Pinky and the Brain

David Cameron is a funny colour for a politician. Compared to the tanned orange of Tony Blair close up, he’s positively pink. For some reason it doesn’t look that way on TV, but when he walked a few feet in front of me on his way to the lectern at Demos yesterday, it was the first thing I noticed.

Cameron doesn’t project the strange charisma of Blair either. He speaks quietly, his body movements are understated. He’s not surprisingly tall, as Blair is. There’s nothing remarkable about his clothes. His verbal mannerisms don’t stand out except that there’s something about his pronunciation and intonation that reminds me of another New Labour architect — Peter Mandleson.

Cameron’s people rang Demos last week to ask if they would host the talk. They obviously wanted the undertone of the speech to be following in the footsteps of Blair. Demos played the most important role of the think tanks in developing the ideas that propelled Blair to power when he was leader of the opposition in the mid 90s.

I spoke to old friends of Demos afterwards who remembered Blair giving similar talks in 1995. For them the parallels were almost spooky but nobody was blown away. ‘Cameron doesn’t have the intelligence or drive of Blair’ one told me, ‘but he’s found a position that has a lot of mileage’. That position is the centre ground of politics and having a narrative about what the future could be like.

But of course it’s not about Cameron and Blair, it’s about Cameron and Brown — the elephant in the Demos office during the speech. And it’s Gordon who will have to make the next move. Cameron is holding back on specific policies because he wants to force Brown to go first.

My guess is that if nothing were to change between now and the next election, David Cameron would win and Gordon Brown knows it. So Brown has to do something drastic or inspired to ensure he becomes Prime Minister. He can’t just rely on his past record.

From what I saw on Monday, Cameron isn’t a natural but he has picked the right strategy. Brown will need to come out into the open if he wants to take him on and develop a story about where he will take Britain next.

Better Humans?

Madeleine Bunting has written a good piece in today’s Guardian hooked on the book out next week that I’ve edited with James Wilsdon called Better Humans? The book is a collection of essays about human enhancement, and as Madeleine writes:

“It’s time we got our heads around this debate on this side of the Atlantic so that we can influence what technologies are developed, rather than leaving it to the scientists and the pharmaceutical and military interests who sponsor their research. There’s a growing sense of urgency to get the public debate up to speed with what’s at stake.”

Contributors to the book include Rachel Hurst, Steven Rose, Raj Persaud, Arthur Caplan, Decca Aitkenhead and Nick Bostrom. Hopefully the diverse range of positions they put forward will help us get our heads around the debate.

If you’d like to come along to the launch event in London, we’ve decided to get some more chairs in (it’s already oversubscribed) and we’ll fit you in.

It was also incidently my first Skype-enabled publication. With James in Phoenix, me in Bangalore and Julie and Julia holding the fort in London we somehow managed to do the final stages of the book across multiple time zones.

Get Back in the Box

Douglas Rushkoff has written an excellent new book called Get Back In The Box. I’ve been reading it on the beach in Kerala after picking up a copy in Bangalore airport. Not that I’m rubbing it in or anything.

I hesitate to call it a business book, although that’s definitely the market it’s aimed at, because it’s much more about the implications of changes in personal outlooks and social organisation. It reinforces much of what Paul Skidmore and I wrote in Disorganisation.

The basic point of the book is that innovation happens when you know your stuff, enjoy your job and the organisation’s aims and ambitions are in line with those of its employees and customers. Except he tells that story much more convincingly — peppered with interesting and relevant examples.

I’ve been a Rushkoff fan since 2003 when we brought him over to London to launch the pamphlet he wrote for Demos called Open Source Democracy (some of the book is actually drawn from it). The pamphlet was alright but didn’t have the zing of the new book. What really got me were the talks and the discussions that Rushkoff gave and the chats I had with him in between times. I guess I fell for his overall philosophy of work, or play as it should really be described.

Between them Doug Rushkoff, Steven Johnson, Pat Kane and Charlie Leadbeater had quite a lot to do with my decision to go freelance at the end of last year. It wasn’t necessarily what they wrote that got me, but meeting them, talking to them and realising that at heart, like them, I have a play ethic not a work ethic — I like experimenting and pushing the system rather than just working within it.

Hopefully Rushkoff’s new book will convince a few organisations to become more hospitable places to play.

The Country of the No

The best book about India I’ve read so far is undoubtedly Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City: Bombay lost and found. He begins the book with his experience as a returnee to his childhood home of Bombay (or Mumbai as it’s called now) from New York and how difficult it was to set up home for his family.

‘India is the Country of the No. That ‘no’ is your test. You have to get past it. It’s India’s Great Wall; it keeps out foreign invaders. Pursuing it energetically and vanquishing it is your challenge. In the guru-shishya tradition, the novice is always rebuffed multiple times when he first approaches the guru. Then the guru stops saying no but doesn’t say yes either; he suffers the presence of the students… only if the disciple sticks out through all these stages of rejection and ill treatment is he considered worthy or the sublime knowledge.’

I’m in India at the moment with Kirsten from Demos doing some research for the Atlas of Ideas. Travel is where we’re finding the most ‘no’s. Trying to catch a train is a bit like trying to catch a flying pig. Every one we’ve tried to book — even if it’s well in advance — has been ‘full’. Basically we don’t know the right people yet. So we’re flying everywhere, which thanks to India’s new budget airlines is pretty easy. But even then, you can’t book unless you use Internet Explorer, getting your credit card details processed seems to be more of a matter of luck than judgement and with some of the companies you only find out at the final moment that if you don’t have an Indian passport, you have to pay in dollars and it will be roughly four times the fare in rupees.

The contrast between the airlines and the railways shows how times are changing in India. The Indian Railway is the world’s largest employer with 1.5 million workers. The costs and inertia in the system are incredible. To compete with the airlines the railways will need to change but reforming the system must be one of the most daunting challenges for any management consultant. It could suck up the whole of McKinsey without changing one jot.

There are some things that you might think could change quite quickly. For example, their ‘electronic’ booking system is antiquated, often isn’t available and for nearly every route you still need a paper ticket to be delivered. But this is the country with some of the best 20-something programmers in the world. They could knock up a website better than say very quickly. It’s sheer bureaucracy and inertia that stops anything from happening — basically people saying ‘no’.

The qualification for being an entrepreneur in India is sheer bloody mindedness; it’s got very little to do with having a good idea. You just need to keep going at things until someone says yes. Many of the emerging entrepreneurs we’ve met have been Indians who understand how this works but have also spent long periods of time in Europe or the US working for large technology companies so they’re able to bridge expectations. Their age is important. You’re much more likely to get a yes here if you are fifty than if you’re thirty years old.

We’re not trying to be entrepreneurs, we’re just trying to find out what’s going on, particularly in high tech start-ups. But just organising the logistics of the research is a full time job without doing any of the interviews or writing any of it up.

India is a wonderful country and the more I see the more I’m convinced that it will be one of the main sources of good ideas in the twenty-first century but I’ve got a feeling that to thrive here you’ll have to be able to deal with the fact that it’s the Country of the No.