All posts by brian_condon

Dystopia, myopia, fatalism?

Can we ‘hack’ our way to Environment 2.0 or are we too Human 1.0 to cope?

Adam Greenfield’s talk at Futuresonic last week was insightful; how cities will look and how we will use them once networked sensors are embedded in pretty much everything, pretty much everywhere.   I liveblogged it using scribblelive here.  You can see the way he developed the argument and the way some of the tweeters to #futr09 reacted.

Photo credit: Aeioux
Photo credit: Aeioux

But what really galvanised the audience and set the tweets flying was an apparently casual remark right at the end of his session in response to questions.  What most of us thought he said was along the lines that sustainability wasn’t possible and we should all just do our best to make whatever time we have left valuable.


This rather punctured the somewhat gung-ho ‘tech can solve it’ bubble blown by Jamais Cascio in his heckled-by-a-drunk-person and subsequently much-blogged opening keynote.  You can see a liveblog by Martin Bryant here which gives you a ‘feel’ for the gala event.  The idea that we can ‘Hack the Earth’ in some massive geo-engineering intervention is a big, scary idea and was presented in a deliberately provocative  way.  It seems to me that we’ve already hacked the poor old Earth about rather a lot.   Tech-driven re-hacking of what is a deeply non-linear system where we’re not too certain we can model next week’s weather carries perhaps a few additional risks.  But rather than get dragged into that, what I really want to focus on was both the reaction to Cascio’s thinking and the much more stunned interpretation of Greenfield’s remarks as being ‘we’re all doomed and there’s no point trying’.

The false poles of optimism and pessimism

We got back to Greenfield’s remarks at the end of Roland Harwood’s session on Deciphering Trust in Networked Innovation where there was some discussion and I raised the issue of ‘the guy from Nokia’ when Adam’s name went right out of my head at the crucial moment (sorry Adam!).  The following extract from the indefatigable Martin Bryant’s liveblog illustrates the point:


And from then on, we ended up labelling those who believe that we can ‘fix it’ with the support of wizzy technology, like Cascio, ‘the optimists’ and anyone holding a negative view, like Greenfield, ‘the pessimists’.  It wasn’t really possible to develop the arguments from then on – the labels stuck and the polarity increased.  Which was inevitable, I suppose, but a shame.

Deal with it ‘in the now’

Greenfield was trying, I think, to make a much more subtle and nuanced point – that feeling we ‘might not make it’ shouldn’t stop us doing the right thing.  That the future vision of the City with its open sensor-based networks and connected people could flip into dystopia.  That ‘optimisim’ could actually be myopia and unwillingness to confront the reality of our situation.  There is much more to this than ‘hacking’ our way into the Earth’s geocode; Cascio points out the risk of hubris in that.  The idea that we have enough control of ourselves, let alone sufficient understanding of the potential system impacts of what we do, to be effective may be an illusion.  So perhaps, the best we can do, is deal with what we can deal with and make sure we keep our values in mind.

Adopting digital behaviours in real life . . .

How do currents develop?  How do we not lose stuff?
Where does everything go?

img_0813Artist Lanfranco Asceti gave a charming presentation on how, when we are creating a record in the flow of information through digital behaviour, we create the potential for conflicts with ‘real life’.

Lanfranco uses a transmedia artistic approach to investigate the intersections (or not) between the digital world and the real world.

His presentation began with a video made as part of his artistic process in seeing how messages are transmitted.  “How can we understand the flows of messages?”.  He has thrown a message in a bottle  to his friend Henry Jenkins, a Professor at MIT, into the sea in Istanbul.

The question is?

Will Henry Jenkins hear about it?

The most compelling image for me is of the bottle being thrown into the harbour and then ‘bouncing’ back out and into the thrower’s hand.  Made me think of e-mail bouncing or of servers being repeatedly ‘pinged’.

We are throwing bottles in the sea with a message to Henry Jenkins as well as throwing a message in the sea of the information of social networks on Facebook to see if Henry Jenkins will stumble upon the event online first or will receive the message in a bottle. The object of the game is to see if and how he will find out about the project.

