Tag Archives: Capital I innovation

Reaching Beyond the Sky: Talking Innovation and Tablets with Suneet Tuli

As an advocate for technology users and affordable, Innovative technology for all, I was extremely excited to discover a passion for providing simple internet technology to the billions of people currently unable to afford it, in Suneet Tuli.  Suneet is President and CEO of DataWind, which launched the Aakash low-cost tablet computer in October 2011 in New Delhi.

Dubbed the world’s least expensive tablet, and designed to be provided free of charge to Indian university students, the Aaksash was developed to link India’s  many thousands of colleges and universities in an innovative e-learning program.  I spoke with Suneet just prior to their launch of UbiSlate, the commercial version of their tablet technology.

Suneet Tuli: Capital I Interview Series – Number 15

Firstly, congratulations Suneet.  I think the Aakash initiative is wonderful.

Thank you, we’re having some fun, and it’s an interesting kind of ride.  The requirements, demand and need is huge, and we think that we –  though not just us, but also others who play in the field – are going to end up changing the world for the better.

I wish you much success with that goal!  That certainly was our impetus for starting KimmiC.   I’m the first to admit that it does sound audacious, but I think that audacity is quite necessary when you take on challenges like this.

It really is.   When I talked about it six months ago and said, “this is technology to bring the next billion people on board,” I was seen as being audacious, or ‘reaching a little bit.‘   Today I’m seen a little differently.  It [Aakash] is endorsed by many others now, such as Carl Bildt, the former Prime Minister of Sweden.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos [where Suneet spoke in October 2011] they had a huge billboard of our device and a discussion forum on the impact of it on the world.  I truly believe that not only is ‘internet for the billions’ coming, but it really is going to change the world.

This is a project that started in India, and now there are countries around the world that are implementing similar projects.  In India alone they have put together a Mission Statement saying that they’d like to equip all 220 million students in the country with low cost internet devices.

Apart from India, if you look at the countries that have invited us to talk, and that are looking to put together similar projects, that’s over a 100 million units.  That’s not to say that we would necessarily win all of the projects, but we think that its the dream that’s important.  That, and the fact that governments are implementing this aggressively, will have a snowball effect.

When you say ‘we’, I take it you are referencing your brother Raja and yourself, is that correct?

Yes, this is the third venture he and I have done together.   In each one Raja runs the technology, R&D and manufacturing teams and I look after the sales, marketing and operations.

Raja Singh Tuli

What was you impetus for beginning the project?

We had created a technology that reduces bandwidth consumption and consumption of the internet on standard GPRS mobile networks.  Today there are six billion mobile phone connections and 2 billion internet users – the billions of people within that gap don’t have access to any kind of broadband infrastructure, the only access they have is via standard GPRS mobile networks.

We created a technology, for which we received 18 US patents, that allows us to deliver the internet on those [GPRS] networks.   We can deliver this network with no new infrastructure and for a very low monthly cost – potentially even for free.  This technology is really applicable to our market segment, and gives us the opportunity to pursue our personal mission.

Even though we grew up in Canada, coming from India and seeing what is happening in those markets, we know the difference between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ is the digital divide and the quality of education.  Our belief is that the best way to power a better quality of education is through computers and the internet.

Places like India and Africa will not, in a reasonable period of time, be able to teach enough teachers and professors, and build enough ‘brick and mortar’ universities, to impact enough of the population.  For instance, there’s 350 million people in India that cannot read or write.  Its an outrageously large number, and yet, its so easily solved – at least a dent can be made in it through technology.

Technology has changed so significantly, not just in the last five or ten years, but in the last two years.  Look at products like the iPad.  This is a product that comes without a User Manual.  You take it out of the box and are expected to know that the only button you’re going to press is the one that’s on the device.

Three and four year olds today utilise these kinds of products and play simple games.  Touch screens and graphical interfaces are so powerful, we think that they can really make an impact on delivering a better quality of education.  Based on the technology we’ve created and our personal goals, that better quality of education is something that we can help achieve.

For a number of years I’ve been involved with a charity called Room to Read which builds schools and libraries in the developing world.  The main reason I got involved with it is I truly believe that the best way to create a safer world is to educate people, and empower education and educators. 

I agree with you.  I think that education really can solve all kinds of issues.  I get people who criticise this idea, saying, “Yeah, but in India where so many don’t have access to clean drinking water, isn’t this [focus on education] a waste?”  My response is:  THIS is what is going to help bring clean drinking water.

Education is what is going to enable and empower an individual to bring clean drinking water to his or her village or community.  And, why not other world changing Innovation as well?!

Oh yeah.   Any issue that you can think of I can talk back towards education.

It seems that, along with education, your product is about empowering the user, which I believe is integral to the next jump in technology. 

And it involves the whole ecosystem; for instance, its not just the device, you’ve also got to have  anytime/anywhere internet access.  This is why mobile phone, cellular connectivity is very important.  As well, the technology has got to be affordable and its got to have an open ecosystem for content and apps.

We’ve launched scholarships and competitions in India around content and apps to help encourage students, and others, to create apps and even start their own entrepreneurial journey.  This creates localised innovation.

In every single country we’re working in, we’re pushing for domestic manufacture, because you can’t expect to solve problems if you don’t manufacture locally.  You can’t expect to understand what the problems and solutions are, and drive local innovation, if you’re just going to get cartons full of boxes from somewhere else.  Sitting in Canada and the US we see it – the manufacturing industries here have been devastated, and the skill-set is no longer here.

You mentioned apps and, in one of the pieces I read while doing my research for our chat, I understood that users were not able to load free software onto the tablet.  Was that a correct interpretation?

That’s a common misunderstanding, but one that is not correct at all.  What we’ve done is, instead of using the Google/Android marketplace we’ve used Getjar.  We chose Getjar because it forces all the apps to be free and all active operators to make money purely off of advertising.

This is essential in India since, for instance, on the the Android market, while 80% of the apps are free, 20% of the useful apps are actually paid [for].  Even though its only 99 cents, the problem for my customer is that they have no ability to make online payments.

As an open source operating system, we don’t restrict anyone from installing any apps.  However, we obviously pre-burn in certain apps, from which we generate advertising revenue.  This is important to our full service ecosystem of revenue streams to help drive the cost of hardware down. But, it doesn’t mean you can’t install apps.

So you’re not trying to control the economic and application ecosystem. 

We don’t control it, but we want to earn revenue from it – those are two different concepts.  It’s an open source platform so you can install whatever you want, but we will have five stores on the site – we will have eBook, multimedia, game, apps and educational content stores.  You can go to Getjar and independently load your apps, but we’re going to encourage certain apps and certain environments, which we think are important for our customer base, as we’re positioning the product towards education.  We understand a lot of our devices will end up there, so we need to have an educational app store that can promote educational content.

Building an ecosystem doesn’t mean that we’re restricting open access to it.  We will have a monetary and strategic interest in the apps we promote because they’re in line with how we want our product to be perceived.

I downloaded some slides from a presentation you made last year, and in them you mention your carrier class technology.  Does this tech essentially create and control distribution and interaction with the tablet?

There are two browsers on the device.  One is the standard Android browser, but the difficulty and problem with it is its data consumption.  In the Indian environment this will result in an average of 400 – 500 rupees per month ($10 dollars per month) in data costs.  That is one problem, the second is the slow experience due to how congested the networks are.

On the other side is our browser, which uses our backend proxy acceleration system.  On that system we’re able to deliver the equivalent of unlimited internet access for about $2 dollars [per month] and its significantly faster than what you’d get without it.  The user has a choice of using either one of those solutions, but we believe they’ll choose ours because of the speed and lower amounts of data consumption.

And if they choose to use yours, its your servers that do the actual ‘grunt work’ therefore saving energy – the consumption of energy is by the server rather than the device.

Right.  The result is that you consume a lot less bandwidth, the costs go down, and it’s faster.  We shift the burden away from the client device onto our servers, but again, its their choice which browser they use.

Speaking of choice, why was the name Aakash chosen for the tablet?

The name was chosen by the Indian Human Resources Development Minister, Kapil Sibal, who has education as part of his portfolio.  Aakash means Sky in Hindi, and I believe he meant it in reference to the fact that he wants kids to reach for the sky.

The product that we will launch commercially will be called the UbiSlate and the key differentiator between the two is the mobile network connectivity.  The version the government ordered was built to their tight specifications, which only has wifi connectivity.  Their thinking was that, because they [the government] were providing access on their [college] campuses, that that should be sufficient.

We believe that isn’t’ sufficient, and that you want access everywhere.  You need access beyond the campus, which you will have with the commercial UbiSlate.

So those articles written after that initial testing process of the Aakash, which had somewhat negative responses from the beta users, were judging the technology on a somewhat unfinished, or less than perfect, product.

I think that they were judging us on the specs that IIT-Rajasthan set.  We won a tender that they put out and built [the technology] to the specs that they wanted.  We’ve proposed a different spec product to the government, which now they’ve agreed to conceptually, for the Aakash 2.

The issues they ran into were a lot more than just specs. The National Mission for Education for ICT (NMEICT) has made a great deal of effort over the last few years to create a lot of great digital content – tens of thousands of eBooks, online lectures and virtual labs and things of that nature.  Unfortunately, for the purposes of the trial, that content wan’t integrated into the devices.

The trial was conducted with college and university students in India whose tuition is higher than what we pay in Canada.  So, you know, when the first five hundred [students] walked in to receive their devices, two out of three of them had iPads under their arms.  Now you’re going to give these kids sub-$50 devices without their curriculum integrated onto it… and you’re going to ask their opinions on it…

The feedback we got [from the students] wasn’t a surprise: “its not as fast as playing games on the iPad; its not as cool as the iPad; the network connectivity is spotty, at best, using the university wifi, and it doesn’t have any connectivity beyond that.”  It was a learning curve for all parties.  But, our role was to deliver the product that they [the government] required.

The focus for the government was cost and we were able to deliver to them a cost breakthrough that literally had people’s jaws drop.

It’s not, as I said, the UbiSlate that we’re about to launch.  I believe our performance can, and will, be better judged when we launch that commercially.


Do you think it fair that your tablets will be judged against products, such as the iPad, which has unlimited budgets and high prices?  And, noting that people may often purchase Apple products due to the cachet of their brand, how valuable do you want your own brand to be?

I don’t want people to have to pay a premium because of a perceived brand.  I want to make our products viable for a person on a $100 per month salary.

While in the West we’ve become accustomed to product positioning where you’ll pay a premium for a brand, in our scenario we’re not looking to maximise price, we’re trying to maximise customers.  In our business model we focus away from hardware margins.  Hardware is the customer acquisition tool, and our intent is to drive hardware costs down as low as we can and, instead, try to generate revenue from network services costs and advertising.  We believe that has the potential to get those billions of people on board.

Have you plans on how are you going to differentiate your tablets from competitors, such as BSNL, who have recently come on the scene?

The big differentiator is the connectivity.   We think that the fatal flaw with a [BSNL] product of that nature is that it doesn’t have mobile connectivity.  And compare [our] 2,500 rupees vs [their] 3,200 rupees [price], not only is [theirs] 30% higher in cost, but its only wifi enabled.

If you look at the Indian environment there are 18 million broadband connections serving only those people that have wifi – and those 18 million are probably the wealthiest people in India.

