TECHCITYINSIDER100: The BBC’s Connected Studio was launched three years ago to drive technological innovation across the organisation’s operations. At its helm is director Adrian Woolard. Richard Middleton talks to him about his work and the ideas that have sprung up since.
As the world’s leading public broadcaster, the sheer range of services provided by the BBC clearly presents multiple opportunities for savvy tech innovation.
Faced with the rapid pace of technological change, however, the broadcaster decided to embrace the world of startups by launching a dedicated unit that would link tech entrepreneurs and idea-driven BBC employees with some of the challenges faced across the broadcaster’s operations.
Connected Studio is now in its third year and has become an established part of the BBC’s Future Media division, allowing the BBC to access a huge array of new ideas and expertise.
“For the BBC it’s essential to really embrace with external companies and bring new ideas into the organisation,” says the studio’s director, Adrian Woolard.
A BBC man of 14 years, Woolard previously worked across R&D for the corporation. Before that he was as an engineer for Argonaut Games and a tech delivery manager for BT. When the Connected Studio started in 2012, Woolard came on board to pilot a new approach to developing digital solutions.
Initially he focused on improving the accessibility of BBC data across the BBC’s output – from kids channel CBBC to sport content and the iPlayer service – to assist tech firms’ development plans.
“We’re about making it easier for new ideas to be deployable in the real world,” he says. “We wanted to be as rigorous and professional as we could and challenge a lot of areas of innovation.”
Today Woolard works across radio, TV and online content to provide digital solutions that will enhance the licence fee payer’s experience. The process begins by identifying a problem faced by the organisation, such as the younger demographic of Radio 1′s audience who listen less frequently.
“In this instance we worked with the Radio 1 team and identified the problematic areas. Radio 1 is very innovative but it has a real challenge with audiences that spend a lot of time online but not on radio.”
A brief is then published to BBC staff and external third party firms with enough scope for ambition and radical ideas but sufficient constraints to ensure solutions are attainable.
“Companies are encouraged to sign up, then we have an open free event where each group has to submit a very simple description of why their portfolio is relevant to the brief,” Woolard says.
BBC data architects, R&D execs and marketing and production personnel are on hand to provide support, and from an initial group of around 120 people come 20 to 30 ideas.
“Each group has around two or three minutes to pitch their concept to the BBC panel and they decide on five or 10 ideas to bring back. They define the big challenge to those teams, who then return for two days paid work in the same hot-housing type of environment before pitching their refined idea again.”
This time each group has up to 15 minutes to sell their proposition, which might include a demonstration to support their idea.
“You get this really fast cycle of decision making, which brings the best of brainstorming but also the culture of digital hacking and getting people to focus on solving a problem,” Woolard says. A further two or three ideas are then taken forward, with each required to produce a pilot.
Most projects have a pot of around £100,000 for development, with each firm paid anywhere between £5,000 to £40,000 to ramp up the scope of their idea and ensure its scaleability. Over the next three months the new projects are developed and tested, and, depending on their feasibility, ultimately commissioned by the relevant BBC service.
“We’re looking for speed and scale and we make decisions very quickly. As a corporate innovation approach it’s open and it’s using the best of the digital innovation cultures that exist outside in start-up land and entrepreneur land, but with a bit of rationale,” Woolard says.
The process is all about ideas, he adds, and not about accelerating a firm’s growth but many of the companies involved have used the kudos of working for the BBC to secure funding.
The open approach to development also allows startups to keep the IP of their ideas, should they get shelved during the pitching process.
“When we reject an idea or find that it can’t go any further, all the IP goes back to the company,” Woolard explains. “If they get into pilot then it’s about an exclusivity option, and again at the end of that if we choose not to take it forward the IP will fall back to the company, excluding any IP that we’ve put in terms of our own unique technologies.”
At present Woolard is overseeing eight or nine projects in production, having already seen around 40 prototypes pass through the system. Projects have included an interactive experimental storytelling app to supplement the BBC2 show Inside No. 9 and a perceptive radio app that’s being developed for kids channel CBeebies.
“It’s the ideas we’re interested in. We looked at other innovation programmes out there for small digital companies but we think the BBC should be about ideas acceleration. We should be about taking ideas and getting them so they’re deployable at scale for licence fee payers and doing it as fast as is feasible.”
Connected Studio is now expanding its vision and is set to launch four new, large-scale projects in May, details of which are being kept under wraps. It’s not just the projects that are becoming more ambitious, as the Studio’s track record peaks the interest of the UK’s top tech minds. Woolard adds: “If we have the right hook and challenge on our projects we can get very high quality people wanting to participate.”
Adrian Woolard – CV
Programme lead, then (since May 2013) head of Connected Studio, head of North Lab, BBC R&D
Project director, R&D North/Lab, BBC
Portfolio manager, Innovation Culture, BBC
R&D development executive, BBC New Media
Technical delivery manager, BT, AvatarMe, Televirtual
Application specialist, Oxford Metrics Limited
R&D software engineer, Argonaut Games Ltd.
B.Eng (hons), electrical and electronic engineering, Newcastle University.