We are all Eloi now

It was another “I need to be in London early on a Monday morning” Monday, so I missed the “start the week” meeting.  What happens at them these days, anyway?  Instead I was up at the Business Design Centre bright and early to take part in the Collaboration Nation events for Technology and Digital.  We had wanted to hold them on sequential days as we did last year, but some odd decisions were taken without proper consultation, so we had to do both the day before Innovate – not ideal, but workable.  Because life seems to happen that way, there were also train problems that morning, so many were late – and so (consequently) was our start!  There were 91 Technology projects and 75 Digital ones.  I have a booklet with the details of all the projects but cannot find a soft copy on the web either by searching our own website or by using Google, so you’ll just have to take my word that they were really good.  I opened the proceedings for Technology with a talk Finger Man and I built on a foundation suggested by Nano-Boy and then I tried a FL-like précis of the 2 minutes pitches as the came up and managed the first 15, but then got distracted and missed the rhythm. I wandered through to the beginning of Digital and met up with some old friends.  As I floated between the two sessions I was reminded of the waste of opportunity by forcing them into one day – about a third of the each audience would have benefited by seeing what the other session held and many of the projects could have easily switched without anyone missing a beat.  Towards the end of the day, I thought about what to say to close the Digital event and swapped notes with Finger Man and Manufacturing Man.  It was a truly awesome day – the talent and potential of those projects shows that we get real value from the Feasibility Studies, where we de-risk the technology, and that the Collaboration Nation event allows a start on de-risking the commercial and financial aspects of the ideas.

We made it down to the “Executive Room” for a last minute briefing and an “attaboy” from the outgoing Spittleness.  I think I shall miss him – a bit!

It was then a quick cab ride down to Inmarsat for the Executive soirée.  We had learned from previous years that a sit-down meal blocks people into groups, and that a breakfast was too taken up with speeches to give any real networking time so had settled on a stand-up buffet with “bowl food” (later discovered to be the new trend in events!).  We were there for over 2 hours and there were only about 100 people in total, but I couldn’t get around to everyone.  FL gave a really good summary of our achievements, some guy from Inmarsat went for the “boring talk of the year” award and Danny Alexander gave a statement of the blindingly obvious (so I guess we won?).  Definitely a successful event in terms of engagement though!

The next morning I got back to the Business Design Centre to rendezvous with our first “outside” speaker, the inimitable Eddie Obeng.  We had asked him to start with a supercharged 20 minute version of his “if you don’t innovate, you will perish” talk and he delivered in his own way.  Looking after Eddie is a 100% job and he introduced himself to everyone he met as we walked around – but only after he had sorted the AV!  Innovate is always an odd event for me – I know many of the things we set out to achieve and that got lost on the way, and mourn their passing.  I was discussing this with FL who seems to have a similar viewpoint, but he pointed out that very few of the attendees know what could have been and just see what is – and so are happy!  That said, following the twitterfeed at the beginning made for mild depression – they majored on the queues at the check-in (which were apparently, not up to the job) and the grammar on our splash slide (with its extra apostrophe). 

FL kicked off the meeting proper, introduced His Spittleness and managed not to get roped into any of Eddies’ stunts, then it was on to Will Hutton.  It never fails to amaze me how incredibly bright people, who write so well, can be so boring in person!  I found it easy to walk off and meet the punters around the halls.  I got so engaged, I missed Pilgrim Beart, who I have seen talk before and who always seems to impress.  Then Sustainability Man got to run his Panel.  This was conceived in a Cheltenham restaurant many months ago but fell foul of losing Le Porritt and so it was difficult to get sufficiently powerful panel members.  They all knew their stuff but didn’t get it across as well as SM and I had envisaged.  Might have been easier just to let SM talk!

Then the lunchtime slot showed the powerful pull of an SoS talk, even a bland and uneventful one with wishy-washy delivery!

The Design Panel had been hanging about in case they were needed to fill a void produced by an SoS no-show, but they coped with the mass exodus that followed the exit of Vince with aplomb and managed to diss the panel chairs and make the point about the necessary engagement of design and technology.  As it progressed, MD and her TIC apprentice press-ganged me into a media round table about TICs.  On our team, we had Peter Chivers of the HVM TIC, Dick Elzy of Torotrak and Healthcare Man and the journalists were from The Manufacturer, the Engineer, Research Fortnight and Ingenia.  The event seemed to go well, I had a strict timetable and questions to get through and only left out one important bit.

