Digital Transformation: how corporate culture responds to the internet

Prepaid business card provider, Soldo, spoke with Prof. Mark Thompson as part of a series, speaking to today’s most influential digital disruptors. Prof. Mark Thompson is Professor in Digital Economy at Exeter Business School, and Strategy Director at the Methods Group.  He is a leading contributor to Digital Leaders, the Digital transformation business intelligence network with over 110,000 subscribers in the UK. Mark was co-author of the 2014 book “Digitizing Government” and the “2018 Manifesto for Better Public Services”. He also serves on the board of TechUK. Previous roles include National Audit Office Digital Advisory Panel, Cabinet Office Data Steering Group and acting as senior adviser to the Cabinet Office on ICT Futures.

Professor Mark Thompson

Professor Mark Thompson, Professor in Digital Economy at The University of Exeter Business School

We hear a lot about digital transformation – what does it mean to you?

Everybody bangs on about digital transformation, but it’s often hugely misleading because these discussions are usually technology led. To me, Digital Leaders’ version of digital transformation comes down to one thing: the arrival of mature services that have been developed around the shared infrastructure of the internet.

This infrastructure element cannot be overstated. Imagine, for example, that we had electricity and understood how to make washing machines and TVs, but we had no National Grid. On every street, it would be completely rational to build our own washing machines and TVs, because there’s no market – people would be using different voltages, current and plugs. Indeed, the birth of electricity was very much like this.  It’s nobody’s fault – the absence of a common infrastructure means everyone’s on their own.

Add the National Grid, and suddenly it’s irrational to build your own appliances – someone else can profitably make devices because they’ll work for millions of people. So the game-changer is the shared infrastructure.

Four decades after the internet’s invention, we finally have online technologies that can meaningfully interact with each other and be joined up and used at scale. Digital transformation is nothing to do with websites or front ends (although they’re important of course); it’s about the shared plumbing.

But that is technology led, yet you said at the outset that a purely tech discussion is misleading…

Very true. What is transformational is what these new technologies mean for businesses and the way they operate – which is both exciting and hugely challenging.

To see why, instead of focusing on innovation, let’s look at what it means to be an incumbent, a legacy business.

A legacy business is any organisation – and the challenges are absolutely organisational –  which grew up in the last century with processes, infrastructure, services, an operating model and, most importantly, a value proposition, defined before the prevalence of the internet. They lived successfully through the online services revolution which created new opportunities to get closer to their customers, without challenging their fundamental value propositions.

Today, however, incumbents face Big Tech like Amazon on the one hand, and startups like regtech, fintech, proptech etc. on the other. Any legacy business in 2019 is surrounded on all sides by challengers to their traditional value proposition.

For example, I was speaking with a pharmaceuticals executive recently who advocated “sticking to the knitting”: he said “We make drugs, and the minute we take our eye of that, we’re dead in the water”. But we now live in a health data economy which focuses on keeping people well rather than curing them when they are ill. Businesses like Amazon are outspending pharma in the healthcare sector exponentially.

So digital transformation is actually the belated response of legacy organisations, in particular, to the arrival of the shared plumbing of the internet. It’s a dawning realisation in modern boardrooms that capitalising on new technology demands a wholesale review of business models and core value propositions based on what you can achieve with digital technology and services; and that the new wave of emerging technologies – AI, virtual reality etc. – will only accelerate the need to throw off the shackles of old practices.

How can boards do that?

Well, above all, don’t do everything yourself. In the old days, billions were spent on in-house development of services, especially back-office functions. That is simply no longer of any value, indeed it’s hugely costly.

Every business is different, but as a matter of general advice:

  • Reconfigure everything you do around the customer – learn from their activity and take datapoints from every interaction to feed back into responsive service design. A good acronym for this is “SMAC”: Social Media, Mobile, Analytics and the C
  • Use digital platforms for the heavy lifting of service delivery. There’s plenty of competition between all the major players – Salesforce, AWS, Microsoft etc. to handle the infrastructure of corporate service delivery.
  • And finally, but most importantly, it will require a dramatic transformation of culture.

Why is culture such a problem?

Because we all find comfort in the status quo, and modern digital businesses demand that we focus exclusively on outcomes and rip apart the comfortable architectures that prevent us achieving those outcomes. Plenty of core and back-office functions will be either removed completely or consumed as-a-service in the pursuit of leanness, efficiency and agility.

Take Transferwise, an upstart in the money transfer business but now a world-leading ‘unicorn’. It’s user-friendly and beautifully designed, it’s disruptively cheap, and yet underneath the hood, they didn’t build it. Much of the key functionality is a white-label version of a different company’s business, Currency Cloud. They have built a $1BN business without reinventing the wheel and minimising their infrastructure investment.

This applies to legacy businesses too, but they are weighed down by a century of baggage – that they themselves have built. Five years ago, boardrooms fought that realisation; they embraced a certain digital mindset of sorts – open standards, agile development, the Eric Ries doctrine of failing fast etc.; but I think there is now a readiness in some quarters to think the unthinkable in big corporates about the radical changes required to core value propositions and organisational structure.

Now, I say “in some quarters” because there’s also plenty standing in the way of larger legacy businesses. I like to look at the incentives which drive behaviours, and unfortunately many holders of the CXO roles ultimately empowered to upend their organisations to undergo this extremely painful transition are only a couple of years away from the golf course. They are often grotesquely disincentivised at an organisational level from driving change, so there’s a lot of kicking the can down the road.

