Professor Bill Buchanan receiving award from Professor Donald MacRae at the Scottish Knowledge Exchange Awards
Professor Bill Buchanan smiling

By Professor Bill Buchanan, OBE, Professor of Cryptography, Edinburgh Napier University

I am very lucky, and I know it. I live in one of the most beautiful, educated and cultured cities in the world, and in the most beautiful country on the planet. I teach and research the subject that I love, and I have the opportunity to work with some of the smartest people around. For me, one of the greatest privileges is the opportunity to meet and work with people across the world, and to share ideas and common visions. Personally, I think we need to break the walls and barriers that some may put between us. My city and Scotland support this, and, with a positive vision of the future for an inclusive and open country which cares deeply about education and innovation, and in providing everyone with the opportunity to achieve their full potential. As a teacher, I know we cannot create talent, but through education we can allow our citizens to achieve their full potential. In fact, we are all amazing in some way, and every single one of us is capable of doing amazing things. 

Overall, knowledge and expertise should never be hidden away. It should be shared and built-on. Our economies of the future will be built on knowledge. New discoveries and new ways of doing things should be praised. And we need more risk-takers and those with a “gut-feeling” that something is right, and without having to create fully-formed business plans. We need to invest in people with vision. In much of our high impact work at Edinburgh Napier, we have always had a gut feeling that our focus was right, but we were always willing to learn from others and change our approaches. We are also good listeners but also aim to engage with others outside academia and in explaining our art in ways that others see benefit in. Academia should never be an ivory tower. It needs to listen and understand. It needs to look to the horizon. It should inspire. It should engage. It should make people more confident. It should enable debate. It should have a critical eye on things. It should create real impact on real lives. It should share its knowledge. And, these days, there’s possibly more knowledge in industry that academia needs, in order to focus research and teaching.

And so, our success as a team at Edinburgh Napier has allowed us to be fairly independent and so reliant on others, and thus to focus on the things that we feel passionate about. As Steve Jobs says, we are here to ‘make a dent in the universe’. So, while large and faceless technology companies often increasingly make a dent in our lives, the greatest dent is made by those with a passion to change things for the better. Our future must be shaped by our small and innovative companies, and by those people with a vision and drive to succeed.

For us, success has brought success. But you don’t see all the hard work that took us to where we are, and the barriers and failures along the way. You perhaps don’t see all the grants that were rejected, and all of the early mornings and weekends working on proposals that led to nothing in return. It is thus easy to see the success, but failure can be used as a positive force. When I receive a rejection for something that we really believe in, I always aim to redouble our effects, and become more focussed on making sure it will be a success. And, to take something to a point where there is real impact is something that overcomes all the disappointments of the past. A key factor of this, is knowing when to step back, and let others lead things forward, as we are all cogs in the wheels of innovation.

Personally, I love it when a small and agile company beats a large company, and takes a market share or, even better, finds new markets. In virtually every decade, dinosaur companies that struggle to change have been replaced by new rising stars.  The key to find these are innovative people, who have the ability to spot an opportunity and take the risks that a large company would never take. To quote Professor Linda Hill:

“Innovation is a journey, a collaborative problem-solving process, where discoveries happen through a process of trial and error, false starts, and even mistakes. The process can be exhilarating. But as many of us know all too well, it can also be downright scary.”

Interface gave me the chance to build a whole educational infrastructure for schools (the Bright Red Digital Zone) – a once in a lifetime opportunity. This has now been used by 100s of thousands of pupils, teachers and parents. The impact of changing someone’s life through education and innovation is something that cannot be measured by any metric. Interface, too, supported a project which looked at supporting those at home within health care, and which is now being scaled-out in many places. This is real impact on real people, and creating something more caring, while supporting new companies to grow and provide economic benefit.

For those starting or moving along this journey, there’s no better place to go, than to Interface.

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Prof. Bill Buchanan is one of our 15 Faces of Interface - people who represent different aspects of Interface, from Innovators of the Future to long lasting partnerships over a decade old - to help celebrate our 15th birthday this year.

If you have an idea or challenge and think that academic expertise could help accelerate the development or provide expert opinion, then please contact us.

16 September 2020

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