How to get brilliant people talking to one another

When I was a policy wonk I went to some very odd events. On one occasion I found myself giving a talk about public attitudes to nanotechnology at an academic conference in Columbia, South Carolina. Like many academic conferences it was a bit hard to follow unless you’re deeply immersed in the very specific vocabulary of that particular discipline but there was one talk though that really got me thinking. It was by a Harvard academic called Peter Galison.

Galison was talking about the idea of Trading Zones — a term he used to describe the places and situations where major scientific or engineering breakthroughs had taken place. In this instance he was talking about the Manhattan Project.

Galison contends that there was no one person there who knew how to make an atomic bomb. All the experience and knowledge needed were in Los Alamos — but in the heads of a bunch of people who had — in the main — never met before. The key person was Robert Oppenheimer who wasn’t the best scientist or engineer in the world (although he was very, very good) but who realised that the only route to succeed was to get these people to work together. In the midst of one of the most secretive projects in history, Oppenheimer embarked on a process of radical openness and communication between the scientists — from many different disciplines and the engineers. He encouraged them to explain their work to one another and to ask each other to solve each others’ problems. He also made sure that everybody there felt equal. Even though there were young engineers working alongside Nobel Prize winning scientists, academic rank went out the window. It was all about what knowledge they could ‘trade’ in order to solve the overall problem.

The idea of Trading Zones came back to me as we were planning the first Social Innovation Camp. We realised that we were bringing together people who ordinarily would never have worked together and it was then that the ‘tone’ of Social Innovation Camp was created. We made a very conscious decision not to use any language that would alienate people or to slip into using the jargon of any particular group that we were bringing together. It’s perhaps best epitomised in “Hello.” but it’s everywhere when you start to look. The way we wrote all the copy for our invitations, the way we ran our call for ideas, the way that we facilitate workshops without people having the slightest idea that they’re in the middle of an ‘ideation process’.

And it works. One of the things that people often say about Social Innovation Camp weekends is how much they’ve enjoyed working with people who aren’t like them. One of the most gratifying things was that all the presentations at the end of the weekend are understandable too. (again it was a deliberate move on our part to invite outsiders in to the final pitching session so that all the projects had to explain their ideas in language that anybody would understand).

Creating a common way of communicating is one of the most important things in collaborative projects. Diversity of experience and viewpoint is vital in creating new things but without having a way of talking that diversity can quickly become a barrier to working together.

The Startup of You

Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha’s book The Start-up of You

 went straight to the top of the best-seller lists this week and it’s not difficult to see why. I read it in a couple of sittings and once I’d overcome my British reserve about the slightly cheesy style of business writing I have to admit it is a very good book. It’s also well worth listening to two podcasts with Reid Hoffman that add to the argument and advice in the book. This one of a talk he gave at Stanford University and an interview with the ever brilliant Peter Day for the BBC’s World of Business.

It’s really a book about how to get yourself in the position to start a startup or create new opportunities in your career. It suggests a few things that I did back in 2005 when I left Demos such as saying yes to events I wouldn’t previously have gone to and taking people who I only knew a little bit for coffees and drinks (see the Strength of Weak Ties for why). That all led to me finding new networks of people and being exposed to plenty of new ideas — I ended up spending a very odd Valentines Day with an amazing group of people that included the very nice man who is now Denmark’s Culture Minister for example.

All of the stuff in the book about Plan A, B and Z is really good advice. I actually don’t think most people should just “jump off a cliff and assemble the aeroplane on the way down” and start a startup because the financial risks can be very high. You need to be comfortable with the ‘downside case’ or Plan Z as Reid and Ben call it for it to work. What pains me is that there are some people who would be brilliant at starting something up — in fact much better than many people who are successful as entrepreneurs — but who don’t because the ‘scene’ puts them off.

I’ve met Reid Hoffman once and spent half an hour talking about early stage investing for the Startup Factories report, quite early in the morning if I remember rightly. He’s a pretty impressive guy all round but there’s one thing he said that I remember clearly as I pushed him on why he works with so many companies and how he chooses what to work on. He said with a smile, “I’m trying to build new institutions that help millions of people and last forever”, knowing how ridiculous is sounded, but he was at least partly serious — startups were just his vehicle for achieving social change. I wish more people in the tech world thought like that.
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Why gadgets matter (even if the hype is a bit annoying)

I’ve been thinking a little bit about gadgets in advance of the now widely trailed Apple announcement tomorrow. It feels like one of the biggest tech media events for a while with the tech blogs getting so desperate for news they’re even covering shipping prices.

