Handbag de Sea Squirt

HandbagdeSeaSquirt

 

Sketch from The Little Book of Thinking Big

 

 

The kids are alright – as long as they tinker

I had the good fortune to meet with Technology Will Save Us, the brilliant east London company that is teaching kids and their parents to mess around with technology rather than  be entranced by its sapphire glass surface. They are an inspiring team. I wrote a piece about them for the FT.

“The BBC announced last month that it was working with some of the biggest names in technology to create and ship 1m computer-powered gadgets to UK schoolchildren later this year.

Microsoft, Samsung and Arm, the processor maker, are among those who have signed up for the publicly funded broadcaster’s giveaway, which is aimed at giving pupils a head start in learning to programme.

But more striking is the name of one of the minnows in the partnership. Technology Will Save Us is an east London start-up created in 2012 by the wife and husband team of Bethany Koby, its chief executive, and Daniel Hirschmann.

As designer of the BBC’s personal coding device, nicknamed the Micro Bit, its role will be pivotal to a project that aims to have the same impact on technological literacy as its 1980s predecessor, the BBC Micro….”

Click link to read the full article in the Financial Times

The hard thing about the Internet of Hard Things

Screen Shot 2015-04-03 at 19.00.18We are used to the idea that computers and smartphones can be connected. That, after all, is what they are designed to do. But the Internet of Things is a world in which even something as inanimate as a manhole cover or lamp-post can be connected to the internet and invested with some low level of awareness.

Consultants McKinsey & Co estimate that 50bn devices will be connected by 2020, and this in turn will drive the total value of the IoT sector to $6.3tn. Evidently, the potential for new business ventures is vast. As Kay Kinton, director of Twilio – a company that enables the mobile communications that interconnected things require – says: “It’s really not so much about one certain sector or type of application, but the proliferation across industries.” She adds: “We have customers like Coca-Cola Enterprises in western Europe using Twilio to automatically inform repairmen when Coke machines need repair and newer companies like Smart Things have created a Smart Hub which turns your coffee machine on, makes your garage door close or turns lights off.”

One way to view the small and innovative companies leading the way is to group them as pioneers, enablers and utilisers. In this article we’ll take a look at all three:

My full article for the Guardian newspaper on the Internet of Things is here.

 

Turbo-charged learning

How a fifteen year old who crashed a hackathon taught me a lesson. BA Business Life April 2015

The Raisin: Big Brother’s secret weapon for pacifying the masses

the raisin4

Take a seat, grasshopper. This may hurt. You see, something is wrong in the blissful world of mindfulness meditation. The problem lies in the very thing that makes it so beguiling and valuable; the trouble is that it teaches you to stop worrying and enjoy the life you have no matter what the facts.

This is wise counsel you may think. Yet there may be another perspective.

Just suppose there really was a conspiracy of the 0.1-per-centers to enslave the rest of us to their greedy ambition. Well, if there were then mindfulness would be their perfect weapon. Sure, you could use kettling and rubber bullets to contain the restless masses, or control minds via a giant filter bubble of news…but nothing would subdue them like a raisin.

The focused contemplation of a raisin is one of the classic mindfulness training techniques. In such a way students learn to still their turbulent minds and control their thoughts and emotions.

Mindfulness, as you can’t possibly have escaped learning, is a secular meditation practice derived from Buddhism. By focusing your attention on a singular subject such as your breathing, the flame of a candle or a desiccated grape for 20 minutes you become mindful.

The Buddha advised that you should aspire to a state in which: “the no-mind not-thinks no-thoughts about no-things”. This is at one and the same time mind-bogglingly simple and infuriatingly difficult. The beginner cannot stop thinking without consciously thinking about not thinking …and to do this is to cross the Escher-threshold into a spiralling internal monologue.

Enter the raisin. One minute contemplating its ridges and valleys and you’ll re-discover the calming back and forth of your untroubled breath. And this isn’t new age claptrap; I’m talking actual science. Research libraries overflow with hot-off-the-press studies testifying to the benefits of “not-thinking no-thoughts”: Plummeting stress levels, soaring empathy, crystal clear decision-making, luxuriant sleep patters and (noto bene) higher productivity.

And yet something still rankles. Like any palliative it soothes the pain but doesn’t by itself fix anything.

Take the 20% rise in zero hours contracts announced in the UK a few weeks ago. If you’re one of the growing number of people working on a zero hours contract then you don’t know if you’ll have any work tomorrow or next week. So you might feel a bit anxious and undoubtedly mindfulness will help you cope with the anxiety. But it won’t pay the bills and it doesn’t change the fundamental precariousness of your situation. And perhaps your anxiety is the very thing that will drive you to make change.

In all sorts of areas mindfulness gives us an aspirin which just might prevent us attending to a more fundamental problem. Take a look:

 

Stress

Provided with a coping mechanism for the stress of modern work staff can keep spinning on the hamster wheel when their anxiety levels might otherwise tell them to leap off. Lesson: if your employer starts offering you a mindfulness classes maybe you’re closer to the edge than you thought.

 

Pay

So your boss earns 240x more than you? Recognize that thought, make no judgement and let that emotion evaporate. That though… let it go. Follow the rising and falling of your breath. There.

 

Automation and an uncertain future

The robots are coming for your job and the future looks increasingly bleak? You could smash the robots or lobby for a guaranteed basic income or… hey, check out the raisin.

And note that, as Ed Halliwell, the mindfulness author, wrote: “Striving for a concrete future is antithetical to the practice which is about staying in the uncertain present.” This uncertain present is something you have in spades. Lucky you. Stay there.

