An article on The Kernel asks some questions about whether the East London startup scene is either a) full of companies that would not exist without government sponsorship or b) hopelessly obsessed with vague social products that have no real prospect of success. Either way, Milo Yiannopoulos suggests the ecosystem would be better with fewer startups.

With regard to this first point about government funding, I may be wrong, but my experience is that the amount of government sponsorship that actually finds its way to supporting startups is tiny (perhaps deliberately). The article mentions subsidised offices, a picture I don’t recognise at all: most of the classic Old Street locations have quite expensive desks for startups. You might almost think they were being taken advantage of, certainly you won’t get more than a free beer at Tech Hub.

The second idea, that all those hipsters ought to knuckle down and make some accountancy software rather than faffing around with ‘the next Twitter’ is well made, or would have been a year ago. But now Old Street is far more focused, and plenty of companies are making serious and non-social offers with obvious sources of revenue streams.

Even so, I have to agree that the fetishisation of startups leads to a shortage of developers. Established small companies find it almost impossible recruit, which is silly when you consider that a company that already has customers, knows its market and turns a profit is so much more likely to have a great web offer than a start-from-standing fledgling company. I recently saw Lucky Voice offering £1000 for successfully introducing a front end developer to them. This is a company that has everything going for them, including Internet eminence Martha Lane Fox.

Within startups the market is warped too: demand is so high that hiring developers is only possible for the well funded, not the shoe-string budgets of the startup entrepreneur. Unless of course you happen to be one of a bunch of developer friends, in which case you can give your time to your startup company for free. So many founders are developers, but it’s not at all clear to me that developers make the best founders. Probably many good ideas go unexplored while capable developers are focused on their own, less viable, schemes.

It’s fair to ask, who caused the fad for doomed social business models? Where did that strange fixation with gamification come from? Milo wants to blame “Soft skills… public relations and even business development enthusiasts angling for a slice of the Old Street pie”. Surely journalists also belong on that list, duty bound as they are to generate hype around every new idea.

And who is responsible for making startup life the thing to which every young developer ought to aspire? Surely that’s the tech press, too? So, thanks for this article, The Kernel. Glad you’ve stepped in to give Old Street some advice on where it’s going wrong.

Are Startrek style voice interfaces going to be a big part of how we interact with computers? Thinking about this reminded me of a point made by a product designer who worked on the Sinclair C5. He said – and I can’t find who it was anywhere –  that he always felt that the product would be failure.

Hindsight perhaps, but his thinking was not what you might expect. It wasn’t about battery life, speed, danger or price. It was the fact that the process of getting into the vehicle is physically diminishing, it makes you look silly. Adopting the Sinclair C5 position is not an empowering experience.

I think Siri has exactly the same problem – especially if it fails to understand you. It might work if you are on your own, in a car or similar, but in front of other people it’s just not a dignified experience. All the more so by the third repetition.

Of course if Siri gets good enough to work first time most of the time it might be something users can get more comfortable – but given the difficulties of understanding natural language, that might not be any time soon.

 

 

In a previous post  I said that the Boosted Board electric skateboard looks impossible. I recant my incredulity.

My intuitive reaction was that there isn’t a battery in the world that could make the Boosted Board a reality.

From their video they claim that the electronics they’ve added to the board weigh 4lbs, that it has a range of six miles and a top speed of 20mph. It’s notable that they don’t give an average range at an average speed.

Initially I thought I’d just be able to do a rough calculation of whether this is realistic, one ignoring wind resistance and friction. It turns out though this is no good at all, wind resistance is by far and away the most important force in this calculation.

As a result I (got a bit obsessed) and built a calculator to work it out. If you look at the default settings,  5 miles at 15 miles an hour with 95% efficient electric motors, requires about 150g or really good Lithium Ion batteries. So very much in line with the weights Boosted Boards quote.

This surprised me enormously, as I said, my intuition was that you would need huge batteries for this kind of performance.

Makes you wonder – why don’t we hear more about electric bikes? Apparently, China has 150 million of them on the road. Cycle purists always react in horror to electric bikes, but if you are really going to get mass take up of a mode of transport you’re going to have make it more amenable to lazy people than cycling is right now.