The thing I care about is how we can use technology to solve difficult problems. In my mind that usually means software because it’s software that does the organising and the hardware (so the theory goes) is neutral. Of course the truth is that there is a complex relationship of behaviour, software, brand, networks and hardware that goes into creating any kind of social value through technology

The reason why these big announcements sometimes matter is that occasionally a gadget really does change things and starts an avalanche of new ideas and companies. It takes time though. It’s 5 years since Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone but it’s only really now that the things that I thought might be possible when I first saw it are happening. We needed a huge ecosystem of developers, APIs and user awareness to grow too. Of course the impact is also easier to see now because they’re now selling over 10m phones a month.

This led me to think about all the things I want to be possible but where the hardware isn’t quite ready yet. I thought about all the little bits of embedded computing in my life that nearly work and where the ecosystem could grow. Wattson is still chugging away telling me when I’ve left the immersion heater on. Fitbit is following me around, telling me (when I remember to sync it up) how active I’ve been. Both are imperfect, but I can see how future iterations or competitors could be really useful. I’m very happy that Nest are working on the home energy problem for example and using learning software to take it further and I’m sure at some stage, Fitbit will crack the syncing problem — probably by it connecting via the phone rather than the clunky adapter.

The most interesting recent gadget launch for me though was the Raspberry Pi — a product launch pretty far away from the ‘ooh, shiny expensive thing!’ style of Apple. I hope in 5 years time there will be just the same kind of ecosytem of developers and ideas for the Raspberry Pi that the iPhone has today meaning that millions of people (especially young ‘uns) get under the hood of software and programming. It could be a very good thing.
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The Information Diet

If you get a chance, I’d definitely recommend reading Clay Johnson’s book — The Information Diet. Clay was a founder of Blue State Digital — the company that many people credit with winning Barack Obama the presidency in 2008 thanks to their online campaign. He’s left that world behind now but is obviously still passionate about politics and particularly about how people come to form their opinions.

His thesis in the book is that, in much the same way as there are good calories and bad calories when it comes to our nutritional diet, there’s good information and bad information for our intellects. I’m not one of those who think the internet is making us stupid but I do think we have choices to make about how we should consume the mass of information that surrounds us nowadays. Some of Clay’s stories about how big news sites operate certainly make you feel like you’ve been manipulated for years. It also made me realise quite how far the hollowing out of the journalism business in the US has gone — I don’t think I’d really recognised the stark economics of the situation before. As Clay puts it:

The industrialization of information is doing to journalists what the industrialization of farming did to farmers. In an effort to squeeze every bit of profit out of a piece of content, expensive journalists are being replaced by networks of less-qualified but much cheaper independent contractors. In the world of fiduciary responsibility, quality journalism means market inefficiency.

I went through one of the exercises Clay tries in the book to recover some control over his information consumption last December. I tried SaneBox for a month and soon realised that most email is absolutely useless and unsubscribed from almost every email newsletter. For some reason I can’t seem to get rid of the private jet and auto-dealer spam, but I’m pretty much down to the important stuff.

Twitter is still a bugbear for me -Â I’ve written before about my twitter twitch. Just the other night when I was in the pub with friends, a number of people said they found themselves just pressing refresh for hours on end in the afternoons. I do too, until I catch myself.

I also think that I agree with Clay that producing is the best deterrent from consuming junk information. If you settle down to write each day without any distractions, your mind feels straightened out. I’m going to really try to make it a habit as my working day is going to be a bit different for the next six months or so.

My favourite section of the book is actually the first appendix entitled ‘Dear Programmer’ which echoes Tim O’Reilly’s “Work on Stuff that Matters” talk that inspired Social Innovation Camp and is certainly at the heart of Bethnal Green Ventures.

Clay quotes Facebook’s Jeff Hammerbacher saying, “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.” before writing:

My plea to [developers] is that you take your role in society seriously. Find an issue you care about: the environment, cancer, space exploration, education, rewiring communities, pet adoption — anything — and dedicate some portion of your time to finding new ways to put your skills to use in that community.

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