George Osborne: Valley Boy

There was a piece on the Today programme this morning about Conservative shadow chancellor George Osborne’s trip to Silicon Valley. He’s meeting a few of the big firms like Google and Yahoo and trying to get a feel for what makes California so much better than the UK at turning little ideas into massive wealth generators. As Osborne pointed out in the interview, even though the UK has world class universities and plenty of money available, there is no British equivalent to MySpace which has become the world’s fifth most popular website in just a few years, let alone a Google or a Yahoo!.

James Naughtie tried to push him on the tax regime, making out that it must be because they have lower taxes. But Osborne quickly pointed out that California has much higher taxes than other parts of the US so it can’t just be that. It also isn’t about intellectual property laws because although, yes, it is more expensive to take out a patent in the UK, actually none of the success stories of the past decade have really been about IP.

I reckon it has a lot to do with a deep understanding of networks. Somebody pointed out in the package before the interview that one difference is the role models that students at Stanford have. Larry Page, Pierre Omidyar, Jerry Yang are all treated as heros. But you have to realise how different these guys are to British business role models like John Browne or Richard Branson. They’ve built business not just through good strategy or PR or relentless personal energy but by incredibly clever hacks that make the most of the underlying network logic of the internet.

If you’re a young entrepreneur trying to emulate the current generation of internet success stories, you’re going to try and think of business ideas that are like Google or eBay, that tap the value of networks of active participants for the simple reason that those are the most likely business to thrive in a network age. At the moment, we just don’t have that culture of understanding network business in the UK.

I reckon if George (or Labour for that matter) wants to know how to build Silicon Valley in the UK, he’ll certainly need to read this.

Al Gore at Hay

I’d heard so much about Al Gore’s powerpoint presentation that when he didn’t do it in Hay, I was a bit gutted. Instead he simply spoke, wandering across the huge stage in the main tent without visual aids. Behind him a vast screen relayed his every expression and gesture from a TV camera with a fractional delay. It made me feel slightly seasick.

He started well, although I’d heard the gags already:

“I’m Al Gore and I used to be the next President of the United States.”

“You win some, you lose some, and then there’s a little known third category.”

But the stories he told didn’t quite work. They were about him becoming normal after the craziness of being ultra important. Although self deprecating, the humour was safe and didn’t reveal too much about the man. It was hard to empathise with him refueling his Gulfstream in the Azores at midnight and finding out that the speech he had just given in Africa had been misquoted in Washington.

And then he got onto the real reason he was there — to talk about climate change. It was all good stuff and I learned a few new things. He tried to make us realise that this is an urgent problem. He called climate change a ‘planetary emergency’. He talked about the stark evidence that we are changing our environment in ways that have never happened before. But maybe because I already believe that climate change is a problem and we need to do something about it, he didn’t really rock my world.

I suppose (perhaps naively) I wanted him to give solutions. But as soon as he got onto the practical stuff, he became fuzzier and sounded like a politician again. He was slippery when Peter Florence interviewed him afterwards although to be honest the questions weren’t very good. Florence fell into the trap of trying to interview an American politician by asking questions as if he were a British one. Americans have little respect for media interrogators and will just go on to say whatever they like anyway.

The reports on the BBC and in the Guardian said Gore got a standing ovation, but it didn’t feel that electric to me. More like the grudging ‘oh God I suppose we’d better give him a standing ovation’ of Labour Party Conference than the instant spontaneous outpouring of emotion I’ve felt in concerts and, yes, the occasional political speech — Robin Cook’s resignation over Iraq springs to mind.

All power to Al Gore. I hope he succeeds in spreading the message about climate change and I’ll help him do that. But when you’ve managed to create so much hype about yourself you need to deliver, otherwise goodwill evaporates quicker than you can say ‘I invented the internet you know’.

I don’t think Al Gore will be the next president of the United States.