Category Archives: Innovation

World Earth Day

Saturday is World Earth Day, this year’s theme is “Climate Literacy” which is needed more than ever. I have been reading The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History which is scary warning for all that is going wrong with our natural environment.  It essential, if depressing, reading. So I started to look for some signs of hope, technology that is making things better, and simple ways to make my habits more sustainable.

Food

One big impact on our environment comes from what we eat, the high level of meat in our diet has a negative effect in terms of land use, water use, pollution and green house gas emissions. Some experts conclude that we just need to eat less meat, according to Mark Bittman in a TED talk from 2007 “Less meat, less junk, more plants”. There are a couple of answers for the future that don’t require you to give up all the bacon.

Cultured Meat

Also called synthetic meat, fake meat, clean meat or in vitro meat, depending on the view of the writer. It has given rise to all those stories of the World’s Most Expensive Burger, tasty Chicken treats, and pet medication. As far as I know there’s no synthetic bacon that passes the taste test – yet.

Insects

I have eaten scorpion.

What we eat is largely culturally determined, and while in the west eating insects has a high cultural barrier around the world thousands of people eat insects – deliberately.

So where did I eat scorpion? In China, there was a translation issue, or a pronunciation issue since the word for scorpion (xiēzi) is quite close to the word from eggplant (qiézi). Or perhaps it was the waiter’s little joke on the foreigners. The scorpion is technically an arachnid, rather than an insect, but the idea is the same. They come deep fried, which denatures the poison and they’re, um, crunchy.

If you feel ikky about eating insects it’s a barrier you can overcome, indeed we may have to.

What can you do?

  • reduce the amount of meat you eat, experiment with meat-free Mondays, or only eat meat in the weekends.
  • pay attention to the source of your meat, if you’re eating less you can pay more for meat from animals that have been grazing outdoors.
  • learn to cook vegetarian meals, the lentil is your friend.
  • plan your meals so that you reduce food waste.

Clothing

Fashion has evolved a ‘fast fashion‘ ethos, where we add to our wardrobe continuously with cheap clothes designed not to last. This consumes resources and creates waste as we throw away clothes after relatively few wears. The waste created is reaching crisis proportions, with Americans discarding 35 kilograms of clothing per year. Some estimates reckon that clothes on the fast fashion cycle stay in a woman’s closet just five weeks. There is a lot to think about in the quest to buy sustainable clothing.

coffee grounds

There are advances being made in the actual composition of the fabric used in clothing, using soy, recycled nylon, or coffee grounds.  Some of the companies are also developing closed loop systems so that everything developed will be recycled again.

There are also entrepreneurs working on new crops for fabric, bamboo is promising as a source but it’s manufacturing process seems to be a problem. Alpaca, wool and hemp also provide sustainable options, in each case you need to now about the source and the processing to be really sure.

What can you do?

  • pay attention to fabric type and source, avoid toxic fabrics
  • check manufacturing process, ask who made your clothes
  • when buying a garment ask yourself if you would wear it at least 30 times, this is the #30wears campaign started by Livia Firth. (Hat tip Mathilde Teuben)
  • repair your clothes, you should be able to sew on a button yourself, but there are tailors in every city. Two winters ago I paid for a winter coat to be re-lined, I think it cost 50 euro but that was cheaper than a replacement coat and it’s lasted two more winters.
  • consciously recycle, if you research where discarded clothing goes, it’s often landfill.

Energy

The two best options for large scale sustainable energy use are solar and wind.

Solar Power

Tesla Power wallTesla has created the Powerwall, a system to harness and store solar energy. Designed for domestic use sales were were high through last year, and this provides a good option for small scale use, but is limited when it comes to those of us living in apartments – I don’t have any roof space on which to install solar panels.

If solar panels on roofs aren’t a full at-scale solution what other surfaces could be used for solar panels? The Netherlands is midway through an experiment on using a solar bike path, results in terms of user testing are positive, although the surface probably isn’t strong enough for use on a roadway. However at a cost of about 3 million euro to build a 70m stretch of bike path we’re a long way from a convincing business case.