Furthermore, there’s a marked lack of education for non-technical senior people about these issues. We’re awash with training in technology, and it’s full of buzzwords.  But there’s no safe space for senior executives to join up the buzzwords and assemble them meaningfully in order to consider the effect of digital on their industries, behaviours, cultures, value propositions and service architectures. They can pay exorbitant fees for the major consultancies to develop a strategy, but the consultancies themselves are often incentivised to produce outsource arrangements that don’t necessarily represent the best interests of the company – whose leaders can often shrug off responsibility for understanding it all themselves to ‘the experts’, rather than getting properly to grips with it and owning the change themselves.

What can executives do, then? Because they’re being pushed tactical product by tech firms, endorsed by the analysts, the Gartners and IDCs – and nobody is talking corporate strategy?

Exactly. But we can group the current crop of technologies into some useful groups which senior executives can think about.

  • We’ve already mentioned SMAC, a focus on the front-end, data-driven approach to continuous customer-centric service redesign. It seems to me that at the highest level, you can look at that cluster of social, mobile analytics and Cloud and ask fundamental, often very challenging questions about how a business can reconfigure itself around its customers.
  • Then there are technologies around the back office, for example we talk about Robotic Process Automation (RPA), which is for attacking process-heavy administration. Increasingly, the genie’s out of the bottle because cloud-based services and infrastructure are commoditised and cheap, and creating tools to shorten back-office functions or eliminate repetitive ones is becoming as simple as bolting Lego bricks together: if companies don’t keep up, their own people will start doing it for them – bypassing governance and risk management structures.
  • There’s a third, less sexy consideration. Many large enterprises have grown by acquisition. They find themselves with multiple CRMs or ERPs, a vast hinterland of slow and old-moving technologies. It’s less glamorous, but there’s a huge piece of work in identifying common capabilities and service patterns across large organisations and then executing on the heavy consolidation that needs to happen in order to remain competitive. Without re-architecting into the cloud, you won’t get the interoperability and scalability that makes all this worth while.

That feels like three good clusters of activity, but again they’re all pretty useless unless, as a board, you’ve got some handle on your value proposition; which is going to change because you’re not going to do everything yourself.

One last example to help explain: the Hollywood Studio of the 1930s. It’s a fantastic example of a fully vertically-integrated organisation: the movie mogul owned everybody from the scriptwriters to musicians to set designers, actors and even movie theatres. Move to today’s HBO-type model and you have a sea of niche providers, all sustained by digital infrastructure. Creatives, production teams, aggregators, portals and marketers all operate separately and optimally, focused on a core value proposition and depending on a network of other operators to monetise their own particular service.

It required upheaval to move from the 1930s to today, but the magnitude and velocity of change – and associated transformational challenges – facing today’s incumbents is unprecedented.

 

This article first appeared on Soldo, a solution providing multi-user business expense cards that empowers employees by automating their expenses. You can read more interviews from Soldo’s digital disruptor series here.

Gender equality : « See it to be it » – Professor Janice Kay, Provost

How many women head up the UK’s leading companies? Our research has found that of 350 CEOs, it was just 12, equal to the number of male CEOs called David. And Andrew. And John.

Our expert Professor Ruth Sealy analysed the names of the FTSE 350 CEOs. Of this powerful group, 18 were called David, 13 were named Andrew and 12 called John. Just 12 were women, representing only 3.4 per cent of the group. Are you surprised?

Professor Janice Kay

Professor Janice Kay, Provost

Today (March 8) is International Women’s Day  –a valuable opportunity to celebrate the achievements of women, and to call for gender balance in society. Some people think this job is done, but while we have made strides in equality, this example shows there’s still a long way to go.

Last year’s gender pay gap report exposed the grim realities of a national picture in which men are consistently paid more than women, and hold more of the most senior roles. In fact, more than three quarters of 10,000 companies paid men more than women. Just one in three have women among their highest paid earners. Males are paid higher bonuses than females, and earn more than women overall – in every single sector.

Universities are no exception. Undergraduate students are roughly 50/50 male and female, so this should be reflected all the way up the scale. Yet only 15 per cent of senior leaders are women. At the University of Exeter, we acknowledge this problem and we’re on the right track. .We’re really proud of our national Advance HE Athena SWAN silver award – awarded to only 17 universities in the UK to recognise this commitment.

To be clear, men and women who do the same work at Exeter are paid the same salary. The issue around our gender pay gap is career progression. We’re establishing a range of schemes to ensure women aren’t disadvantaged by taking maternity breaks or caring responsibilities – that they’re supported and their expertise is recognised when they return to work, or through flexible working schemes. As women, we all have a role to play in this, whatever our age and stage.  This might be through tangible support such as mentoring. We have to make sure that women have the right opportunities at the right time to progress, and that strong female talent is visibly nurtured. As Billie Jean King said, you’ve got to see it to be it.

At the University, we’ve taken a good look at how our academic career progression works.  The proportion of female Professors has increased from 17 per cent in 2012 to 27 per cent today. The percentage of women on the University’s Executive Group has risen to 29 per cent. It’s not enough, but we’re working on it. The importance of having a balanced senior leadership team is vital in decision-making and signalling our values.