I’ve also been thinking for a while now about ‘where do all the tweets go?’ and what ephemera now means in the Digital Age.  And as the ‘digital noise’ in our social media environment increases how do we deal with what is likely to become a decreasing ‘signal to noise’ ratio.  I see the development of new kinds of social media tools – ‘inference engines’ that help us to locate what they think we might be interested in.   Prioritising our attention will become a key skill in digital engagement.  Lanfranco suggests that the issue of voice and the need for a very varied network is important in ensuring that no one voice can speak with unquestioned authority.  This will be an interesting and innovative driver of behaviours across the world.

Digital squatting the Googleplex –
artists occupying  digital space


Lanfranco is also a ‘Digital Squatter’, running exhibitions on ‘Google’s territory’ in virtual space.  Who owns the virtual space?  Layering information over Googleplex.  He also squatted at Tate Modern and a few others.  Just to see what happened.  You can find out about it here.

He argues that the ownership of digital space needs thinking about – and talked about how there are dangers in the alerting and reporting of activity in digital sapace, he says

“reporting” over the internet is the moral equivalent of the Stasi

And that we will all be turned into ‘digital informers’ as we monitor our digital ‘neighbours’ through our Net curtains.  One to think about that.

Futuresonic 2009

100 Years of Climate Change

midnight-flowersWe piled into the mini-bus after the opening event at in Manchester.  About 15 of us and the artists behind the project.  The idea is to experience the same temperature change caused by 100 years of climate change (about 2 degrees) by walking through a Manchester microclimate.

We arrive in a street in Trafford and are given mp3 players which will guide us through the experience.  We walk and the somewhat hypnotic voice guides us.  Also does good jokes!  It’s light-hearted but striking.  You can hear a bit of a recording I made using Audioboo here as we went on the event.  And my thoughts this morning here.

Thanks and congratulations to Yara El-Sherbini, Drew Hamment, Carlo Buontempo and Alfie Dennan.

The Connected University – Driving Recovery and Growth

“Lord Sainsbury and NESTA are launching a report exploring the vital economic contribution of the UK’s universities today, 30 April 2009.

Lord Sainsbury, Hermann Hauser, co-founder of Amadeus Capital Partners and Michael Kitson, Judge Business School, University of Cambridge will debate the role of Universities in regional economic growth. Jonathan Kestenbaum, NESTA’s Chief Executive will moderate.”

I blogged the event live and my notes are here.

As a summary here is a wordle of my notes:


Three key areas for action

Lord Sainsbury highlighted three important things:

  • Increasing the scope for technical or business Universities to interact and link with SMEs – but not all Universities should have same mission.  Sainsbury argues that there will be a ‘Top 30’ of Universities who do ‘world-class’ research.  Other Universities  should not compete but differentiate themselves. It’s not necessary to ‘create new research’ – but we do need to improve the implementation of existing research.
  • The importance of science and innovation campuses – such as RAL, Daresbury, NIMH in St Pancras. Clusters of real expertise and these places can provide tremendous opportunities but it needs government drive to succeed.
  • FE colleges are important but neglected.  Government and RDAs need to focus on this.  We need a Further Education Innovation fund (like HEIF).

Sainsbury concluded by noting “We can’t predict which sectors new businesses will come from but we can predict that they will come from the high-tech clusters surrounding our Universities.”

Who was there and who wasn’t?

Consideration of the attendees (from the printed guest list) is instructive; representatives from the case studies were there; Cambridge, Southampton, Bristol, Bath, Newcastle, Manchester, Sheffield Hallam, Dundee, Daresbury. And I suppose it would be a bit odd if they weren’t there.  Others: Nottingham, Oxford Brookes, Queen’s Belfast, Wales, Bangor, Imperial, Liverpool Management School, Northumbria, Greenwich, Sussex, Ravensbourne, UCL.  Oxford present through Oxford Innovations.

Various representatives of the societies (Royal Society of Chemistry, the Royal…), RCUK, quangos and consulting odds and sods (like me).  A few venture capitalists.

Interesting to note the Universities not present and also the pattern of other attendees.  I assume (and it seems likely) that the Nesta invitation went out pretty widely.   Nesta has a good approach to openly promoting their events and in my experience, their events are very well run and the quality of speakers and debate is high.  For events of this type, the Nesta CEO, Jonathan Kestenbaum, is very active and visible.