Wind Power

wind powerThe Netherlands has offshore windfarms, you fly over them if you’re arriving from the UK. I had naively thought that Europe was doing well on installing wind power as  form of renewable energy, but in fact China is doing better than any other country.

China is the biggest installer of new wind power capacity, installing about half of the new wind power capacity each year. In fact wind energy has become a major industry with at least six turbine companies.

We’ll need a much faster growth of renewable energy options in the west if we’re going to reduce our reliance on hydrocarbon energy forms. This matters for two reasons:

  • we will eventually run out of hydrocarbons, we’re already struggling to sustain supply without damaging our environment and resorting to fracking, arctic drilling and deep sea drilling in pristine environments.
  • the pollution from the use of hydrocarbons is poisoning our oceans, and our atmosphere.

What can you do? Reduce your energy consumption:

  • Take public transport
  • Ride a bike
  • Lower your central heating and put on a sweater
  • Insulate your house – even closing the curtains at night lowers the energy needed to heat your apartment.

Plastic

We have known for a long time that plastic (incidentally often made from oil) do not biodegrade and that they create pollution.  Plastic is a major component of landfill, and in our oceans it has created a floating rubbish patch in the north Pacific. There are municipal recycling schemes in Dutch cities to encourage recycling of plastic, but total plastic recycled is still less than 10%.

Some work has gone into making biodegradable plastics or packaging. The latest is an algae membrane used to package single serves of water, the packaging is even edible. It works as a single serve option but it’s a flawed solution, and will never replace the existing options.

What can you do to lower your plastic use?

  • carry a shopping bag
  • shop at a market that doesn’t package fruit/vegetables
  • carry a water bottle
  • avoid drinking straws and plastic packaging (I am sitting in a cafe that is making the change to no plastic, starting with paper straws)
  • more ideas on the Trash is for Tossers blog

Activism

Companies and governments change on the basis of what people want, eventually. I know it may seem hard to believe some days. So tell them.

  • refuse the plastic straw at the bar and say why
  • buy from companies who are sustainable
  • talk to companies about what they could do better: by phone, letter, email, Facebook or twitter
  • boycott companies that don’t improve – and tell them
  • support an NGO that works on sustainability issues with a donation, your time, your voice
  • tell others about companies and initiatives you’ve heard of that are sustainable.
  • recycle your rubbish
  • call on your city to provide recycling measures
  • call on business to support recycling measures

The Answer

There’s no easy answer here, everything we do has an impact on the planet, all we can do is make choices to reduce our impact. Reduce what we consume, re-use items, re-purpose others, recycle as much waste as we can.

And speak up, tell companies that you expect sustainable products, tell your elected officials that you want a world for the next generation, and the one after that, and the one after that, and the one after that, and the one after…

Image:  Earth  |  Kevin Gill  |  CC BY-SA-2.0

Zombie Project

2016oct-zombie

If you’ve ever been in a project that limps along with extended deadlines, never taking off but never quite failing you may have been on a zombie project. I admit I’d never heard the term until a friend used it in a bit of a rant recently.

Projects are started with the best intentions; a good idea, a business reason, feasibility analysis, management sign off and resources allocated.  Some projects never really take off and make the expected progress, for a multitude of reasons – I’m sure you’ll recognise one or two of these;

  • a change in the business environment affecting the company’s finances or priorities
  • a competitor does something unexpected
  • management support dwindles
  • technology doesn’t work as planned
  • a key stakeholder withdraws
  • legal/regulatory/risk concerns start to slow progress and/or outweigh the project’s potential benefits.
  • competing priorities from other departments/teams

Often the momentum of a project will carry it on through some of these setbacks and it will go on to be successful – even if it’s delayed. Sometimes the delays accumulate and the momentum drops, progress meetings become further apart with much less to report. But the optimism behind the initial idea makes it hard to kill the project and it lives on in a strange half-life – your project just became a zombie.