“Last mile” transport is a hot topic – the short urban journey that public transport struggles to handle. There’s (of course) a bit of a design-wankathon around folding cars and other silliness, but this lecture (from 33mins in) by Steve Rayner of the Oxford Future Cities Programme offers a convincing case that it really is a fertile area for innovation.

I recently posted something pointing out that the fever for Open Data in local and national Government is perhaps building unrealistic expectations, not to mention diverting resources from other useful projects. Here are some surprising political arguments being supported by innovation in tech.

Whatever your view on Open Data, conservative strategist Oliver Letwin made his thoughts clear: Open Data is a way to expose how much money government wastes, thus reinforcing the case for a smaller public sector.  That’s why there is the specific diktat about  local councils releasing all contracts over a value of £500. This kind of politicking is not, I don’t think, what Open Data campaigners had in mind.

As an aside, I think the exact reverse might happen. I would guess most people have no idea how often their street is swept, the gutters cleaned, drains maintained etc. If this data was accessible, the public might be quite staggered at what they get for their money. There again, perhaps Mr Letwin is banking on the fact that wasted money is more news worthy than money spent competently.

Did you know that when News International was bidding for Sky, it argued that the plurality of voices provided by blogs and Twitter meant the takeover would not represent a monopoly?  This even though it would own 36% of broadcast media. So all the discussion of the power of social media actually ended up working to help News International bolster its monopoly.

With all the Ted Talk optimism of Clay Shirky’s recent talk about Internet enabled democracy, it’s as well to remember that in reality political opportunism is bound to rear its head – and likely running quite counter to visions of empowered, democratised equality.

Right wing views fit into the tech agenda in variety of ways. Small businesses (startups in tech talk) innovating away poverty is a classic tenet of the tech and Tory mindset – the “doing more with less” mantra.  This alignment of views is a recipe for making a policy of doing “less with less” – less help for the vulnerable – more politically palatable.  All you have to do is wrap your regressive views in optimism about technology.

You can look at universities, where Massive Open Online Courses could be used to make the argument against financial assistance for students. Why should the state pay for expensive university attendance when the same course is available online for free? By this logic people from less wealthy backgrounds would be denied the transformative experience of going away to university – while only a URL away from the virtual lecture theaters of Oxford and Cambridge.

There’s a variety of mechanisms for increased political participation.  These are explicit,  such as Germany’s Liquid Feedback concept, and informal – blogs, twitter etc. At first impression, these seem to prevent the political exclusion of people at the margins of society and to alleviate the danger of media monopolies. As we’ve seen, this isn’t necessarily true.

In short tech can do a lot to increase equality of opportunity, which is enough to satisfy the right’s sense of justice. What it might not do so well change people’s propensity to take advantage of those opportunities. Thus at the same time as opportunity notionally increases society could become less equitable.

All this is to say there is a strange alignment between the optimism of the tech community and the ideology of the political right – even though the two camps probably have quite different moral standpoints and ambitions. Tech’s utopian views of the future, as expressed by Clay Shirky, can become handy cover for less egalitarian purposes.

 

 

 

 

 

On the World at One today Fraser Nelson (of the Spectator) went head to head with Geoff Mulgan (of Nesta) arguing that quangos, charities, think tanks and unions have been stuffed with the ranks of the former Labour government and civil service, causing a distortion of the processes of democracy.

In the article in the Telegraph that sparked the debate Nelson focuses on the resistance to change inherent in many of the institutions that shape public debate. Clearly, this resistance is only going to be exacerbated by the fact that the kind of people who work at charities and unions are left-leaning, and will no doubt take an intuitive dislike to Tory policy.

This sounds like a reasonable point to me. Certainly Tory policy frequently gets exclusively evaluated on whether it’s an attempt to rob the poor. Even if you hate the right I think you ought to admit that it does have a slightly more nuanced agenda than lining the pockets of the 1%. Whether Gove’s education reforms are good, bad or indifferent for poor families, they will always be cast as a means to oppress the downtrodden – and that reflex reaction is sure to stifle innovative policy in the area.

On the World at One, however, I think we saw a glimpse of the intellectual position that motivated Nelson to write the article – and a silhouette of the ideology that fuels much of the antipathy between left and right. Nelson said, admiringly, that most Tories who left Government did not go work at a charity or a think tank, but instead went into business.