I’m proud of our work to support women’s careers. Female staff were the main beneficiaries of our decision to introduce the Living Wage in 2014. Our policy on maternity and paternity leave and family-friendly benefits is best in sector. We allow new parents to take six months of leave at full pay, followed by a further 13 weeks of leave at statutory pay. The policies are available for employees as soon as they start and parents can choose to share their leave entitlement. Our new menopause policy resulted from consulting female staff members.

We want to do what we can to develop real cultural change that is embedded in the values of our organisation, that avoids tokenism, and in which people of all genders are committed to gender equality. Our policies are supported by outstanding research. Internationally respected work on the phenomenon of the ‘glass cliff’ for female leaders has taken place in Exeter by Professor Michelle Ryan and her colleagues.

Just last month, leading Medical research journal The Lancet published a special edition dedicated to advancing gender equity in science, medicine and global health. Their editorial highlights the fact that systems must change – not just to support women, but to avoid disproportionately privileging men. Executive editor Dr Jocalyn Clark summarised: “Gender equity is not only a matter of justice and rights, it is crucial for producing the best research and providing the best care to patients. If the fields of science, medicine, and global health are to hope to work towards improving human lives, they must be representative of the societies they serve.”

In the Westcountry, we’re working to inspire, inform and prepare young people to take the best decisions about their future. More than two thirds of the 900 year 9-13s from disadvantaged and under-represented groups who took part in our University of Exeter Scholars programme last year were female.

This article first appeared in the Western Morning News.

Wetsuits from wetsuits | update

A Knowledge Transfer Programme between Finisterre and the University of Exeter’s Centre for Alternative Materials and Remanufacturing are investigating remanufacturing and circular economy initiatives which address the problem of discarded wetsuits.

Full-time Wetsuit Recycler Jenny Banks gives us an update about what the programme has been up to.

This blog first appeared on Finisterre’s THE BROADCAST.

We’re now three months into the Wetsuits From Wetsuits Programme and have learnt an incredible amount about the potential recyclability of our own Nieuwland winter wetsuit. Our committed wetsuit tester community have been a huge help in providing us with some of our Original Tester suits back from 2014, allowing us to compare the performance of old suits that have had real-lives, with that of a new suit.

THE HURDLES

It actually wasn’t as easy as we thought it might be to get our original tester wetsuits back as nearly all of them are still going strong – which is of course fantastic news! Most wetsuits last around two years before they’re replaced so we’re really happy that our Nieuwland suit is still delivering!

WHERE YOU’LL FIND ME

Splitting my time between Exeter and Finisterre HQ provides me with the perfect balance of influences. Over the last two months in Exeter, I haven’t left the lab. From microscopic surface imaging to tensile (elasticity) and thermal testing, we’re building a vital understanding of how and where the Nieuwland wetsuit changes during its life.

When I’m at Finisterre, all that testing is put into context. Being at the Wheal Kitty workshops – by the sea and amongst the team – reminds me of the real needs of cold-water surfers and ensures that I’m not tackling this challenge inside a bubble. Everyone here is really engaged with the programme and the energy within the team keeps me going if I ever feel over-whelmed by the challenge that lies in front of us.

OUR UNDERSTANDINGS SO FAR

De-constructing the Nieuwland was our first step towards understanding what difficulties we may face when making the world’s first fully recyclable wetsuit.

WETSUITS ARE VERY COMPLEX: ONE SINGLE NIEUWLAND WETSUIT IS MADE UP OF FIVE DIFFERENT TYPES OF NEOPRENE FOAM FOR STRETCH, FIVE DIFFERENT THICKNESSES OF NEOPRENE FOR WARMTH AND FIVE DIFFERENT COMBINATIONS OF FABRICS FOR DURABILITY AND COMFORT.

That complexity potentially poses a challenge for us in terms of wetsuit recycling but it’s not a question of just simplifying the suit – why would we change a wetsuit that we know performs so well?

Thus far, we’ve had some surprising results in the lab. Under the microscope, we can see the difference between our original tester suits and our new suit very clearly. Three years of frigid waters and regular surfing causes the neoprene’s cells to start to buckle (see first image). This change in our neoprene’s cell structure, however, is having next to no effect on the flexibility of our suit, which we really didn’t expect. We will be continuing our testing to verify this but this finding is promising and means we may be able to recycle our neoprene rubber without needing expensive and energy-consuming re-processing techniques.

Now we’re working on finding out whether that same cell structure change is affecting the Nieuwland’s thermal properties.

WE’RE COMMITTED

We want to deliver the world’s first recyclable wetsuit for testing in Autumn this year. Progress is good and we’re now moving into the design phase of the programme. Right now, no idea is a bad idea. We’re being very open-minded and exploring ideas that are far-out as well as those that involve simple, minor tweaks to our current Nieuwland suit.  Watch this space! #wetsuitsfromwetsuits

The behaviour of fat and the impact on how easily obese people can lose weight

Dr Katarina Kos leads the adipose tissue biology group at the University of Exeter and researches obesity-related disorders.

Obesity is one of society’s most pressing concerns. Suggestions for diets and weight-loss regimes are on everyone’s news feed.

The role of psychology and human behaviour is recognised as a key factor for success, but little appreciation is given to the behaviour of fat itself.

This is something that my research at the University of Exeter has begun to address. Studies have found that the way fat behaves can have an impact on how easily obese people can lose weight.

In my role as a clinician working with people who are struggling to lose weight, I know how hard losing those extra pounds can be.