We’re good at ignoring bad news, and bad at acting on what, to an outsider, might seem obvious. Our initial optimism and emotional investment in the idea make us reluctant to point out when something is not working. In addition failed projects have a way of being penalised when it comes to performance review time.

However zombie projects consume resources, and therefore have a drag on the companies bottom line. Logically companies will want to review their project portfolio and kill any zombie projects. One way to do this is to hold a “zombie amnesty”, where projects are reviewed and if they no longer promise value to the company are killed. In one HBR report a company found 20% of its IT projects fell into this category. For this to be successful you will need;

  • transparent criteria for the assessment of each project, you should ignore sunk costs and look at the cost and benefits from today
  • an independent reviewer or review team, it’s hard to be objective from inside the project
  • a “celebration” of the projects that are closed, you need to communicate the reasons for stopping the projects, and the benefit to the company as part of the no penalty clause and as a way to encourage future zombie killings.

In your assessment you may find some projects that are languishing on the border of the zombie zone but they have potential to provide value. You then have a choice to kill or relaunch.

Don’t relaunch just because there is value, check all the issues that led to the project failing. Change it up, add resources, tighten the governance, get a new – more demanding – executive sponsor. It needs to feel like a new project.

If the project is killed it may be resurrected in a shiny new form in a year or two. Try not to be the person that says “we tried that already”, but examine it as a new project.

I’ve talked about this from a manager’s perspective, but I promise you the people on the zombie projects already know that their work isn’t valuable to the company. If you can edit the projects and focus on the ones that will provide value they’ll thank you for it.

From the perspective of a project team member try to avoid these projects, they’re draining and will never reflect well on you. If it’s unavoidable then be brave enough to call time on the half-dead.

 

Image: Businessman Zombie  |  Lindsey Turner   |   CC BY 2.0 

 

Book of the Month: Non-Obvious

BOMApril_NonObvious

I have both the 2015 and 2016 editions of this book, it’s not necessary to buy both as the 2016 edition covers everything in the 2015 edition. This is book of the month for May.

Non-Obvious 2016 Edition – How To Think Different, Curate Ideas & Predict The Future

By: Rohit Bhargava

This book tries to do two things; teach you how to collect your own trends and secondly discuss the trends they’ve collected and see as important. Maybe I’m too lazy to be a trend curator – I preferred the second part of the book.

In the mass of news it can be challenging to sort out trends for fads, which Bhargava recognises in naming his method “The Haystack Method”. He likens the mass of information to a haystack, but considers the insight you apply to the information to be the needle, and sets out five steps for trend curation.Trend Curation Process

Gathering is simply saving interesting ideas from the mass of content that surrounds his, he prints out the ideas and labels them with a sharpie, finding this easier to work with in the aggregate step than online options. (I’m a fan of online options – Pocket being my current favourite).

Aggregate is grouping the ideas into clusters, looking for broad ideas affecting multiple unrelated industries, perhaps focusing on a human need rather than a technology. Give each group a working title that conveys why the grouping is interesting.

Elevating is looking for the big ideas across your clusters, connecting ideas from different examples and determining which ones represent a shift in business practices. It’s the toughest step, and may result in you disturbing the clusters from step 2.

Naming a trend in a way that is both understandable and memorable. Bhargava often uses word mashups, alliteration and twists to create something that works. Examples in the 2016 edition include “B2Beyond Marketing”,  “Reverse Retail”,  and “The Reluctant Marketer”. I’m generally not a fan of the word mashups.

Prove check that the trend you’ve identified really is a trend. Bhargava looks at the strength of the underlying idea, the impact on behaviour and the potential acceleration of the idea.

In each section he provides tips and tricks to help you follow the process, and provides some examples of how he’s approached each step. Even so the guidance is rather high level, and since the underlying assumption is that you collect ideas and read widely I’m not sure that this really works as  guide.

The second, and larger, part of the book discusses the trends, and this I enjoyed more. Each trend is explained in context, with industry examples and closes with “How to use this trend”, which mostly made me want to do more research.

