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    This is the personal blog of Simon Kendrick and covers my interests in media, technology and popular culture. All opinions expressed are my own and may not be representative of past or present employers
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Future Technologies with Sir Tim Berners Lee, Stephen Fry and more

The Royal Society are currently celebrating their 350th anniversary with a series of events under the See Further banner.

Last night, I attended a panel session entitled Future Technologies featuring

So, a very esteemed panel and a very educational session.

This was also the first session I’ve attended with a (moderated) Twitterfall running on a screen in the background. While this meant there was no danahboyd style sniping , it didn’t provide much value and was primarily an annoying distraction

While the panel were prompted with a series of questions, the speakers invariably went off on tangents. At times, this made it difficult to keep up with the gist of the arguments (if indeed there were points being made) but I did jot down plenty of interesting things. Perhaps inevitably, Stephen Fry and Tim Berners-Lee did most of the talking, but I’ve jotted down at least one thing from each of the speakers (Wendy Hall and Bill Thompson chaired parts of it, hence the relative lack of quotes from them).

Note that I am paraphrasing, and they aren’t verbatim quotes.

I also apologise for my interchanging of the terms web and internet. I know they are different, but I’m never entirely certain which is correct in which circumstance.

Future technologies

Stephen Fry – We are often made a fool of by the future. But it is not the science that surprises us but the humanity – how we humans respond to the science.

Jim Haseloff – Biological systems are increasingly being seen as information processing systems, with recognition of the discrete parts

Tim Berners Lee – there is so much data that we are now moving from one person retaining all of the information to it being shared among a group. We therefore need democratising technology to help us work together collectively. This in turn could help democracy work better

Technology and tipping points

Stephen Fry – Twitter is banal and foolish… Naturally, I gravitated towards it

Stephen Fry – The press feel threatened by Twitter as celebrities can now go and do their own press. Why should Ashton Kutcher or Demi Moore use a press agent when they can talk directly to four million people? (Incidentally, he views this lift incident as a tipping point for Twitter)

Stephen Fry – The most important debate at the moment is the tension between openness and privacy

Bill Thompson – In the early 1980s IBM computers were priced at such a point that middle managers were able to buy then without seeking corporate approval. They were able to undermine the mainframe and information services department, providing them with new tools and a choice

The internet for everyone

Stephen Fry – we are facing a same problem with a digital underclass as we did with a literary underclass one hundred years ago

Tim Berners-Lee – The internet isn’t more important than vaccinations in Africa, but they can work together in interesting ways

Tim Berners-Lee – It is more important for the internet to be ubiquitous than it is to be fast

Bill Thompson – we need to prepare ourselves for the ways in which the 80% of those not currently online will try to use the internet

Tim Berners-Lee – Once a computer is connected to the web, it is as important as any other computer in the network, whether it is at MIT or somewhere in Africa

Evolution of technology

Stephen Fry – We can’t deduce from an invention how people will use it. From a person experimenting with pistons we get a car, huge highways, London’s one way transport system and Top Gear

Jim Haseloff – We have an emotional attachment to “natural crops” but these have still evolved due to our behaviour and involvement. Our crops are just domesticated weeds.

Tim Berners-Lee – The internet removes our geographic constraints. Does this mean we can meet a greater variety of people, to open up society, and produce greater peace and harmony

Society and culture

Tim Berners-Lee – Freedom and freedom of speech online raises questions about society, not technology

Stephen Fry – We are walking masses of metadata. We plug ourselves in and react. Software then deduces our intentions without the need of us to state them

Jim Haseloff – The internet will encourage diversity, not monoculture. However, it can introduce more volatility since consensus, and thus change, is reached quicker

Stephen Fry – (Rubbishing Nicholas Carr’s thesis on changing neuropathy in The Shallows) This current generation is more literate and more confident in what it wants to say than that of one hundred years ago. Who cares if they don’t always put the apostrophes in the right places. Language pedants are only trying to prove that they have received a good education.

Stephen Fry – The first thing I thought when I opened up my iPhone 4 (and saw the front facing camera) was that this will be great for prostitutes

Stephen Fry – We talk about systems but we are in them. We talk about humanity but we are human. We can’t perfectly design a system and the web will be like us – disgusting but lovable.

The future

Wendy Hall – I’d like a teletransporter, but I’d be worried about 404 errors

Tim Berners-Lee – The most important thing for the future of the web is something I can’t imagine. It is open and for everyone; it wasn’t designed by me for me.


Image credits: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dgjones/3265964293/ and http://www.flickr.com/photos/hyoga/881424158/

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21st century market research

I’ve just finished reading Communispace’s latest position paper “You are now leaving your comfort zone: 21st century market research” (link points to their blog post, which in turn links to the pdf). It is unquestionably one of the best research papers I have read in quite some time.

It has to be taken with the caveat that the paper is promoting their position as providers of large-scale, continuous research communities and that the recommendations are focused around the relative strengths of this methodology. Nevertheless, I found myself in agreement with the majority of the points made.