And they probably have an iPad.

They have.  And, they can afford wifi and products which are at a multiple of this price.  They’re not going to purchase these [low cost] products.  The question is what connectivity does the guy who can afford only 2,500 rupees have?  The only connectivity he can afford is often a mobile network.  BSNL has launched three devices, and the only one with mobile connectivity is three times the price.

And finally, are you looking to partner/joint venture with anyone to broaden the capability of your tablets?

We are.  We have a number of deals done which we’ll be announcing them once we are ready to launch the product commercially.

[Kim and Suneet Skyped from their homes in Sydney and Toronto.]

Antics with Semantics: The Innovation Interview with Semantics Pioneer, Ora Lassila

Wanting to speak to someone, both interesting and inspiring, about the Semantic Web and Innovation, Ora Lassila, an Advisory Board Member of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) as well as Senior Architect and Technology Strategist for Nokia‘s Location and Commerce Unit, was the obvious ‘go to guy’.

A large part of Ora’s career has been focussed on  the Semantic Web as it applies to mobile and ubiquitous computing at the Nokia Research Center (NRC), where he, among many things, authored ‘Wilbur’, the NRC’s Semantic Web toolkit.   As impressive as that is, as I did my research, finding out more about Ora, the more fascinating he, and his career, became to me.

Ora is one of the originators of the Semantic Web, having been working within the domain since 1996.  He is the co-author (with Tim Berners-Lee and James Hendler) of the, to date, most cited paper in the field, ‘The Semantic Web’.  Ora even worked on the knowledge representation system ‘SCAM’,  which, in 1999, flew on a NASA Deep Space 1 probe.

Leading up to our attendance and presentation at the Berlin Semantic Tech and Business Conference, Michael– the true ‘tech head’ of KimmiC – and I were extremely pleased that Ora, ‘the Mac Daddy’ of the Semantic Web, gave us so much of his time.   I hope you find our conversation with him as interesting as we did!

[I’ve italicised Michael’s questions to Ora so you are able to differentiate between us – though, I think it will become obvious as you read – lol!]

Ora Lassila (photo credit: Grace Lassila)

Ora Lassila: Capital I Interview Series – Number 13

Lets start out by talking about Innovation in general, and we’ll move on to the Semantic Web as we go along.   As this is the Innovation Interview Series, the ‘baseline’ question is always: how do you define Innovation?

Good question.  I think many people do not make a clear distinction between ‘innovation’ and ‘invention’.

To me, ‘innovation’ is something that not only includes some new idea or ideas, but also encompasses the deployment and adoption of such.  You can invent clever new things, but if you don’t figure out how to get people to use those new things, you have fallen short of the mark.

How essential has innovation been in your career to date; and how important do you envisage it being, going forward?

It has been important.  A big part of my professional career was spent in a corporate research lab, where inventing new things was less of a challenge than getting these inventions ‘transferred’ to those parts of the corporation that had more capability in promoting their adoption and deployment.

That said, I have learned that ‘technology transfer’ is not always about taking concrete pieces of technology, software for example, and handing them over to someone else for productization.  Sometimes the transfer is more ‘insidious’ and involves influencing how people in your organisation – or outside your organisation – think and see the world.

I would claim that some of my early work on the Semantic Web absolutely fits this definition.  So writing, publishing and talking all constitute viable means.  Also, we should not forget that people need to be inspired.  You cannot just tell them what to do, instead, they have to want to do it.

What do you think are the main barriers to the success of innovation?

I am not kidding when I say that the absolute biggest obstacle is communication.  That is, we should learn to communicate our ideas better to be able to convince people and to inspire them.  I have much to learn in this area.

Who and what inspires you? Where do you look for inspiration?

I have no good or definite answer for that.  When I was younger I was really inspired by the Spanish aviation pioneer Juan de la Cierva whose simple yet radical idea about aircraft – the ‘autogiro’ – paved the way for the adoption of helicopters.  And yet, one might argue that, in many ways helicopters are a far more complicated and complex technology than de la Cierva’s original invention.

Juan de la Cierva y Codorníu, 1st Count of De La Cierva

I am inspired by simplicity… I strive to create and design things that are simple, or at least not any more complicated than necessary.

What are, in your view, the current emerging critical trends in Innovation and technology?

I like openness, things like open-source software as well as Open Access and sharing of data as part of the scientific process.  I am hoping we see a fundamental change in how research is done.  In many ways we have progressed to a point where many problems are so complex that they are beyond a single researcher’s or research group’s capacity and capability to tackle.

Also, on the topic of openness, I like some of the recent developments in open government, e-Government, and such.

And what are some of the coolest mobile technologies you’re seeing launched? 

I am much enamoured with the idea that mobile technologies – particularly via the use of GPS, etc. – ‘ground’ many services to the physical world.  There are many uses for location information, uses that help me in my everyday life.

Furthermore, by making the mobile device better understand the current ‘context’, not only geographically but also by making use of other observations about the physical world (movement, sound, etc.), we can make applications and services better for users.

Do you think we will have a ‘meshed up’ world that effectively bypasses the stranglehold telcos have on infrastructure?

I don’t necessarily agree that the telcos have a ‘stranglehold’.   They provide an important service and a critical investment in an infrastructure I don’t really see us living without.

But we need things like ‘net neutrality’ to make sure that this infrastructure really serves people in an open and non-discriminatory way.  in this regard I am also concerned about more recent legislative attempts [SOPA, PIPA, ACTA] that (perhaps unintentionally) will hurt the overall technical function of the Internet.

It seems that current Web based business models are founded on the idea that businesses have the right to record everything about users/consumers and profit from this information.  Do you think this is a sustainable business model, or do you think the user/consumer will start to think that they, and their data, is worth something and begin to demand recompense of some sort?

There are very few fundamentally different, viable, business models on the Web, so I can see that businesses would want to cash in on user data.  It is only a matter of time before the consumers ‘wise up’ and understand the value of their own data.  Personally I think we should aim at ‘business arrangements’ where all parties benefit.  This includes concrete benefits to the user, perhaps in a way where the user is a bona fide business partner rather than just someone we collect data about.

It is important to understand that what’s at stake here is not only how some user data could be monetized, it is also about users’ privacy.  Luckily I work for an organisation [Nokia] that takes consumer privacy very seriously.

You’ve got a fascinating history, and seem to have gotten into the Semantic Web at the very beginning.

The very, very beginning, yes.  I think I can argue that I’ve been doing this longer than the term has actually existed.

In ’96 I went to work at MIT…  I’d just been hired by Nokia, and they wanted to send somebody to MIT as a kind of visiting faculty member.   So, I worked in Tim Berners-Lee’s team, and one day he asked me what I thought was wrong with the web.

Tim Berners-Lee

Just a small question.

Yeah, not intimidating at all.

I said: “My hope has been to be able to build,” – what then would have been called agents, autonomous agents – and I said: “I can’t really do that because the web was built for humans and human consumption.  I would really, really like to see a web that was more amenable for consumption by automated systems.”

And he [Berners-Lee] said: “Yeah, that’s it! Now, how do we fix that?”

And I went: “Well, how about we try knowledge representation and apply that to web technologies.”  Because knowledge representation is a branch of artificial intelligence that has a long history of taking information and representing it in such a way that you can reason about it then draw conclusions from it… things like that.  We agreed that I would look into that, and that’s really how I got into all this.

Of course I had worked on various projects before that, that involved ontologies and knowledge representation, it just wasn’t done on the web.   The big reason being that the web had not really been invented yet.

There was Cyc and some other AI [Artificial Intelligence] things before that… 

Cyc is a very good example of an attempt to build a very large ontology that would encompass common sense knowledge.  But there are many examples of systems that used ontologies in one way or another for narrower domains.  Cyc was an overly ambitious project, in the sense that they really wanted to cover a lot of ground in terms of human knowledge.

I had worked on several projects in the past that applied ontologies to things like planning industrial production, or planning logistics.  So, the question really was, could you build a model of the world that was rich enough and precise enough that a system could use that knowledge to create plans for various things.  In my case those were plans for either how to run industrial production, or large fleets of logistics’ resources.

You were a long, long way in front of everybody else… at least ten years.  It’s incredible!

One might argue too far ahead.

I think at that time most people were just trying to come to grips with basic HTTP and web servers.  If you look at the vested interests, especially of software providers at that time… I guess it wasn’t really the right timing. But I think that time is coming now.

Yeah, I think we’re in a better position now and we’ve certainly seen a lot of adoption of Semantic Web technologies in the last few years.

I think elements of semantic are brilliant.   RDF, for example, is one of the smartest ways I’ve ever seen of describing something.  You can’t break the way semantics talks about something, whereas you can break the interpretation easily in XML.

I start to lose traction with it when it gets towards ontologies.  Do you think that ‘splitting the message’ would help with adoption?  For instance, you can use ontologies, but there is also a part of semantics which is brilliant for just doing ‘business as usual’?

I think there is a fairly broad spectrum of possible ways of making use of this technology.  I’m sure you’ve seen diagrams of the so called layer cake, with the different technologies layered on top of one another.

A Semantic Web Stack (layer cake) [image created by Tim Berners-Lee

I think that it’s up to you to decide how far up that layered structure you want to go.  There are a lot of applications where very simple use of just some of the most basic technologies will give you a lot of benefit.  And then there are other problems where you may actually want to separate a lot of the understanding of your domain from your actual executing code…  for those kinds of things, encapsulating that knowledge in the form of a potentially very complex ontology may be a good way to go.

My issue with ontologies is exactly the same issue I have with the current enterprise software providers… If you talk about mass adoption, as opposed to just specific domain adoption, for every extra entity – be it a class or data table – you decrease your adoption exponentially.   And, once you go up to higher levels, you shouldn’t assume you’re the only person that has a valid way of looking at the world, though you may be using the same data.  I think we’re saying the same thing…

Absolutely.  The interesting thing to say about the current enterprise software providers, I think, is that they have one model of the way to look at the world.   There are cases where companies have had to change the way they do business in order to adopt the enterprise software [currently available].

You have two choices: you either do it their way or else you spend a few million bucks and you do it their way anyhow.

I think that there is a possibility, with these Semantic Web technologies, of getting into more flexible uses of information and I kind of like that idea.

Over the last few years I’ve become increasingly interested in our ability to share information.  When you start talking about sharing it becomes really dangerous to have very complex, strictly defined semantics.  Because, like you said, other people might have a different interpretation of things.

But you want to nail some things down.  Understanding something about [the] information would give you a baseline for interoperating.  And then, you could do ‘better’ interoperation if you had a better definition of the meaning of the information.

I agree with you about understanding information.  But I think where most things fall to pieces – and this is also looking at business model languages and stuff – as soon as you get anywhere near processes with that information, it goes to hell pretty quickly. 

Exactly.  I spent a few years, at the beginning of the previous decade, working on a large Semantic Web research program funded by DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency].  I was part of an effort to see if we could use ontological technologies to model web services.

Is that DAML and stuff like that?

Exactly; DAML, and DAML-S for services.  We very quickly got into process modeling; and those kinds of things get very difficult…

Very quickly.

Absolutely.  I think that’s the thing that still needs work.

