In October, our managing director Sheila Parry attended the WIRED UK 2013 Conference in Tobacco Dock. Here she presents some of the highlights of the WIRED agenda and reflects on the task ahead, not just for the new style entrepreneurs but also the old school institutions that still hold the majority of the global purse strings.
It has taken a while to come down from the high that I felt at the WIRED UK 2013 conference, where the combined brainwaves of arts, science, technology and media meritocracy showered upon me until they actually seemed visible in the room. The future, it seemed, belongs to those digital entrepreneurs who are born connected and are finding new ways to combine technology with their own particular vision.
From the opening presentation on Media Futures by Nick D'Aloisio I felt I had landed in a kind of beauty parade of young entrepreneurial talent that has already challenged anything that is slow or stationary and, it would appear, has won hands down. Anything that takes more than 2 minutes of your time to read, claimed d’Aloisio, creates friction with your desire to engage. Immediacy is the expectation of the day: witness the rise of Summly. But the event left me suitably moved to want to do more than a Storify; there was a lot to take in, of course, but more to do as a result.
Highlights of the event for me were the inventors and social entrepreneurs who are busy bringing opportunity to the as yet unconnected. Suneet Singh Tuli who through his company DataWind has created a $20 android tablet, known as the Aakash, and sold three million units in India in 2012, blasting the statisticians’ projections since its launch and bringing completely new communities of users online to further their education and economic opportunity. And even where the Internet hasn’t yet landed, there is another pioneer, Deepak Ravindran, who with a group of computer science students, created an entirely new style of information provision through mobile phones and founded Innoz, wanting to be the Google of SMS and the creator of an offline Internet. When the Cricket World Cup came to India, Ravindran took the idea to Aircel who saw the commercial opportunity to drive real-time scores through their networks and partnered with Innoz. Total user numbers have now risen to 120 million. But Innoz not only strikes at the sporting soul of Indian social culture, the company’s developers also address some of the country’s deepest societal challenges. One such example is Truecaller to increase the safety of women by verifying and scoring the identity of callers. They also drive technology education in girls’ schools through the provision of computers in a joint venture with the charity, Girl Effect. Giving blood, learning English, finding lost victims are additional apps Innoz has since extended to the SMS-enabled network, along with a host of games and entertainments apps of course.
Which is another great thing about these new entrepreneurs, they all want to have fun as well. Internationally acclaimed pianist, Lang Lang, having taken the world by storm at the opening of the Beijing Olympics and since, has now developed an app called Magic Piano to encourage children to love practicing. Women, education, equal opportunity and creativity were all important themes on the minds of these next generation leaders. There was a thrilling mood about the conference when we dared to believe that if real economic power fell into the hands of these digital pioneers with a social conscience, that the world could actually become a better place.
The doubt began to creep in with a thought-provoking session by the Chilean scientist, Alfredo Zolezzi, who has developed a cheap and effective methodology for water purification - an innovation that nevertheless requires massive funding, yet he is unable to offer ROI on traditional timescales and has therefore been ignored by some big corporates. By 2025, he recognised, there will be the billions more people connected to the Internet, but those living with insanitary water will move from one-third to two-thirds of the world’s population. At the same time, in this year, while a child dies every 20 seconds, we are using 30 litres of water to make a single litre of beer. “Tell me how I can create demand in communities with no buying power?” he asked. I felt the same question applies to Oxitec, creators of a new prevention of Dengue Fever through insect sterilisation technology, which will rely on governments and regulators – in the developed and developing world - to have the courage to overcome legacy opposition before agreeing to funding that will save lives and local economies.
I felt further social discomfort after a talk by Brad Templeton from the Singularity University, demonstrating the driverless car being developed by the Google innovation team. Although thrilled at the prospect of a world where road traffic accidents, carbon emissions and land given over to carparks are all decimated, there were a couple of questions left unanswered about the economic effects of these intelligent robots and the impact on thousands of employed drivers if not millions of workers employed in the car manufacturing sector. One scenario, for example, could see half a million factory workers in China being replaced by 20,000 people and a team of robots.
Nobody has yet come up with an app that can fight systematic unemployment and protect employees who through no fault of their own become the highest removable production cost in a business. Or one that can care for the elderly in regions that have controlled their population levels to the point of stagnation and unsustainability.
It seems to me that while we are making new systems for manufacturing and connectivity, we are stuck with the old-style economic models that breed and perpetuate global and social inequality. No wonder Governments all over the developed and struggling world are saying that economic recovery and innovation is in the hands of the entrepreneurs – it will need far too much imagination for the institutionalised investor to wrestle with the problems we have already created and yet we are ignoring.
Witness Jack Andraka, who invented a new diagnostic for pancreatic cancer, through relentless desk research via Google and Wikipedia, unable to afford the cover price of the most relevant scientific papers. And then when he took the breakthrough solution to 200 Universities, only one would listen to the new way of approaching the subject. Scientific big data is still closed, corporate innovation still proprietary and the wealthiest companies, some claim, are currently spending more money on lawyers arguing who is going to own what in the digital age, than they are spending on R&D in the first place.
The overriding impressions I took from WIRED was that the future may indeed belong to the newly connected and motivated, and that information should be available anywhere, anytime and – for most part - in its shortest form. But I also felt that we should take care not to leave the new leaders of the digital age with too many legacy problems, when we really could address them ourselves. Insodoing, however, we could learn a thing or two from their eagerness to explore what can be done, because we all have access to new ways to do it. And we should definitely adopt their desire to solve problems first, and work out how to make money later.
Alfredo Zolezzi’s cautionary words came back repeatedly to haunt me: “With all these advances, we are living in the future but we are not dealing with the problems of the past. We are creating innovation only for those who can afford it and that is not right. With such privilege comes responsibility. We should take that seriously now.”
Coming back to work, I have had this feeling of new style, old style tensions thoroughly reinforced. In the last week, I have spent some highly engaging and productive time with corporate innovators (by no means an oxymoron in spite of the above) who are looking to create a true learning culture in a global organisation; and in my own team at theblueballroom, I am trying to engender a culture where it is easy to discuss our own skills and talents, what we see as opportunities and where we think we need to learn. But I have also heard from a professional friend this week who received news of a restructure and his own redundancy by an SMS to another colleague – and is left feeling that he is simply victim of an organisation that still treats people like pawns on a chessboard.