That is why I hope my research into the behaviour of fat will with time offer solutions to help make this easier.  In the first stage of a longer research project, we have identified the type of damage done to fat tissue when overworked and are now studying in more detail which molecules are involved.  Next we plan to explore which drugs might help people to reverse the damage.

The most recent study, Lysyl oxidase and adipose tissue dysfunction looked at a molecule which is impaired when fat is struggling and overloaded with excess calories.

Like human beings, overworked fat ‘complains’ and becomes distressed and struggles to do its job. As fat cells begin to struggle for oxygen and suffocate under the burden of storing more and more energy, the fat becomes inflamed and as a result scarred.

The research by the Exeter Adipose Tissue biology group that I lead examined the molecule LOX in fat tissue which causes this scarring. The paper, drew a good deal of media interest both in the UK and around the world.

Scarred fat tissue is fibrous and rigid and less able to store excess energy. To compensate, the body can drive this energy to other parts of the body including the muscle (see below) and vital organs, such as the liver and heart, which it can cause serious health complications.

Bacon

Above, a picture of bacon where we find fat in the muscle described as mottling.

The study showed that fat scarring may not resolve itself with weight loss. In fact, there is evidence that the more the fat tissue is scarred, the more difficult it can be to lose weight in the longer term.

But this does not mean that people who are obese should lose hope. Not all obese people have scarred fat and even those with scarred fat can shift excess pounds.

In my clinical work, I talk to obese people all the time have tried for years to shift those extra pounds, and, based on my experience, I can offer the following advice.

  • Almost everyone can lose weight. Most heavier people succeed in losing some weight, but many put it on again, some very quickly. Our previous research has shown that women with weight problems have managed to drop dress sizes on many occasions and that Yo-yo dieting, and weight regain after weight loss is very common.Research suggests that it may be more difficult for obese people with more scarring of their fat to be as successful with weight loss as those with less scarring. With established scarring and exposure to excess energy, these calories are increasingly stored in unhealthy places, including on the tummy and within vital organs. This can predispose people to health problems including diabetes, fatty liver, high blood pressure and heart disease. However, even people with scarring can lose weight, though not necessarily quite as much and most would not expect and want to become a size 0.
  • A person does not need to be clinically obese to have scarred fat tissue. We do not yet understand why some people are more prone to fat tissue scarring than others. Some may have a genetic predisposition similar to the increased risk of diabetes.  We find fat scarring in people with a more extreme but rare condition called lipodystrophy where people have very thin arms, buttocks and legs and a disproportionally large tummy. It could also be that certain foods make us more prone to fat scarring regardless of the amount of energy they contain.  We are embarking on further research to learn more about this.
  • Help your fat tissue by using muscle to cope with excess calories.  Even just a short walk after a meal helps. Any type of calorie, whether from a diet of surplus fat, sugar or protein can be stored as energy in fat tissue once the body has met its energy need. But with a growing amount of fat tissue, it struggles to take up blood sugar into the fat cells and requires more and more insulin to do so. This is known as insulin resistance which can progress to pre- diabetes.  Once the pancreas fails to supply sufficient amounts of insulin and the pancreas is overworked, this can progresses to diabetes Type 2. We are studying when best to use activity breaks in sedentary people to help unburden the fat tissue.  Preliminary research by my team now being pursued has found that a short walk after a meal can have a beneficial effect on lowering blood sugar.
  • Why eating the same amount of calories will not mean you will be of the same weight. Some people seem to eat a lot but never gain weight, while others appear to eat like birds and struggle.  Whether the calories are in excess depends among other things on our metabolism, our age and whether we are fidgety, sedentary or active. There are also big differences in energy needs between men and women. Generally, women require far fewer calories day to day.
  • A lot of the ‘Obesity damage’ can be reversed through weight loss.  Many obesity-related health problems are reversible, especially if their onset is of more recent duration. Studies have shown that even modest weight loss (5% of total body weight) can reduce blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar and with it also the risk of heart disease.  Fat tissue recovers from inflammation and fatty liver disease can also resolve. Recent studies show also that diabetes can improve or vanish with weight loss. The same type of operations used for weight loss surgery can also be very effective in managing Type 2 diabetes and are thus also called ‘metabolic surgery’.

So what should you do to keep fat happy and allow it not to be overworked?

My tips, based on my experience working with patients with weight problems, are:

  • For those who struggle with their weight, do not despair. Weight loss is possible.  Even for those whose fat tissue is scarred, you may not reach a size zero, but with determination and lifestyle change you can shift those pounds, but it will take commitment. In my experience, people, with the right commitment, manage to lose 5 per cent of their body weight or a stone in six months which is a realistic target.
  • Weight loss will be more easily sustained without the use of radical calorie restrictions, but with changes to well- rehearsed habits.  You can cut your calorie intake by 400-500 calories a day by eating from smaller plates, avoiding refined sugars and junk food and start eating more slowly.  You do not need to give up snacking altogether. Trade crisps and cakes with healthy options such as chopped vegetables and yoghurts, swap ice cream for sorbet and think twice about cream.  Consider also whether you are consuming many liquid calories from alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, as they also count.
  • Do not cut too many of your calories at once. It is the little changes that will become a new, healthy habit.  This is not about being on a diet for a period of time, it is rather about adjusting your lifestyle for a lifetime. This will require commitment and may not always be comfortable. People who find a buddy to join the efforts are more likely to be successful.
  • If your doctor has tested you for obesity- related health complications, or you have been told you have fatty liver disease or diabetes and have a much larger waist than hip circumference, weight loss can make a great difference to your health and turning your life around will make you a healthier person.
  • For those of average weight  – you are not immune from unhealthy fat.  One possible sign of this is if your waist is wider in circumference than your hips.  You may want to follow the advice above.  Regular activity will help you to a healthier body and better fat proportions. As exercise drives oxygen to all your tissues including the brain boosting concentration and decreasing the risk of dementia.
  • For the lucky lean ones: you may have a natural protection from disordered fat, however look at your parents and their health as this is likely to predict your future risk. We tend to increase in body weight as we age.
  • For anyone: avoid big meals to absolute fullness and always consider some light activity e.g. a walk after consuming large amounts of calories.
  • Have breakfast and do not teach your body to go into starvation mode as this will make it more energy efficient which will not help your weight. Smoking will decrease tissue oxygen levels which damages fat and causes scarring. It also increases the likelihood of wrinkles! If you sit at a desk all day, try to break up periods of sedentary work with short periods of activity – whether walking to the copy machine or up some stairs – especially after you just had a meal. Even small activity changes will help your fat tissue and stop it from becoming overworked.

Socialise with activity in mind. Loneliness and boredom does make us seek comfort in food. People who find a buddy to join weight loss efforts are more likely to be successful.  Consider options where you can socialise with sporty activities from a walking group to taking on a challenge of a run with your mates.

Being kind to yourself can help weight loss too. Stress increases the risk of overeating and comfort eating and disturbs sleep and we know that a disturbed body clock affects our weight negatively. Find calorie-free happiness instead (a bath, book, music to dance to, chat with a friend, a fun past time which could be anything from knitting to sculpting, from gardening to playing golf).  Do set yourself a realistic target. Having a target or a sporty challenge in mind with a date set will keep you focused. This could be anything from a 5km walk to running a marathon, from climbing the local hill to a mountain, from swimming a length in the pool to crossing the English channel.  And for those with mobility problems sitting exercises, including yoga, may be an alternative. Many people opt for swimming as it is gentler on the joints.

Do not judge yourself on the way you look or your body weight, leanness does not bring happiness. However, people with weight problems are more frequently depressed. Seek treatment which maybe in form of talking therapies or tablets as this will help you to be stronger and to take on the effort and commitment to look after your weight.

Be forgiving to yourself as setbacks are natural, life happens and distractions occur, allow them to pass and get back on track. You can do it!

Here at Exeter we are at the forefront of research into obesity. Our research is optimistic. We are looking into whether the timing of activity can aid weight loss, which types of foods predispose us to fat tissue scarring and which drugs could help improve scarred fat tissue. We are also looking at genes which are linked to healthy and unhealthy fat.

We think obesity is something that can be tackled. But we need the best science to help people fight that unhealthy fat and keep unwanted pounds off. That way we can help tackle diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and strokes. Let’s get moving.

By Dr Katarina Kos, Senior Lecturer at the University of Exeter’s Medical School

Reflections on oceans and human health

Professor Lora Fleming is the Director of the European Centre: Chair of Oceans, Epidemiology and Human Health.

This post originally appeared on the BlueHealth website

As humans slowly wake up to their dependence on a healthy natural environment, Professor Lora Fleming reflects on a research career spanning over 30 years, and ponders where we go next.

Whilst I trained and practiced as a physician in the US, I had always held a deep connection with the natural environment. This personal passion became professional after studying for a doctorate in environmental epidemiology, and I’ve never looked back.

Epidemiology is a discipline that tries to look for the patterns and causes of disease by using large sets of data. But early on in my career, I realised that when thinking about the natural environment, this implied a one-way relationship:

What was the environment doing to us?

The answer was often spreading disease through vectors like mosquitos, poisoning our food with toxins like ciguatera, or causing deaths through extreme weather events. The impacts were always negative, and often depicted the natural environment as a source of hazards that needed to be controlled and mitigated.

I knew there had to be more to this relationship and whilst working at the University of Miami, I began to refine my focus to look at the burgeoning area of oceans and health. The complexity was clear: Here was a huge natural resource that provided food, supported industry, facilitated recreational activities, yet could also kill.

These intricately intertwined connections demanded an interdisciplinary approach, and as a result, my work in the area of oceans and health has been constantly varied and fascinating.

I have learned about ‘pico bacteria’ and ‘marine snow’ – the tiniest organisms in the ocean. I’ve worked with colleagues who use remote sensing to measure ocean temperature from orbiting satellites, and studied how organisms and chemicals in the oceans cause sickness through contaminated seafood. But perhaps most significant of all, I’ve had the opportunity to listen to people describe their love for the ocean and its importance to their cultures, livelihoods, and families.

These experiences have shaped my research, and over the last ten years I’ve been part of a growing group of scientists who are uncovering evidence that suggests interacting with the oceans, coasts, and other ‘blue’ environments can lead to important benefits in physical and mental wellbeing.

Whilst this might sound obvious to those who regularly spend time near or in the water, until recently we had very little research which systematically identified the potential health benefits of these environments – and we’re only really getting started.

Thankfully, in the light of environmental and societal pressures, policy makers across Europe are now taking the area of oceans and human health seriously. My team and I are currently leading two large pan-European research projects, BlueHealth and SOPHIE, which are helping us to understand how to maximise the wellbeing benefits of ‘blue’ spaces across different cultures and societies – while still taking into account the risks. These kinds of projects are vital if we are to convince governments to protect, create and encourage the use of these spaces.