The traditional approach to anything process-oriented just doesn’t work unless you have very tight coupling and a very controlled domain.  But I think there are a lot of different ways of trying to solve the same problem without having to get to that level.

I think that one of the things that is missing from the whole Semantic Web collection of specifications is this notion of action… a notion of behaviour.  It’s hard to model, but I think that we ought to work on that some more.

We [KimmiC/FlatWorld] have taken a more hybrid approach, so we use things like REST architecture, and a lot of stuff from the business world, in terms of authentication and authorisation. 

Sure.  I’m not in any way advocating the use of the WS_* collection of technologies. I’m not a big fan of those.

I’ve looked at all the SOAP stuff and there are a lot of problems… like business process deployment.  It is a nightmare to deploy these technologies.  It’s even more of a nightmare to load balance them.


Essentially, if you’re looking for dynamic relationships – be it in business or whatever – they’re just useless for that sort of thing.  They’re always designed around having control of a large domain space; this is especially true when it comes to deployment of applications.  I just think they’ve missed the point. 

I think the web is the best example of a redundant, massively-distributed application; and we need to look at it more as, “That’s the model,” and we have to work with it.

Absolutely.  I think that for 20 years there have been discussions about these sorts of ad hoc enterprises, or collections of smaller companies, being able to very quickly orchestrate themselves around a particular mission [purpose].  But I think that these technologies, just like you said, are probably not the right answer.

When you wrote your 2009 position paper you noted that rather than languages, the  biggest issues or problems facing the uptake of the Semantic Web were 1. Selling the idea; and 2.  A decent user interface.

Why did you feel that was the case then; and, has your opinion changed regarding these issues in the two+ years since you wrote your paper? 

Semantic Web technologies are well suited to situations where you cannot necessarily anticipate everything – say, about the conditions and context in which an application is used, or which kind of data an application might have available to it.  It is like saying that this is a technology for problems we are yet to articulate.  Sounds like a joke, but it isn’t, and the problem in ‘selling’ Semantic Web technologies is often about the fact that once a problem has been clearly articulated, there are many possible technologies that can be used to solve it.

The issue I have with user interfaces and the user experience is the following: Semantic Web technologies – or more generally, ‘ontological’ technologies – give us a way to represent information in a very expressive manner… that is, we can have rich models and representations of the world.  I feel that user interface technology has a hard time matching this expressiveness.  This issue is related to what I said earlier about not being able to anticipate all future situations; writing software that can handle unanticipated situations is hard.

All that said, I don’t like the term ‘Semantic Web applications’.  Users shouldn’t have to care, or need to know, that Semantic Web technologies were used.  These are just useful things in our toolbox when developing applications and services.

What are the key challenges that have to be solved to bring those two problems together?

I am really looking for new programming models and ways to add flexibility.  This is not only a technical problem, we also need to change how people think about software and application development.  I have no silver bullets here.

How do you see applications developing in the next few years – compared to the current environment – as you have mention we have to shift our minds from an application that ‘owns and controls’ it’s own data rather than simply interacting with data?

I think, again, this is about changing how people think about application development.  And, more specifically, I would like to see a shift towards data that carries with it some definition of its semantics.

This was one of the key ideas of the Semantic Web, that you could take some data, and if you did not understand it, there would be ‘clues’ in the data itself as to where to go to find what that data means.

As I see it, the semantics of some piece of data either come from the relationship this data has with other data – including some declarative, ‘machine-interpretable’ definition of this data, for example, an ontology – or are ‘hard-wired’ in the software that processes the data.  In my mind, the less we have the latter, and the more we have the former, the better.

In previous interviews you’ve noted that you feel users should have a say “in how they view  information.”  Do you think that users should become involved in making the semantic web more ‘usable’? And if so, how?

I think users should demand more.  There needs to be a clear ‘market need’ for more flexible ways of interacting with information.  User experience is a challenge.

On this topic, I also want to point out how unhappy I am with the modern notion of an ‘app’.  Many apps I have seen tend to merely encapsulate information that would be much better offered through the Web, allowing inter-linking of different content, etc. It kind of goes with what I said earlier about openness…

There’s a lot of guys saying they can plug two systems together easily, but it almost always means at the data level.   It doesn’t really work once you start applying context on top of it.

I’d like to see a middle ground where we have partial interoperability between systems, because that’s how humans interact.

That’s something we’re looking at as well.  I view it like this: when I go through Europe, I can speak a little bit of German, a little bit of French. I’m not very good, but I have to have a minimal level of semantic understanding to get what I want: to get a beer.  I don’t have to understand the language completely, just enough, in context, to act on it.

Speaking of acting on things… Ora, where are you going with semantics in the future?

That’s a good question. Right now I’m working on some problems of big data analytics.

With semantics?

Nokia is investing in large-scale analytics, so I’m in the middle of that right now.

I’m currently looking at how to tackle the problem of how to bootstrap behaviour.  Behaviour and notions of action are not well-tackled in the space of the Semantic Web, and I’d really like to get into bringing two information systems in contact with one another, and have them figure out how to interoperate.

That’s very ambitious.

Right.  And I’m not entirely sure if people understand that that’s an important question to tackle.

Oh, it’s an important question to tackle; it’s just more a question of… Again, you’re very far ahead of the game.

Well, I think that today, if you want to make systems A and B interoperate, it’s usually a large engineering undertaking.  So, it’s directly related to the question of separating information from applications…  you could pick the applications you like and take the information that you’re interested in and make something happen.  In terms of interoperating systems, right now we have a situation where we either have full interoperability, or we have nothing… we have no middle ground.

You can learn more about Ora via his website, blog and  Twitter feed.

[Kim, Michael and Ora Skyped from their homes in Boston and Sydney.]

[This interview has been translated into the Serbo-Croatian language by Jovana Milutinovich of Webhostinggeeks.com]

What’s so Fab about Fab Labs? : The Innovation Interview with ‘Collaboriginal’ Peter Troxler

Peter Troxler: Capital I Interview Series – Number 12

As I was traversing the flat world, which is LinkedIn, I came across Peter Troxler’s fascinating profile.  There were many things that intrigued me and instigated my reaching out and inviting him to take part in the Innovation Interview Series.  In particular, his research at the intersection of business administration, society and technology along with his expertise in applying the Internet and Web 2.0 technology to support the implementation of management systems.

When it comes to hats, General Secretary at International FabLab Association,  owner/director at p&s culture net and owner of the research company Square One are only three of the more than a dozen he currently wears.  That said, it was Peter’s perspective as a serial enabler, which prompted my invitation… that and his moniker, the ‘Collaboriginal’, earned due to his determination to enable and empower collaboration and innovation.

Peter, do you see a difference between ‘little i’ and ‘Capital I’ Innovation?

I have not made such a distinction so far and cannot think of a real need to differentiate the two.  However, I think there is a big difference between invention and innovation, and the terms are often confused — even in public dialogue and ‘innovation’ awards that pretend to award innovation, but often just give money to people who are inventors so they can start to sell their inventions.

Maybe it could help to explain what I understand when I say innovation:

  • innovation = putting a new idea into practice, continuously improving it interactively with the customers (or similar) beyond a singular prototype (and in a minimal profitable way, say ‘ramen profitable
  • invention = prototypical, singular realization of a new idea
  • new idea = a principle for a new product, service or practice (without actually realizing it, not even as a prototype)

All of these need not be ‘globally’ new;  innovation, in particular, can be completely local.

What do you see as the main barriers to the success of innovation?

  1. The sit-and-wait-mentality of many inventors, who think that a good idea alone (or maybe with a prototype) will convince ‘entrepreneurs’ to take it and run with it.
  2. The idea that an ‘innovation’ has to be global.
  3. The belief that every innovation has to have a website 😉
  4. The belief that people ‘have to’ buy into an innovative product or service just because it is an ‘innovation’ (and has got an award that proves it).
  5. The belief that innovation is finished when its results are put into practice (or that there is a predictable way those results will take off and develop).

How essential has innovation been in your career?
Innovation has played a key role in many professional activities I’ve been involved in — be it in the arts, academic research or business.  In many ways I’ve been involved in making innovation happen.

I’m not a serial entrepreneur; but I’d like to see myself as a serial innovation enabler.  My passion is, together with others, to put new ideas into practice and to grow them beyond singular prototypes.  When the innovation makes the transition to routine, I lose interest.

You’re one of the three founders of p&s culture net, can you tell me a bit about why you started it?

In the late nineties I started p&s culture net together with two friends in Switzerland.  We set out to investigate what the impact of the internet would be on literature.

It began with workshops and small events, and grew into quite a substantial business, doing quite large public events in Switzerland.  We work around literature and try to make literature accessible in new ways.

And who, typically, would be involved in your workshops?

We try to get a good mix of people including researchers, academics, philosophers, historians, artists and even engineers.  We use the workshops as a kind of ‘think tank’.  For instance, when we were investigating what the internet does to literature, literary production, and literary consumption, it was extremely helpful to have all these different types peoples around the table.

I’m sure. And did your investigation come up with an answer as to what effect the internet has on literature?

No, not really.  When I think back on that particular series… it [the internet] just creates so many new ways to work with text.  And that text, and writing, are still very important and very relevant skills.

You are also the General Secretary of the International FabLab Association, which you’ve been involved with since 2007.  What is FabLab?

FabLab stands for Fabrication Laboratory.  It’s a concept that was developed at MIT by a physics professor, Neil Gershenfeld, about ten years ago while he was investigating how to create self-replicating matter.

Neil uses all sorts of machinery to do his experiments; and created the ‘How to Make Almost Anything’ course, which has been over-subscribed ever since it started.

People learn to use digital machinery like laser cutters, milling machines and 3D printers.  There’s a standard set of, relatively, simple machines that make up a FabLab.

FabLab image courtesy of Arnold Roosch

The set-up is relatively easy to use, so, about ten years ago Neil started to set up FabLabs in third-world countries, and in deprived areas in cities such as Boston, to give people instruments to play with and make their own stuff.

The idea took off, and suddenly everybody wanted to have a FabLab.  Currently there are over 70 FabLabs in the world… on almost every continent.  I think Australia and New Zealand are just waking up to the idea, but there are FabLabs all over Europe, in Africa, South America, Russia and a few in Japan.

How are FabLabs being used developing nations in particular?

They are used to make everyday stuff.  There is a beautiful project in Africa… They buy lamps from China, which would run on batteries and have conventional light bulbs in them.  The lamps are disassembled in the FabLab, the conventional light bulbs are replaced with LEDs, the batteries are replaced and LED cells are added.  Now the lamps can be charged by sunlight and are sold on.

This sounds like the implementation of innovation.


You have spoken in the past about businesses exploring and using open source and open innovation. How have found businesses reacting to the idea?

Businesses are extremely nervous about it.  Business owners have been told, “You have to protect your ideas. It’s dangerous to share your ideas because anybody could pick them up, run with them and make big bucks, while you starve to death because you haven’t protected your IP.”

However, if you look at it more closely, the first thing you notice is that protecting your IP is extremely expensive and time consuming, and it distracts you from the real purpose of business, which is making money… there is so much time and money spent waiting for bureaucrats to file applications.

The other thing you notice is that there’s this axiom ‘IP protection helps innovation;’ so people think, “If there is no IP protection, there will be no innovation.”  There’s absolutely no proof of that.