Better Connections between the Universities and the economy is a UK strategic issue

Nesta is right to identify the importance of the connections between the Universities and the economy.  It’s a big issue for the UK and no matter how good we feel we are at it (and I’d say at best it’s patchy) we need to be better.  While there were representatives from HEFCE and DIUS, only 2 RDAs turned up (SEEDA and Advantage West Midlands) and no one from BERR.  No Government Ministers.

There was also much talk of the ‘Top 30’ universities. This seemed to raise a few hackles!  Eric Thomas from Bristol sounded a negative note by indicating that Universities are not ‘recession proof’ – look at what’s happening in the US.  And I think he was right in sounding a cautionary note as I felt that there was too much complacency in the room and too much of an ‘even keel’.

As far as Nesta’s report is concerned – it’s a very valuable contribution and a good source of ‘food for thought’.  But I feel Nesta ‘pulled its punches’.  I think that the evidence in the report could support a much firmer line from Nesta in pushing harder to define what the role of Universities will be in future as part of our economy, as Lord Sainsbury hinted in his remarks.  We are in the NBAU world – there is No Business As Usual and this needs to be true for our Universities just as much as it is for the rest of us.

Who’s watching who?

notice2On the day of the G20 protests, I was in two places at once.  At home working and listening to Radio 5’s somewhat hysterical coverage, and also watching the Twitter #g20 hashtag and following the tweets of people I know and others from the protests.

Covering live events with Social Media

The ‘coverage’ aggregation I was able to do was amazing.  In particular (until his battery ran out!) Steve Lawson (@solobasssteve) was using Qik to report in near realtime from outside the Bank of England where the Police were involved in the bizarre and, I consider, unlawful tactic of ‘kettling’; constraining peaceful protestors and not allowing them free passage through the streets of the City of London.

Watch Steve Lawson’s footage and you will see what I mean – you can hear the stress in his voice and others’ around him as they realise they are hemmed in by Police.

The footage which everyone knows about is of the sad death of Ian Tomlinson.  Brought back to mind yesterday again by the failure of the Police to obtain an injunction against Channel 4 News.  But the thing I keep remembering is the statement made by the IPCC and immediately carried without any question by conventional media – that “there were no cameras in the locations he was assualted”.  I felt cold when I heard that. Close to the Bank of England, in the heart of the City in a country where there is a CCTV camera for every 14 people?  Not credible.  And the IPCC subsequently admitted they’d ‘mis-spoken’.

CCTV good – StreetView bad?

I used to agree with Lloyd Davis’ views of the CCTV infrastructure as a ‘civil rights car crash’ but now I’m not so sure.

Most people must think CCTV cameras in all our towns, cities and villages is a ‘good thing’.  Few seem to object and, for example, the residents of a village near ours actually petitioned to have one installed.  And then we see the objections to Google Streetview – while I think it sensible for faces to be obscured in Streetview; I don’t know of any reason why the faces of people in a public street taken incidentally to a more general view should not be shown?  Should we be bothered that out-of-date images of the street we live in should be available globally to all but happy that live video of us is being monitored locally by people we don’t know – but it’s ok because they’re the Police?

The watched are becoming the watchers

We’re seeing the unintended consequences of pervasive social and new media.  We all have cameras, all the time and many of us can upload ‘feed’ from live events immediately.   So now the watched become the watchers; we all have our own ‘CCTV’ and we have a new set of tools which could, I hope, be used for positive change and digital engagement but are, if needed, available to watch our own backs.

Liveblogging the Digital Summit

Why events like this are needed (if frustrating)

I live blogged the Digital Summit at the British Library – using twitter and a blogging tool called ScribbleLive.  Independently, unofficially; because I wanted to.  You can see the results here.  Also, If you look at the #digitalbritain hashtag on twitter you will see a mass of tweets many insightful and thoughful; a few negative and destructive.  I was watching Tweetdeck, trying to take my own notes and include tweets I thought were useful.

