Innovation can sometimes cause a stir…

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The last few weeks have seen residents of Malvern, the home of the Festival of Innovation, gripped by a divisive proposal; that of building a cable car from the town of Great Malvern up the steep slopes of an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty to the highest point in Worcestershire.

Those for the scheme cite the economic benefits that such an infrastructure project would bring to the town. It might provide a new activity for tourists, it would facilitate access for all onto the Hills, and it would create jobs and spin-off opportunities. Those against fear a ruining of unspoilt vistas, damage to wildlife and the creep of other buildings onto the Hills, an area protected by a unique historic Act of the UK Parliament.

Not to be drawn one way or another, this debate highlights one key aspect of innovation: that of change. Change is always met with resistance as it upsets the status quo. People have things to gain and to lose; the balance of power shifts, and the real outcome is generally unpredictable. Disruptive innovation, be it an idea, a concept, a device or a process, creates antagonism and concern. It also creates opportunities.

Sometimes, proposed solutions to problems can lead to other more compelling ideas.  To me the idea of a cable car per se is not particularly creative, as it has been done before in many places, and the aerial structures they require can be rather ugly. As an example, one alternative suggestion has been made from residents to reintroduce donkey rides up the Hills; these are a green form of transport and have a quirkiness about them that sits well in the town!  A bit retrograde, however.

So I think we can do better still. What about trialling a fleet of green all-electric (or hydrogen fuel cell) autonomous vehicle that does not require a cable in the first place? Despite the wilderness, the Malvern Hills are unusual because there is actually a narrow tarmac track via a shallower inclined route to the summit. It would make a great rural testbed for the technology that is now being trialled in some of our major cities.

Adrian Burden, Festival Founder

BBC reports the plans for a cable car in Malvern, and then shortly afterwards their dismissal!

So What Is Innovation?

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The Malvern Festival Of Innovation has kicked off, for the next 4 days in the beautiful hillside town of Malvern. There is a range of exciting speakers talking on everything from Cyber Security and the Internet Of Things, through to manufacturing and bootstrapping. These are complemented with a diverse range of exhibitors such as Aston Martin and Lockheed Martin to small startups and entrepreneurs.

Everybody will talk ‘innovation’! But hang on, exactly what is innovation? I’m sure if you ask half a dozen engineers, you will get half a dozen answers – it’s the new, it’s a device, it’s a process, it’s an application, it’s a better solution…it’s all of these and more.

Being innovative, being an innovator is seen as a very good thing. These are the people who break new ground, rip up the rules and try something new. Not encumbered by the past, but excited by the future. Convinced that things, no matter what they are can be better. The human race can be moved forward by innovation in whatever form it comes and in whatever subject it occurs. Innovators will fall, but they pick themselves up, dust themselves down and keep pushing forward, enthused by the fact that one day they will ‘crack it’.

Innovators have given us smart phones, heart monitors, cars and planes; microwave ovens and digital cameras; They have delivered flat screens, HD, WiFi and more – and they are not done yet. With the world now more connected than ever innovators around the world can share and collaborate, they attack the big problems facing humanity as a collective.

It appears to me that innovation is not one thing, in fact innovation is a state of mind, and many of those minds are gathering for the next few days here in Malvern…

Stuart Wilkes, Guest Blogger

Boffins (Geeks, Freaks & Eggheads)

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We’re looking forward to hearing from Quentin Cooper at the upcoming Family Show as he explores “why it is that for all they’ve done to radically change the world we live in, the popular image of scientists has hardly changed at all”. There are many scientist stereotypes; people that wear socks with their sandals, adults who can’t quite look you in the eye as they speak, brains the size of planets that are unable to function at the basic level needed to boil an egg, and so on.

But we have to be careful what we say here in Malvern because the town has an unusually high concentration of scientists for a rural settlement without a university. And it turns out that the word Boffin may well have originated from here!

If you check the Oxford English Dictionary, the derivation of the word is unknown but came into use around the time of the Second World War.  An example given is “the boffins at the Telecommunications Research Establishment” which is now the QinetiQ site in Great Malvern.  Consult Wikipedia and there is a citation of a pre-war use of the word; by J.R.R. Tolkien as a surname in The Hobbit.  Interestingly, Tolkien was a frequent visitor to Malvern, travelling up to the town from Oxford with fellow author C.S. Lewis. It is said that Middle Earth and The Shire were inspired by his walks on the Malvern Hills, just as the Victorian gas lamps that still operate today in and around Malvern inspired the opening scene in The Lion, The Witch and Wardrobe.

Quentin refers to boffins as Geeks, Freaks and Eggheads in the title of his talk. Another common term in modern parlance is Nerd. Consult Roget’s Thesaurus, and it also includes more complimentary terms such as Scientist, Technologist, Scholar, Expert, and Savant. Peter Roget published his collection of words well before the second world war in 1852, so in that first edition Boffin would not have been included. However, I think you might arguably now refer to Roget as a Boffin.  Roget died in 1869 and happens to be buried in West Malvern, so he remains in good company!

Adrian Burden, Festival Founder

Calm before the storm

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As we approach the third annual edition of the Malvern Festival of Innovation, anyone who has organised an event will know that there is a nagging worry that no one will turn up. Today there are so many trade shows, public events and schools activities that standing out from the crowd is not easy. And since the Festival was founded in Great Malvern, we have noticed a growing number of innovation festivals vying for attention.

But we have something that we believe others lack; a simply stunning location in the heart of the United Kingdom where innovation has been a key part of the local culture and heritage for hundreds of years. The Malvern Hills must have inspired creative thought, technical inventiveness, and entrepreneurial opportunity since humans first stumbled upon them.

The iPhone may have been designed in Silicon Valley, but the liquid crystal display chemistry came from Malvern, as in fact did the architecture of an Integrated Circuit, and the approach of using a capacitive touch screen to access content. Scientists in the defence research facility in Malvern were also responsible for Radar, passive infra-red detectors that now protect homes from intruders, and numerous other technical wonders; many of which remain esoteric or top secret! Today we are a recognised national hub for cyber security.

But innovation is not just about science and technology. Innovation must include new ways of creating business, new approaches to teaching, and creative novel ways of improving health. Malvern has seen plenty of this innovation too; England’s oldest preparatory school, The Elms School, was established at the foot of the Malvern Hills and still educates today.  This development paved the way for a new way to teach school-aged children and is a sector that remains very strong in Malvern today. Malvern’s water is believed to be the first in the world to have been bottled commercially, and has since been drunk by royalty and continues to be bottled today from the original source.  This spring water also played a key role in Victorian health with the renowned water cure that went on to establish Malvern as a key tourist destination for those wishing to escape city pollution and have a breath of fresh air. Today about one and quarter million people visit the Malverns each year!

Thankfully there is plenty of fresh air in Malvern. We are currently taking deep breaths of it ahead of what will be a busy few weeks leading up to the next edition of the Festival. Luckily we know from past experience that plenty of people will turn up. But it would be super if you were one of them – see you there!

 Adrian Burden, Festival Founder