There is no empirical evidence that IP protection helps to grow businesses, except probably in two sectors… one is a no brainer, the lawyers.  And the other, though I haven’t looked at it very closely, is the pharmaceutical sector.  If you get counterfeit medicine, which doesn’t do what it says on the tin, that’s an obvious problem.

Are you attempting to convince business that they should be exploring the ‘Open’ option?

I am indeed. I’m working with various people, from the industrial design corner of the world, to really look into the issue and find ways for designers to make a living in an open source context.

Square One seems to sit in a very interesting niche, at the intersection of business, administration, society and technology.  How would you use technologies such as Web 2.0 and 3.0 to support the implementation of management systems.

The intersection of business, administration, society and technology in the whole context of open source, open innovation… it’s huge!  It’s massive!  What I’m trying to do is break it down and apply it in very specific contexts.  Currently the main context I am working in is the FabLab context, because they refined everything.

FabLab is the thing that is socially relevant.  They are open to the general public and are, obviously, technology based.  But, I would say, half of the FabLabs existing right now are struggling to find sustainable business models.

They’re being set up with subsidies of some kind, which helps them run for a couple of years.  Since we have such a massive growth in the number of labs – the number is doubling every 12 to 18 months – there is no real experience of the post-subsidy period.  Because many of the people who set-up FabLabs are enthusiastic tech people, they don’t have the kind of business understanding that would enable them to set up such an animal to survive long term.  That’s the specific area of complication where I try to bring all those aspects together.

Where do you think the FabLabs movement will be in ten years?

That’s a very interesting question. Because ten years is quite a long period, if we look at the technology we’re dealing with.  It could be that by the time certain machines are cheaply available the raw material won’t be.  It’s kind of hard to predict.

The other thing is that, currently, FabLabs are mainly either community based initiatives, or school/university based initiatives.  But, that said, we’re seeing things happening in France at the moment where large ‘teach yourself ’ chain stores are starting to jump on the train and say, “Hey! You know, we could attach a FabLab to our stores.”

What kind of stores?

DIY stores, for instance. You’d buy material, then go next door to the FabLab and build something. It makes complete sense.

FabLab image courtesy of Arnold Roosch

But then, on the other side, you’ve got the community based FabLabs who are thinking, “Whoa! This is not the way we think about FabLabs.”

The classic clash between corporate and communal.  Do you have an opinion as to which is a better t?

I would have to imagine a world where both exist side by side.  Not everybody would go to a community-run FabLab and wish to have this type of community. But, it makes so much sense to produce a lot of stuff yourself.

Maybe I am oversimplifying, but it seems to me that you can go and brew your own beer… many people do.  Personally I prefer to go to the store and buy it, but that’s me.  I think there’s room for all of us who like beer to do whatever is most comfortable.  Here’s hoping that FabLabs become as ubiquitous as beer!

Speaking of which – and yes, I’m segueing from beer to thoughts of Holland – there is a FabLab opening today in Rotterdam, isn’t there.

Yes, and its happened really quickly [though not as quickly as Fablab Amersfoort, which was set up in 7 days – here’s how]. They got the financing to do it in May and the first iteration opened in September. Today it opens for real.

To move this fast, we had to bring all sorts of concepts together: open source, the unconference, the possibilities and mentality of the internet – where sharing suddenly is much more easily achievable – and rapid prototyping. It’s a completely different approach to the more conventional control mentality approach.

It’s an entirely new ecosystem… it’s research AND development – rather than the more common research THEN development.

P: Yup.

Well harkening back to my beer analogy… Cheers to that!

(Kim and Peter Skype’d from their homes in Sydney and Rotterdam.)

The NBN: Are We Bothered… and Should We Be?

KimmiC chats with Australian technology journalist, author and speaker Brad Howarth about the National Broadband Network (NBN) and business innovation.

Brad HowarthCapital I Interview Series – Number 11

Brad Howarth is a journalist, author and speaker with more than 15 years  experience in roles which include marketing and technology editor at  business magazine BRW, and technology writer for The Australian.  His first book, ‘Innovation and Emerging Markets‘, was a study of entrepreneurial Australian technology companies and the process of commercialising technology globally.  ‘A Faster Future‘ his second, is co-authored, with Janelle Ledwidge. In it they investigate the future of broadband applications and services and the impact these may have on business, society and individuals.

The recently published Australian Industry Group National CEO Report: Business Investment in New Technologies’ noted that forty five percent of responding CEOs, from a wide range of businesses, said they lacked the skills and capabilities necessary to take advantage of the NBN.  This  has  risen from twenty percent just three years ago.

What are  your thoughts on this situation; and do you think that their solution of staff training and hiring will solve the problem?

The hiring and training of staff will only solve the problem if we also train our leaders to recognise the problem in the first place and instil in them both a desire and capability to do something about it.  I’m regularly receiving feedback that suggests that Australian businesses are struggling to image their future in a high-speed broadband world, and that’s almost regardless of whether the NBN is completed or not.  All too often short term issues such as the economy or carbon tax are getting in the way.

It’s not a great outcome to focus all your attention on managing the impact of the carbon tax to find your business has been undermined by new competitors coming in on the Internet, or find that too many of your customers have changed behaviour and no longer need you.  Australian businesses need to spend a lot more time thinking about their broadband futures – and there is huge scope for innovation once they start doing so.

You wrote your second book, ‘A Faster Future’ at a very interesting time last year, as there was a great amount of debate around broadband connectivity. 

The original idea was conceived not long after the announcement of the Fibre to the Home National Broadband Network model.  It was initially written to explore the uses of high-speed broadband and then evolved into a much broader picture.

It was very interesting to watch the debate going on in Australia, about the need – or otherwise – for high speed connection.

If you go into the rural area the debate goes away very quickly.  The debate’s been driven along primarily party political lines I suspect; so, it has more to do with posturing.

Are you saying that rurally it’s taken as a given that the NBN is coming, and it will be a positive thing?

Most regional councillors, have fallen over themselves to get their particular part of the world hooked up to broadband network.  Now whether they know exactly what to do when they get it is a little bit harder to say.  But certainly – given that so much of what we take for granted in the metropolitan regions isn’t available in regional areas – they’ll get benefits from simply bringing them up to speed.

Do you see much potential for (onshore) Australian companies to get involved in the actual building of the NBN and share in the potential profits; or will it mainly be offshore internationals who come in and make the most out of it?

In phase one, which is equipment supply and roll-out, you’re obviously seeing contracts awarded to Alcatel-Lucent and others for a lot of developments on the network…  the fibre cable itself.  Mainly because Australian companies don’t make that stuff.  To the best of my knowledge, we don’t have a company here that makes GPON equipment, so there is really no choice there.

When it comes to the deployment, I think you’ll find there’s a lot of Australian involvement in the roll-out and deployment of the network itself.  And certainly it’s going to employ a huge number of people.

Think of the phases that come over the top of that, and that’s where there’s a lot more potential for Australian businesses to get involved.  Australian businesses in the entrepreneurial technology space will build the applications and services that run over the top of the network.  And of course there is the opportunity for Australian businesses of any variety to create service offerings that utilise the network.

It may be that initially, of 30 odd billion dollars spent, a part of that may go to foreign manufacturers; but that’s really not a significant component of the actual network itself.

It has been suggested that, re the NBN Broadband, and the Government’s National Digital Economy Strategy 2020, many of the initiatives proposed could already be undertaken successfully with current infrastructure.  What is your opinion?

From that perspective, it is already possible to drive from Sydney to Melbourne, so clearly building airports is a waste of money.  Restricting investment to the goals of the Digital Economy Strategy represents short term thinking.  This is about investing for the long term.

In ‘A Faster Future’ you say that it may take a few years for a killer app for broadband to show up, but as things move so much faster now, could it not be right around the corner?

It could.  Actually, it is probably already here, we just don’t know it yet.

Where are you hoping to find the next true innovation?

The area that I think is obviously apparent today is interface technology – devices like the Kinect, the Wii, and so on – which enable us to interact with machinery through mechanisms other than our fingers.  That’s already there, but I think it’s got a long way to go.

You’ve seen derivations of that… the whole gesture based computing paradigm that’s emerging through the iPad and various other capture devices.  It is basically building a whole new language.

I think if you’re looking for ‘Capital I’ Innovation, look at a company like Emotiv and the work it’s doing with the EPOC headset and using brainwaves to become a control and measurement mechanism.

That’s Tan Le, isn’t it?

Yeah.  I think what she and the team are doing probably does represent ‘Capital I’ innovation.  Yes, it is an Innovation within a stream, but then the invention of the automobile was the extension of transport; the invention of electricity was an extension of power.  So, I think that’s definitely one.   I’m not really certain that they are too many others out there at the moment.

If you take broadband internet, I think there’s so much ‘small i’ innovation to come on that platform.  We don’t need to build faster-than-light telecommunication systems based on paired photon matching because we’ve got a truck-load of work to do with the technology that we have already developed.

But I think you might see some ‘Capital I’ innovation eventually come off of broadband… you saw a glimmer of that in Second Life.  Combine the notions of high definition with spatial realism in terms of video and audio, and possibly even haptic sensory input, then you’ve got a new platform there.

Once we’ve moved to a system where you can do direct stimulation of the brain itself, so you can actually start inputting data directly into the brain and bypassing the senses – going past the nose, eyes and ears, maybe even the fingers – in terms of haptic responses, then we’ll find a new platform for ‘Capital I’ innovation.  The Emotiv stuff is going in another direction.  It’s taking what’s in the brain and putting it back out to the world.  I think we’re only at the earliest stages of being able to see anything there.

But there is so much work to be done with what we’ve already got.  You could stop fundamental research tomorrow and innovation would continue for a very long period of time – although I wouldn’t advocate that.  We haven’t even really harnessed all the capabilities of electricity yet.

Australia has a proud tradition of adapting, some may say Innovating, healthcare to match the geographical barriers and vast remoteness of the continent.  Since 1928 the Royal Flying Doctors Service has serviced those living in rural, remote and regional areas of Australia, utilising the technologies of motorised flight and radio.  Is there enough emphasis on continuing this legacy via the potential of Broadband?

There is a lot, but there should be a lot more.  Actually, that’s one of the areas of the government where promotion of the National Broadband Network is incredibly strong on.  I think the argument for the NBN economically could be made almost entirely on the benefits to the health sector.

That said, I get the feeling that you may think innovation is an overused term.

Absolutely.  I’ve written about innovation for ages. I put innovation in the title of my first book; but I’m sick of the word.  Not so much the word itself, just sick of how it’s being used.  We seem to have these analytic discussions about the need for innovation, we have innovation conferences… it’s just endless.  I think what disappoints me about innovation is the amount time we spend talking about it as opposed to the amount of time we spend doing it.

Passive innovation, sitting around navel-gazing… it’s something that we probably focus too much on as opposed to finding practical methods for implementing Innovation.  I want companies to actually get on with it.  We need to start injecting the theory into business practice.

You can learn more about Brad, ‘A Faster Future’ and his other writing via his  website and follow him on Twitter.

