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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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The future of mobile at the RSA

I’m a big fan of the RSA, and should really attend their excellent events more often than I do. However, I did attend the Future of Mobile event last night.

Sadly, it was the least interesting event I’ve attended (though the standard is exceptionally high). The keynote – billed as an insight into what the next few years may bring in terms of new products and practices, new opportunities for creativity, collaboration and economic growth, the role of new communications in shaping social norms and behaviours, and the effect this will have on individuals, organisations and societies was little more than a corporate sales pitch. However, I did make some notes and the event was, on balance, worth attending.

The Keynote

The keynote speaker was Lee Epting (Director of Content Services at Vodafone). In her talk she referenced three Vodafone initiatives in the developing world, namely

  • M-Pesa – the mobile banking/money transfer service set up in Kenya
  • An M-Health initiative
  • Future Agenda – driving towards sustainability, such as machine to machine communications around load capacities or metering of utilities

Each initiative had its own uplifting video. Perhaps I’m being an overly sensitive Western liberal apologist, but I found the tone of the videos quite patronising and demeaning. The African people in the video may well have independently said things like “I feel like a real businessman now” or “And now I even know the real medical terms”, but they didn’t need to be included. If the video were on Western initiatives, they would have focused on the tangible benefits, not on trying to give us a warm fuzzy feeling about helping those less fortunate.

The majority of the talk was based upon initiatives in the developing world (which makes sense, since Vodafone and mobiles can bypass computers there, while in the developed nations they run the risk of commodisation into “dumb pipes”), but Lee Epting did finish on a few trends visible in our society

  • People tracking – she claimed that acceptance of this is accelerating. This may be true, but accelerating from a very small base. A minority may opt into location-based services, and ticketless transport may prove popular, but I’d say it would infiltrate by stealth. She also mentioned vehicle tracking and how it will help pricing for toll roads
  • Choice editors – we are becoming reliable news sources, so it is about curation as much as consumption

The responses

The speech was followed by two responses. The second was from Ralph Simon (CEO of The Mobilium International Advisory Group), who I’d previously criticised when he chaired the Harold Evans lecture on innovation. He’s much better as a panelist, since he basically just tells loosely connected anecdotes. He also has excellent enunciation. In his brief response he talked about Couch Surfing and how communications can amplify lives, but also shared clutter and how we need curators to navigate it.

A longer response was from Christian Lindholm, (Partner and Director at the convergence design agency Fjord) who made some fascinating provocations and was by far the best thing about the event.

  • Choice quotes include “The future is always here and now but someone we ignore it” and how “Humans are obsessed with objects”
  • He believes the Nokia 2110 simplified the phone and became the first hit phone, and that the iPad is the Nokia 2110 of computing. The iPad gives a power of mobility that the IT department can’t control. There is also a significant difference between the Wifi and 3G models. The Wifi comes from the pc industry and drains the battery. The 3G is energy-efficient and gives ubiquitous communications
  • A big thing in future will be the digitisation of the wallet. It needs a big disruption as elastic process innovation – adding chips to everything – won’t work since proper digitisation requires screens, profiles etc. The current “two-handed” analogue wallet is “retarded” but it makes sense for incumbent companies who are invested in producing cheap thin strips of plastic. In the question and answer session, he speculated Amazon might make a play in this area
  • He sees the next megabrand as Foursquare, what with every classroom at Harvard Business School already mapped onto it.
  • We need a new vocabulary for next generation communications. It is not multimedia, video, smart or other industry jargon but come from the users. This seems to be “facebooking”, which is aggregating all forms of content and creating an internet of people.
  • An internet of people means everyone will be on Facebook, since everyone will want to communicate. He sees Facebook negotiating privacy in the same way Google negotiates copyright – move the boundaries two steps forward, apologise and take one step back and gradually monetise it. He sees the openness of the web as the counterweight to Facebook or Google dominance and should be preserved.

Due to a late start, there was little time for questions. In the introduction to the questions, the chair Luke Johnson made a barbed comment about people playing on their mobile devices rather than listening to the speakers, and rather unfairly picked out one person in the front row. Personally, I was on Twitter throughout (don’t RSA hashtags encourage this sort of thing?) and the general tone of chat was similar to my thoughts – mild disappointment.

Final thoughts

Christian Lindholm and Ralph Simon both seemed to disagree with Luke Johnson’s contention about split attention being a bad thing. Simon quoted Brian Eno by saying the genius is being replaced by scenius. Though as Steven Johnson has recently written, perhaps the idea of a lone genius is a myth.

We may end up doing things less well than if we concentrated solely, but split attention and mass collaboration provide other benefits such as broader scope and more rounded influences. Technological advancement has got to the point where it is almost impossible for a single person to know everything about a particular topic – we need specialists and teams working together. I’m in favour of our new hyperlinked working practices – those arguing against are analogous to Socrates hating the written word, since he thought it reduced quality of discourse and dialogue.

So, in summary, it wasn’t an unmissable event and there wasn’t a whole lot on the future of mobile and its effects on society (at least in areas directly relevant to my job or my interests), but there were a couple of interesting nuggets I took away.

However, if you are interested in hearing more, an audio recording of the event is available here.

sk

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/gibbons/343384475

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.

sk

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