choice of conference was typically wide in the UK. I could have attended events like Blockchain Week, Advanced Cardiovascular Intervention, the Oil and Gas IP Summit, Middle East and North Africa Energy Conference…but I chose the Silverstone Technology Cluster’s event.

Silverstone has long been a hotspot for automotive development, and it’s no surprise that the STC has been established to promote relations between the parties interested in and invested in leading-edge technology transfer. The list of speakers was interesting for its breadth, without straying too far from vehicle technology as the core of interest, and innovation per se had a good airing.

As a Design Thinking agency, we like to count the number of times we hear references to ‘consumers’ at events like this. Speaking panels are often so engaged in navigating bureaucratic tripwires and funding pathways that the poor old consumer gets forgotten – even if they do pay the price for all the new shiny stuff, eventually. So, sometimes we don’t record any mentions of the consumer. This time round, we got to two.

An early speaker from an engineering SME has made a micro-turbo engine (MiTRE) that fits onto an electric vehicle to increase the useful range of the car. You may think this is so counterintuitive it has to be barmy, but it demonstrates a level of consumer-centricity that wasn’t always reflected during the day. To see a problem with EVs, to acknowledge that the new technology won’t sort itself out for a while, and to create a new solution is a completely sane thing to do.

The split across speakers was close to 50:50 SMEs and institutions. In the second half of the day, there was a noticeable reduction in consumer focus exhibited by public sector speakers. Innovation was described by government-funded agencies as being driven by legislation and subsidy, and the adoption of technology as “insidious”.

As consumers, we’d be thrilled at the possibility of driving an EV with its relaxed quietness, if there was one that could haul a family of five and a dog more than 125 miles. The fact that the range of EVs available today suits only a couple of very small segments, and that the financial model doesn’t work, seems to have passed some people by. Legislation may have a hand in driving technology, but it doesn’t necessarily worry about making a product that can do more than the station or the school run.

Let’s try to make it easy for them.

As a rule, if you try making what people want to buy, they’ll buy it. They’ll even follow the baby steps you lay down so we all arrive at the fully autonomous centrally-owned mobility utopia, together. Keep selling us what you want to make without asking us what it needs to look like, and watch us walk away.

The gap between innovation and market acceptance is as wide as it ever was, but there is another way. It’s called Design Thinking. Be quick to get your head around it though, because more things are changing than you know.

The circular economy is a coming mega-trend that could hit EVs out of the park. Imagine the learning curve when the public finally becomes aware that the environmental and financial cost model of EVs doesn’t actually move the needle much past where we are today; when the motor industry has to reveal the life-cycle costs of the new toys they’re dreaming up.

In today’s market, it’s possible to order all manner of products for immediate delivery, with any level of customisation, if you can afford the price.

At the STC conference, we heard of unique specialist vehicles being made for individual clients: short runs of five vehicles made to a single pattern.

More commonly, you can go online and order a personalised pull-up poster, delivered to any address within 24 hours for as little as £30.

You can have your Levi jeans tailored to fit you.

You can influence what books you read by voting and bidding for your favourite genre/author/plot line on crowdfunding platforms – possibly the ultimate in customisation.

You can even hire and use high-street retail shops on a ‘per day’ basis.

So then, to hear representatives of innovation-based institutions discuss innovation as a response to legislation, partially funded by subsidy, feels like anathema to the actual and real-life situation.

Conferences like the STC are brilliant. They allow us to view technology in the raw, delivered by leading-edge thinkers who are working to meet precise consumer demand of their own volition, every day. The contrast between these brilliant creators and the well-meaning but frankly underwhelming public sector is remarkable for all the wrong reasons.

As a showcase, we’d recommend the STC conference, whether you’re involved in manufacturing, service delivery, or any other commercial venture. As a window on the chasm that still exists between inventiveness and government, it provides absolute transparency.

Huge thanks to the Silverstone Technology Cluster for shining a light on this discussion. We intend to be a part of it going forward, to keep proffering the consumer-centric voice and to try to ensure it doesn’t get lost in the noise of the crowd following the same prize.

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