Growing the Culture of Disruption: A chat with Linda Bernardi, a Most Personable Provocateur

Linda Bernardi, author of ‘Provoke: Why the Global Culture of Disruption is the Only Hope for Innovation, is undoubtably one the most personable provocateurs I’ve ever had the pleasure of speaking with.  The fact that she is as inspiring as she is interesting is a bonus.  Once I read her insightful and thought provoking book, published in November of 2011, I knew I wanted her to launch the 2012 Season of the Innovation Interview Series.

Linda wears an wide variety of hats, she is: CEO of StraTerra Partners, a technology strategy consulting company focussed on new tech adoption; an an early-stage technology Angel Investor in the US, Europe and India; and a board member for several commercial and not-for-profit organizations.  Her work with the Bernardi Leadership Institute sees her training in large enterprises and academia as well as engaging entrepreneurs internationally in Innovation Based Leadership™.  If that weren’t enough, ConnecTerra, the company she founded in 2001, provides RFID tech to large enterprise IT.  All of this underlines that Linda knows what she’s talking about when it comes to ‘Capital I’ Innovation – and yet, as engaging as all of that is, none of it is why I was so determined to interview her for this series.  

The fact is, with all those feathers in her cap, Linda now also wears the hat of an author, and it is for that reason – once I had read Provoke – that I sought her out.

Linda Bernardi: Capital I Interview Series – Number 10

Throughout my reading of ‘Provoke‘, I found myself talking out loud and having a dialogue with the book, “Yeah, that’s right!”… “I know!” … “I’ve thought that for years!”  But, to Linda’s credit, I also learned a great deal, and found myself rethinking certain ‘givens’, which perhaps aren’t given any longer.  Credit where credit is due – I recommend Provoke to anyone interested in moving the economy, especially the economy of Innovation, forward.

Throughout this interview you will find ‘snippets’ from the book.  I hope they inspire you to purchase a copy and dive into your place in the ‘Culture of Disruption’ [CofD] that Linda opens to her readers.

“You are already part of the Culture of Disruption. Just by reading this book, you’ve become a disruptive force.”

Congratulations on writing such an engaging and insightful book Linda.  Provoke prompts readers to ask themselves, “What can I do to become part of, enhance, enrich and ensure a successful Culture of Disruption,” be that in their school or business, and regardless of whether that business is a startup or an entrenched, global corporation. You’ve defined the Culture of Disruption as:

“…the culture that invites and nurtures ideas and ways of thinking that continually disrupt convention wisdom and legacy models.  A CofD needs to be part of any organization looking to innovate.”

Added to that, you have made clear that change is inevitably uncomfortable, at least initially, but Innovation is the responsibility of everyone involved in the ecosystem.  This ecosystem encompasses entrepreneurs and employees, investors and Board of Directors, even academia and the media and, perhaps most importantly, Consumers – who are the market.  As you see it, working together – collaborating – they can create an unstoppable Culture of Disruption.

You refer to Collaboration a great deal in Provoke.  Why is collaboration so important in the Culture of Disruption?

Collaboration has very broad ramifications.  Part of what I hope to do with Provoke is explain the different constituents in the ecosystem… and illustrate how things are changing.  As things get more democratised and open, by nature they become more collaborative, and this includes decision making… even very fundamental decisions such as strategic acquisitions, product directions and market plans.

The process of making these decisions will become much more collaborative within companies.  It will also become more collaborative with the consumer – the market component, because the market now has an immediate voice regarding anything that company does. Decisions that used to be non-collaborative, where a company produced something for the market and the market had to take it or leave it, are now commented upon and can be broken, or not, based on the input of the market. Social media enables bi-directional communication.

These forces, that we never had in the past, allow uni-directional decision making, development, and communication; it’s becoming very bi-directional and collaborative.  For the first time we’re embracing intellectual development on all levels and planning strategic development at a collaborative, global level.  We’re respecting, or learning to respect, the power within individuals – whether they’re within a company or collaborating with the company – and the market.

In opening up to collaboration in such a social way, things are moving very quickly.  Do you see the CofD as evolutionary or revolutionary?

Parts of it are evolutionary, because it would be impossible to say that everybody has to stop what they’re doing and completely change tracks.  If it’s a big company serving tens of millions of consumers, it’s inconceivable that they’d immediately stop what they’re doing, abandon the past, and develop anew. On the other hand, certain Cultures of Disruption can be revolutionary, because they don’t have a legacy burden or have to service a huge market.

“The 3 Is–Inspiration, Impact and Innovation in the CofD.”

To that extent, you see companies like LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, new generation companies that can evolve their business model immediately.  Because everything is very dynamic, smaller companies have the ability to be much more agile and evolve very rapidly.  Added to that, the bigger the company becomes, the less likely they are to reward risk and innovation.

Do you think that innovation is always risky?

Actually, I don’t think it is at all.  Innovation, fundamentally, is looking at something that doesn’t exist, or a new way of doing something… creating some new possibilities.  Innovation should be inherent in anything we’re doing.  [Unfortunately] bigger companies tend to think they’re not entrepreneurs.

When I give a lecture to a company where there may be a 100,000 employees, a common [theme] that comes up is, “I’m just an employee; I’m not an entrepreneur.  This stuff does not apply to me.  I can’t bring about change.”

“… a formula for figuring out the odds that a given acquisition will succeed, based on five conditions that exist when the ball gets rolling: 1. Purpose; 2. Plan; 3. Personality; 4. Players; and 5. Panic.”

Well, anyone and anything they do can be innovative.  That is why companies hire them; why companies go to the best universities and hire the best people.  They bring them in because they want their talent.  Their talent means they have brilliant ways of solving problems.  That is innovation!

But something happens in their journey, and within a year or two, these same individuals get frustrated and leave.  It’s ironic because they go off and doing the most fantastic things, and when you ask them, “Why didn’t you do it while you were at work?” They come back to their line of thinking: “I’m not supposed to innovate. I’m not entrepreneurial. I’m an employee.”

Provoke is trying to break that mould… to say that innovation CAN emanate from within.  One of the reasons that I wrote Provoke is to change the lethargic behaviour that we see in big corporations and conglomerates. Most of my clients have one-hundred-and-fifty to two-hundred thousand employees.

The Bernardi Leadership Institute

It is frightening when I enter these companies and see an attitude, which is much more about: “I’m here to do a job and collect a pay check,” versus: “I’m here because I’m super-bright.  I’m here because I have enormous talent and enormous capacity.”  I think they’re only operating at anywhere between 10 to 15 percent of their intellectual capacity in these types of companies.

There are reasons for this.  Often there are a lot of barriers – which I talk about in Provoke –  that prohibit people from being innovative.  After I give a lecture people will approach me and start sharing their stories.  They inevitably revolve around not having a supportive manager, having a leadership that’s disconnected, a system that does not reward risk taking or innovative thinking, and failed systems of capturing innovation from within.

“Smart leaders should be looking at a managing method I call “the baton”: orchestrating diverse groups, allowing expression within the boundaries of an overall plan, and making work emotionally appealing and creative…”

Think about it;  if you have one-hundred thousand employees… if one percent of those people – just one thousand people – were to have one idea a year… that’s one thousand ideas per year!  Yet if you look at the amount of innovation that’s actually captured within companies, it’s maybe three to four ideas per year.

To me, as an ex-CEO, it’s as if these company leaders are willing to bypass their most incredible source of innovation.  Often they think, “Maybe I need to make an acquisition to do an innovation.”  A lot of times the Innovation acquisitions that are made could have been accomplished within companies, but employees within the company were never consulted.  Imagine their motivation level.  The level of inspiration drops proportionally the less people are involved in innovation.

We have to disrupt this model, cultivate and inspire talent, and bring creative thinking out.  Currently I believe this is incredibly dormant, both within the US as well as globally.  Instead, it’s the big company model that prevails, on in which, for some reason, expressiveness and innovation go unrewarded and are even discouraged.

You must meet, at least initially, a great deal of scepticism in these larger corporations.

Well, scepticism is a lot easier than innovation, isn’t it?  In fact, in the five stages of dealing with disruption, scepticism is one of the first stages.  When cloud computing came out, it was very easy for people to be sceptical: “It’s not going to work.  I’m not going to use it as my corporate enterprise system.  It’s going to fail.  Nobody is going to want it.  There are security issues.”  The list went on and on.

When Apple disrupted the music industry and brought out the iPod, it was an incredible revolution, it redefined the entire possibility landscape, it redefined distribution of music.  And then it came up with the iPhone and redefined telcos.

My big clients in Europe all said: “Well, a computer company that’s a music company… they are never going to make it as a phone company.  It’s not possible!  We’re a phone company!”

And when Apple redefined the iPad the sceptics said: “No one is going to walk around with an iPad, and an iPhone, and a MacBook.”  And what do you think are the most three prevalent devices at any meeting I go to?  Those exact three devices!  Then the sceptics said: “Nobody is going to abandon their iPhone just to get a new iPhone,” yet everybody does.

I’m so glad you brought up this question because there is so much scepticism and misunderstanding around innovation.  Innovation – or disruption – doesn’t mean just coming up with a flaky idea, going off and doing something new without considering what the ramifications are.

Innovation (whether it’s  by a small, medium or large company or an individual) looks at the possibility of developing something that doesn’t exist, or expanding on something that exists, and disrupting the model.

“Here are a few tips:

  • Try something that seems crazy.
  • Solve a problem.
  • Observe everything.
  • Ignore the naysayers.
  • Have a strategic plan and execute it
  • Expect more of yourself”

Look at companies like Kodak, which I talk about in Provoke, who owned the entire photography space, and I think about the myriad number of ways that Kodak could have taken digital photography and owned that space… It could have been the hub, the platform for all digital photos.  Or, look at Blackberry, that owned the business of communication smart devices…

I think there are very few companies that are willing to take the broad risk of blatantly innovating in the face of scepticism, while understanding the heightened level of gratification they have to give to the consumer.

Speaking of the consumer, do you see a widening or lessening of the generation gap – between those of a ‘certain’ generation and those part of what you deem Generation I (the Generation of Innovation)?

I’m delighted by how intelligent the consumer is.  Something magnificent is happening today, the like of which we’ve never seen before.  When the first personal computers came out people that were over a certain age, who had never dealt with a computer, never learned.  There was a very distinct gap.

Somehow, in the last five to ten years, with the help of social media, that gap is being bridged to the point where grandparents are revelling in the use of Skype… they know how to use their iPhones.  They feel a part of it.   And that’s fantastic!  A nine-month-old can take an iPad and play a game.  Of course there is a broad range of technical capabilities, but the generational gap is becoming less and less relevant.  In my view, it’s because innovation is becoming more practical and end-user-oriented.

We’re developing things with the idea that the mass of people should be able to use them; things are becoming simpler to consume.  With computers in the past, the art lay in  buying the computer, loading the operating system, figuring out what program to buy, going through the heroic task of installing it and figuring out how to use it.  Only a very small percentage of the population could actually do that.

It’s very different today with the ‘www.anything/anytime’ model, which allows anyone access to anything.  The art is the use rather than the technical prowess to be ‘able’ to use; and that has really diminished the generational gap.

Unfortunately I think a great many technologists miss the fact that, regardless of how ‘smart’ their technology is, if people aren’t using it, it just won’t matter.

Exactly.  If we ask the question, “what makes certain innovation distinct?” it is when you develop something that people use.  In Provoke I discuss each of the constituents within the ecosystem of disruption, which is the enabling body of the Culture of Disruption.  These include the leadership, the board, the investor and the employee.

