Cracking Coding

The Raspberry Pi computer

Should our schools focus on producing thinkers or training workers? I, probably like most, come down firmly on the side of thinkers. For us to address the world’s problems, inspire cultural achievement and compete in a knowledge economy, surely our education system should be focused on the ability to think. On producing tomorrow’s scientists, artists and engineers, rather than today’s office workers.

But take a look at what passes for ICT (Information and Communication Technology) teaching in schools today and most of it is little more than training courses in Microsoft Word, Excel and Powerpoint. We’re training office workers rather than providing a basis for free thought. We don’t use maths lessons to train human calculators and we’ve gone beyond rote learning in history. So where has the sense of exploration and achievement gone in ICT? Why don’t we teach programming and inspire a new generation of code-literate problem-solvers?

On Friday I was at a meeting in the primary school where I am a Governor. I raised this subject and all the teachers in the room immediately sat up. It’s not that teachers are demanding that MS Office dominates ICT, it’s the National Curriculum that lacks the foresioght to require anything more.

Luckily there are already very talented computer scientists working on solutions. Cambridge engineer Eben Upton has developed Raspberry Pi, a very basic £15 computer designed to let your children play around writing code somewhere other than the family PC. The first (alpha) release is already out and it’s planned to start shipping product at the end of this year.

And Arduino, a combination of hardware and software that together form a prototyping platform again ideal for children to mess around with and learn through experimentation, is now receiving serious interest from the teachers that will be needed to drive interest amongst the next generation of programmers.

On Friday I wrote about Britain underperforming in the list of top 100 digital start-ups ranked by value. There are a number of reasons underpinning this – ICT teaching in schools is undoubtedly one.

I want my son (and my daughter too if she’s interested) to find the opportunity to experiment with hardware and software as exciting, challenging and rewarding as I found the opportunity to experiment in school science lessons. And I believe that teaching programming, rather than use of a couple of software packages, could lead a new generation of inspired and inspiring software engineers to tackle our challenges head on.

Stuck on Silicon Roundabout

Yesterday Business Insider published their 2011 Digital 100: The World’s Most Valuable Startups. The top 100 are ranked by estimated valuation. The top 4 contains no surprises – Facebook, Zynga, Groupon and Twitter. A couple of small surprises feature in the rest of the top 10 – sites like Wikipedia (difficult to value a non-commercial organisation) and an analytics company called Palantir which I hadn’t heard of before.

Least remarkable was the dominance of Silicon Valley addresses. Now and again start-ups from outside the Valley pop up – Chicago, Washington DC and Paris all feature as top ten start-ups’ locations. New York, Finland and Sweden appear in the top 20. Seattle, Moscow and Shenzen, China feature in the top 50.

You’re probably seeing where I am going with this now – looking at home. You have to get to number 65 to find the first British company – Mind Candy, the founder-owners of Moshi Monsters, has an estimated value of £250m – and then on to number 86 to find the second – miniclip.com, an lesser-known online gaming company. One more – Shazam – at number 91 and that’s it from the UK.

Now there are plenty of countries without a single company in the top 100, so maybe I am being harsh on Britain. But then maybe not – how is it that a country with such a rich seam of creativity, with such an apparently vibrant tech scene on the street, cannot manage to grow companies to any significant value – or at least not more than three? Google’s Eric Schmidt was in Edinburgh last month blaming it on our education system not turning out engineers. And there’s a broader view that British entrepreneurs tend to sell out too early, before their companies reach the nine-figure-plus valuations that get you soaring up this sort of list.

Whatever the reason, we’re punching below our weight on the world start-up scene and we need to work harder on finding the reasons why…

“In the name of God, stop a moment, cease your work, look around you.”

Tolstoy’s words came to me today after a discussion with a colleague about the degree to which the social media world had affected live events. His argument (my colleague’s, not Tolstoy) was that young people in particular now considered videoing, photographing and tweeting about live events as part of the experience. My argument was that we have become so pre-occupied with recording the moment that we seem less and less able to live the moment.

Most of the live music I now watch, I find myself surrounded by people filming the stage on their smartphone. Even while the band’s performing, they’re manically tweeting about being there. Now I am not averse to Twitter and I am writing this as a blog post, so I am certainly not going to undermine social media as a valuable medium. But have we become so obsessed with sharing the moment that we forget to just be in the moment?

Surely watching a band live has to be about losing yourself in the music, about admiring the mastery of the musicians, or singing along to the songs that form the soundtrack to your life? If you’re concentrating on telling people that you’re there, or sharing with friends what they’re missing, aren’t you really missing the point?

Shared experience is often a better experience. But there’s a deep connection at play when you’re with friends, all dancing to the same song. I don’t feel the same depth when I am posting a video on YouTube – I just feel distracted by the mechanics of sharing. Have we confused shared experience with sharing the experience? Should we, as Tolstoy suggested, stop for a moment worrying about sharing and just look around, just live in the moment?

Office Angles

Why do we come to work in an office any more? In an era of mobile computing and the virtual office, why don’t we just work from home? Well increasingly the point is collaboration – it’s because in communications, like in so many other sectors, joint endeavour is quite simply better than sole enterprise at getting to the best outcome.

But if the reason to struggle in to the city centre office is to co-create with our colleagues and clients, then is our current crop of offices fit for purpose? Looking more like call centres than creative collaboration spaces, serried ranks of desks still fill out most offices. As a result, offices look like the enemies of collaboration and innovation, rather than the catalyst for joint working.

Now the tut-tutting of disgruntled COOs is starting to get louder as more creative businesses sacrifice Optimized Space Utilization Strategies to pursue the longer term goal of collaborative working spaces that act as catalysts for creativity.

At Engine, where I work and head up innovation, we’ve been trying out a number of approaches. Half of the ground floor is dedicated not to desk space but to our Innovation Labs – three rooms where co-creation rules, laptops get to be laptops and people configure the room each hour to suit how they work together for that discussion. On the third floor we’re trialling “creative pods” in the middle of the floor where two people can go into a brainstorming cocoon.  We’re even involving contemporary street artists to bring the walls alive.

It’s self-evident that collaboration and creativity is going to happen more easily in a vibrant, colourful, open environment than in a grey, tedious one rammed with desks. But still it seems that most of our creativity in offices is focused outside – on sleek, glass and steel exteriors.  As the Shard brings another welcome change to the London skyline, we probably need to remember that the creative solutions to our current challenges are more likely to be dreamt up inside office buildings than outside.