There’s been a bit of activity on blogs.  Not much.  Some of the ranting appears to be about the surprising fact that most of the people running our incumbent Big Media and Telco businesses are white, male and wear ties.  Some of the people in the audience were like that too.

Communities can build Digital Britain
Communities can build Digital Britain

Yes, it was frustrating and yes it was quite a lot of the ‘same old same old’ – but saying ‘you don’t get it’ to people who don’t get it isn’t going to advance the debate.  Shouting “You horrible green scaly monster” at one of the many Media Dinosaurs still roaming the planet may be true but it doesn’t help at all.  In fact it polarises the debate and makes it less likely that we, who passionately believe that we need serious bandwidth, everywhere, for everyone will carry the argument.

Of course, the agenda for the meeting deliberately tried to polarise the audience.  The idea that you can separate the Poetry from the Pipes for example – you need both and they have to work together to create Digital Britain.  The idea that you need a ‘one size fits all’ solution or all else is chaos plays only into the hands of a small number of players with market power.

We need events like this one, where at least there was some cross-sector presence.  Notable that many of the questions and points from the floor were raised by people from community-related organisations.

We need more events and dialogue – preferably designed to work out ‘how it can be done’ rather than finding all the reasons ‘why it can never happen’.  We need the sorts of Unconference activity proposed by @dbuc09 and we need to do them on our territory and make the invitations as open as we all want the networks and services to be.

Ultimately, I think we will need a ‘Patchwork Quilt’ of solutions that meet local needs – not some top down model.  Enterprise networks are patchworks, the internet itself is a patchwork where the pipes and poetry can coexist.  Our job is to get out there and build the Patchwork.

e-static shadows at the Dana Centre

An exploration of electrostatics and their role in sensors, technology and art

static shadows installation
static shadows installation

A beautiful installation by Zane Berzina latterly of Goldsmiths called Static Shadows

Wide bands of specially made fabrics with >1,000 LEDs each controlled by a single transistor. Conducting wires embedded in the fabric pick up changes in the electrostatic fields near the fabric. As the fields change, so the LEDs change in brightness. Big changes (such as a charged rod) produce quick rapid changes. Small charges (from your hand say) produce slow shimmering changes. You don’t need to touch the fabric – it works because the fabric is sensitive to the electrostatic fields in the environment. Lovely analogue technology and completely captivating.

LEDs react as fields change
LEDs react as fields change

Zane describes the blend of technology and craft fabrication as ‘High Craft’ as opposed to ‘High Tech’. The audience asked loads of questions about how and why it came about and the practical and esthetic applications of the approach.

Next Generation Web: tracking,storage and search

An exploration of how tracking technologies are enabling new ways of organising, accessing and displaying information on the web.

Spiral browser
Spiral browser

Presentations here: CLICK

Graham Kidde of Kodak (right) demonstrates a location- and time-aware spiral browser.  Newer images are presented at the front of the screen; older ones further back.  Spirals can be ‘rotated’ and examined from different angles.  Photos can be ‘tagged’ or grouped or organised according to the people or places they depict.  Cool!  Very cool!

The Onemedia Unconference


‘Creating a new blueprint for media businesses.’

The goal of the unconference was for the participants to set the agenda to find the cross industry business and collaboration opportunities that mattered to them, to increase their revenue and develop their business model.

Setting priorities
Setting priorities

Participants came from film, TV, games, mobile, web, software, interactive media, arts and design to see how they could collaborate and share. Each participant had the opportunity to suggest a session that they would like to run. Notes were taken and then collated together to create a book.
Over 30 sessions were created and run. Each session was written-up in the participants’ own words and is the start of a longer conversation. Sometimes after much debate, a session finished with more questions, sometimes a solution or further action planning was suggested.

Narrative and Storytelling

In an increasingly complex and media-saturated world, we need to help people connect with information/content in ways that are meaningful for them.

Not everything is a ‘story’ but we need to invest more time/effort in getting both content producers and consumers to develop their storytelling and narrative skills.

As an example, we could use story archetypes as a filter/ to explore/evaluate/distill the value of content and its connection with multiple audiences.

We need to go back to basics and think about how what we are doing could be changed/improved by re-visiting the fundamentals of narrative storytelling.