I then talk about the market and its power, because it’s the market that is totally redefining advertising and marketing.  The market has a tremendous impact.  Look at what happened at Netflix within span of few days.  The company came up with a new business plan, people revolted and called it back.  Imagine if we could have done that  ten years ago with hybrid cars.


When Innovation becomes practical and usable, it redefines everything.  And the beauty of it is that, sooner or later, change is inevitable.  The sooner you embrace the disruption the better.  If you don’t believe in disruption, you’re fundamentally saying that you believe in nothing changing… companies that think like that are the companies that become extinct.

The business equivalent of the dodo bird.


That leads into my next question: is ego bad for innovation?  As a consumer I have a great amount of ego because I feel, more and more, that I can have an effect – especially if I group together with other consumers.  From my perspective as an innovator, I realise that if we (KimmiC) didn’t have ego, perhaps we wouldn’t be as audacious as we are in deciding that we can change the world.  

On the other hand, perhaps part of the reason that people and companies feel they don’t need to change is the ego they have invested in their current offerings.  

What are your thoughts?

It’s a very important question.  If we were to define ego, I think competence, belief, passion and drive are necessary attributes… they’re critical for any of us to do anything significant.  If you didn’t have those you wouldn’t be able to do what you believe you can do.  You wouldn’t have the passion or the drive to do it; or the fundamental belief, as an entrepreneur, that: “I know this is risky but I really believe in the fundamental outcome. I’m going to do it and very little is going to stop me if anything”.

On the other hand there is the misplaced ego, which is ego by virtue of what you’ve been in the past, or what you think you are, or what you think you have to be.  That’s wrong because that completely stifles growth.  Those are the companies (or individuals) that are not innovating, because they believe that if they shatter that ego, everything will fall apart.

It’s necessary to know what you don’t know, to know that you have to learn, and to be eager to learn.  Unfortunately, in the latter group of people (or companies), there’s very little learning or change going on because of their belief: “I’m company X.  I’ve dominated this field.  I own it.  No one can be as good as me.”

At the same time there are some entrepreneurs that can be unfoundedly egotistical.  They believe they know all the answers just because they’ve been successful in the past.  These are the entrepreneurs that believe they’re going to take their social media company public and, suddenly, it’s going to be worth hundreds of billions of dollars.

Those that wear their Google Goggles proudly!

Yeah. Or because they’re 20 years old, they got their Ph.D. at MIT and somebody told them they’re super-bright.  They have expectations, at the age of 23, that they are going to be multi-millionaires on their yacht.

“The comfort and the recklessness born of wildly available capital are actually corrupting innovation. Obstacles and scarcity force us to be better, think creatively, and work harder.”

Silicon Valley, while it’s been enormous in bringing us tremendous innovation, is also the breeding ground for unfounded ego, both in entrepreneurs, corporations and investors.  There are venture capitalists there that believe that, in some sense, they’re God!  One of the things that inspires me about Asia (and some of the other continents) is that they are where Silicon Valley was about 20 years ago.  There’s passion and hunger, but there’s also an incessant energy and drive.  It’s extremely difficult to balance that with unfounded ego.

Talking about Asia brings me back to thinking about scepticism.  I believe, and I think from reading Provoke and speaking to you that you probably have a similar view, that woe betide those who are sceptical of what is going on in Asia.

Right.  One things that got me really worried and started me thinking about writing Provoke was a December 2010, CNN round table of six CEO’s from major companies in Silicon Valley – we’ll leave them unnamed.  For an hour they were being spoke about the prowess of the U.S. versus the global market, and how the U.S. would never lose in the innovation game.

Clearly, they all have operations in various countries outside the U.S. and they definitely, as executives travel there, but the answers they rendered really left me baffled.

“Among giant companies, only Apple and Google seem to have mastered the deliberate act of balancing a youthful, wildly innovative, disruptive organizational ethos with the iron discipline and market focus that produces win after win… What my students and clients want to know is how to capture that same spirit.”

In my role as an investor in companies across the globe, I get a unique opportunity to look at entrepreneurism in various countries at a fundamental level.  For instance, in India there were about 5,100 business plans submitted [to us] last year.  We’re expecting this year to top 7,000.  China, South America, Europe… Talent is everywhere. Genius is everywhere. So to think that it’s going to be in one place is a very dangerous game.

StraTerra Partners

Everything is available everywhere.  So, for companies and the leadership of those companies to sit there and say things like: “We are going to be the leader. Nobody can catch up with us,” really showed enormous blindness.

It could be posited that the current state of the U.S. economy is, at least partially, reflective of that blindness.

Absolutely.  Innovation is collaborative.  Right now, just within my client list, there are three to four million employees. That’s a lot of people.

Just within that group of people, if I can start the process of active thinking and processing, just awakening people to the power that they have, and get them to believe in it…  To believe that an entrepreneur is just somebody that thinks creatively; that they can be, and are, an entrepreneur in what they do.  If the system around them is not designed to listen to them, they should create a system that is.

If enough people think like that… well, how could the leadership of a company resist 50,000 people wanting to express themselves.  What are they going to do? Lay them all off… because they’re thinking creatively?

“People need to feel valuable, creative, inspired.”

Disruption is simply another way to look at something.  Imagine if we’d never experimented… because that by default means disruption.  We would have never had any discovery.  That’s the power of the ‘what if’ culture.  That’s what engineering and science is, it’s about experimentation.  Disruption doesn’t mean disrupting the business, it just means opening up the business to new opportunities.

You mention in Provoke that you’d like an opportunity to rebuild the entire business school paradigm.  How would you change it?

I can actually answer that question with a very concrete answer.  I taught a number of classes last year at the University of Washington, in their MBA program.  It went so well that they’ve now offered me a lecturer position and, starting at end of January, Provoke will be used as a textbook.

It was very interesting to go into a program that’s well-established.  It’s very methodical, like every other MBA program, and I taught it completely differently.  I wanted my audience to participate with me, I wanted the students to think.

I made them  very uncomfortable because I told them I didn’t think they were thinking enough.  At one point I turned around and said I found it completely boring being with them.

I know they’re bright but they were just sitting there waiting for me to teach them things.  I said, “But you know everything!  Let’s talk about how you can change things!”  What ensued were incredible business plans; and I thought: “Oh my God!  They’ve woken up.  Look at what they can do!”

“Professors should pursue corporate relationships, explore creative funding options and worry more about impact and less about tenure.”

This is the first step.  We’re going to incorporate it with formal teaching and, over the course of the year, I hope to expand it to other universities and other business programs.  I really think that business programs have to be completely disrupted and revamped for the new world that we’re entering.

In Provoke you mention your respect for (The Daily Show’s) Jon Stewart.   What is it about Jon that moved you to mention him in particular?

In addition to being a comedian, Jon played a very important role during a very difficult previous [Bush, Cheney] administration.  His was probably the most unbiased and candid voice talking about what was going on in the administration, in congress, in politics in general.

Jon Stewart

Part of the comedy passport that he has allows him to bring things to the foreground and talk about them both in a way that audience connect with.  He is able to make light of very complex things which, frankly, need to be made light of.

It’s ironic, but though he’s a comedian, he’s one of the cleanest source of political news.  That frankness is also needed in discussions about business, Innovation and the Culture of Disruption.

He’s very much a provocateur, as are you.   Like Jon, you don’t seem to have any reticence in voicing your opinion, nor qualms about how you may be perceived in doing this.  That is not necessarily a position that a lot of women are comfortable taking.

I would say that, as we enter 2012, it’s really disturbing to me how few women do what I do.

When I look at technical conferences, and go through the list of keynote speakers, there are no women.  We’re 50% of the workforce, yet we’re not there.  When I sit around an investment table, I don’t have women investors with me.  When I’m on a board of directors, I don’t have women with me.  It’s disturbing to me that in a course of decades, instead of this becoming a non-issue, in fact it’s a real issue in that, women are still uncomfortable taking centre stage.

I’d like to have a lot more women doing what you’re doing – asking tough questions, putting themselves on the map.  But generally women lack a desire for risk.  Women dislike failure and want to play it safe – for a lot of historical reasons – yet women have enormous power.  I’m hoping that, as the world becomes more and more collaborative, more and more women will come to centre stage.

How will you measure the success of Provoke in the Culture of Disruption?

I really believe in the power of the people and I want Provoke to have a role in it.  So, if you ask me: “What would be a measure of success for me in a year?” it is how many people I might have touched with Provoke.  How might I have helped them change their thinking around the inevitability of disruption and their positive role in the Culture of Disruption.  To me, those would be incredible success factors.

“I’m a free thinker, not a Kool-Aid drinker”

If I can just provoke people to think differently, the mathematical combination of possibilities grows infinitely.  I’m very pleased to see  companies – some as large as federal agencies – saying: “You know what? We need to bring in innovative thinking.”  In fact, they’re replacing my “Culture of Disruption” with “Culture of Innovation.”  They’re saying: “You need to help us create our Culture of Innovation.”  Right there, suddenly there’s a positive translation of my dream.  The “Culture of Disruption” has now been translated into the “Culture of Innovation,” or, as you call it, the “Capital I”… which is huge!

Linda is giving a free gift of the first chapter of the Provoke eBook, along with a Culture of Disruption membership card, to any readers of this Innovation Interview who sign up for her monthly ‘Innovation Excellence’ newsletter by clicking this link!!

You can find out more about Linda, Provoke and the Culture of Disruption on her website and blogYou can also connect with Linda on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

(Kim and Linda Skype’d from their homes in Sydney and Seattle.)

Chewing on Black Swan for Christmas

Rather than looking back at 2011, we chose to talk to Doug Vining – chief technology adviser to the FutureWorld Global Think Tank and Editor of MindBullets: News from the Future – about the future, and his hopes for it, in this, the last Innovation Interview of 2011.

Doug Vining: Capital I Interview Series – Number 9

Futurist, entrepreneur, guru, writer and editor – these are only some of the words used to describe Doug Vining.  With an eclectic career which has encompassed advertising, corporate consulting, and working for tech titans such as IBM, Doug has had his finger on the pulse of Innovation and its commercial applications – along with its potential for solving real world problems – for many years.  With 30 years in ‘the game’ and three business degrees, Doug is a tech and strategy consultant, with a particular fascination for emerging technology .

You define yourself as a futurist… what does that term mean to you?

Well, I’m part of a group called ‘FutureWorld‘.  What we do is teach companies and organisations how to learn from the future.  They call us ‘futurists’, but we don’t predict the future, the future is impossible to predict.

Life is not perfect, reality is messy, that is what you should expect.  Anything is possible in the future.  What is needed is an attitude of durability and adaptability… expect the unexpected and learn from what could happen.

We look at scenarios.  We don’t say, “This is what will happen.” We say, “This is the kind of thing that could happen.”  Even if some of it would seem to be improbable.

Very often it’s the  least likely scenarios that occur.  Looking at the opportunities in those scenarios and planning a strategy today, that will help you in the future, that’s what we mean by ‘learning from the future’.

Your fellow FutureWorld gurus are very impressive.

Yes.  For over twenty years “Future World” has been in operation, so we have quite an impressive group of gurus.  There are four core members (I’m including myself) who have been involved with the business for about twenty years, and then there are others who come and go, or get involved in one stage or another.