All that I have learned over the past 30 years of researching, teaching, and listening has changed my own relationship with blue environments. I value them more, I am more aware of how fragile and complex THEIR health is, and how bad we are at looking after them.

And so I also worry.

Worry that we will only realise the value of these spaces and the negative impacts of our actions when it is too late.

But I also have hope. For many years, I have regularly visited my family’s house in Maine in the US. Located right next to a tidal river, it is constantly changing. The flow of the water, the sounds and uses of the waterways, the flora, fauna and weather vary over the seasons and years, but the beauty and peace are a constant. Although there are many fewer fish and seals now, the bald eagle has actually returned to this area during my lifetime.

This gives me hope that humans can realise and understand the importance of the natural environment before it is too late. And I hope that the work of my group can help us to live better with the natural environment locally and globally, and appreciate not only their beauty but also our total interdependence.

Professor Lora Fleming is a board certified occupational and environmental health physician and epidemiologist. She is Chair of Oceans, Epidemiology and Human Health at the University of Exeter and Director of the European Centre for Environment and Human Health. Lora is also Emerita Professor at the Miller School of Medicine and the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences. In 2015 she was awarded the UNESCO Anton Bruun medal for outstanding work in oceans and health.

Startup Weekend Exeter 2017

The weekend of November 17 – 19 saw the University of Exeter Business School transformed into an incubation space for Exeter’s brightest minds and entrepreneurial spirits. Now in its fourth year, Techstar’s Startup Weekend Exeter is a 54-hour startup sprint designed to guide entrepreneurs in shaping their innovative ideas into business realities over the course of just three days. The weekend captures the essence of the entrepreneurial journey; full of energy, hard work, camaraderie, and hours of high-intensity fun as teams compete to determine who wins 1st overall, people’s choice, or best purpose driven idea.

Sponsored by the University of Exeter Business School and SetSquared, many postgraduate students from the 2018 Exeter MBA cohort were in attendance, alongside a healthy mix of undergraduate students and members of the Exeter community. The weekend kicked off Friday evening, with a rousing welcome party hosted by TechStar facilitator David Andersen, followed by inspirational speeches from local social entrepreneur Kalkidan Lagasse and executive coach Ian Hale.

This year’s event centred around business with a purpose, and both Hale and Lagasse represented the power of purpose-led business by recounting their inspirational success stories. Lagasse began her retail business, Sancho’s Dress, as a way to bolster the income of her Aunt, a talented seamstress struggling to make ends meet in Lagasse’s home country of Ethiopia. Lagasse began her business as a student at the University of Exeter, selling her Aunt’s homemade scarves at a booth in the forum. She then engaged with the ThinkTryDo! Student Startup programme, and soon grew her business into a successful brick and mortar shop on Fore Street. Recently, Lagasse has expanded her business to fill a second retail space. She sells organic, cruelty-free clothing, jewellery and accessories.

Now it was time for Friday’s main event: the pitches! Participants were asked to come prepared with a business concept, and had only 60 seconds to present their idea to the Startup Weekend Exeter delegation. In all over 30 pitches showcased an incredible array of creative, innovative and inspiring ideas – from making a wood pulp substitute out of sugar cane, to creating building materials out of used plastic bottles, to stilettos capable of converting into flats by detaching the heels! Once all the pitches were heard, participants cast their votes for the top ideas.  In the end, a total of eight teams were formed, and it was the teams with representation of a variety of demographics and an expansive array of skills, that were most successful.

Once assembled, teams quickly got to work brainstorming on how to bring their ideas to life, and created their agendas for the weekend. The task: ideate, validate, create, and actuate! Typically, ideation begins with an expansive view, then focuses in on a realistic attainment, the creation of a prototype, or minimum viable product (MVP).

On Saturday, teams were expected to validate their ideas in the marketplace. This involved taking to the streets of Exeter, and discovering whether or not consumers would actually be interested in their business. Saturday also featured think tank sessions with an impressive array of mentors from all across the tech and entrepreneurial communities. Mentors conducted individual sessions with each team, offering tech support, logistics advisement, business development expertise, and much more.

Startup Weekend Exeter is a hectic, busy, and exciting time. Teams often find it hard to break away from the work to eat and relax. Thankfully, the amazing organising team had refreshments and relaxation covered with comfy couches, table tennis, and delicious free food all weekend long! Participants enjoyed the delights of Spanish paella, Mexican tacos, and authentic Sri Lankan cuisine, alongside sandwiches from Pret-a-Manger, snacks, and sweets to keep their energy levels up and brains firing on all cylinders.

On Sunday, teams continued their frenetic pace, turning their ideas into action. They finalised their MVPs, put the final touches on their presentations, and squeezed in a few more sessions with the mentors. By late afternoon, the judges arrived and it was time to compete!

Judges for Startup Weekend included:

Antonia Power, General Counsel for Blur Group

Richard Eckley, Senior Investment Analyst for Crowdcube

Christine Allison, Director of Roborough House Associates

Stuart Robinson, Director of the Exeter MBA

Ideas were assessed according to their validity in the market, strength of their business model, and execution and design. The judges then chose the team that had presented the most convincing business and awarded the prize for best purpose driven idea and also handed out the award for the People’s Choice.

