Trading guns for bikes

It’s a brilliant idea. Take guns off the street and replace them with bikes.

Uruguay rates 9th in the world for the number of guns per capita. With a population of just 3.3 million, there are more than a million guns – half of those unregistered.

Under the Uruguayan Interior Ministry’s “Weapons for Life” campaign, residents turning in an unregistered guns will each receive either a new bike or a (simple) computer. The scheme is an alternative to the weapons buyback schemes that richer countries like the USA and Australia have tried. And of course the idea has the potential to improve health and transport as well as reducing the murder rate.


Innovation (on the) Super-Highway

Quietly, there was a gear change in motoring this month. A car drove onto the public road for the first time in California. No, wait, this gets more interesting. I actually mean the car drove itself, without a driver. Just a computer and a very large number of sensors doing the steering, braking and accelerating. OK there was a passenger there to grab the wheel in case a computer crash caused a car crash. But California has now joined Nevada in allowing cars to roam the public highway deciding when to stop and how fast to go.

For years, Google has been working on the first self-drive cars. For years, that work took place on old airfields and private roads. Now it’s all out on public view as the technology is tested to prepare the road (OK – no more puns) for commercial deployment. And that’s no longer too far away. Google co-founder Sergey Brin has said he wants to bring autonomous vehicles to the market in five years. Five years – it’s taken longer than that for European manufacturers to bring already proven hybrid (electric-petrol) engines to their brands.

This is fascinating on a number of levels. The car industry seems to be asleep at the wheel (sorry) on this one. The boss of a large UK marketing agency with whom I was talking last week had never heard of the driverless car – although his largest client is a major car brand. Then look at who is doing the innovating here. To be fair, Google’s not the only one researching the technology, but the rest are academic institutions, not the manufacturing giants of Detroit, Munich and Tokyo.

But for me what really stands out here is that for once, I am writing about audacious innovation. Not an incremental improvement or a new service idea. But something with the potential to transform our ideas about transport. With a driverless car, we could allow those with disabilities, those without licences, the very old or the young, even those who have stayed late at the pub, all to get home. We could set our cars to go back home after they’ve dropped us at work. We could have self-serve taxis and delivery vehicles. We could eliminate bad driving, drastically reduce road traffic accidents. Suddenly we can transform our roads and perhaps reclaim our cities.

Because for all the innovation that we’ve welcomed since the internet became a part of our lives, there isn’t much in the last ten years that transformed our day-to-day existence. I am reminded of the motto of Founders Fund, a venture capital firm started by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel: “We wanted flying cars—instead we got 140 characters.” Last year Thiel told the New Yorker that he didn’t consider the iPhone a technological breakthrough. “Compare this with the Apollo space program,” he said holding up his iPhone. Twitter gives 500 people “job security for the next decade,” he says in the interview, but “what value does it create for the entire economy?”

It should be no surprise that Google is behind what I argue is a real example of audacious or disruptive innovation. Whether it’s culture, the founders, 20% time or freedom from VCs, they’re in an almost unique position of being able to invest time and brilliant thinkers in cracking some pretty interesting challenges. Of course driverless cars are not a cure for cancer or a solution to the world’s looming energy crisis, but they do have the potential to change a part of our everyday lives in a way which most, even today, might dismiss as a wacky sci-fi idea.

When I was at school (let’s just say a long time ago), the 21st Century was going to be an era of interplanetary space travel and bacofoil suits, an era of leisure where computers did all the work and humans did no more than a few hours of work a week. Somewhere amid financial crisis and short-termism, we replaced the dreams of a bright future with an era of political pragmatism. The driverless car might not be single-handedly take us off down an Innovation Super-Highway towards that bright future, but it feels more exciting than sitting behind the wheel in the traffic jam of incremental change.

This blog post was first posted on The Foundry’s blog. The Foundry is where I have the pleasure of spending my working hours.

