The Third Plate


The Third Plate by Dan Barber really got me thinking. Barber is the world renowned chef behind two amazing restaurants: Blue Hill in Manhattan and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York state. I haven’t been to either but after reading the book would love to. Barber also features in the first series of Chef’s Table on Netflix which is about him as a chef. The book is about a much bigger topic — the future of food.

The ‘third plate’ in book’s title is the imaginary plate of food that Barber would serve as ‘the future’ in a menu of the past, present and future of our food system. He has studied the history of farming and our diets in incredible detail, and the book catalogues all the problems it has created. He does this from the perspective of a chef who sees how it plays out in the taste of ingredients and not from an environmentalist’s point of view. His view is we’ve created an agricultural system where crops don’t taste nice, make us unhealthy and in the long run destroy the soil they’re grown in.

Barber stands out as a chef because of his relationship with the farmers who grow the ingredients for the restaurants. He’s a keen advocate of the farm to fork movement and the book describes his adventures learning about extraordinary farmers around the world. The sections in Spain where he learns about ethical foie gras and some amazing techniques for farming fish are particularly good. It’s not as simple as a transition to organic agriculture because none of our systems are set up to deal with that. It’s also very possible to grow organic mono-crops which don’t do much to help the land or the taste and health benefits of food.

You can tell a lot about a society from its food and thinking about the future through the medium of what we’ll eat and how we’ll grow it is an interesting exercise. It’s an area we’re super interested in investing in at BGV. It’s the intersection of technological and natural that interests us.

  • Transportation costs and labour shortages could drive agriculture closer to cities. Some people call this urban farming, others vertical farming (because if you do it in built up areas, the logical thing is to build farms upwards rather than sideways — we’ll measure farms in stories, not hectares). We’ve already invested in LettUs Grow in this area.
  • We’ll see huge leaps forward in understanding the microbiome of soil and plants in the coming years. We’re interested in technologies that will make this easier and more useful.
  • We’re also interested in technology that supports rewilding as agriculture reduces as a percentage of land use. We need to be prepared for this because it’s not just a case of leaving land to nature. We’ll need to be careful that we rewild properly — the chances of invasive species wrecking areas of land is pretty high.

The Third Plate is an excellent book. Well worth a read if you care about the food that you eat and where that might come from in the future.

Is tech for good reaching the mainstream?


It’s ten years since we began running Social Innovation Camps, the precursor to Bethnal Green Ventures. We created them because we wanted to help people use their technology skills to have a positive social and environmental impact. Our eventual aim was to help tech for good become mainstream.

So how far have we come? Are we any closer to making tech for good the norm? Well, yes and no.

Industry events are a pretty good way of judging the temperature of the tech sector and I’ve been to a lot recently. My impression is that interest in tech for good has definitely risen up the agenda at the big tech events like Slush, Web Summit, SXSW and VivaTech.

I remember a BGV portfolio company founder telling me about their visit to Web Summit in Dublin four years ago. It was a pretty depressing experience. They were dismissed as ‘charity’ and there was even an out-and-out argument with the founder of an ‘adult’ dating app in another exhibition booth who was firmly in the ‘business of business is business’ camp. I don’t think his business is in business these days.

Thankfully those arguments are much less common these days. Tech for good startups and positive discussions about social and environmental impact are commonplace now. I’d say we’re at the ‘promising support act’ stage, usually on panels away from the main stage. The people who come along to the talks are those already in the tech for good sector as well as those who are finding out about it for the first time. Each time I get a note afterwards from somebody saying ‘I wish they’d do more of this stuff’ or ‘how do I get involved?’.

At Web Summit this week there were whole areas given up to social impact and a day of ‘planet tech’ talks which was very good. As I mentioned yesterday, the tech for good startups I met in office hours showed great potential.

Then you can look at what the big companies are doing. It’s great to see companies like Facebook and Google starting to support the profit-with-purpose side of tech for good. Both run programmes for tech for good startups in London. The Campus Residency for Google and LDN_LAB ‘Deep Tech for Good’ for Facebook. We’re involved in both.

Investors are starting to join the movement too. I’d say it’s mainly limited to new investors starting firms rather than existing ones changing strategy. A few of the mainstream VCs have made occasional investments in impact companies. But it’s only when a big successful VC decides to become an impact investor that we’ll have won that battle.