My two favourite trends for 2016 were I’ll point out a couple of the trends that appealed to me.

Mainstream Multiculturalism

Mainstream multiculturalism

My worlds collide in this one trend, I’ve now spent more of my adult life outside my home country than in it, and I’ve lived in five different countries, my friends are from all over, and speak all sorts of languages so I never really fit the mainstream wherever I am. I think the patterns of migration, the rise of the children of migrants and the increased opportunities all feed into this.

The other side of my life, the geek side, makes this all possible; technology now delivers a range of platforms where anyone can contribute, so we have more “voices” in entertainment.

But the trend goes beyond entertainment, into our food and our politics with Justin Trudeau commenting that the make up of his cabinet, and specifically the gender balance was important “because it’s 2015”.

In “how to use this trend” Bhargava points to new hiring practices, instructing you to hire for unexpected diversity, but is light on the “how”. I saw an interview with a filmmaker recently about building more diversity in films who made the very good point that it’s not enough to just hire diversity, you need to mentor and train and listen to the stories being told.  (I should have written down the filmmaker’s name, I only remember her words!)

Strategic Downgrading

Strategic downgrading
Our consumerist mentality assumes that the new shiny thing is better, that more functions are better, that more data/information is a good thing. But some consumers challenge that, rejecting complicated functionality, or valuing one characteristic over all others or favouring single function devices.

Farmers apparently are rejecting the most technologically advanced tractors, favouring instead a more robust model, perhaps one that is easier to use and easier to fix.

Consumers valuing privacy may choose the “Blackphone”, which puts privacy first. There are a number of “un-smartphones” out there with no internet functionality and no camera – but battery life greater than 24 hours.

I could read e-books on a laptop, a tablet or my phone, I don’t, I choose to read either paper books or on my kindle, because when I read I want zero distractions. We’ve recently seen a rise in sales in print books, perhaps as people rediscover the joy of being absorbed in a book and rejected the screen experience.

I doubt I’ll ever be a trend curator professionally, however I found inspiration amongst the trends discussed and some reassurance that my chaotic collecting of ideas might be useful. I like the presentation of the trend chapters with the wide range of industries covered, the blending of ideas in to a human trend and the “how to” sections to guide future use of the trend. I think the “how to” sections following each trend should be seen as inspiration for your next steps rather than specific actions to take.

I did find several errors in the book that seemed to hint at overly-fast production. The diagram of the Haystack method has the steps in the wrong order, and Noma is mentioned as being in Amsterdam (it’s in Copenhagen) are two that grated.

Overall the book is thought-provoking, the trends are characterised on a human need level – rather than the tech-heaving “VR is big” type of trend often seen – and cover a wide range of industries. I think this makes it easier to see applications of each trend across other businesses.

Artificial Intelligence

2016 March CM images“The intelligence exhibited by machines or software”, artificial intelligence holds a lot of promise in making machines smarter using tools of natural language processing, reasoning, computational intelligence, robotics etc. The commercial potential includes customer service, self driving cars and personal care.

Microsoft launched an experimental chatbot based on AI last week. On Wednesday Tay was born, an artificially intelligent chatbot with the personality of a 19-year-old female American, with the aim of “conducting research on conversational understanding”.

But it quickly went wrong, within hours Tay’s twitter account was supporting conspiracy theories around 9/11, espousing right wing views to vie with Hitler or Donald Trump. Tay’s life was short, Microsoft took her offline by the evening, and the worst of her tweets started disappearing. (Not before loads of people took screen grabs).

In the same week FastCompany reported on Whisper’s Arbiter software which ensures that nothing untoward is published by the company’s user-base. Whisper is anonymous and combines text with images, a virtual version of PostSecret. Their filter software is build on masses of data, but they still use human moderators to make sure that their user generated content stays on the right side of the company’s policies. This is particular challenging in an environment of anonymous accounts and sneaky attempts to subvert the algorithm.