  • Actionable: I loved the quote that it is “more important for research to be actionable than irrefutable”. It is to an extent a straw man argument, since 20th century “gold standard” techniques are still rife with bias, but I am in total support of “good enough” research. Trading efficiency for supposed accuracy has diminishing returns and with our complex multi-dimensional environments, no research can be truly predictive or offer complete accurate validation. Shifting the emphasis of debate from data quality to data application is crucial, in my opinion
  • Professional respondents: “Professional” respondents are inevitable in research, and I like the notion of accepting this and including them as “actors”. I was not aware of the ARF’s research showing that professional respondents actually give better quality results. but presume this is where professionals don’t lie about themselves in order to pass the recruitment screener i.e. they are “acting a role”. It is a good observation that, over time, it becomes harder to fake and so responses become more authentic and trustworthy
  • Openness: Transparency and self-disclosure are important measures in reframing respondents as participants. We should be moving away from treating the people we research as emotionless lab-rats. Instead, there should be a two-way dialogue. Obscure projective techniques may indeed relax people into opening up, but I believe the researcher revealing elements about themselves facilitates a better environment for open discussion. Similarly, why hide the research sponsor and leave the person second guessing (unless of course it is highly sensitive NPD)
  • Exploratory research: I also agree that the strength of research lies earlier in the process. Validating hypotheses may be important in offering reassurance, risk assessment or measurements of success, but there is a massive opportunity in terms of idea generation and creative development. I don’t really like the term co-creation but there is opportunity for collaboration which creatives and strategists should view as an opportunity to better relate to their target audiences, and not a threat (since ideas ultimately need their expertise to be worked up into viable and coherent campaigns or executions)

Inevitably, there were also a couple of points I didn’t agree with

  • Real-time: Real-time interaction and feedback is fantastic in some areas – customer service and closing a sale, for instance. Research is not one of these areas. Interpreting research needs consideration and contextual understanding; real-time can make us too trigger happy
  • Natural: As long as research uses recruitment techniques (nearly always necessary in order to speak to the right people, and the right balance of people), it will never be truly natural. “Naturalistic” maybe, but not natural

But on the whole, it is a great read and I would recommend you all to take a look at it.

A final thing that struck me about the paper was the use of a couple of quotes from industry leaders. When I read presentations, reports or papers from marketers or strategists, they are often illustrated with quotations from peers or thought leaders in the space. The research industry doesn’t really have that. The “researchsphere” doesn’t have the same vibrancy as the “plannersphere” and so the trade bodies and the trade press need to play a much more prominent role in providing platforms for client-side industry leaders to speak from. Thus far, they do not seem to be doing so. All talks and papers I see seem to be project- or sales-based; there is very little commentary on the evolution or application of research from their perspective.


Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/expressmonorail/3046970004/

Recommended Reading – 18th June 2010

It’s been a few weeks since my last update. I’ve kept the recommendations to a manageable number – seven – which means that the average quality of the posts and articles I’m linking to is even higher than usual. Enjoy.

  • Bud Caddell asks his readers to help him define strategy. He has put several of his definitions to image.


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Meaningless statistics in the World Cup

As most people are, I’m currently enjoying watching the games during the football World Cup (though this enjoyment is tempered by the fairly poor quality of the matches and the sounds of the vuvuzela).

Occurring just once every four years, there are relatively few instances where statistical norms or trends can be deployed. For instance, even though the World Cup winner has alternated between Europe and South America since 1962, that only represents only 12 instances.

As I’ve mentioned several times before, one of the reasons I follow baseball is the ability to break down every component of every play. This creates some very powerful statistical analysis. To take an example, check out the Fangraphs page for New York Mets 3rd baseman David Wright. Yet, one of the phrases most regularly uttered in the Fangraphs blog is “small sample size” (closely followed by “regression to mean”).

The fluid nature of football combined with fewer games prevents this level of analytical rigour. Which is fine, except that commentators or analysts treat all stats as the same. It might be fine for Opta Joe to tweet something like “1m50s – Cacau’s goal was the fastest by a German substitute at the #worldcup finals beating Uwe Reinders v Chile (2 mins 26) in 1982. Swift.”

But it is not OK for Gabby Logan (OK, I know I should be wary of the source) to say that England shouldn’t be too worried by an opening draw, since they had a similar result in their two most successful World Cup runs (1966 and 1990). Aside from the small sample, this selective look at the past is little more than a confirmation bias. For instance, England also drew the opening game of the 2002 World Cup, yet this wasn’t mentioned.

I like seeing statistics used in different contexts, but I don’t like seeing them misused. While I shouldn’t necessary expect ITV Sport to employ a significance tester alongside its researcher(s), it would be nice if we would distinguish between anecdotal or illustrative information, and statistical probability.

Otherwise, there is no difference between gut or superstition. At least the Red Sox had some numbers to go behind their curse. As it stands, there is no difference between Pele saying (every time) “This is the year an African nation will win the World Cup” to me saying “Every time North Korea qualify for the World Cup, England win it”.


Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/moonrising/4695377175/

Harold Evans on the Spirit of Innovation

Sir Harold Evans at the Strand Bookstore in Ne...

Image via Wikipedia

Earlier today I attended a lecture at the Royal Society of Arts given by Sir Harold Evans entitled “The Spirit of Innovation”. During an extremely distinguished career, Evans has been, among other things, Editor of both The Times and Sunday Times (of London), Publisher of Random House and an author of several acclaimed books.

This lecture was chaired by Ralph Simon, co-founder of Zomba records and Moviso.

Click through here for links to the audio and video of the event.

In the lecture, Evans covered similar issues to those I’ve been reading about as part of my course, some of which I blogged about yesterday.

The crux of the lecture was the important difference between invention and innovation. Evans defines innovation as bringing an invention to use (i.e. commercialising it). He says that a scientist will have understanding, an inventor will have a solution but an innovator will have a universal solution.

An invention without innovation is a past-time. Essentially, many inventors are hobbyists, since an MIT study has shown that fewer than 10% of patents granted have had any commercial application.

Evans says that few scientists are able to turn ideas into a commercial impact. And historically, Britain has been very good at inventing but terrible at innovating. Coinciding with Channel 4’s broadcast of a series entitled Genius of Britain, focusing upon British scientific achievements from the past 350 years, Evans cited some of the great British inventions as

  • The electronic computer
  • The radar
  • Penicillin
  • The incandescent light
  • The microchip

However, British society failed to exploit these inventions, and they were ultimately superseded by American innovations that took the fame and fortune. Indeed, Evans mentioned that many Americans think Henry Ford invented the motor car.

Evans blames a fascination with the myth of the Eureka moment. Rather than a spark of genius, innovation requires active invention and improvement.This often means that investors overestimate the pace and underestimate the capital requirements of development, meaning that an inventor needs to have commercial acumen to succeed.

For instance, Edison was prone to self-mythologising about incandescent light bulbs, when in fact he had meticulously ran over 3,000 experiments. And then he had to convince people to use it, which effectively required a new electrical grid. Evans quotes Steve Wozniak as saying that getting an invention to marketplace is as important as the product itself.

Additional reasons for Britain’s relative failure include

  • Lacking the scale of big American companies in a big market protected by high tariffs and the Defence Department
  • Systemic opposition within Britain to both mergers and democratising ideas
  • Trade Unions – which Evans characterises as anti-meritocratic bodies looking to protect the status quo irrespective of change
  • Research and Development not being collaborative and systemic, unlike in America where people get to stand on the shoulders of giants.

However, Evans says that America is now struggling under its own weight. Bureaucracy and corporatisation are stifling innovation. Evans effectively championed bootstrapping when saying creative people should move away from bureaucracy to agile experimentation.

It was also mentioned at Israel is second only to Silicon Valley in the number of patents produced, and has more companies on NASDAQ than the entire EU. Evans believes this is down to a faith in technology to push things further, perhaps influenced by the compulsory national service Israeli citizens undergo.

The lecture was followed by a bizarre and disappointing question and answer session. There was only time for a few questions from the audience, due to Simon’s ludicrous format. Armed with a trusty PowerPoint slide, he read out several different forms of innovation, prompting Evans to recite rambling anecdotes tenuously linked to the topic. Simon then revealed a second PowerPoint slide, containing questions that Evans had largely answered in his lecture. Simon seemed unable to deviate from his format, and the session sadly petered out.

However, Evans’ final thought from his lecture has stuck with me. Genius is not enough; you need to go and do something.


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Finding that extra 10% to improve

Innovation – commercialising inventions of new ideas and methods – is a necessary component of business success.

There are other factors in play, but the more innovative a business is, the more successful it is likely to be. It avoids obsolescence and finds/maintains a differential advantage, among other things.

But many people seem to be confused by what innovation involves

  • It is not a single action, but a process.
  • It is not just engineering or creating a new product; it can be at any point in the value chain
  • It doesn’t have to be part of your job title; anyone can do it

But we rarely do. And we should.

Non project work. Non admin work. Just creative thinking and problem solving (or problem creating) for the business.

Google famously allow their employees to spend 20% of their time working on personal projects, from which services such as Gmail originated.

It doesn’t have to be a new product – it could be innovating a process, a position or a paradigm. These “4 Ps of innovation” can be complemented with organisational, management and marketing innovations.

Innovation for the sake of innovation won’t work. For it to be successful it needs to

  • Be led from above, with management buy-in
  • Aligned with the company objectives
  • Communicated
  • Actioned
  • Failure tolerated (or even encouraged)
  • Rewarded

With these relatively straightforward criteria met, a culture of innovation can thrive.

It doesn’t have to be 20% of our time – it could easily be half that. Either half a day cordoned off, or 30 minutes a day supplemented with a one hour meeting.

It isn’t much, but the results can potentially be huge.

And all we have to do is find that 10%.

We should give it a try.


Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/benheine/4613609067/