Sometimes I get asked what percentage of startups are ‘tech for good’ and I don’t have a good answer to that I’m afraid. All I know is that there are more than there were. My definition of a tech for good venture is one where it’s the explicit intention of the founders to have a positive impact. So being ‘medtech’ or ‘edtech’ doesn’t necessarily put you in the tech for good boat. You can create a startup in those sectors that reinforces existing problems or inequality — and isn’t ‘for good’ at all.

So there are many positives but tech for good isn’t mainstream yet. I’d give us 6/10. It’s a good start.

Stop hating, start helping

Image by hipxxhearts, some rights reserved.

If there’s one thing guaranteed to make me angry, it’s investors hating on startups. I’ve been at Web Summit in Lisbon this week and I’ve heard quite a lot of it. Usually it’s investors talking to other investors, make a negative comment about a particular idea or rolling their eyes about a founder or a pitch they’ve heard before.

Usually they do it in private but it’s also become more common in public. I’ve noticed a rise in investors posting moans about founders disguised as ‘advice’ — but really they’re just being disrespectful to the people who make the tech industry anything at all.

Not all investors are alike of course. There was a dinner for VCs on Monday night in a spectacular venue in Lisbon and I got chatting with an investor from a firm that I respect. We commented on how privileged our position is. We get to see the firehose of positivity of founders as well as exposed to the future before most people and we get to play a small role in helping the best firms make it. It’s no surprise to me that everybody wants to start a fund. Investing is a huge amount of fun and even though it’s not a very reliable way to make money, it’s a unique opportunity to have an impact. And the chances are that you’ll learn a lot too.

I met with ten startups for Web Summit office hours this morning — they were all trying to do brilliant things. The founders were passionate about education, healthcare or improving the environment. I wasn’t the right person to help all of them, but I hope I was supportive and positive right back at them even if I couldn’t help directly.

We should never forget the whole tech for good sector (and tech sector more widely) is completely reliant on founders. They give up a huge amount with often very little reward. They take the biggest risks. They feel the heartache of failure most acutely. I think it’s our responsibility to be positive and supportive.

Less snark, more generosity. That’s what I’m hoping for.

Be more Don

Don is about 65, has an (almost) full head of hair and wears a silver grey suit and monogrammed shirt. His ring finger is swollen from the workout it gets from the weight of his gold ring. His old mechanical watch looks out of place next to his black plastic Fitbit on his wrist.

Don is not in this picture — it’s from an NHS Confederation conference in 2010. Some rights reserved.

Don is the guy who works the room at a conference, quietly and effectively making new friends. He does everything by the book and it works — the book being Dale Carnegie’s ‘How to make friends and influence people’.

Don is a nice guy. He’s learned his charisma and conference personality over many years. He approaches me confidently but not arrogantly. He holds my eye without being creepy. He introduces himself with a joke that sets me at ease. He tells me a little bit about himself — he’s from San Francisco, he runs a small investment fund. He asks about me and finds the things that link us professionally. He offers me an informational gift (there’s this cool company he came across that does something I might be interested in). He tells me he’s a great fan of London and lists off all the football stadiums he’s visited (Tottenham is his favourite team — he pronounces it with three syllables rather than two). I don’t have a business card but I write my contact details on a scrap of paper. He adds extra notes about what I do and how he might be able to help. As he does so I see the giant collection of cards of other friends he’s made.

I’m not a natural networker at events. While it feels like I’ve been fundraising for almost all my professional life, I’ve only intermittently enjoyed going along to conferences and trying to make new connections. I guess I’ve been burned a few times by the people who are almost territorial about particular events being their world. Then there are those who go to events with a mission and if you’re not on their list they’ll be dismissive at best and rude at worst. It’s also hard to butt into a group and introduce yourself. There’s always that existential risk of rejection. It’s like a teenage angst.

But over the years I’ve loosened up. I’ve learned that there are lots of people at conferences a bit like me. If you open up your body language, smile and say hello to the first person you make eye contact with, very little can go wrong. I still find big events stressful but I recognise that people like Don make those big events easier for people like me. Over the years I’d like to be more like Don.