Your fellow core members are Wolfgang Grulke, Anton Musgrave, and Neil Jacobsohn.

That’s exactly right.  Wolfgang started this whole thing when he was still with IBM.  Many years ago he said, you can’t look to the past for strategy.  Strategy has got to be about the future; strategy and innovation are tied together in that future perspective.

“In this warp-speed world it is no longer enough to learn from experience, we must learn from the future.” Wolfgang Grulke

Anton Musgrave

It’s about agility, adaptability and flexibility.  If you expect everything to be ordered and measured, then unfortunately, you’re going to be wrong.

That sounds like one of your MindBullets.

MindBullets: News from the Future‘ was one of several that Wolfgang came up with. The idea was to present a scenario in the form of a short, sharp news story that would make business executives sit up and think. Executives are often far too focussed on operational issues, and need a jolt to get them to think strategically and consider the future.

The mind bullets are little news stories from the future.  We produce one every week, we’ve been doing it for years.  Because we have been doing it for so long, some of those ‘futures’ have become the present, or the past.  It’s quite interesting to see how many of those MindBullets, which we thought were crazy ideas at the time, actually look pretty normal in today’s world.

Such as?

A big one must be world-wide communication and the adoption of cell phones, and smart mobile devices; it’s completely changed the modern world.  We said that these sort of things would become commonplace.

Another example is an article we wrote four or five years about communication becoming a basic human right.  Just last year the United Nations said that internet access should be considered a human right, and countries are starting to put in broadband for their citizens.  Those are the kind of trends that we considered futuristic at the time, and now they’re commonplace.

Would you say that is something like the smart/mobile phone, which enables easy communication, is the most important piece of innovation in your lifetime?

Absolutely.  In my life time I think the most profound piece of innovation has been the internet and the convergence of the internet, cellphones, and smart mobile devices.

The mobile phone on its own has completely changed the way the world works, especially in places like Africa and Asia.  In the past, for example, a manager, or someone with some product, would have to travel to another town to find out if there was a market for their goods, or their labour.  Often that trip would be a fruitless waste of energy and they would miss other opportunities by making it.  Now, with cell phones, they can find out where there is a demand for their services or products.  That completely changes economic opportunities.

And, of course it’s become more pervasive, more into the realm of social communication. We’ve seen what’s happened in Egypt, and Libya and Tunisia.  The catalyst has been the ability to communicate and organise socially, and to be heard.  People who were powerless have been given power.

Speaking of power, FutureWorld has a very impressive list of clients: huge companies and multinationals such as British Airways, Cisco Systems, The Financial Times, Gartner, IBM, Kraft, Microsoft, SAP and Oracle. 

There’s a number of reasons for that.  When we engage with clients on a formal basis we are quite expensive, so start-ups can’t afford us.  And, start-ups normally already have that innovation… that future-looking, crazy-idea mentality.

Therefore, yes, most of our clients are big corporates who are kind of set in their ways and very static.  They need the intervention from FutureWorld to get them to consider programs of innovation such as setting up a separate a business unit to take new ideas into the future.  Start-ups don’t need us and can’t afford us; big companies who can afford us definitely need us.

I suppose one of the ways that a start-up, or an individual, could gain access to you and the rest of the gurus would be to sign up to MindBullets.

Absolutely. There are a number of entrepreneurs who’ve been subscribing to MindBullets for years.  There’s a lot of intellectual property, a lot of our thinking, available for free on our website.  We also started a discussion forum; everyone that subscribes is free to comment and enjoy the conversation.

And the controversy?

That’s the point.  The future actually awards people who stand out.  I mean, look at Steve Jobs. He was the obvious example of the unreasonable man.  He wasn’t part of the crowd; he was a maverick.  He expected the impossible and he often got it.  There’s an old saying: “To change the world all you need is an unreasonable man”.

There’s a book called “The Black Swan“, written by the international speaker Nassim Taleb.  Now, a black swan is an inventor or invention that is unreal, unusual, and appears to be random.  But, it – the black swan – completely changes the landscape and the status quo; so much so that things are never the same again.

The origin of the black swan was from the time in history when all swans were thought to be white (because all swans in Europe were white).  This thought prevailed until someone from Europe went to Australia and ‘discovered’ the black swans there.  Of course the discovery completely changed the previous volume of knowledge… the certainty that all swans were white.

There are so many obvious examples of black-swan events, like the 9/11 attacks, the Fukushima tsunami, and earthquake.  Even the global adoption of mobile phones is a kind of black swan thing.  People didn’t predict it, they didn’t expect to be quite so dramatic, and so profound in its impact.  The key thing about the black swan is the world will never be the same again; we can never go back to the way it used to be.

With that in mind, do you think that movements such as OWS (Occupy Wall Street) are Black Swan events?

I do.  I think that they are important events.  I think they’re also a symptom of a shift in mind-set.

There are a number of themes around this kind of thinking.  The first one is the rise of the individual.  One of the lessons from the future is that the individual becomes much more powerful than institutions, and corporations.  The individual has the power to connect, to communicate, to organise and to make big changes in society, and economies.

A more recent theme, which Niel (Jacobson) and I put together over the last year or so is called “Naked Leadership“.

Neil Jacobsohn

This theme has proved to be very popular with our clients in the last few months.  It looks at social media bringing about things like the Occupy movements, and the uprisings in Egypt, and Tunisia.  There are number of factors playing there: communication, the power of individuals, the transparency that people demand, and the fact that institutions, countries, governments, big businesses, and big brands, are no longer in control.

I wouldn’t like to predict where it’s going to, as it does change from day to day, but there is the argument that Occupy Wall Street is the manifestation of individuals demanding their rights, and their freedom.  On the other hand, there’s a feeling that this could be a kind of socialism which could subjugate individual desires of to those of ‘the group’.  Once the 99% are in power, where does the individual stand?

How very Ayn Rand-ian.

Exactly. It’s about individual rights being under threat.

Speaking of individuals, who inspires you as an Innovator?

One of the innovators who I truly, truly admire is a young chap called Elon Musk.  Elon is a multi-millionaire entrepreneurs living in California, but he is originally from South Africa. He helped found PayPal, which he sold for hundreds of millions of dollars.  He’s currently involved in three things: Tesla Motors (electric cars); SpaceX, his private company, which is the first private commercial company to launch a space craft into the atmosphere and orbit Earth; and, he’s also very interested in the concept of green energy.

Elon Musk

This year [2011] he was awarded half a million dollars for the Heinlein Prize, for ‘accomplishments in commercial space activities’ – which is no mean feat; and apparently (according to Wikipedia and Jon Favreau) he was the inspiration for Tony Stark, of the ‘Iron Man’ movies.

He’s an amazing guy.  And, it just shows you that innovation can come from strange places.  I think Elon epitomises what I consider to be a ‘Capital I’ Innovator.  At FutureWorld we talk about Radical Innovation, which think that ties into your view on “Capital I” innovation.


Radical Innovation creates new products, new businesses, new business units, and creates a steep difference in the performance of a company.  That’s one of the truths you learn from the future… to create radical innovation in your businesses and in your life.

Radical Innovation is about expecting and getting ready for what’s next…  the next big, radical, exponential increase.  Sometimes that means you have to kill off your old business to make room for your new one.

An example of that, of course, is the iPod.  Sony could have had the iPod years before Apple did, but they said: “No! It’s going to cannibalise our Walkman business”.  Of course it did; except Apple did it for them!

That’s just a typical example.  That’s one of the lessons from the future: eat yourself before someone else does.

Its about consistently, and continuously are editing yourself.  Very Darwinian.

Certainly radical innovation is all about taking risks and finding those opportunities that are going to be the next big thing, even if it does mean killing off existing things.

When we go to companies, we try and help them to engage in programs of radical innovation.  We say that they should look at using their existing businesses, which hopefully include some cash cows, to produce the revenue necessary to invest in risky ventures for the future.  It’s like taking some of your mature business lines and nurturing them, while at the same time pouring money into more risky things that may be the next radical businesses of the future.

As a futurist, do you have any thoughts or lessons to share for 2012; what do you think we should be looking out for?

Well the problem is that, for me, 2012 is almost yesterday.  We’re looking beyond 2020, because what’s going to happen next year is already old hat… it’s kind of discarded and even obvious.  The longer view is much more important and much more interesting.  Having said that, there are lots of thing that I expect, maybe not to happen, but to start becoming much more mainstream.

One of the things that I’ve been talking about for years is solar energy becoming cheaper and more efficient.  To the extent that, ultimately, it will probably dominate as a primal form of energy world-wide.  Now, there are many reasons why you might want to debate that, but it certainly seems to be emerging as highly probable.

I’ve got a blog where I talk about ‘The New Energy’.  Whether it’s solar, biofuel, bacteria [microbial fuel cell], genetically-modified organisms or organic waste [pyrolysis], I think it’s definitely in the future.  When?  I don’t know.  But the sooner the better as far as I’m concerned, because it will offer so many opportunities and solutions to problems that everyone assumes can only get worse.

This is the big thing about the future: futurists are very optimistic.  You have to be!

Image: Peter Griffin

I think we will see black swans in climate change, in energy, in communication, and all sorts of things.  I believe that the future beyond 2020 will be a bright future.

(Kim and Doug Skype’d from their homes in Sydney and Johannesburg.)

This is the last Innovation Interview of 2011. I’d like to take this opportunity, on behalf of Michael and myself, to thank all the Interesting, Insightful, and Inspiring ‘Capital I’ Innovators who have given their time so graciously and who’ve been so enthusiastic in becoming involved in the Innovation Interview Series this year.

We’d also like to send our thanks to the thousands of people who have joined us on this journey, as readers, supporters, commentors and influencers.

To all of you we wish a very happy holiday season and an Innovative 2012!


Occupying the Management of Innovation

Occupying the Management of Innovation: A talk with Sami Makelainen Innovation Manager at Telstra and External Expert at the European Commission.

Capital I Interview Series – Number 8 

Sami Makelainen occupies a position which is finely balanced between Australia and Europe.  Manifesting what some might say was a true Finnish trait, Sami is a straight talker who doesn’t let a false sense of political correctness stop him from calling things as he sees them – be it broadband connectivity, vested interests in the coal industry, innovation (or the lack thereof) in telecoms, seed funding for innovation and the current economic crisis.  We talked about all that and much more for the Innovation Interview Series.

How do you define innovation Sami; and do you see a difference between  small ‘i’ and Capital ‘I’ Innovation?

There’s always a problem in speaking about innovation because everybody has their own definition.  Having said that, there are certainly two vastly different styles of innovations, or new things out there.  Things that are more important, more fundamental and more disruptive would tend to fall into Innovation. But in terms of volume, the vast majority of stuff that’s going around is going to be incremental innovation.  What I would consider true Innovations are few and far between.

Can you give me some examples of what you think are Capital I Innovations?

One of the most recent Innovations is the Gemasolar CSP plant (Concentrated Solar Power plant) in Spain that’s producing electricity 24/7.  It’s a baseload solar power plant, the first commercial of it’s kind. I’m not sure how much of the energy debate you’ve been following, but one of the primary objections people have to solar power is that it can’t do baseload production – because the Sun only shines eight hours a day. Well, [Gemasolar] is beginning to show that’s not quite true.

