By Douglas Blane
Days of nothingness should feature in every plan, says Ewan McIntosh – whether it belongs to an individual or an institution. "The best ideas come uninvited. So you need to build in some slack. I've yet to see a school development plan that had pages of nothing in it. But they should have.
"Instead people foresee problems that don't exist, to fill in their plans. They'd be far better setting time aside to deal with real problems, when they occur, in a creative way."
Creativity is hugely important to the former modern languages teacher and now digital commissioner for Scotland, Northern Ireland and the North East with 4iP – the investment fund created by Channel 4 with the ambitious aim of re-inventing how public service media are developed, commissioned and delivered.
In practice this means that Ewan and a small group of colleagues around the UK sift through a host of online ideas that people pitch to them, and support a select few. "Take Central Station, a project we've just started working with," he says.
"This is an online arts platform where you can create your own studio, publish your work, find new talented artists. We've already got Turner prize-winning Gillian Wearing up there with art no one's seen before from her personal archive.
"The site is about engaging people in art, design and film, getting them to publish their work – which is a huge barrier to art students – and finding established artists to buddy up with emerging talent. We don't want advertising but it has to be sustainable. So we're looking at a range of business models."
Sustainability is the key factor missing from many otherwise good ideas, Ewan says. "To get our backing a project has to generate revenue or have a passionate user-base that will keep it alive.
"It's the difference between spending money – which is what happens in the public sector – and investing it. Many public sector initiatives struggle not because they're poorly financed, but because there's no way to keep their momentum going. It's why you often hear teachers saying 'Oh no, not another initiative.'"
This ability to survive when start-up cash is spent and key players gone isn't just something 4iP insists on for its portfolio of projects. It's central to its own business model, and indeed Channel 4's. "Our aim financially is to break even," Ewan explains.
Channel 4 values: 'Do it first. Make trouble. Inspire change'
"We use return on investment to fund future innovation and deliver publicly valuable stuff online in a sustainable way. Channel 4 is a commercial entity with a public service remit. Some say you can't do both at the same time. But you can. We do." And in doing so 4iP sticks to Channel 4's core values: "Do it first. Make trouble. Inspire change."
4iP has been in existence for a year, during which 1,500 starry-eyed start-ups have come to it for cash – and around 40 have received some. But investment is just the beginning of 4iP's involvement, says Ewan. "As digital commissioner for Scotland, Northern Ireland and the North-East, I look after the companies and products we support in that area. I'm in touch with them weekly, often daily."
Innovators tend to do the same things right and wrong, Ewan finds. "They're passionate about their own thing and have huge enthusiasm for it. But they forget about the marketing, for example. We bring the viewpoint of someone who's never seen it before and doesn't initially care about it in the same way they, as creators, do care about it. We make them ask constantly how they'll get the public back again and again to use their service."
A common mistake is to imagine a soft launch is possible online, Ewan says. "When you put it up it's live. If it's not quite what you intended it shouldn't be there. That's a mistake we all make."
Four questions from the digital commissioners keep the new launch afloat and steer it away from the rocks. "We ask what they've achieved since we last met, what they're happy and not happy with, how they're doing against timescales, and what risks they see coming up."
VLEs - 'the modern equivalent of the worksheet'
This focus on goals, delivery and what people want makes for sustainability, Ewan says. "There is a clear contrast with what happens in education. Take virtual learning environments. If you had to sell those directly to students you couldn't. They are fundamentally boring.
"So companies that make VLEs sell them instead to educational institutions, who care less about whether they are actually engaging. They're not using them to learn each day; they then impose them on the users."
Virtual learning environments and content management systems were created originally for administration not learning, Ewan points out. "There's a lovely piece of recent research showing the effects on pedagogy. When educators use these systems they begin to see teaching as an administrative task to get through. It's the modern equivalent of the worksheet."
As a teacher then an adviser with Learning and Teaching Scotland, the national body for development of the Scottish curriculum, Ewan McIntosh was the early adopter par excellence. Countless Scottish teachers, now recognised as leaders in educational ICT, gained inspiration, practical tools and confidence to innovate through reading Ewan's blog and listening to his talks.
Channel 4's Glasgow office is just five minutes' walk from Learning and Teaching Scotland's. But Ewan has moved much further than that. "It's a false dichotomy between commercial and public service," he says. "The two can mix very successfully – and what you get are products that people want and will come back to again and again."
Through the south-facing windows of 4iP's Glasgow offices, two tall cranes, where there once were hundreds, mark the banks of the River Clyde. As Ewan ushers me out I wonder if he feels any sense of loss in his exciting new job. Does he miss the thrill of developing his own ideas, of making them work?
"There's nothing to miss," he tells me. "I'm doing more creative stuff now than I've ever done in my life."
Conditions for innovation
- Set aside regular do-nothing time.
- Observe what people do.
- Think about what they want.
- Look for ideas that will appeal to people, not other innovators.
- Hone your idea into a "night-club pitch" – a sentence or two that sums it up that anyone can shout to a pal across a crowded room and enthuse them enough to use it the next day.
- Build sustainability in with the bricks.
- Stay focused on the market.
- Think concrete, not abstract.
- Channel 4's core values: "Do it first. Make trouble. Inspire change."
Central Station: A space for exploring art, film and design. Join the community, share and discuss, get your own portfolio space, discover collections, come to events. www.thisiscentralstation.com
Talk about Local: Gives people a powerful online voice to help them communicate, campaign effectively, and influence events where they live, work or play. http://talkaboutlocal.org
MyBuilder: An online marketplace that brings consumers and tradesmen together in a platform that promotes and supports high-quality work. Squeeze out the cowboys. www.mybuilder.com
AudioBoo: iPhone app that supports recording and publishing at the press of a button. Twitter without the typing. http://audioboo.fm
Help Me Investigate: Online investigation site that lets the public pose questions that matter to them, then work together to find an answer. http://helpmeinvestigate.com/
FestBuzz: Edinburgh Festival rating site that makes word-of-mouth digital by listening in on tweets about events, shows and performances. http://festbuzz.com
Photograph of Ewan McIntosh courtesy of Mike Coulter