Dramatic distraction

More people are on the internet for longer each day, the working day continues to expand into the evening, and yet TV consumption continues to hold steady . How can that be?

The answer is multitasking. I wrote yesterday about the harm that multitasking can do to concentration, productivity and enjoyment in the workplace, but of course the same applies to the home.

The problem for marketers, whether creative or media-oriented, is that an eyeball just isn’t worth what it used to be when that eyeball is flitting between two or more screens, failing to really absorb or be absorbed by either as a result.

eMarketer has estimated US adults crammed more than 11 hours of media content into an average day in 2011, double-counting for simultaneous usage. That may be US research, but most would agree the behaviour here is the same as the behavior there. The optimists argue that there are as many opportunities for marketers in multitasking TV and internet use as there are problems, citing perhaps Nielsen research from last year that 19% of smartphone and tablet owners reported using their mobile devices to seek information related to a TV ad. I see only an audience already fragmented across channels now increasingly distracted by a cacophony of several simultaneous media.

Last year I had a conversation with a senior TV executive in the UK who said that he had more and more viewers telling him they no longer had time to watch a film. His view, with which I concur, was what they really meant was that they were losing the ability to concentrate for two hours on a film, and that a one-hour episode of a series was as long as they could sit down for at a stretch.

Suddenly this is a huge problem for more than just marketers. If we can no longer concentrate for long enough to sit passively, being entertained; if we are so distracted by modern life that we have lost the ability to truly relax over a film; if we are so distracted we cannot truly escape; then the whole basis of long-form entertainment starts to look threatened.

As a fan of Test Match Cricket, I can still appreciate the 20:20 game – but it’s not the same thing. Short stories have merit but they’re not as engaging as novels. Increasingly, it appears, episodic drama is taking over the small screen. The cinema remains a refuge from the always-on connected world outside – one of the very last places where answering your phone is considered taboo – but for how long? For the sake of our culture and our sanity, I hope it will remain so for generations to come.

Time for a punk film revolution











The BAFTAs and the Oscars are the views of the establishment of the film world. No surprise then that the big winner at the BAFTAs this week (and predicted to do well at the Oscars) was a film that revelled in the magic of movie-making in the heyday of film – The Artist. Lauded as an innovative modern take on the silent film, in fact it’s a cosy throw-back to a golden era. Stuffed with cine-literate references to the history of film in a context of Great Art, it’s a good film, even by my reckoning. But it’s not great. It isn’t shining a new light on the human condition or challenging our world view. It’s beautiful and perfectly-shot and, well, easy. It’s a view of the establishment – from the establishment’s point of view.

For the last eight years I have served as a BAFTA juror, assessing the relative merits of 50+ films each Christmas and whittling down longlist to shortlist and then to voting for award-winners in each category. And during that time I have seen good and bad years, but with the quality of films, I have to say, declining year-on-year. Now and then a vintage year has popped up, but the trend is unmistakable. This year I was left voting for pretty good films and performances – the first time I can remember having not seen a single film I was really excited by. Meryl Streep was good. The Help a good film. The Descendants better. Extremely Loud well worth seeing. But nothing stood out as a brilliant and deserving winner.

Look back to last year’s box office figures and I think we may have found the villain of the piece – the ‘franchise’. The top 8 films of 2011 ranked by box-office takings were all sequels or franchises – the latest Harry Potter, Transformers and Twilight Saga were the top three – a Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and sequels to The Hangover and Cars made up much of the rest of the list.  Sequels have been around for a long time of course, but never before have the top five of the year been all franchises, let alone the top eight.

Of course sequels aren’t all bad – take The Godfather Part II, or the Star Wars trilogy – and the latest Harry Potter has many merits. But if the purpose of film is to surprise and delight – to shine a new light on the human condition – then franchises are unlikely to provide the award-winning script. There’s long been an argument that studios need the revenue from the “Twilight” films and “Harry Potter” to fund more innovative – and risky – original films. But in these recessionary times, the franchise revenue seems to be going to the financiers rather than the studios’ innovation funds.