(Don is not a real person, by the way)

Inner City Pressure


I’ve read a lot of new books this year but haven’t got round to writing up little reviews of them like I was doing last year. So I thought I might try and catch-up with posts about the standouts over the next few months.

The first is ‘Inner City Pressure: the story of grime’ by Dan Hancox. It might be the best book about 21st century politics in the UK that I’ve read.

The grime scene started in Bow, a mile or so away from where I live in East London. You can see the ‘three flats’ in the photo on the cover of the book from our window. The book is the story of grime from about 2003 through to the current day.

The headlines would have you believe that grime was just about gangs, guns and knives but it was also a creative outpouring about how badly politicians and the people who ran London at the time misjudged the impact of their policies on the lives of poor people (particularly poor black people) in East London. People in the grime scene were persecuted by the police, the city and politicians — in a way that was only thinly veiled racism.

The music was (and is) incredibly claustrophobic. Lots of the early lyrics focused on a few square miles around Roman Road and Bow. Dan Hancox contrasts it with the expansive, epic ‘Empire State of Mind’ by Jay-Z about New York which is full of wealth, bling and private jets. Grime is about what it feels like to have no hope of escape and Hancox thinks Dizzee Rascal called his album ‘Boy in Da Corner’ because he felt trapped. The urban music scenes in the US and UK scenes were very different. These days people from both scenes are multi-millionaires but the music came from very different places.

I remember going to grime nights in Shoreditch in 2005/6 and having no idea what was going on. Ten years later and some of the people who were there are some of the most successful artists in the UK music industry. Not only have they become successful themselves but they’ve changed the way the music industry is organised. Grime was about being an outsider and independent which meant that it took them ages to actually break through — as Hancox points out, grime wasn’t really commercially successful until 2016 (except for a few artists who had to morph their style to get mainstream acceptance). Now the independence that grime artists hung on to is much more the norm. The music industry has been transformed.

The book is a fantastic story of some of the people who hung on in there for over a decade while the music they loved gradually gained acceptance. Take Wiley who is interviewed throughout the book — you get the feeling he believed it it would be big from one day. He was always building up people, and helping out younger artists. There’s a hint of satisfaction in the later interviews with him, that a bunch of poor black teenagers from an estate in East London made their mark. You can’t help but root for him. Against the mainstream, against discrimination, against politics, against the police, their message finally made it — like he always knew it would.

Technology, networks and increasing returns

W. Brian Arthur (image from Wikimedia)

One of the people whose thinking has had the greatest impact on me is W. Brian Arthur, the complexity theorist and economist who did much of the original work on the economics of networks. Brian was very involved in the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico which for a while held a kind of mythical place in my mind — I read as much as I possibly could that came out of there as I realised that the work they had done was exactly what I was interested in. That led me to really try and understand the maths and techniques of network theory which has been an important part of lots of things I’ve worked on.

There’s a great podcast in the A16Z series at the moment of a conversation between Brian Arthur and Sonal Chokshi and Marc Andreessen from A16Z about what those papers he wrote in the 80s and 90s can teach us about the way that technology has developed and what it means for investment. Arthur argues that investing in technology companies is different from investing in other companies because of the interaction they have with network effects and the law of increasing returns (as opposed to diminishing returns in most markets). There are all kinds of reasons why particular tech firms end up dominating markets (Arthur’s shorthand for the combination of these is ‘luck’), but he argues that the overall phenomenon is inevitable and inescapable. Markets either become effective monopolies or they become commoditised — there’s very little middle ground in the medium to long term. Coincidentally this is why I think technology is so vital to impact investing. If impact investing were only to focus on markets that become commoditised, it would struggle to have a positive impact at scale and miss all the opportunities that new technologies present.

The podcast is well worth a listen and confirms my view of Brian Arthur as one of the most pertinent thinkers for the world we live in.

Doing nothing

Photo some rights reserved by Jes.

Following on from yesterday’s post on whether nation states make any sense in the twenty-first century and the tensions caused by working out what governments should do, I was struck by Tim Harford’s recent piece about whether we’d be better off letting politicians go on holiday for longer. His argument is that in many domains — from politics to investment, medicine to central banking — doing nothing is often better than intervening:

It is human nature to believe something must always be done. Yet we overrate our abilities to do it and it is awfully hard to make the case for passivity. The task is not made easier by campaigners wanting a policy, newspapers wanting a story or the patient wanting a pill. Who dares to offer them nothing?