So why didn’t Microsoft do the same? This “troll” phenomenon is well-known and well documented, and Microsoft has significant experience using social platforms, certainly enough to predict this.  WIRED report that Microsoft advised them in an email “We have taken Tay offline and are making adjustments” so perhaps when Tay comes back online she’ll have learnt from the first experiment.

There’s an oft quoted saying “artificial intelligence is no match for natural stupidity”, in this case Tay learnt from us, she copied patterns of speech and opinions from the humans who interacted with her. She’s a human creation in more ways than one; to make artificial intelligence better, we need to be better humans.

Image: Artificial Intelligence  | GLAS-8  |  CC BY_NC_ND2.0

 

The Internet of Things

Internet of Things

The idea behind the Internet of Things (IoT) is simple, use the internet as a communications network and enable devices to talk to each other, to applications and ultimately to us.

To give a really simple example that already exists, in fact I have one installed in my house, a home heating system that includes a thermostat and an app that lets me schedule temperature changed by date and time.  It cost an extra hundred euros, but the savings due to scheduling lower temperatures at night and on holiday will pay for that.

IoT has tremendous potential to simplify our homes, cities, work environments, transport systems, and healthcare. We’re well on the path towards the IoT, many companies are creating connected devices and Intel has stated that we’ll all have 7 connected devices by 2020.

ISF_Infographic_1600x944

Most people already have multiple devices that are connected to the internet; phones, laptops, e-readers, computers, TVs. Coming soon to your home are connected devices such as heating, fridges, lighting, sound systems, and home security. Gartner estimates that by 2022 we’ll have more than 500 devices in our homes, although they don’t provide a list.

IoT goes beyond our front door, the healthcare industry is looking at connected devices to support patient care in hospitals and live-at-home independence for people with disabilities and the elderly.  For those without known health issues wearable devices monitor your activity and fitness each day.

1970s Teasmade

Many of the home devices can also make our work environment smarter, and more productive, including a wifi enabled coffee machine reminiscent of the old fashioned teasmade of the 70s.

IoT also impacts our transport systems, giving us the famous Google driver-less cars and smart driving systems, along with automation of our public transport systems.

On a large scale cities are looking at smart ways to use limited resources, including space, more effectively. Monitoring traffic, pollution, rainfall, foot traffic, waste disposal can help a city provide better services and save money. A very simple example; lighting a city can be revolutionised by knowing how city space is used, and the lights themselves can be monitored and maintained based on information rather than inefficient repeated inspections.

What’s the catch?

Masses of opportunities, but what’s the catch? There are concerns around security, privacy, and some specific ethical concerns.

If your connected device is critical then it needs to be secure, hackers have already tested a number of devices and found that the security is lacking. In one alarming case researchers hacked a pacemaker, the pacemaker was in a mannequin, but if it had been in a person that would have amounted to a death sentence. Some guidelines have already been created to protect yourself against IoT risks.

If our homes have hundreds of connected devices how can we know which data is provided? Many of the IoT devices don’t allow you to discover that. There are existing data protection laws in place that companies must follow, but when each “thing” in your portfolio of IoT is transmitting data about one aspect of your life that is a massive amount of data.

Driverless cars, potentially part of the IoT pose a very specific ethical challenge; how should they be programmed when the choice is between harming a passenger vs harming a pedestrian? I don’t know either – and the dilemma is likely to push us towards smart assisted drivers rather than fully driverless cars in the short term.

I’m excited by much of this development, but if devices remain discrete and unconnected the number of control apps I have on my phone will become unmanageable, this is starting to be addressed with some platform systems for smart homes. I can’t help wondering what I will do with all this new information, and whether it will really give me new insights.

Image:  BB8 Puzzle   |  Kevin Baird  |  CC BY-ND-2.0

Toy Stories

Two pieces of good news from the world of toys last week.