I got back in time for the end of Herman Hauser (not literally, but his speech) and settled down for the Kestenbaum interview of Willetts.  DW was as engaging as ever, made some telling points (i.e. I agree with him) about over-emphasis on university based patents but then dropped the ball on a design question from one of our own people!  Whoops!  FL closed in style and the crowds melted away.  I rushed off to check on my hospital project!

Wednesday started later than planned because the panel I was due to be taking part in as part of the “National Annual Greening Government: Mainstreaming Sustainable Development Conference and Exhibition” got cancelled, so instead I walked across Green Park talking to Adrian Atkinson about the next stage of the HFI project in Innovation Programmes.  I walked right past BIS and instead met up with Transport Man and our mole at OLEV to discuss their decision to engage us as their delivery body.  This basically means they want to offload all their money and organisational responsibilities to us – but on a timescale that we cannot necessarily accommodate, so this discussion was about how we could “align” their money with our capability.  We got the high level stuff sorted and ended up with key questions to ask those responsible for finance at each end of the chain. Then it was into BIS for a meeting to discuss how we would measure the impact of the Technology and Innovation Centres.  Call me old fashioned, but it worries me that it is only now that we are asking this question!  It also worried me that we told the Board in October 2010 the methodology we were going to use and yet every new thing seems to start from scratch in the logic!

I then met up with FL to carry his bag at an OSCHR Meeting in the bowels of Tracy Island.  Healthcare Man and I have been interacting with various levels of the MRC about a joint bid to Treasury for more money for healthcare, but we were getting pretty frustrated that although the MRC dudes say the right things in meetings, they run off and right up papers that feel like more of the(ir) same and do not reflect our goals.  Healthcare Man had thrown his toys out of the pram in the run up to this meeting and the paper was less of a disaster than it might have been, but the CEO of MRC was a bit discomforted by both the Chair of OSCHR and the DG of Knowledge and Innovation saying that the money should be channelled through us.

I hung around Tracy Island for a bit longer but then went off to meet up with MD for a meeting with the company that is running our Dallas “national conversation” activity.  I was pretty impressed with the pitch they made back in August but a little worried about how long we were taking to get the activity up and running, so MD suggested I schmoozed their lead connection to us over dinner.  It was a very enjoyable discussion about older adults, technology, design and psychology and I was even more sure we had made the right decision to use them.  As a by-product I realise that I am now part of the process and determined to see the work carried out in a timely manner.

Thursday was the first day of the Wired Event – see http://www.wiredevent.co.uk/.  As one of the “Top 100” I got in free but MD had to pay to make sure I didn’t screw up interacting with the digirati and the press. Under normal circumstances, Innovate would have been the best event of the week but the truth is that this knocked it into a cocked hat.  Even the little details worked – there were no queues for registration, the badges had names on both sides so were always readable, the lanyards were colour coded (blue for speaker, red for Top 100, green for Wired staff, purple for press and yellow for the hoi-polloi), and the lunches were very, very upmarket.  The event was lot smaller of course and they charged the earth for a ticket (to subsidise the Top100?) but it does point out the advantage of having money and taking time to plan.

After an hour or so mingling, the event itself started.  First up was George Dyson (see – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Dyson_(science_historian)) with his canter through the history of the digital world from Turing and von Neumann through to the present day.  It is available in various forms on the web, but it is always evolving and adding new insights.  Next up came Rachel Botsman (see – http://www.rachelbotsman.com/) who tried to claim that she invented collaborative consumption and was notable for (as a senior civil servant once famously said) “excessive use of the personal pronoun”.  All about the performance!  Finally in this segment came Richard Seymour with his talked about “immortal design” (see – http://www.seymourpowell.com/company/views and go for Richard’s picture).  Like George his talk is the same but different every time – although the joke about a typewriter being a word-processor with a built in printer is getting a little long in the tooth.