Film-makers will adapt. Innovation will happen, as so often, in the margins. But now is the time for rapid, transformational innovation. To get films like Pulp Fiction, Crash (Paul Haggis’ 2004 film), Fargo, Fight Club or American Beauty we need a new generation of punks prepared to throw rocks at the establishment and continue to do so even after they become part of it. We need this decade’s Tarantino, Coen brothers, or Pixar studios to step forward. We need film’s equivalent of the New York Dolls or the Sex Pistols. And we need them to explode upon the scene with such passion and fervour that it changes the way we view film. Then, we’ll have something to sit up for.

If a picture’s worth a thousand words …

… what are 3.5 trillion photos worth? That’s how many photos have ever been taken, according to photo archive site 1000Memories. The company estimates that Facebook currently houses over 140 billion photos uploaded by users, with 6 billion per month being uploaded. The typical digital camera owner takes about 150 digital images per year and potentially uploads 20 percent of those to Facebook.

Of course the real driver of our snap-happiness is the convenience of digital. It currently takes two minutes for people to collectively snap the same amount of photos that were captured during the entire nineteenth century. Ten per cent of those 3.5 trillion photos were taken in the last 12 months alone. Analog photography hit its peak in the year 2000 when 85 billion physical photos were captured, a figure that translates to 2,500 photos per second.

The picture above is the first photo ever taken to feature a human being. The image shows a busy street, but due to exposure time of more than ten minutes, the traffic was moving too much to appear. The exception is the man at the bottom left getting his boots polished, who stood still long enough to show on the picture.

But are we becoming better photographers? Ealier this year I blogged about the greatest photo ever taken – and it was by a machine rather than a human being. Undoubtedly there are far more people who describe themselves as keen on photography now – what digital does allow us to do is to fail repeatedly until we get it right. I am reminded of a saying from Aristotle which points to repeated practice leading to excellence – in time we will all become better snappers.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

Here’s to the Crazy Ones

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes.

The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them.

About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They invent. They imagine. They heal. They explore. They create. They inspire. They push the human race forward.

Maybe they have to be crazy.

How else can you stare at an empty canvas and see a work of art? Or sit in silence and hear a song that’s never been written? Or gaze at a red planet and see a laboratory on wheels?

While some see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

The text is from the 1998 “Think Different” Apple ad that marked the beginning of Apple’s re-emergence as a technical giant thanks to the return of Steve Jobs. I don’t think it’s possible to over-estimate Steve Jobs’ impact on the worlds of technology and business. Not just in what he did, but in the way that what he did inspired or enabled so many others to make great things in whatever they did. The human body is fragile but the human spirit can, occasionally, soar to dizzying heights. RIP Steve Jobs.

“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?

2010 – Year of Theatre

My New Year’s Resolution 2010 was to make the most of living in London. Live the year as if it was our last in London (it isn’t) and go to the theatre at least once a month (we did).  The resolution worked: forced onto the front foot, Deb and I sought reviews, went to plays (and theatres) we might not otherwise have visited and simply booked what we could.

So what moved me in 2010? All sorts, from opera to tragedy to farce. Four stood out above the crowd, in reverse order:

4: A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Kingston’s Rose. Judi Dench back in the play where she started her career, but not just her, the whole cast were phenomenal.

3: Now it gets really tough, because 2010 allowed me to watch three of the best plays I have ever seen. Just an inch behind the leading two was La Bete – all star cast including David Hyde Pierce and Joanna Lumley, but it was Mark Rylance who held the audience in the palm of his hand. One of two Rylance performances I saw this year that convinced me he’s unparalleled in British theatre.

2: Can’t really distinguish between the top two. Jerusalem was brilliant, funny, poignant, biting, aggressive, timely. Seeing it on St George’s Day (the original title of the play) brought its themes on modern England to light even more strongly. And of course there was Rylance at his majestical best, owning every corner of the stage and every member of the audience.