This assumption that business is the fount of all things good is a matter of dogma for the right. What is admirable about the opaquely named occupation of “business”? Is going on to hold multiple non-executive directorships to milk your acquaintances from Westminster really more admirable than working at a charity?

Should we admire Grant Shapps for building a successful business, even if the business in question pointlessly recycles other peoples text in order to game search engines? The point is there are plenty fo fruitless things that one can do to earn money.

If the right could get past the idea that anything done the by “the market” or in the name of “business” is virtuous then  perhaps the former labour Mandarins now apparently dictating the tone of public debate could be a little more sympathetic.

 

 

 

 

Y Combinator founder Paul Graham has written an interesting post pointing out that 7 of 84 projects this year have come from hardware companies.

From Quora, those companies are:

BufferBox (bufferbox.com)
Double Robotics (doublerobotics.com)
Coco Controller (milkshakelabs.com)
Dreamforge (dreamforge.me)
Boosted Boards (boostedboards.com) [This thing looks impossible to me]
Arc (arccameras.com)
TagStand (tagstand.com)

It’s notable that Paul Graham isn’t making the Internet of Things type claim: that the Internet is leaking into the real world, that the physical objects in our everyday lives would benefit from having an IP address. Of the projects funded by Y Combinator, only TagStand has the IoT ethos about it.

Instead his logic is that physical products are popular with startups at the moment because the manufacturing technology is getting more accessible – CNC milling, 3D printing, arduinos etc.

For me, this only pushes the question back a level. The reason that 3D printing and arduinos are being developed so quickly is because there is demand for them, or at least people think there will be demand in the future. I think the infrastructure for low scale manufacture is falling into place because startups are demanding it, not the other way round.

So, why are startups looking to manufacture? It’s because the number of truly exciting things on the software horizon is limited. There’s plenty of streamlining social experiences to happen, niche social networks to form and apps to be built – but I think there’s a feeling that for the moment it’s a case of filling in the details around Facebook and Google, that their is a hiatus in world-changing opportunities on the web.

 

Dr Ha-Joon Chang recently gave a talk at the LSE about his book 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism. One of his ideas is that the Internet has done less to change the world than the washing machine. It’s a waggish claim, in his lecture he gave it a fond mention.

The claim works like this: the washing machine is short hand for domestic appliances, whose widespread use in the US, Europe and now the world have allowed women leave the home and enter the workplace: surely a huge achievement.

By comparison Wikipedia doesn’t seem so exciting. But what he hasn’t taken into account is that the Internet has a world-changing effect on intellectual property – and for the better.

A societies approach to Intellectual property has to balance two things:

  1. Incentivising companies to invent things by allowing them to earn money from their inventions. Who is going to spend time inventing if someone will immediately copy your idea?
  2. Not allowing companies that have invented something to hold society to random. If someone invents something essential and has a water-tight protection for it they can charge any amount they like for it.

So the optimal situation would be one where every company thought that they were going to make a fortune from their next idea, but as soon as they have the idea they are forced to share it with the world without charging (too much) money for it.

That sounds impossible. You could perhaps fool a company into innovating once, but then after you had forced them to publish the secret of their innovation they wouldn’t bother investing in further R&D.

But what if the innovation was stolen without their knowledge, manufactured in some far off land and then appeared on the market without the original inventor ever quite being sure how the idea got out, or if it had just been developed independently?

If that happened companies would continue to innovate, but without ever earning the huge monopoly profits that come from patent law and industrial secrets – like the disproportionate Tetra Pak fortune, earned by getting a patent on a particular shape of box.

That’s surely just what China’s industrial espionage program represents – a flow of knowledge from West to East, which is allowing China to lift itself out of poverty and making goods cheaper in the West. By all accounts China is hacking into all kinds of companies to steal their secrets.

As Martin Wolf has argued in his book Why Globalisation Works, information is the ultimate non-rivalry good, and it’s flow is a major cause of China’s rise.

And that flow is facilitated by companies in the West keeping their manufacturing secrets on computers connected to the Internet, where people in Shenzen can access them.