Barbie got a make-under

As iconic as Barbie is she’s been under fire for years for perpetuating an unrealistic body myth for girls and young women. Someone has gone to the trouble of calculating the probability of a woman having Barbie’s measurements; for Barbie’s neck measurement it’s one in 4.3 billion. For a long time doctors, teachers, parents and feminists have raised the issue of “the Barbie effect“.  She’s encountered criticism for her career performance as well, when cast as a computer programmer. Mattel have seemed reluctant to make big changes, but in 2013 sales dropped. 2015 saw the launch of some

Mattel have now launched a new series of Barbie dolls, the Fashionistas; with 4 body types, 7 skin tones, 14 face shapes and a myriad of hair colours.

Screen Shot 2016-02-01 at 15.12.17

This is just some of the range available.

I broke the internet rule and read the comments on this article from the Guardian.  Many commenters don’t believe this is an important step, stating that dolls are part of fantasy play. Yes, of course, but the dolls are our own avatars and it’s great that these dolls give children a choice that is more like themselves.

Legoland gets a wheelchair

Screen Shot 2016-02-01 at 15.23.55

Lego, another toy brand that has been under fire for its designs in recent years, has launched a wheelchair that will fit any minifig as part of its “Fun in the Park” set.

It may be in response to the Toy Like Me campaign which seeks to have better representation of childhood toys with disabilities. They’re in the middle of a crowdfunding campaign right now, check it out and give them your support.

I’ve heard all the arguments about “it’s just a toy”, “kids don’t remember this stuff” and “changing toys doesn’t change the world”. To me this isn’t about creating a single memory, and I don’t believe changing how toys appear will change the world. But creating toys that demonstrate diversity could be part of a bigger change, it could widen our perception of what “normal” is, and it could be part of instilling pride in children who are outside the mainstream because they are in an ethnic minority, use a wheelchair, have glasses, use a walking stick or have red hair.

Children are very aware of the people around them and pick up on all sorts of nuances of people’s appearance. They’re also aware from an early age of when they’re invisible or excluded.  I’m sure that both Mattel and Lego have calculated the benefits of PR and profit from these moves, but I still applaud these moves to make their toys more inclusive.

 

Post Script; I didn’t have Barbie or Lego growing up, it’s the lack of Lego I regret.

Drones for Good

droneAt Expo 2015 in Milan I spotted some examples of drones being used in ingenious ways, as a navigation aid in a sand dune environment for example, connected to a four wheel vehicle with its very own built-in “drone helipad”.

So far my exposure to drones has either been the militaristic  or the artistic sort. I started to wonder about other uses, commercial uses, and not the hyped up “Amazon will deliver to your fourth floor apartment window”. So I did some research. Here are some of the coolest uses I found.

Agriculture

droneagNicknamed “precision agriculture”, drones are giving farmers better data and more detail on their crops. Enabling them to target any treatment, and follow a crop’s progress.

I saw a couple of examples of drone use for agriculture at the EXPO, at the Kazakhstan pavilion where they were using drones to target insecticide and fertiliser use.

The Dutch pavilion also showed a pair of potato farmers who use drones to  assess areas that need more seeding, watering or fertilising.

A great way to save costs, but also to reduce the chemical run off to waterways, agricultural use is seen by some as the biggest potential market for drones.

Inspecting Oil Rigs

Oil rigs and wind farms sit out at sea in tough operating conditions and need regular inspection. Using drones has taken the inspection time from 8 weeks down to 5 days, a massive saving of operational costs.

Real Estate

Drone photography and video is seen as a great potential marketing tool in the Real Estate industry – but it’s subject to various regulation in most countries. In the UK and Australia commercial drone operator permits are possible, but in the US the FAA is banning commercial use of drones, although they might be fighting a losing battle.

A second potential use is for monitoring real estate development projects, a site visit from the ground as it were.

Movies

Drones are used for creating sweeping views in advertising, TV documentaries, and movies.

It means that some of those shots once out of scope for those on a limited budget are now possible. Good news for indie film makers, not so good for helicopter pilots.