1: We started the year with War Horse and it remained the strongest piece of theatre in a brilliant year. If you haven’t seen it, do so now. I cried, sat spellbound for two and a half hours and will return again in 2011 (Deb’s already been back in 2010). Seeing the disappointing Birdsong on stage later in the year merely proved how brilliant was War Horse for bringing the First World War to the stage so well.

The Year of Theatre worked well enough that we’ve already extended the run for another year. The first three months are already booked – Fela at the National in January, Children’s Hour in the West End in Feb and King Lear at Richmond in March. Plus probably Season’s Greetings at the National to be booked. The New Year’s resolution re-invigorated my appetite for theatre. And now I’m as hooked as I ever have been. My message for 2011? Get out there, away from the small screen, to where the light shines brightly on the human condition.

New Eras Take Time to Dawn

The first television broadcasts were nothing more than a camera placed in front of a radio announcer. The first films ever made were shot through a proscenium arch to replicate the theatre experience. New art forms tend to lag behind the introduction of new technology.

So it should come as no surprise that, after 50 days of owning one, the iPad has not re-defined my media day. Mostly, I consume, rather than create. And on the iPad, my consumption has yet to change gear: newspapers, magazines and the odd book; web pages on the sofa; games with the children.

In this I am not alone. A survey out this week from copywriting firm Cooper Murphy Webb found iPad owners in the UK considered it best for reading newspapers and magazines. For books, it was more marked – 41% of iPad owners liked to read on the device, against 36% who preferred hard copies (the rest were other screens before you ask).

Of those surveyed I would imagine most, like me, were eager to try out their new toy on anything they could get for it. And mobility isn’t really the killer function. More than 60% rarely or never take it out of the house – just 5% always do so.

Just as film moved on from the proscenium arch shot, so the iPad will find its moment. I can already see the first sparkle of new ideas: my subscription to Wired comes alive with video, hyperlinks and animated graphics in a way that the magazine never could; my children are eagerly learning chess because the iPad is different; my DJ-friend using a turntable app to professionally mix his iTunes collection; and I am playing the (virtual) piano again.

Cooper’s survey found almost a quarter of iPad owners saying it had become their primary entertainment device. It’s inevitable that most of that entertainment was created for another screen or medium. In time, this device will change our media experience once again.

Innovate or stagnate

This week NESTA published a report which boldly stated that the only ways to trigger economic growth and job creation were innovation and high-tech industry expansion. The report compares four scenarios and concludes that neither a “full-blooded manufacturing renaissance” nor a ‘business as usual” reliance on financial services are credible ways to exit the recession and resume growth.

Everyone loves the idea of innovation of course, but NESTA’s report doesn’t offer any clues as to what sort. Most people tend to think of first product and then process innovation. Concentrating exclusively on these, however, ignores the potentially huge gains of management innovation. Staggering growth rates have been achieved by organisations prepared to innovate in the way that they do business, measure, finance and report on how they work. At Engine we’ve been supporting clients to take an entirely fresh, and often digitally-informed approach to running the very business itself.

Then there are innovation styles. Monet and Picasso between them revolutionised 20th century art. Picasso was a conceptual innovator – quick to think up and implement new ways of doing things.  Monet was an experimental innovator, one of a type called “seekers” who typically innovate by continually seeking to improve, without knowing exactly what they are looking for.

Picasso produced his greatest works (at least if measured by prices achieved at auction) early in his life, typical of conceptual innovators (also called “finders”). Monet and the “seekers” tend to produce their greatest works later in life.

UK plc probably needs both innovation styles in order to prosper in this decade. Entrepreneurs are clearly more likely to be conceptual innovators, but we shouldn’t simply assume that renders established companies only capable of being experimental innovators. It’s the mix of finders and seekers that will surely deliver truly dynamic growth throughout the decade and across all sectors of the economy.