Innovation Thinking and Practice at the University of Leeds

I’ve just completed the first of a three year appointment as a Royal Academy of Engineering sponsored Visiting Professorship in Innovation at the University of Leeds. To date this has been a great experience. I’ve been involved in so many different activities. Probably the most important part of this role though is helping undergraduate students develop employ-ability skills. To help with this, I’ve been working with the team in Leeds to develop a new final year undergraduate module which we’ve called “Innovation Thinking and Practice“.

Charles T Building.jpg

The new module has a number of key design points –

  • Focus on innovation – plus wider employ-ability skills, such as commercial awareness, collaboration and communication skills
  • Grouping of students into diverse project teams – from different faculties and courses – such as Computing and Business Schools
  • Allocation of real industry innovation challenges to the teams – from which they must develop an idea, a prototype, a business case and “client” presentation
  • Weekly workshop-based sessions – which are partly lecture but mainly facilitated practical team working workshops

Over the summer I was busy, spending weekends developing the content. Since then September has been dominated by planning meetings with the great team at Leeds. Working alongside and learning from my brilliant new colleague Lena Jaspersen, I’ve had excellent interactions with the academic teams in Computing and Business Schools. We couldn’t have had better support from the Learning Enhancement and Innovation team who’ve guided us through setting up, populating and using the university’s VLE system and many new innovative tools and approaches.

As well as content planning and development, I know from experience the importance of getting the learning space and logistics right. And our timing couldn’t have been better. The Business School has just created a brand new collaborative learning room. It’s great to be part of one the very first modules to use it. Instead of a traditional lecture room, this space has a central lecture point surrounded by collaborative table-based work-spaces for project teams. We tried the facilities today and they couldn’t be much better suited to our needs.


The space is ideal as our weekly sessions with the students will consist roughly of one third lecture and two thirds practical workshop, where the student teams will apply design thinking, develop paper and potentially app-based prototypes, create business cases and value propositions development and present to their sponsors and potential investors. The work-spaces are ideal for all this and more. The students will also have access to use IBM’s Bluemix application development platform to create their innovative new apps should they wish.

The module starts on Friday September 29th and for the next 10 weeks the students will be addressing their innovation challenge, developing their deliverables, learning and hopefully having fun. We’re inviting a set of guests to the final session on the 1st December, when all the teams will present their solution to each other. The winning team will be selected by their peers, with some hopefully surprising but very nice prizes for them.

Light bulb brain

Having been involved from both ends in education at IBM, I’m hugely looking forward to seeing the student teams in action in the coming weeks. I think the focus on learning practical (as well as academic) skills with input from industry and a show not tell approach will set them in great stead to both find a great job and make a fast start in their chosen careers.

Watch out for another blog about how we get on in December.


Writing a novel alongside a full time job

Last year I released my debut novel Remember, Remember the 6th of November as Slide1an eBook – an exciting retelling of the tale of Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot. So exciting it seems the BBC are lining up a major drama this autumn along similar lines. I’m sure it’s just coincidence.

During most of 2016 I had the luxury of being on a sabbatical from my day job. This meant I could focus on writing, positioning it alongside various activities I took up part time, such as university collaborations, an archaeological dig and other stuff mentioned on this site.

Tony Radio InterviewIt was a fantastic time for me – writing and then promoting the book. I even managed to write another book about Collaborative Innovation (now published – I must make some time to blog about it) and completed the first outline of the sequel to “Remember, Remember” titled1617.

And then I went back to work… Thankfully, things have gone pretty well but making the time to complete, edit and re-edit 1617 has been a struggle. There’s been no problem with the inspiration, it’s the time factor which has been the challenge. I quickly realised there are are only physically twenty fours in a day. At times, tired though I may have been, I wanted a few more.

But I got there. At home, on trains and in hotels I finished the first edit and then a second. Mrs M, the saint she is, read the drafts and fed back several times. I got a book blogger to have a look at the first half. Oh dear, more work needed… This was done. During early summer (August was easier!) I shunned the weekend sunshine to drive a final reword and review and then did another. At last, I felt it was nearly there. One of my daughters again created the artwork. This time a flaming interpretation of the British Isles with Ireland, central to one of the key sub-plots of the book, standing out.

Keep Calm and Write a BookOver the last few weeks, I’ve done a few things. Firstly, I published (again on Amazon) a paperback version of Remember, Remember as a number of people said they’d love to buy it but can’t (or won’t) read an eBook (the digital revolution hasn’t reached everywhere yet). The good news is that this is already selling well – raising money for another good cause – more details below.

Secondly, I loaded 1617 onto Amazon…. but before I tell you about that, a little about the content. The book is set 12 years after the first and explores how the world may have been different if the Gunpowder Plot had had a different outcome. There are heroes, villains, secrets, treachery and a beautiful but deadly female French spy. There is a lot of historical fact but much more fiction this time. Mrs M says she prefers it to the first one, which is good enough for me.

Final Book Cover 1617Back to Amazon, last weekend I loaded it and hit the button, so you can now buy the eBook version of 1617 online from virtually anywhere in the world, which is nice. Even without any real promotion people have already started buying it and once again the profits this year for both books will go to charity – this time York Teaching Hospital Charity, which funds extras to make patients feel better beyond NHS spending, such as headscarves for chemotherapy patients and additional support for dementia and stroke patients.

So what can be better than that – you can buy a book and raise money for a good cause at the same time… And if it is as successful as the first one, I plan to write another. It will be something a little different next time. I already have the idea and I’m now starting on the research. Please do buy one or both of the books and if you can post a review onto Amazon as this does make a difference.

Many thanks until next time, Tony.