In closing the event, TechStars facilitator David Andersen said:

“Startup Weekend Exeter was a really special experience. I think there were some great teams, with great energy and great ideas. Participants here were really open-minded and keen to do new things. Basically, everything we could throw at them, they took on with a positive mindset. It really says a lot about the community here in Exeter, and I would love to see that spread after the weekend. That’s what the Startup Weekend is all about: inspiring the participants to go out and change the world.”

Special thanks to the University of Exeter Business School, the ThinkTryDo Student Startups team, Bunzl catering, Pret-a-Manger, and all of our wonderful mentors, judges, and participants.

Written by Jessica Ilyas

Business support available in Exeter

Being the founder or owner of a start-up or SME (small and medium sized enterprise) can sometimes feel very lonely. Joe Pearce, business support manager for Peninsula Innovations Limited (PIL) – the operator of the University of Exeter Innovation Centre and Exeter Science Park Centre – shares his advice on how to best make use of the support available for businesses in Exeter.

Joe Pearce

Joe Pearce

Value added activity

With small teams, long hours and overwhelming workloads, being the owner of a start-up or SME can be a lonely and isolating experience, with many reluctant to pass the pressure onto others. Finding the right business support is an essential ingredient for ensure success.

Rather than a luxury, business support should be seen as a “value-added” activity, just as important as making sales or keeping up-to-date with accounts – and it is important that organisations get it right from the outset.

Exeter is an outstanding place to start and to grow your company; with a thriving business community, a diverse support network and access to world-class research facilities. People living and working in Devon enjoy an exceptional lifestyle – Exeter ranked as the number one city in the UK for quality of life in the 2017 Tech Nation report.

At PIL, we understand that businesses need support from independent business advisors, to act as confidential and professional sounding boards. Business mentoring, advice and support is available to small businesses at Exeter Science Park Centre and as well as clients of the SETsquared Business Acceleration Centre.

SETsquared is a partnership between the universities of Bath, Bristol, Exeter, Southampton and Surrey, supporting high-tech start-ups. You can find out more about SETsquared in Exeter here.

With experts in residence, who have personal experience in owning, running and growing businesses, we can provide feedback, guidance and advice to businesses in the region looking to grow and thrive. Companies have access to a mentor from a pool of entrepreneurs and businesspeople, who can help them to connect with professional partners in relevant industries.

Being part of the business community is another benefit of being located in Exeter. The city is home to a host of fast-growth, innovative businesses, presenting ample opportunities for collaboration and networking.

So, as a business within the Science Park Centre – whether you are a tenant or have a hot-desk – not only are you part of the SETsquared hub, you can also build relationships with someone you trust to offer good advice, ultimately helping your business to flourish. Businesses outside these facilities can access support through organisations like the Heart of the South West Growth Hub.

For more information about the support available for businesses at Exeter Science Park Centre, visit our ‘Why Exeter’ page or for information on shared working space, laboratory and office accommodation, call the Science Park Centre on 01392 249222.

Impact – the new driver for engagement with business

Exeter has rethought engagement with business and other external partners and established a new team to support impact and partnership development across different sectors and themes.  The new team called Innovation, Impact and Business (IIB) aims for pro-active co-creation with business and other organisations; building strategic partnerships with key global players; fostering innovation and entrepreneurship amongst our staff and students; and driving place-based research and innovation to help build a South West Powerhouse.

Delivering high quality impact will become increasingly important in universities and will transform the way in which universities go about external engagement and knowledge transfer. Despite Stern’s apparent relaxation of the rules in the next REF there is still a need to submit excellent case studies for each Unit of Assessment – and the impact element will be worth at least 20 per cent of the total income. It is astonishing to note that in the 2014 REF, a 4* case study was worth over 20 times the value of a 3* journal article or publication – up to £500K over five years.  There aren’t many business engagement activities that can guarantee that level of future income.

What success looks like

Exeter has been asking academics to think about the potential future impact of their work.  Over 400 possible areas for development have been identified across all our disciplines.  For the first time in my career, academics are telling business engagement professionals what success looks like for them and the IIB team is taking the hint.

The kinds of things needed to deliver impact are key to the offer of the new Innovation, Impact and Business Directorate – such as building strong partnerships with sets of communities, supporting research collaboration, consultancy, commercial ventures, licensing, training programmes or significant regional engagement. We will also be looking to support policy developments, cultural projects, jointly offered degrees and any number of public engagement initiatives.

Taken broadly, impact activities can act as the glue around which all the normal mechanisms of business engagement can coalesce.  If impact becomes a key currency of success, the IIB team will be helping academics build engaged and long-term collaborations with external partners rather than focusing on short-term income generation.  If we build the impact and prove our value then the income will surely flow.

IIB Taking a thematic approach

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The top priority for Innovation, Impact and Business (IIB) is to help Colleges increase impact and diversify income. Each College and Institute has an IIB Business Partner to advise on its ambitions and develop implementation plans with senior staff members.

We believe that the best way to deliver College plans is through a cross-college thematic approach and teams have been established in the following areas:

  • Manufacturing, Materials, infrastructure, energy.
  • Environment, Sustainability, Food security.
  • Healthcare and Biotech.
  • Culture.
  • Government and Society.

Initially targeted areas include: mining and minerals, water, cultural protection, language translation, defence and security, digital and creative industry, food security, clinical trials, medical devices, legal and policy developments, data analytics and many more.