After a break for more mingling, we were treated to the CEO of the principal sponsor being gently mocked by Ben Hammersley (see – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ben_Hammersley) before a session to die for.  Kicked off by Aza Raskin (see – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aza_Raskin) of Massive Health (see – http://massivehealth.com/) where he described a complete design overhaul of the health sector.  His argument is coherent, his style is persuasive and his personality is charismatic.  I almost went to work for him on the spot!  Next came Alex Laskey (see – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opower) whose company is driving the use of information to lower energy costs – by providing individual energy analyses and customised recommendations for improvement.  Total use of digital information for impact on the physical world!  To break the euphoria the next piece was a dialogue between Carie Lemack (see – http://www.familiesofseptember11.org/whoweare.aspx#advisory the 5th one down) and Henry Robinson (see – http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/hated-are-the-peacemakers-smears-have-put-members-of-a-small-but-vocal-irish-peace-group-at-risk-says-ruth-dudley-edwards-1381109.html) a reformed member of the Official IRA (and therefore the only person I have ever met who has knee-capped anyone) discussed terrorism and it’s place in the world – with a thinly veiled plug for the film “Killing in the Name of” (see – http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1684897/).

At lunch I had a (planned) discussion with Richard Seymour about our goal of integrating design and technology for the benefit of UK companies) and a nice discussion with Jamie Murray Wells about how Glasses Direct (see – http://www.glassesdirect.co.uk/) had never heard of the Technology Strategy Board.  He has now!

After lunch it was a great talk by Tom Hulme of IDEO (see – http://www.ideo.com/people/tom-hulme) on the need to start early and recognise failure, both in physical experimentation and the design world.  Then a bizarre but engaging discussion between Cory Arcangel (see – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cory_Arcangel) and Kristian Segerstrale of Playfish (see – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Playfish) curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist (see – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hans-Ulrich_Obrist) about the interaction of art and technology.  I rather warmed to Cory’s oft-stated desire to “break things” for art, but I am not sure this ever realised its potential!  Then it was Eyal Gever (you have to see – http://vimeo.com/eyalgever).  He takes simulations of crashes and other disasters and then makes pieces of art from stopped frames (often using additive layer manufacturing!).  Awesome!  The final segment didn’t work though.  It was a discussion between Alexander Ljung of SoundCloud (see – http://alexanderljung.com/) and Tim Exile (see – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tim_Exile) and that (despite their individual capabilities and achievements) rapidly degenerated into a pastiche of Beavis and Butthead (see – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beavis_and_Butt-head) even down to the fart jokes!

More mingling and then things took off again – literally!  Chris Anderson (see – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chris_Anderson_(writer)) (and remember he actually wrote “The Long Tail”) described how, in an attempt to impress his children, he had started making autonomous drones and now headed up a US organisation that takes its cultural cues from trainspotting!  By being too much of a geek he undermined a fairly important message that using various approaches, people could customise products and then share their own customisation to improve the product gene-pool!  A good example is Local Motors (see – http://www.local-motors.com/) an organisation I ran into at the (snow disrupted) Prize Seminar in Boston in January because they gave rewards for the most adopted improvements.  Next came Lisa Harouni of Digital Forming (see – http://www.digitalforming.com/about.html) that I think we have supported.  It was a tour de force presentation about what you could do with additive layer manufacturing and was ended by a short puff from Stuart Jackson of EOS UK (see – http://www.eos.info/?gclid=CJKv5K-N_KsCFYob4QodjTpukQ) who I think imports the kit from overseas.  Boo!  Next came Ulla Engeström of ThingLink (see – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thinglink) who talked about another level of digital interconnectivity.  If they were in the UK, we would be looking to work with them.  The formal proceedings came to an end with Russell Davies (see – http://russelldavies.typepad.com/ for examples of how he thinks) who cantered through the more ridiculous aspects of the digital world but managed to make some killer points about peoples attitude to technology on the way.  I have already stolen some of his patter!

By Friday, the day job was beginning to intrude into my time with the digital glitterati and I only managed to catch a few of the presentations.  The CTO of Amazon Web Services was, as might be expected, very well prepared with data, the guy from MacLaren was surprisingly boring and high level but the stand-out of the morning was Juliana Rotich of Ushahidi (see – http://www.ushahidi.com/about-us/team). To my regret, I had never heard of Ushahidi before.  Born in the Kenyan elections (that went a bit wrong) they provide information collection, visualisation and mapping tools.  They probably powered the Arab Spring and are the system behind modern disaster relief.  If ever you want a reason to do digital things, this is it.  

The day job interruptions were about the Cell Therapy Technology and Innovation Centre (an teleconference with Ian Shott and a large part of the Lonza management team in the US) and the Graphene Hub (several calls with EPSRC and people with open minds!).  

As I sat on the train going home, I reflected that I had seen the best of our world through this week but that I had to go back and do something to justify our continued inclusion in it.   

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