How to make things up

The queue grows by a set of stairs that leads below TGI Fridays in Piccadilly Circus. It’s the entrance to the Comedy Store and it’s going to be a full house tonight to see the Players make things up as they go along.

Inside, the energy mounts in the dark, cavernous room. People take their seats. A disembodied announcer’s voice tells us the comedy is about to begin and would we please turn our mobiles off. Most people do as they’re told.

Neil Mullarkey steps backwards onto the stage and gives a flourish with his left arm to acknowledge the applause. He did this for the first time in 1985 when there were less than 20 people in the audience. His co-players included Mike Myers who went on to become Austin Powers and now include Paul Merton, Josie Lawrence and Richard Vranch. These days they play to a packed audience twice a week.

Neil had invited me and Paul along because he’s read our Demos pamphlet called Disorganisation. It’s not about comedy (although it does have a couple of references to The Office), it’s about how organisations will increasingly struggle with the tension between the demands of a globalised marketplace to be lean, mean and hyperorganised and their employees’ desire for more freedom and to be able to be creative in their work.

Improv is the ultimate mix of disorganisation and hyperorganisation. The rules of the games they play are strict, but there’s no way you can know what’s going to happen. They can turn up with no learning of lines or rehearsals. Beyond the simple structures, it’s completely reliant on the creativity of the comedians.

I’ve been trying out a few of the games with friends and having great fun. And I think improv is a skill that everybody should try to learn. I can think of plenty of organisations that could do with a bit more improvisation. I’m not saying that all businesses, much less organisations like the Police or Ambulance service, should make things up as they go along, but everybody gets placed in situations where it helps to be able to think on your feet.

  • Neil’s homepage, including clips of his spoof management guru L Vaughn Spencer is here.
  • Neil’s written about his improvisation workshops with businesses in this article.
  • You can see the Players every Wednesday and Sunday night at the Comedy Store.
  • Neil was on Broadcasting House on Radio 4 this morning talking about leadership. You can listen again (the piece is about 23:15 mins in).

How to buy Dominos pizza in Bangalore

First you have to find the number. No 118 118 or easy online directories here. It will take you three or four goes on Google or Yahoo! India to find a number that works. Then you have to explain what you want and who you are — they won’t take an order unless you have a phone number. And language will be a problem, somehow a lot gets lost in translation between English and English over India phones.

Turns out they do have Hawaiian pizzas everywhere though (except the ham is replaced with chicken) and twenty-four minutes later, the doorbell rings and there you have it: steaming hot boxes of globalised goodness.

Bangalore is comfortable with its newfound position on the international map. You’re almost as likely to find a French or Chinese restaurant here as you are in London. You can get good espresso from Coffee Day who have opened up 137 branches across India in the last couple of years. Wifi isn’t a problem — you’ll pay for it, but it works pretty well. Even the street booksellers stock Blink, Seven Habits and Dan Brown on their pavement stalls.

The reason Bangalore is happy with the in-bound side of globalisation is that at least some people are able to pay for it because of the things the city is exporting, which increasingly the West can’t live without. You probably know that many call centres are located here, but it’s much more than that. If you own a non-iPod mp3 player, a Bangalore company called Ittiam probably developed the technology inside it. They also designed the technology behind the headrest screens that you can watch on planes. And they’re not the only Bangalore success.

The story I heard repeatedly was that Bangalore is in the early stages of another boom. The last one was in 2000 (inflated by Y2K) and was promptly followed by a crash, but this one will be more elite than the last one; higher up the value chain particularly focused on research and development of new products and technologies. Most of the global tech firms like Intel, IBM, ARM and Microsoft all have labs here doing work that’s at a similar level of sophistication and secrecy to their labs in the UK or US. And like the glory days of Silicon Valley start-ups, Bangalore is full of start-ups based in anonymous residential areas. It’s just that here there may be a cow wandering down the street outside.

Economically, however, the city is on a knife edge. There are no big banks seriously investing in its future, no large family-owned conglomerates as there are in Kolkata or Mumbai. The state government talks the talk but is basically incompetent. Venture capital is learning as it goes, good with quick-win software companies and just getting into biotech, but it’s not confident with early stage finance that will create world-beating returns over the long term.

And then there’s the Bangalore paradox, that everybody will tell you about. ‘For every 30 kilometres you travel out of the city you go back a century’, as one professor said to me. There is shocking poverty within wi-fi range of the new coffee shops and it gets worse the further you look. India has no discernible practical strategy for poverty alleviation that measures up to the problem. Politicians talk about science and technology for the ‘common man’. But how many of India’s 260 million people who live on less than a dollar a day will get a chance to watch in-flight movies?

I’ve no doubt that Bangalore can create the wealth that it needs to sustain the odd Dominos franchise, but I don’t see any hope of it breaking the cycle of extreme poverty. And if Bangalore, with its international brand and incredible workforce can’t do it, is there anywhere in India that can?

‘Better Humans?’ everywhere

Blimey. That was a hectic few days. Better Humans? seemed to capture the imagination of the media this week so I’ve been dashing around doing interviews. On Wednesday morning the car arrived at 6.15am to take me to the BBC to do 13 local radio interviews around the country.

I’ve done GNS (as it’s called in BBC speak) a couple of times before, but I got the feeling this was the topic that most animated the listeners and I’ve had a few messages from producers saying that they had lots of calls from people after I’d been on air giving their views. It’s a bit frustrating that I didn’t get the chance to listen to them.

We also got the prime spots on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme and on BBC Breakfast on TV as well as being well and truly plugged on Radio 4’s Start the Week on Monday.

And just to recap on print coverage:

Madeleine Bunting wrote an editorial in the Guardian
Steven Rose’s piece from the book was in the Observer.
Our interview with Aubrey de Grey ran in openDemocracy.
The Financial Times ran an editorial by my co-editor James Wilsdon on Wednesday (registration required).
The Guardian website ran an interview with me yesterday.

And I’ve lost count of the mentions on blogs…

The launch event on Wednesday at the Wellcome Trust was packed and I thought was really interesting. Aubrey (who’s 42) did tell me that his mum was a bit annoyed to read in our interview that he swears though.

So I think we managed to achieve what we set out to do which was get a debate going. And there’s more to come as the conference at Oxford in March will attract even more attention to the issues.

Punctuation problems

There are reasons why you shouldn’t put question marks in the titles of books. James and I decided that we needed one in Better Humans? because we realised we didn’t know whether we thought human enhancment was ‘better’.

If you’re smarter, as Raj Persaud points out in his piece for the book, you’re not necessarily happier. And as I know from all the work I’ve done on disability over the years, having one idea about what’s ‘better’ physically is very dangerous.

But when it comes to people citing the book, question marks tend to just get left out, so our nuanced decision to be undecided (or fudge it, you might say) is getting lost as word spreads of the book.

OpenDemocracy have published our interview with Aubrey de Grey (we’ve just had a request to translate it into Romanian!) and the Observer ran an extract yesterday from Steven Rose’s piece about the potential downsides of the new resources available for brain science.

The full book is also now available online for free. The launch event in London is on Wednesday and it will be talked about more at the Oxford Global Science Forum in March.