The thematic teams will build broad engagement and market development with organisations in their themes and create networks of contacts.  They will also support specific projects between the University and industry.

This approach aims to:

  • Accelerate industrial engagement in each thematic field by developing the brand of the University as a  Centre of Excellence.
  • Build a community of industrial and governmental clients.
  • Improve pathways to impact and income generation.

The thematic approach enables teams to connect academics more effectively to the right businesses and identify multidisciplinary, cross-college opportunities.  We also have a group of around 60 External Associates who can add very specific expertise where it is needed.  We can also cluster academics to provide multi-disciplinary solutions for business  and identify stimulating research questions.

Aphantasia: 10,000 people make contact over visual imagery

'Heartbeat 1', Susan Aldworth 2010

‘Heartbeat 1’, Susan Aldworth 2010

Since we coined the term ‘aphantasia’ in a brief scientific paper last year (Cortex 2015; 73:378-380: Read manuscript), there has been a remarkable surge of interest in the extremes of the human experience of visual imagery: both in those of us who lack the ability to visualise at will – with aphantasia – and in those with superabundant imagery – hyperphantasia. When asked to visualise a sunset, for example, people with aphantasia are unable to conjure any kind of image to mind, and will often have assumed that terms like the ‘mind’s eye’ are purely metaphorical. At the other end of the spectrum, people with hyperphantasia describe imagery so vivid that they can find it difficult to be sure whether an image was perceived or imagined. Coverage in the press, on TV, radio and the web throughout the world, including the BBC’s on-line vividness questionnaire, has led to over 10,000 contacts from interested individuals, most of them falling at one or other extreme of the vividness spectrum. We are tremendously grateful to the several thousand people who have by now completed and returned our questionnaires: these paint a much more detailed picture of these phenomena than we could provide before. Thank you so much for doing this!

The final analysis of this wealth of data will take a while, but some patterns have already emerged. A first reaction, which came as a welcome surprise, was gratitude: people with aphantasia, in particular, were glad to have a handy term to describe this subtle but distinctive feature of their experience. Many participants have told us how they found it hard to explain this to others: they often met with disbelief. The new term seems to be useful.

Some sub-groups have come to light. The scientific literature already spoke of a link between low imagery vividness and prosopagnosia – difficulty, often lifelong, in recognising faces. This link is a recurring theme in the questionnaires. We were not too surprised by a second association: a small proportion of participants have described a diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorder (asd). Alterations in the ability to imagine have long been regarded as a key feature of asd, and visualisation is a key ingredient of imagination (though not an indispensable one, as we will see).  A third sub-group also makes good intuitive sense: many folk with aphantasia report that their autobiographical memory, for personal events like holidays and weddings, is less rich that that of their friends and relations: for most of us visualisation is a big part of recollection. But none of these associations is true for everyone: there are many shades of aphantasia.

These shades have some other expressions. Some people with aphantasia, probably the majority, dream visually: but others do not. Some can ‘imagine’ in other modalities, hearing with the mind’s ear for example, but others can’t. Does this make a nonsense of the notion of aphantasia? We think not. We know that the brain activity involved in visualisation is complex and ‘distributed’, involving a widespread network of brain areas. Given this complexity, it is not too surprising that visualisation can be disrupted in a wide variety of ways. In particular, it is understandable, in neurological terms, that dreaming and wakeful imagery can behave differently in aphantasia.

We are learning other fascinating things from our participants. While most people with aphantasia describe this as a lifelong characteristic, others have reported the loss of imagery, due to brain injury or to psychological factors: we are very keen to learn more about these. We also hope to learn much more about the large group of highly creative individuals who have contacted us: I had not anticipated so much pleasure from looking at the art of aphantasic painters or from reading the prose of aphantasic novelists. Visualisation is clearly not a prerequisite for creativity.

Much has been written and broadcast about aphantasia over the past year. Our website gives links to several of these outputs . My personal favourites include James Gallagher’s original BBC broadcast, two personal accounts written by highly creative people with aphantasia, Blake Ross’s Facebook post (A personal account by Blake Ross) and Dustin Grinnell’s article in New Scientist (Dustin Grinnell in New Scientist) and a recent radio portrait by Sarah Jane Hall (The Mind’s Eye – BBC Radio 3 ‘Between the Ears’ programme).

So far most of our knowledge of aphantasia has come from first person testimony. This is the right (and really the only) place to start the exploration of this topic, but we are keen to ‘triangulate’ our knowledge by correlating first person evidence from questionnaires with data from neuropsychological tests – of autobiographical memory or face recognition for example – and from brain imaging techniques. We have begun a pilot study with local participants who are within striking distance of Exeter. We hope to have some preliminary answers over the coming year. At present the project is relying heavily on the enthusiasm of a small group of academic colleagues and undergraduate interns who have kept the project on the road: thanks to you, also! We are applying for research funds that will enable us to extend this work. We are considering a crowd funding appeal – you may be hearing from us 🙂

We have one further plan: at our Eye’s Mind project conference in May this year, in addition to a lively group of imagery researchers, we had probably the largest ever gathering of people with aphantasia from around the world, from Finland to the States. There was enthusiasm for a meeting dedicated to aphantasia: we hope to organise this sometime next year.

This research depends entirely on the generosity of those who are sharing their experience and time. This blog is an opportunity to report back on recent progress, and to thank you for your contributions. We aim to write regular updates as the story develops.