And that is why the Internet is more important than the washing machine. Not because of LOLcats, but because it lets information leak into developing countries.

 

 

 

I’ve been to a lot of hack days, hacks for the Houses of Parliament, for charity in general and for local government come to mind. I go because because it’s a way to help out a good cause, because it’s fun to try and get a working prototype of something done over a weekend, and because you meet interesting people.

Last Friday I went to another hackday and realised they don’t, in fact, help out the institutions that sponsor them. I know I’m not alone in feeling that this method of driving innovation is not working well as it might, and I know lots of other people are starting to wonder about it too. Of all the hackdays I’ve been to, not one has spawned a successful project. As far as I know, givey.com is the only example in the UK (I tweeted asking for more examples, apparently bufferapp.com almost came from a hack) This is an exceedingly low success rate.

I’m not a historian of the Hackday, but I believe the concept originates with a bunch geeky friends, friends of friends and colleagues bashing out code quickly – in essence techies that already know each other. In this scenario it works well. Certainly Google 20% time seems to be a productive version of this.

There is so much I could say about the hackdays – for example the problems when they become a part of a “corporate social responsibility” agenda rather than a way of getting things done. To keep this short, I’m going to focus on the misapplication of “Open Source” ideas and the obsession with Open Data.

Hackdays have been adopted by all kinds of institutions seeking digital innovation. These organisations are lost in the unfamiliar world of tech, as such they are empty vessels into which nerd ideology can be poured. Companies doing hackdays want to demonstrate how down with digital they are – often to the point of sycophancy. As a result Open Data and Open Source have become mantras whose precise meaning and relevance is lost – they become more important than actually getting something built.

Hackdays and the Open Source approach
In hack-land, the community driven nature of Open Source has translated into the idea that teams are liquid and that any attempt to define the project is anti-democratic. Exactly contrary to the Do One Thing Better Than Anyone Else, have-a-single-clear-offer approach that I take to be pretty much key to a successful project.

This conception of Open Source isn’t appropriate or relevant to hackdays. In any case, most open source projects seem to work by having a tiny kernel of people, perhaps just a single person, articulate a clear goal and demonstrate a significant ability to deliver that goal. Then a community of people who share that goal forms around it.

The “Open Source” mood at  Hackdays means the reverse – you get a bunch of people who are not really connected at all and hope they can find a common objective between them. On more than one occasion I’ve worked into the night to deliver a working prototype only to demo it and retrigger an infinitely looping conversation about what the purpose of the project is.

Alternatively, in a follow up meeting a month after the hackday, someone will suggest something that fundamentally changes the project (for example: “Perhaps we shouldn’t be doing this as a website?”). The atmosphere will be the same as a brainstorm that should have finished after the first day: no idea is out of scope. In this situation it’s very hard to do any concrete work.

Magic Mashups – Open Data at hackdays
The tech world has evangelised about this for a long time and with good reason. There are important philosophical and moral reasons why data, especially gathered at public expense, should be publicly available, and also great reasons why it should be kept in non-proprietary formats.

However, if you go to a hackday this is not what you’ll hear about. At a hackday, you’ll hear that Open Data enables “mashups”, where combinations of disparate data sets unleash some world-shaping potential. The long-term architectural benefits of Open principles have morphed into a desire to have a data-based “mashup” in the App Store – whether it’s useful or not.

“We made primary school catchment areas and adventure playground coordinates available, what do you think you could build with it?”

The answer is, of course, an interactive map of primary school catchment areas and adventure playgrounds. Let use Open Street Map rather than Google Maps – high five! Usually the map will pique the curiosity and have little long-lasting value.

And Magic is in limited supply. If you have data about primary schools and adventure playgrounds then the resulting mashup is probably going to be about those two things. There is often an expectation that it will somehow be possible to draw out information that isn’t there – as if the median age of vulnerable immigrants can be coaxed from data on disabled parking spaces or similar.

The truth is that there are only a limited number of mashups that really bring something new. For the most part I think Open Data is going to have to be intermediated by journalists who dig out the stories in the data, it’s not a big public-facing thing.

