How the right team could start up in pole position

Leading industries are setting up ‘virtual’ centres where technological research and creative management can be brought under one roof to get the best results. And other sectors are following suit. Michael Evamy reports

Two industries in which the UK can justly claim a position of world-class expertise are motorsport and telecoms. In both, the skills of British engineers, designers and scientists are the envy of the world. But a supply of talented individuals is just one of the common links. The UK would soon lose its lead in these areas if there weren’t the right environments for brilliant individuals to work in. This isn’t about office chairs, lighting or tea breaks. It is much more to do with the conditions under which engineers and designers can tackle problems in highly motivated teams and enjoy a free exchange of ideas with other pockets of expertise. In motorsport and telecoms, and other ruthlessly competitive industries, companies know the value of a space in which there is full scope for ingenious people to express themselves in pursuit of perfect technical solutions.

Two brand new initiatives confirm this, promising to bring together the best brains in high-powered, creative communities. But these networks are taking form in very different ways. One is a proposal for physical facilities that bring together supply chains to racing car manufacturers. The other occupies no space at all but unites the efforts of businesses and universities in a kind of innovation co-operative.

Silverstone is bidding to become the site of a “technology village” where motorsport teams, their suppliers and car manufacturers can rub shoulders and develop new vehicle systems.

Leading telecoms operators, manufacturers and British universities, meanwhile, are about to christen what is thought to be the country’s first “virtual” research centre – a private, electronic club sharing the fruits of technological advances as they happen. The UK has excelled at throwing away reputations in engineering-related industries in the past, but both of these projects, if successful, will consolidate the country’s position of leadership.

The aim of the virtual centre for telecoms research is to co-ordinate and direct the development of new mobile phone and communications technology by the UK’s leading universities. “The UK is very strong in research in this area,” says Professor John Gardiner of Bradford University’s electrical and electronic engineering department. “It’s well innovated. But there are an awful lot of small universities in the UK, and everyone tries to do everything. The result is scattered pockets of expertise. It takes something like this to bring everyone together and make a whole.” says Gardiner. Consciously creating a “network of excellence”, of which young postgraduates are a part, could help perpetuate the UK’s lead in research, stimulate new businesses and attract more inward investment.

The network will link three core universities – Bradford, Bristol and Surrey – with four others and 21 companies which have an R&D presence in the UK. These include manufacturers NEC, Panasonic, Fujitsu and Nokia, and operators such as Cellnet, Vodafone, Mercury 1-2-1 and Orange. Each company contributes an annual subscription of at least 25 000, and the pot is topped up by Technology Foresight Challenge funds from the Department of Trade and Industry. A list of research priorities has been agreed in areas including terminal technology and services, and each project will be assigned to teams made up of universities in the group. They will communicate with each other and with the member companies through a web of videoconferencing and SuperJANET links, working in real time and sharing ideas. When innovations happen, the companies become co-owners of the new intellectual property.

The Silverstone plan is to offer an environment for teamwork in a much more physical way, assembling on a single site many of the outstanding small firms that make up the motorsport industry. Although they are scattered across the industrial core of the country, there is a heavy concentration of businesses in part of the Midlands. In the Seventies, “Grand Prix Valley” grew up in Oxfordshire and across the border into Northants. Switch on Sunday Grandstand for a Grand Prix and only a few of the cars on the grid will not have been assembled there. Clustered around the

Silverstone circuit are constructors such as Williams, Benetton and Jordan, and many suppliers, whose standards have to match those of the race teams.

Silverstone Circuits, a subsidiary of racetrack-owner the British Racing Drivers Club, wants eventually to form a single centre of high-tech development on the existing 324ha site and a neighbouring 162ha plot. It claims that hundreds of new jobs would be created. The attraction for teams is the availability of a world-class circuit for testing “at the end of the drive” and the asset of even closer working relationships with their suppliers.

The smooth running of these relationships is essential to the industry’s success. A new report on the sector from the Institute for Public Policy Research, a left-of-centre thinktank, identifies the strong sense of teamwork, even passion, that goes into getting one step ahead of the competition. The high visibility of the sport and tremendous rivalry between teams undoubtedly focuses minds, but those minds might freeze if they did not enjoy absolute support and state of the art resources. They need the freedom and confidence to dis-regard convention occasionally and trust their instincts. Relationships between motorsport constructors and their suppliers involve high levels of trust, and allow ideas and information to be freely exchanged. The IPPR authors state: “It is often forgotten, especially by people who are not involved in manufacturing, that serious engineering (like that involved in racecars and aircraft) is a creative act, requiring as much imagination and thought as writing an acclaimed symphony or making a ‘classic’ film. Engineers, like artists, are motivated by a perfectionist instinct, and they tend to do their best work when they operate within a contractual framework that allows individual talent both the freedom and the motivation to get as close to perfection as possible.”

Using motorsport as a model, the IPPR draws lessons for industrial management at large. It has advice for employers who expect genuinely original ideas from their engineers and designers: to treat them not like accounts clerks but as “problem-solvers” and to tolerate their “artistic temperaments”; to demonstrate commitment by rewarding successful research with more R&D cash; and to devise research projects that involve technically sophisticated customers.

It goes on to argue that science and business parks offer ideal, low-cost sites where small, high-tech, specialised engineering businesses can flourish and where new information networks can develop. The Silverstone plan could become a blueprint for other aspiringly innovative industries to follow. What’s more, the momentum to innovation it provides would have real spin-offs for the motor industry.

Motorsport is an industry in its own right, worth around 1.3bn a year and employing 50 000 people. But Silverstone is very eager to attract the R&D units of large carmakers, and there is a long record of high-performance components from racing cars ending up on road vehicles. Disc brakes were first worn on racing Jaguars, and there are examples of safety and efficiency features that could make a similar leap: energy-absorbent foams for head restraints; lightweight, crash-resistant composite materials; and intelligent, fuel-efficient gearboxes.

The UK benefits in several different ways when engineers, designers and scientists are encouraged to experiment, to throw out the rule book and follow intuition. If the UK wishes to be world-class in other industries, a few lessons in managing creative brains might be in order.

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