Here is one write-up of a session I was involved in.

Action plan: / Narrative and Storytelling Convener; Henry Playfoot, White Loop

Not everything is a story but do we need to invest more time/effort in getting people to develop their storytelling and narrative skills? If you started with the (say) twelve story archetypes use them as a filter/ explore/evaluate/distilling for discussing the efficacy/value of media content.

This could include collaborative experiments that marry ‘traditional’ storytellers with technologists or cutting edge digital service developers and projects that investigate the application of storytelling across all sectors.

Storytelling and Narrative

In an increasingly complex and media-saturated world, we need to help people connect with information/content in ways that are meaningful for them.

Not everything is a ‘story’ but we need to invest more time/effort in getting both content producers and consumers to develop their storytelling and narrative skills.

As an example, we could use story archetypes as a filter/ to explore/evaluate/distill the value of content and its connection with multiple audiences.

We need to go back to basics and think about how what we are doing could be changed/improved by re-visiting the fundamentals of narrative storytelling.

Related Issues:

Whilst we didn’t get very far in the discussion of this theme during the day it was noticeable that this session was so popular when people came to vote at the end of the day. Why was that? What is about ‘The Story’ that resonates and is so important to people?

What is the story now?

Stories still connect with people – it goes to the root of people’s emotions and there is a groundswell of interest in how storytelling/narrative can be used across every sphere – from politics/policy through to business and communities. Within this we should explore the impact and opportunities afforded by digital technology/platforms. With online gaming, for example, there is no longer one storyteller- there are multiple storytellers. Who is the protagonist/ who is the narrator and how do these shifts influence our experiences? There are strong arguments to suggest we need stories now more than ever. We need authorative voices that can help us navigate the often overwhelming amount of information that bombards us. In the emerging Web 3.0 world, we need authoritative and AUTHENTIC voices to help make sense of the world and the vast amount of noise/content. Business communities are beginning to talk about storytelling. We all know that great business leaders and educators are great storytellers. Their skills do not lie in spouting statistics or presenting data, rather than in distilling disparate threads into a coherent story.

Next Steps

In the creative industries – especially those under the One Media banner – we have unrivalled storytelling capacity. It is what we do, from conception of a game through to delivery of complex, cross-platform content and services.

Keeping an eye on some of the excellent work being undertaken in the UK eg Mike Wilson, University of Glamorgan, DEMOS the role of blogging/self narrating to support literacy (see recent report) and research in the US and Canada into the power of storytelling, NESTA should help ensure we formally embed storytelling skills into our offer.

This could include collaborative experiments that marry ‘traditional’ storytellers with technologists or cutting edge digital service developers and projects that investigate the application of storytelling across all sectors. We are convinced that we would get some real insights and that there would be hard economic benefits in terms of generating revenue for One Media businesses through providing expertise and creative consultancy. Additionally, we have identified that formalising and sharing these skills would support the integration of new people into our sector – especially powerful when thinking of equipping graduates/entry level staff with the requisite skills/attributes to succeed.

Co-Conspirators: Henry Playfoot, Brian Condon, Tim Furby, Paul Dorman, George Stamkoski

The World HiTech Forum – Focus India

Inspired by Muhammad Farmer Director of ‘BITE’ (the British Institute of Technology and E-commerce) the forum and took place in London on 8 October 2008.

Shiv Shankar Mukherjee High Commissioner, Republic of India speaking of the role of government said

“The future skilled workforce of the world will be even more Indian than it is today” and called for better collaboration between India and the UK: “The UK is 3 or 4th largest technology provider to India. We need to deepen this collaboration.”

Speaking on ‘The Knowledge Gap’ Prof S Ramachandran, Vice Chancellor of the University of Madras, painted a contrasting picture of highly skilled people and poor people.

“While we produce a large number of graduates – it is the quality we are concerned about.”

He argued that India’s higher education system today does not produce all the skills required at the workplace and spoke frankly of the challenges faced by the Higher Education sector

“About 25% of our technical graduates are regarded as ‘employable’ – and while the others may be well educated, they don’t have the skills needed by the market.”