Incentives – please, please be honest
The worst thing about doing hackdays is the feeling you sometimes get that the sponsoring organisation is doing it so someone can say “we did a hackday”. It just adds a ring of dynamism and sends a message that you’re down with all this digital stuff. A box successfully ticked – especially since there were no other ideas on how do digital innovation.

But when you aren’t paying the participants of a hackday the £600 a day you pay for agency work inevitably one’s eye wonders from the ball. Hackday briefs could often be so much better, and no time is allocated to evaluate the projects that come from the hackday.

The absolute worst thing though is the failure to say “No”. If you aren’t paying for someone’s time there is no reason to tell them that their project isn’t going anywhere. In fact, these people just did two days of free work for you, so turning round and saying “sorry, that’s not for us” seems rude.

Say: “Thanks guys, but we know our customers really well, and we don’t think they’d be into this”, or “Our board really needs to see something using the Open Data we’ve spent so much money on – your project doesn’t do that so can never be commissioned”. I might be disappointed, but now I can work on something else. Instead hackday projects are left to gradually loose energy and die a slow death, with no one having the balls to admit that the idea isn’t quite right.

When I first came across the idea of the hack I thought it was uplifting – people coming together to do work because they believed in it. I still think that, but that belief in the work is absolutely underpinned by the idea that it might go somewhere. It can never be a) Your startup, b) A project that does good in the world, then why bother?

Every hack is different, but I’ve been to a wide variety, and all the permutations of the model that I’ve experienced are failing to deliver.

In the beginning was the word, and the word was money. Actually bankers believe in the creation myth of the 1986 “Big Bang” when stock trading was computerised – facilitating high speed speculation – and the UK government deregulated financial markets in London to tempt money from other financial centres. Back in 1982 the London Docklands Development Corporation had declared the Isle of Dogs an enterprise zone, with special tax breaks, so it made sense for the exploding banking industry, whose main competitive advantage was already low taxation, to expand into the tax efficient offices of Canary Wharf.

Skip forward a bit. Yesterday we saw Bob Diamond of Barclays (head office: One Churchill Place, Canary Wharf), explaining why his company had rigged the LIBOR intersest rate. The banking crisis overall has left everyone in the country about £1,300 a year worse off, in terms of GDP per capita, for the last three years.  Pricing the crisis is almost impossible, Andrew Haldane of the Bank Of England believes about 10% of GDP gone forever is about the right mark. It’s not that the finance sector is unproductive – it’s worse. For some time periods its net effect is destructive.

What else could we do with the real estate? I think we should turn the the Docklands back into docks. It’s the most honest kind of shopping experience – go down and buy it off the boat. Don’t we live in a world where we value the shopping experience, and where products have to come with a story that makes them personally valuable to us?  Check out the history tag – telling you where the provenance of your goods on a web page, adding value by adding context.

There’s no romance in a container ship unloading, but that won’t happen because the docklands can’t cope with container ships. Imagine instead the Cutty Sark offloading Italian cheeses, Ethiopian coffee or Indonesian spices. Toiling cockney lightermen humping barrels as Islington mums pick their way through crews of lascivious Filipino sailors smoking clay pipes.  That’s better than the history tag, surely.

Prices would be higher, but perhaps not so much. Firstly, we should copy the Chinese idea of a Special Export Zone, and create a Special Import Zone where no tariffs are imposed.  Third world countries would be allowed into the market thus reducing prices. Secondly, rather than sponsoring banks, we could offer subsidies to traders who use the use sail boats, thus reducing carbon emissions.

And why not make the process into a holiday while we’re at it. If a gourmand coffee shop isn’t enough for you, why not sail to Jamaica, select your beans, sail them back to London and roast them.

We can send jellied eels and ale back.

Here are some pictures of the docks, in 1810, 1847 and 2012. 1847 looks like the most fun to me. I love the way it’s so legible – a dock for loading, another for unloading, and wharfs named after a product or location. Canary Wharf, obviously, once serviced the canary islands (I think the Wharf was owned by a fruit company). The utility of the docks is so obvious, now not even the people who work at Canary Wharf can tell you what they do.

If you could see a little further east you could see the East India dock, neatly mapping global trade into a few acres of East London.

Waiting for a meeting in a business incubator I overheard someone explaining their startup. I can summarise: mobile, personalised, social shopping.  “It’s the future” he said. Sounds pretty ‘me-too’ to me. It’s OK, I can let you in this big idea, I haven’t sign an NDA.