Events

Pretty sure you couldn’t make the high level shots in the Rockin1000 without drones (now someone will tell me it’s a camera on a super boom).

Burning http://www.mercurynews.com/ci_28682001/drones-improving-oil-rig-inspectionMan now issues permits for drone use at the event and limits the number to thirty. It’s also produced a guideline on drone use to address safety concerns.

Less commercial but still interesting developments are uses of drains for humanitarian aid and wildlife research.

Humanitarian

Drones have been used as tools for disaster relief in the aftermath of the Nepal earthquake on a scale unseen before. In part because the technology has matured, and partly because the country already had transport issues reaching its isolated villages. Combined with crowd-sourced work from volunteers around the world, the drone images are helping researchers document damage and prioritise rescue efforts.

Amazon and Domino’s both had PR wins out of trialling drones for delivery but there could be a sensible application; delivering medicine to isolated areas. Medicines are high value yet small, and so could be worth the investment. A Gates Foundation funded team are working on this, and Deutschepost DHL have apparently been testing it as a means of delivering to an isolated island.

Wildlife Research

While researching for this post the video below turned up all over social media. It’s a view of whales that is taken from the air, and obviously doesn’t disturb them in their habitat. And for anyone worrying about the dude on the paddle board, these are Southern Right Whales, baleen feeders. Of course they could still wipe him off the board with a flick of the tail.

The whale video is more opportunistic observation, but scientist have also been using drones to research wildlife in more inaccessible areas, for example monitoring orangutan populations in Indonesia.

It’s not a new idea, WWF Nepal began using drones to monitor the endangered one-horned rhinoceros and tigers more than three years ago.

Future Uses

I’ve seen a few documentaries recently that have used camera techniques and helicopters to increase the understanding of ancient structures like Angkor Wat and Stonehenge. Surely there’s a role for drones here.

There is also space for “drones as a service” companies, offering drone + operator for a single use, in fact a number of drone start-ups are already developing companies to cash in on this concept.

Some predictions suggest that the next big use of drones will be as Christmas presents, I do get the appeal – another toy to play with, even though some people don’t seem to understand when it might not be a good idea to play with the toy. The genie is out of the bottle on drones, and countries/authorities need to find ways to regulate and licence drone pilots for responsible use. After all, we all need a licence to drive a car.

Image: Drone and Moon (cropped) | Don McCullogh | CC BY 2.0

Looking Back at the Summit

Finance and Innovation

Screen Shot 2014-08-05 at 01.16.20Fast Company listed their most innovative companies for the year, including a top ten for innovation in financial services, companies who are building great things for their customers; new services and new platforms.

There were very few on the list I’d ever heard of so I started reading through the list and the company profiles; I started to wonder (a) how new are these companies? and (b) why is it so hard for incumbents, despite their resources, to innovate their way onto this list?

Answering that first question, here’s list of the companies in the top ten with the year they were established. Only two of the ten are more than ten years old.

Company Name  Established  Service Provided
 Nice systems  1986 Consumer service for mobile, including within apps.
 Square  2009 Send money via email.
 Bitcoin  2009 Cryptocurrency, removing all the middlemen in financial services.
 GiveDirectly  2008 Donate via cellphone, direct to the recipient.
 Dwolla  2008 Building a better banking network and launching a credit card.
 Transferwise  2011 Peer-to-peer international currency transfers.
 OneID  2011 Creating a single login – no more remembering multiple passwords.
 Mastercard  1966 Re-imagining the mobile-payment network with MasterPass.
 Estimize  2011 Crowd-sourcing estimates on company performance, and doing better than most of the pros.
 Etoro  2007 A social network for traders, lets you copy the investment of other traders.

All of these innovations take advantage of something in the digital space, some on the growing world of mobile. To be fair the banks have also been active and innovative in this space – just not at the same rate. Some of the innovations above support and use

There’s already some discussion on why it’s so hard for large companies in established industries to innovate. Even the best techniques from Silicon Valley aren’t a magic path to increasing innovation according to this HBR article. It comes down to culture; the things that make a company successful at execution at scale aren’t the things that make a company naturally great at innovation. There are companies that are able to innovate and to scale their operations, but it’s a rare combination.