Here are more detailed notes of the event:

The Role of Government

Shiv Shankar Mukherjee, High Commissioner, Republic of India

Shiv Shankar Mukherjee
Shiv Shankar Mukherjee

India is still experiencing very high rates of growth. The future will be about moving away from the ‘heavy hand of government’ – liberalisation in India is as much about ‘mindset’ as it is about changing government or operational structures especially in innovation.

We all accept that technology change and innovation are key drivers of economic growth. Now we have self-confident global companies but we also have 300m of the world’s poor who need to see that the fruits of globalisation come to them as well. Nehru identified the use of science and technology for growth and this has continued. Diversity in India means we will have to constantly innovate.  Look at Japan and Korea as examples of the benefits of investing in education and technology.

India is emerging as a gobal R&D hub – over the past decade this has accelerated and contributed to economic growth. A large chunk of patents. Our advantage is the availabllity of highly educated english-speaking maths and science graduates.

The sustained growth of 8.6 to 8.8% over the past 5 years is as much about the development of commercialisation and research as it is about liberalisation.

“The future skilled workforce of the world will be even more Indian than it is today”

Skills and education are central – we produce more graduates every year than all of Western Europe combined. But while we have quantity, the quality is not uniform. We accept that this is a big challenge. The Knowledge Commission, which advises the PM, points out that while India has 300 universities, we still need 1,500 more if we are to meet the needs of the future economy. We will need to move very fast to improve provision and ensure quality. Skilled people are what we need and we need to get back to developing that. India is beginning to outsource to Mexico for example.

View from the Conference Centre
View from the Conference Centre

The role of government will continue to be central in terms of the priorities and spend on improving the spread of quality education across the land and to continue to provide the educated people we need. As well as the highly qualified people – we also need the ‘building blocks’ of technical and support workers – this is an area the state has allowed to become moribund.

“UK is 3 or 4th largest technology provider to India.
We need to deepen this collaboration.”

‘The Knowledge Gap’

Professor S Ramachandran – Vice Chancellor – University of Madras

Professor Ramachandran painted a contrasting picture of highly skilled people and poor people. “While we produce a large number of graduates – it is the quality we are concerned about.” India’s higher education system today does not produce all the skills required at the workplace.

“About 25% of our technical graduates are regarded as ‘employable’ – and while the others may be well educated, they don’t have the skills needed by the market.”

“Where we do produce good quality education this is also too expensive. If we want to sustain the growth we are seeing, we need to ensure access to high quality education. There is a potential for a ‘demographic dividend’ as we have large numbers of younger people. We can only turn this into an advantage if we can ensure the quality is good. Teaching quality is also an area for us to focus on. Need to invest more by paying good teachers better. The Knowledge Economy has to be supported by the update of core knowledge and update the curricula. Alongside the hard core of discipline knowledge, we also need to make sure we build on skills.”

A recent jobs fair which 30,000 students attended with 20,000 jobs on offer – yet only 25% of the students ended up in jobs. They lacked the skills needed by business – communications skills, verbal skills and synthesis skills were all lacking. It’s not that the students were poorly educated – they just weren’t what the businesses needed. This was a wake-up call and the University has worked closely with the Indian Confederation of Business to overhaul courses.

By 2010, we will have a shortage of 250,000 skilled graduates. And it’s very hard to find students who want to do a PhD and learn to develop new knowledge. Moral imperative for government to improve access to PhD courses through improved scholarships. Need improved support from Research Councils. While the education system is strong in the country we need to work hard to ‘fine tune’ it to the needs of both the economy and the need to generate new knowledge.

India needs 1,000,000 new teachers by 2010 – 2012.

Q – From the audience “What to do?”

A – Need to turn graduates as ‘job-seekers’ in to graduates as ‘job-providers’ of 5m graduates a year only 1m go into jobs. We need revolutionary reform to boost their confidence and make them more entrepreneurial and get them to generate new businesses and new jobs. Can’t happen overnight – the numbers are large but we need to make progress. The education sector is the most neglected and it’s difficult to attract teachers to teach – they don’t get paid enough. We have vacancies and they are generally applied for by teachers who are not qualified.