Are countries over?

Photo some rights reserved by Raja Habib.

I think it was nearly ten years ago that I hosted an event with Clay Shirky for Demos in London. Clay was talking about Here Comes Everybody, his fantastic book about the role that decentralised technology is having on society and the collected audience of wonks, geeks and innovators all nodded along in agreement to most of the things that Clay said.

But part way through the Q&A, things took an odd turn and the expressions on the audience’s faces changed. Clay said that he didn’t think we’d need nation states in the future. His example was Belgium which at the time hadn’t had a government for over a year because they couldn’t agree on a new coalition. Nothing particularly bad had happened — the bins were still being emptied and hospitals still worked. Towns and cities had continued to operate without the elected national politicians being able to decide who was in charge.

After the event I started thinking that perhaps many of the problems we face are a realisation of that tension — the institutions of nation states are struggling to work out what they’re for and citizens are confused as well. Neatly overlaying identity and governance has always been difficult, but it’s in flux once again and national politicians now focus simply on the things that are unique to them — the use of force and control over borders.

Of course not everyone thinks countries are over. Donald Trump thinks nation states are a very good idea. His speech at the UN General Assembly contained a section saying as much: “the nation state remains the best vehicle for elevating the human condition. It’s in everyone’s interests to seek the future where all nations can be sovereign, prosperous, and secure.” “Make America Great Again”, “Take Back Control” and so on all appeal to people who do believe in countries as the best way of organising things.

But I’m not sure that’s tenable in the long run. We’ll see much more change over the coming years and countries will have to find a new role. Today it has spilled over into horrible violence in Catalonia, tensions linger in Scotland about a second referendum, Kurdistan is at the centre of a battle for independence, the list goes on. Perhaps less obviously, individual cities are becoming more powerful and autonomous — something I think is a positive long-term trend.

We are as gods and might as well get good at it

Photo some rights reserved by Michael Coté

That was the opening line of the first issue of the Whole Earth Catalogue back in 1968. Last night I went along to one of the Long Now Seminars in San Francisco — organised by Stewart Brand, the person who penned that first line — to hear astrobiologist David Grinspoon give a talk.

Grinspoon’s talk applied the principles of how we look for life and potential civilisations in the rest of the universe to the Earth. If we were alien astrobiologists looking at our planet, what would we be able to tell? Grinspoon thinks it would be obvious that we’re an intelligent civilisation rather than just simple life and that’s mainly because of the effect that humans have had on land and the atmosphere. We’d quite obviously be in an anthropocene to outside observers or a period when life is having an intentional macrosopic effect on the planet. We are, to some extent, in control.

Grinspoon is an optimist that we will eventually control climate change — we have the tools, we just need to get good at using them. He points to the way that the hole in the ozone layer has now almost been reversed as a point of hope that it is possible to reverse unintentional man-made change in the atmosphere.

The best Five Books on anything


I stumbled across Five Books this morning. It’s a fantastic archive of interviews with people who recommend the best five books on their chosen subject. It ranges from Diane Coyle talking about the best economics books of 2016, through to Tyler Cowen on the best books about information theory or Jeremy Mynott on the best books about birdwatching. Whether or not you agree with their picks, it’s a real treasure trove with over a thousand topics covered so far.

It got me thinking about what my five books would be. I think I’d choose ‘values and invention’ as my topic at the moment (with a bias towards understanding how we can create the most positive social change from digital technologies) and my five would be:

  • The Lunar Men by Jenny Uglow is the story of the pioneers of the industrial revolution who met on the full moon each month in Birmingham in the 1760s to swap ideas and invent the modern world.
  • Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson is the best explanation of how we think innovation happens. Spoiler alert: it’s not the way that governments and big companies think it does.
  • What the Dormouse Said by John Markoff explains why Silicon Valley is a pretty confused place ethically. The mixture of military money and 60s counter-culture made for some strange ideas.
  • The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes is the ultimate history of how the brightest and best scientists and engineers of a generation found their skills put to work on something that almost none of them thought was a good idea in the end.
  • Microserfs by Douglas Coupland is an ordinary (and very funny) tale of what it’s like to work for a technology company when nobody really asks why you’re doing what you’re doing.