Mike Sewart

Interview with Mike Sewart, CTO of QinetiQ.

By Gordon Fong

14 June 2024, in Portsmouth.

I saw Mike Sewart, the CTO of QinetiQ, present at a South West Regional Defence and Security Cluster (SWRDSC) event at Porton Science Park. What he said and the way he said it really resonated with me so, at the coffee break I grabbed a few minutes to tell him about my Park Life on Tour project.

He agreed to an interview so I could ask him about what he means by innovation, what it isn’t, how you create the environment and culture to enable it.

Mike came from an IT background of 16 years in Fujitsu before joining Qinetiq in 2017.

Executive Summary

My real high level points I took from the interview.

  • Having innovation centres that aren’t particularly themed around topic areas should help innovation through diverse input.
  • Sharing those ideas and the solutions in a transparent way should help future innovation through developing situational awareness.
  • Networking is important, so we can all be part of that sharing.
  • Diversity is one of the key enablers for innovation.
Mike Sewart, CTO of QinetiQ

How different is the Defence sector to what you were working in?

Every sector is different. Defence is a purpose driven sector that has a lot of challenges, around the culture of innovation, the culture of working, and diversification of the sector. It needs to pick up on the trends happening across the world. Especially so as technology is changing and adapting at a rapid rate, the sector has to keep pace.

Basic definition of what innovation is and what it isn’t

Innovation is one of those words that is used quite a lot to mean many, many different things.

Quite often people confuse the word with ideation, which is the concept of building new ideas, but it’s not innovation.

There’s also invention, which is the creation of new technologies or products, but innovation is the joining together of ideas with an outcome. That interplay is where innovation comes in.

Innovation is also about a philosophy, an approach, about ways of working, and behaviours.

What I look for in the characterstics of people who are innovate, or being open, open to sharing, collaborative, people who trust one another.

In the spirit of open innovation, joint value networks it’s about taking the best people from multiple organisations to join that value together that creates an amazing outcome. Not any one entity has all the answers.

If collaboration is key to innovation, how about innovation centres collaborating together?

It’s critical.

There’s no bounding to collaboration, it should be for everybody.

Innovation centres are often themed around technologies, or particular areas. There is an association of innovation with technology, but there could be innovation of a process, or business model innovation as well.

A good example is Netflix, of how you create a completely different business model that disrupted a legacy business model of Blockbuster Video’s model of renting videos. Innovation can come from many different angles.

Where we have themed innovation centres, there is a power in bringing them together.

How do you bring the innovation centres together?

It’s all about networking.

People fall into the trap that a tool will do it all for you, but that’s not the case.

Humans need relationships to coexist. Bringing these innovation entities together to create shared situational awareness is so important. Transparently sharing the ideas that have been developed and the solutions too.

Do we build business centres and leave them to run on Hopium, the drug of innovation? Do we seed them with money and requirements to make things happen?

Hope is not the right way forward, you have to create the right environment for innovation. Environment isn’t just the physical building, but the ways of working, the incentivisation, and how you encourage people to innovate together.

Innovation comes from a particular mission, or purpose. If you can get people centred on that, then you can get diverse input to come up with some really creative solutions.

If innovation centres aren’t particular themed around topics, that helps.

There’s talk of bringing non-traditional suppliers to Defence into the supply chain and ecosphere but how does that happen?

The Defence sector is doing a lot around diversifying the supply base. As a sector it is a complex sector because of the need for security clearance, which is a barrier for entry. This leaves suppliers who have invested in secure environments and clearances to be able to work with Defence customers but doesn’t allow for diversification.

There’s now a lot more happening, with Defence and Security Accelerator (DASA), who are doing a huge amount nurturing and developing SMEs.

It’s not just about SMEs, it’s about joining them to existing Defence industry players who have the understanding of the complexities of the Defence landscape, add in the energy and passion of the SMEs with new ideas then you get some great answers.

It’s not the case of one or the other, but joining them up.

The whole aspect of Intellectual Property (IP) rights can be a tension between SMEs and Primes.

Every sector comes from a legacy way of working. There are a set of organisations that do a lot with Defence but because of the pace of technology, science and engineering is developing so quickly, they can ‘t keep up.

The whole sector needs new thinking, from an intellectual property view there are standards for MOD and ways of working for Primes, but to bring that into Primes, there can be a sensible agreement created, heads of terms or NDA, to protect the IP of the SME in this hybrid working.

If you rewind 10 years, it wasn’t that obvious, but organisations now recognise collaboration is crucial to success.

How can this joint working be nurtured?

The MOD has large research frameworks and the beauty of those are that they are themed around particular topics and the leads for those themes build an ecosystem where academia, SMEs, and large organisations can work together and that creates the network.

Importance of diversity

Diversity is one of the key enablers for innovation.

Having a different background from a different sector can bring  your own fresh view.

Security clearances can be a barrier but there are things happening such as the AUKUS agreement, bring collaboration to a nation level.

We just need more different thinking, different people, different backgrounds in the whole defence and national security space because that’s how you tackle complex problems. It doesn’t come from asking the same people, the same question, all the time, because you will get the same answers.

It genuinely needs shaking up to drive a much more progressive sector.

We get some of the best projects and best solutions from bring diverse disciplines together. We can take our technologist, take our material scientist, take out team who are specialising in sensing technologies and they may not tend to work with each other a lot, but if you bring them in on a crowdsourced problem, get their ideas, they will all come from a different point of view. The power is in combining those together in delivering a solution.

A good example is stealth technology and mimicking nature, say for camouflage techniques.

Views on defence capability development and acquisition processes to meet the challenges of accelerating tech development cycles.

Defence is set up around a certain operating approach and operating model around large engineering and large assets. If you are building a submarine, a ship, or a tank there is a particular acquisition cycle to go through because the risk profile and costs of those large equipment programmes are significant.

We are now moving to a two-tone operating model, where we need a more rapid approach to technology driven capability, as software can be built quickly and doesn’t need a lot of capital expenditure. Software when fused with engineering and science can deliver outcomes quickly.

Those risk profiles are different and if they can be assessed in a different way, there is the opportunity to get the two cycles working together hand in hand. There is change afoot. Defence can learn from other sectors that also face these challenges.

Then there follows questions about his future personal goals and what difference being on a war footing would mean to the country and innovation.