Is there something about the financial sector that makes it even harder? Perhaps, some sectors (music, travel) show a similar batch of relatively young companies, but the energy sector has more than twice the number of companies over 10 years.

I think there are two things that make it harder for financial services companies to innovate. The first is the risk mindset, in theory financial services companies should be expert at assessing risk and take decisions that maximise return for an accepted risk. In my experience the growing pressure of public opinion and increasing regulation have reduced whatever appetite there was for risk since the global financial crisis. And that’s the second thing – the global financial crisis began in 2007 and during the crisis and in the years since affected financial institutions have had to focus on legal cases,  restructuring, cost control and divestment. All of that left little room and few resources for innovation. It’s probably not a co-incidence that half of the companies in the top ten were started between 2007 and 2009.

It’s great that there’s innovation in finance, and many of the solutions are customer-focused either as improved service or as de-mystifying the world of finance. I hope it inspires the “old” banks; there are more opportunities for more innovation.

Image; Fixing the Money Pipeline / ShellyS / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Hacking Your Education

I loved school/university, it was great for me because I have weird academic sponge for a brain. It’s not always a great experience for everyone, and for some students it gets in the way of their learning.

Dale Stephens, founder of UnCollege, is one of those students. With his parents’ permission he quit school at 12 and started educating himself. He talked about it at The Next Web Conference.

He’s concludes that “we can’t teach the skills for tomorrow based on the schooling techniques of yesterday”.

He’s not the only one to come to that conclusion, it’s exactly why Jame Welton started Coder Dojo which is an after school club that helps kids learn to code (over four hundred Dojos in 43 countries). And it’s part of the thinking behind Sugata Mitra‘s SOLEs and child-driven education.

He’s right about the economics of university as well, The Economist analysed the cost and benefit of university education in the US. They found that the cost of education per student has increased at five times the rate of inflation, while salaries have remained static (in dollar equivalents). In addition they cast doubts on the quality of the education citing federal research that found literacy levels in those with a college education declined from 1992 to 2003.

There is still value in that degree, without it your job opportunities are very limited. Many jobs that once required no formal qualifications, or perhaps a short vocational course, no hire degree candidates. That’s the Catch-22; a degree now proves you’re good enough for a job that doesn’t need a degree.

Initiatives like Uncollege and Coder Dojo are great, and they start to address the shortcomings of our current education system – that gap between what students need to learn and what teachers are able to teach. They also point to a more “apprenticeship” type of training, where the formal classroom training is limited and the real learning is on the job and under the eye of a Master. This is still somewhat the model used for the world’s best chefs; they are known by who they have worked with – not where they studied.

But they don’t necessarily cover that need for certification. There’s another option working to solve that; MOOCs, (Massive Open Online Course). There are a number of credible organisations providing courses online, Coursera is probably the biggest. I worked with eLearning for about five years, and it’s great to see the technology is finally catching up with the dream.

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 The old model of school | university or tertiary training | work | retirement is being eroded. If our formal education isn’t preparing us for work effectively, our work is requiring us to learn and to keep learning, and given the changes in my financial fortunes I won’t ever retire in the sense my parents used.

So what does the future hold? That concept of lifelong learning is going to become increasingly important, we’re going to need

  • on-the-job short courses – almost instant education – to support us at work
  • anywhere/anytime courses for deeper knowledge and personal development
  • a buffet of courses, a lot of jobs need a range of skills and knowledge to balance a depth of expertise, sometimes referred to as T-shaped
  • a balance between solo study, online collaboration, and real life interaction in our training

And we’re all going to need an appetite to learn more, the ‘growth mindset’ that Dale Stephens mentions. But this all means that my niece and nephews, now at the beginning of their education, may begin their careers without sinking four years into classroom lectures.

Image: MOOC Poster / Mathieu Plourde/ CC BY 2.0