 

Inequality

So you’ve noticed that there are a few Haves and an awful lot of Have Nots. Don’t sweat it  – As Buddhism’s Noble Truths explain these are merely things and attachment to things and the associated craving for things is the source of pain. Right now you need simply to not think no more about no things.

Exception: If you’re on the inside of the super wealthy illuminati conspiracy you know full well that having the things is also very effective at eliminating the craving thereof.

 

Blame

If after all of this you still feel like upending the apple cart and doing something about your life then the problem it turns out may be you. “Have you meditated, today?” may become the stock response to any complainant.

And now that everyone’s at it we must summon George Orwell. In his dystopian novel 1984, he warned that the citizen had been conditioned to keep their unhappiness hidden from the world. They learned to control their thoughts lest they betray non-conformist ideas.

“It was terribly dangerous to let your thoughts wander when you were in a public place or within range of a telescreen” observed the independent-minded Winson Smith, a worker in the Ministry of Truth. The ruling Party built a huge infrastructure to silence complaint and persuade people they shared in ”our new and happy life”. Through a Khmer Rougeian network of child spies and office sneaks, a totalitarian news service, the omniscient Thought Police and 24/7 video surveillance citizens were taught to cease thinking for themselves. It was a giant operation.

The cheaper way to do this would have been to let the people do it to themselves.

If only Big Brother had known about the raisin.

 

Doga Yoga and the Old Street Scenius

“When I first met Robbie, I don’t think he even realised he would become this famous,” she said. And from her handbag a dog barked. Hello Robbie.

I’d been getting on with business and staying out of trouble in my favourite Old Street coffee shop when I meet the Maltese Terrier.

Robbie’s business partner is Mahny Djahanguiri and she is the world’s leading authority on “Doga Yoga”. Mahny and Robbie have been featured in newspapers, magazines and TV shows around the world. So they’re a bit famous. And definitely more famous than Robbie first imagined when he was a young pup.

As I’ve described previously, such Silicon Roundabout coffee shops as these are like the London Underground. You operate in your own bubble, fight for your elbow space, mind your own business and get on with it.

This suits me fine. I’m taking a mini sabbatical from working in, with, for or even near boot-strapped startups. As much as it’s exciting and meaningful it’s also all-consuming and exhausting and I’ve only recently exited one in a process unlike anything else except that scene from Interstellar where Cooper rides the cosmic wormhole to the fifth dimension and realises he’s back where he started.

But here’s the flaw in such sabbaticals if you live and work in this neighbourhood: Once you’ve been through a few accelerator programs as a co-founder, mentor or elite-scavenger-of pizza-and-beer you see an awful lot of familiar faces. It’s hard not to bump into people you know from one startup or another and you get talking and before you know it the dormant virus of startup excitement re-awakens. If you don’t stomp on the buzz right there, you’re making introductions, then you’re pitching in, and suddenly you’re in another team. At midnight you stagger home with the milk lamenting like David Byrne: “Well, how did I get here?”

I welcome the winter. Turned up collars, pulled down hats, near permanent darkness; It’s easier to walk the streets without inhaling a startup conversation that catalyses the bug. I mean, Summer is hell. Startup ideas float in the light breeze of enthusiasm like a thick pollen cloud. Winter, you’ve got a chance. You just have to be disciplined; Don’t give the startup contagion a chink of light. This is why I’m fiercely protective of the isolationist tendency of what I call working-coffee-shops and remain determinedly plugged in to my own space once the steaming bowl of psycho-coffee arrives.

But damn, when your neighbour’s handbag starts barking and the conversation turns to doga yoga then all of a sudden the game’s up and there goes your iron willpower. Curiosity takes over. You let your guard down.

And we get to talking about books we’re writing and this, it seems, is our shared interest which is just dandy because it’s safe. Dumbass. I should have known better. Because of course it turns out that Mahny and Robbie have come to East London to seize the digital potential of Doga Yoga. Sure, Doga Yoga might have its spiritual home in West London but disruptive digital business-models come from this side of town and so here they are.

And like everything in this startup scene the idea swiftly does the dance of the seven veils and reveals that it’s fascinating.  It’s one thing to consider Robbie doing a show-and-bark in a yoga studio. But Robbie on Youtube, the App Store and LinkedIn is, well, it could be big business. The familiar pattern starts. Business models unfurl in the imagination and then they unravel but only to be replaced by two or three more.

Brian Eno, he of Roxy Music, coined the word “scenius”. His point was that creativity springs not only from folklore’s lone genius but also from the social sharing of ideas, passion and interest. And here Silicon Roundabout shows its hand. It’s got the critical mass of entrepreneurs, experience and enthusiasm to provoke the serendipitous clash of ideas that spits out a better idea. And increasingly our “scenius” has the money, mentors, and know-how to turn these new ideas into businesses. This is a tipping point.

The next trick is to perpetuate the growth and success. To do this the roundabout must remain open to outsiders rather as well as stereotypical startup founders. It’s precisely those outsiders who come with yoga mats or arrive on four legs or who in any other way do not fit the model who are most catalytic. They keep driving innovation and create new businesses.

That’s why it’s great to see Mahny and Robbie here. But as more people flock to the area there’s one downside and it’s very personal; You really can’t help bumping into people with ideas and passion and ambition. I try very hard not to and it still happens. So if you ever find yourself subscribed to a video channel of Robbie the Maltese Terrier performing trance dances then it just may be the product of the Old Street scenius.

March 2015 column for British Airways Business Life magazine

 

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