If that’s not the most visionary idea you’ve ever heard, it’s antithesis comes from Jaron Larnier (author of “You Are Not A Gadget“).

“Let’s suppose that, back in the 1980s, I had said, `In a quarter century, when the digital revolution has made great progress and computer chips are millions of times faster than they are now, humanity will finally win the prize of being able to write a new encyclopedia and a new version of UNIX!’ It would have sounded utterly pathetic.”

If Jaron Larnier is disappointed with Linux and Wikipedia, I can’t imagine what he must feel in the current climate. One particularly depressing statement I’ve heard a lot of goes along these lines: “for most people Facebook is the Internet!”.

Perhaps we haven’t been let down though. Jaron Larnier’s 1980’s self was wonderfully optimistic, that’s probably why he’s achieved so much. But technology takes a long time. Just because processor speed doubles every two years, doesn’t mean society can work out what to do with it at the same rate.

The economic historian Paul A David makes the point that electrification took decades to change industrial production and get into people’s houses. At the beginning it seemed just as frivolous as Lolcats: In 1883 Mrs Cornelius Vanderbilt captured the spirit of the age by attending a lavish $250,000 fancy dress party in an electric light bulb costume, then decided electricity was a dangerous fad and had the incandescent lighting stripped from her house for fear of it burning down*.

Yet once power stations and transmission lines and electrical appliances were all in place there was a revolution. An often cited consequence is that labour saving devices in the home liberated women to join the workforce, increasing gender equality and creating economic growth. (Obviously, another way to do this would have been to abandon the convention that women do all the domestic work, which would have achieved equality but not the productivity gains.)

Again, David Edgerton highlights the complex route from invention to implementation in his book The Shock of the Old. He gives many compelling examples, my favourite is that London, Midland and Scottish Railways (one company) had as many horses as it did trains, 10,000. This in 1924, 16 years after the model T Ford had gone on sale and well after tractors were available. Steam power never replaced animal power, it was outmoded before it could do so even though it was well establish in the 18th centuary.

Back to the Internet. The reason mobile-social-etc is the innovation du jour is precisely because it is one of the least substantial. It’s easy for social networking to get take up, no company boards have to approve it, no standards have to be adopted by everyone in an industry, there are no sign up fees and security problems are around privacy, not money.

Consider the contrast with the process of invoicing. You could issue, pay, reconcile, enforce and incur any tax on transactions between companies automatically, using tech not profoundly different from a social network. Likewise for stock tracking, or any one of the bureaucratic processes that businesses are faced with. These would be revolutionary in terms of reducing the costs of business and driving economic growth. Really revolutionary, even more revolutionary than photo sharing or mobile shopping.  Walmart, the largest retailer in the world, dominates because it is able to generate exactly these kinds of logistical efficiencies, FedEx is another company whose competitive advantage comes from IT.

But these changes can’t happen easily (at least not between companies) because they require deep cooperation, the emergence of standards and the security challenges that come with money and goods. Nothing that’s worth doing is ever easy; because these systems are solutions to complex, critical problems between many actors they are largely still on the drawing board. As in the above examples, useful technology takes a long time to diffuse.

It’s not just big business either, education, social care, health, government and manufacture all have big gains to come from the net that haven’t been realised yet. Facebook might be the Internet for some people, but then for some people the invention of the incandescent light bulb was just a new opportunity to experiment with their wardrobe.

When the dotcom bust happened it was at least in part because of a failure to appreciate that the diffusion of technology is slow, that it takes time to install broadband and change habits. Perhaps there’s a quick win for someone in mobile-social-geo-gamifiaction, but it’s myopic to see that as anything other than a fragment of the big picture.

Social Networking is predominant now not because it’s the Internet’s destiny, but because it’s just the beginning, and thinking otherwise is just an inability to see the long view.

* I’m remembering this story from Bill Bryson’s Home, Googling seems to indicate to me that it might actually be a conflation of several stories, with both the Vanderbilts and the Astors seeming to be cited in all kinds of light bulb / fancy dress shenanigans. Then again, Bill Bryson probably has proper researchers.