The Gemsolar Power Plant

When I moved to Australia I was surprised more wasn’t being done to take advantage of the Sun. 

Inevitability [they] will, but it’s going to take a long time, particularly because we have a hell of a lot of coal in Australia.  It’s cheap and there are big vested interests for it going as long as possible.  [There are] people who don’t really care about emissions, or believe in Global Warming. They just want to maintain business as usual.

How do you think the carbon tax will affect that?

It’s probably going to start at too low a level to have any meaningful impact in the first few years and it’s probably going to have too many concession to various stake-holders.  It’s going to be baby steps in the first, let’s say, five to ten years unless there’s some massive global shift.  But, with the speed things have been progressing in the past twenty years in terms of the climate debate, I’m not expecting that to change any time soon.

Do you think your perspective on the subject is tempered by the fact that you’re European, as there seems to be quite a different perspective to these issues in Europe in comparison to that in Australia?

Probably. All of our opinions are colored by our background, whether we acknowledge that or not.

How long have you been in Australia?

Coming up to  two years now. Ironically we’ve got tired of the cold Finnish winters and arrived in the coldest and wettest winter that Australia had in forty years.

Seeking sunny days

Can you tell me something about your role as Innovation Manager at (Australian Telecoms firm) Telstra?

One of the key responsibilities I have is managing the funnel of ideas.  We have a relatively open innovation process, so it’s fairly quick to deal with ideas.   They enter from a number of sources, whether it’s our staff within the Chief Technology Office or wider Telstra [organization], from start-ups, universities, research entities, external individuals, or our vendor partners.  Ideas come from different sources into our innovation process and then it’s a matter of managing, weeding, refining and deciding what to go forward with and how to go forward with them.

My background is from the Nokia Siemens Network where I was with the Application Innovation unit. If you go even further back then my background is in systems research, program management, systems architecture, solution architecture and a whole lot of other roles in the telecommunications, banking, electronic banking and online services space.

It’s amazing to me how many people in the innovation community seem to have a background in telecommunications.

That’s even more ironic because telecommunications is an industry that’s far from innovative.

How would you compare the culture of innovation between Finland’s Nokia and Australia’s Telstra? 

There are similarities in that both are relatively big organizations and big organizations come with both opportunities and challenges.  There are big opportunities in terms of having the resources to do something if we decide to.  But then of course it comes back to the risk-averse nature of stake holders. Trying to push something truly disruptive and truly innovative… I wouldn’t say it’s impossible, but it just takes a lot of effort.  Having said that, if you have a truly disruptive idea, while working within your start-up might be easy, it’s not going to be easy bringing it to market.

It’s never a clear-cut path.  And, depending on what level of innovation you’re talking about, the bigger and the more Innovative they are the more you can, and should, expect people to hate them. Howard Aiken, the US computer scientist who died [almost forty] years ago, very accurately said,

“Don’t worry about people stealing an idea. If it’s original, you will have to ram it down their throats.”

In terms of similarities in innovation between Nokia Siemens and Telstra I think one of the common features is that most of the innovations we’re doing [at Telstra], and were doing at Nokia Siemens, are customer-centric.  It’s not just about business to business and it’s not just about how to make our bottom line better, but how to make our bottom line better in a way that helps the customer.

Even at Nokia Siemens, which was more a business to business company selling to operators, the applications and services that we came up with there were mostly originating from end-user research.  There is a genuine attempt at figuring out what people actually want rather than just pushing new stuff out for the sake of new stuff.

Does that entail asking what people want rather than telling them what they need?

Yes, but it’s not just about asking what they want; it’s about observation of future behavior.  Asking people what they want is one of the traditional market research methods and it sucks!  If you ask anybody how would they like this and that to work, you’re not going be able to get a good answer out of them.

If you had asked two years ago (before the Apple iPad was out), “How would you like your next portable electronic device to look?” – nobody would have answered – Well, I want an iPad, or a tablet, or anything like that, because the previous incarnations of those were unusable and terrible.  Nobody felt at the time that they could actually be such a big hit.

With a view to ‘observations of future behaviour,’ how do you see Telstra making use of the opportunity that the NBN (broadband) is going to provide for engendering innovation?

The NBN is obviously going to change a lot, but it’s mostly going to change things on the wholesale and fixed business side.  One of the thing that the NBN will bring, that is going to be hugely beneficial to all companies, is the fast connectivity to a majority of Australian households. Right now, as we all know, Australia isn’t exactly a leading broadband country.

That’s certainly true.

When I came here two years ago, I almost had a heart attack when I looked at the speeds and the prices when subscribing to a broadband connection.  I was like… “What!? They are capped by gigabyte?? I’m not gonna take that!”  But I don’t necessarily think that the NBN is going to get rid of the caps or the limits altogether. The economics just don’t work.

Having said that, if the NBN achieves it’s goal – and that’s if because I don’t think everybody will have understood how much it’s actually going to end up costing the consumer – there’s going to be big broadband connectivity to all Australian households (practically all of them anyway).  That’s obviously going to offer huge opportunities in terms of changing how people live their lives and how they work.  So, there’s more or less unlimited opportunities there.

One of the biggest opportunities, which I am personally interested in, is allowing people to work from home in a more efficient manner.  Right now if you live outside the core metropolitan areas, the connection that you get at home isn’t sufficient for many corporate uses.  Allowing people more flexibility over where to work from and even when to work is going to be critical as we deal with energy, congestion and population growth [issues].

If we agree that Innovation is critical, looking back, what is the most important Innovation that has launched in your life time?

That’s a bloody good question. I would have to say the mobile phone.  This is a biased answer of course, since I have been in the mobile business for fifteen years, but if you think about the device that’s truly changed the way people communicate and live their lives, there are few rivals to the mobile phone.

Pretty much everybody in the world has one…. almost everybody. There are still a billion people or so at the very, very low end of the economic scale in developing countries [who don’t], but you still have hundreds of millions of subscribers in the poorest countries of the world.

There was an interesting Vodafone study done some years ago showing that mobile phones in significant quantities materially impacts a countries’ GDP.  While I’m not a big proponent of measuring progress in terms of GDP in poor nations it does make a big difference.  I mean, if the farmers are able to check market prices it can increase their income substantially and help improve their lives a lot.

And it helps remove the power of the middle-man to set unfair prices. 

The socioeconomic benefits are best in the developing countries, but it’s changed the world in developed countries also.

If you think about it, you always have your mobile phone with you.  You know, if you loose your wallet…  The average time it takes to report a stolen credit card or a stolen wallet can be twelve hours or so, the average time it takes to report a stolen mobile phone is twenty eight minutes.  And, you know, more than half the people who use a mobile phone sleep with the mobile within arms reach.  You don’t do that with your TV, DVD player, or microwave oven.  The mobile is integrated into peoples’ lives in a way unlike any other device.

Along with being Telstra’s Innovation Manager, you are also an external expert at the European Commission. What does that entail?

The European Commission has this thing called the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) which is a multi billion dollar euro initiative that hands out research funds to research organizations, universities and even companies.  Companies and universities propose projects and ideas to the European Commission and then the Commission puts together a panel of subject matter experts to decide who gets the money. I’m there doing that work.

So in a sense it is a way for government to support innovation.

Yes.  Most of the time the companies that are applying for this funding are big entities that in turn fund things on a national level things. So, for example, one of the biggest entities in Finland getting funding from the European Commission is the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation, which then supports smaller companies in Finland.

That feeds into one of my other questions: Does location matter?

Yes, I’m not sure it matters in terms of coming up with the ideas, because most of the time ideation is easy, but it does matter in terms of executing those ideas.  There are definitely hot beds of innovation and lively little innovation groups and clusters of companies scattered around the planet, but in terms of executing on innovative ideas the best place arguably is still Silicon Valley, not Europe, especially in the ICT space.

Location does matter – particularly for execution of the innovation, but also in terms of access to financing.  For instance, seed financing is really difficult in Australia, comparatively speaking. There’s obviously a lot of competition for Venture Capital in the Bay Area, but there is a hell of a lot more money to go around, too.

Speaking of money to go around, what are your thoughts on the current economic crisis and what part, if any, Innovation can play in solving it?

I recently finished reading Mats Larsson’s book “The Limits of Business Development and Economic Growth” – which is a great book in its own right, that I can warmly recommend – but the most interesting point to me was that there are now three or more distinct lines of credible analysis, all of which come to a similar conclusion.  Whether you look at it from the limited-resources perspective, from the purely economic debt-laden economies perspective or from analyzing some simple, fundamental limits of business development as in this book, all signs point convincingly to the economic growth of the world coming to an end, and doing so soon.  Looking at all the evidence, the scenario of ‘business as usual’ that is still the official truth driven by most governments and media is the least probable development for the 21st century.  For a world running and highly dependent upon the current financial system, which is only stable when growing, all this presents huge challenges on a scale that the world has never faced before.

The “Limits of Business Development” was written in 2004, before the most recent rounds of global financial crisis; yet recent years just serve to highlight the importance of its message – on the financial front, aside from the economic chaos and ruin, we are now seeing societal movements such as the Occupy Wall Street-movement as just one early signal of changing times.  While the protesters do not, for the most part, have a single message or a concrete, actionable goal aside, perhaps, from calling for tax increases, the reactions of the rest of the economy have been more telling – the mainstream media doing their best to ignore the entire groundswell movement, and the governments cracking down on peaceful protesters.  The Occupy-protests constitute a signal that governments will ignore to their detriment; even though highly visible now, they’re still an early-warning sign – an early warning sign that, if not acknowledged and dealt with, can morph into something much more serious.

Many of the macro trends over the past decades – urbanization, globalization, supply chain and other process optimizations, reliance on electricity and fossil fuels for our basic needs, etc – have had the unintended consequence of dramatically reducing the resilience of the society.  It’s time we reversed this trend and focus heavily on increasing the resilience of our communities; resilience that would’ve already come in handy in many cases.  All of these will desperately be needed as the world moves towards a new era, called by some the age of Scarcity Industrialism. There is tremendous scope for innovation here – from recycling to efficiency gains to renewable and distributed energy production, to better farming practices, to upgrading critical pieces of the infrastructure in fundamentally new ways, to actually changing the way the society works.

As in most innovations, coming up with good ideas is the easy part of the equation.  There are no shortage of those.  For example on the financial crisis side, we already have good evidence that rolling out complementary local currency systems, ones not based on the model of fractional reserve banking, help lower unemployment while increasing the resilience of the society.  There are already hundreds of LETS (Local Exchange Trading System) schemes in operation globally, but what we need is a systematic effort of encouraging LETS schemes and participation in them globally.  This is not innovation as in “new ideas” – it’s innovation, as in changing the way the world works, for the better. That, in my opinion, is a far more important aspect of innovation than any (necessarily arbitrary) concept of novelty.

(Kim and Sami Skype’d between from their homes in Sydney and Melbourne.)

Kent Healy – Maverick on a Mission

A chat with author, publisher, entrepreneur, speaker, coach and real estate investor Kent Healy – a Maverick on a Mission

Capital I Innovation Interview Series – Number 7

The recent loss of an Innovation Giant in the technology world gave me pause. His name, so well known, was often mentioned in this series, in particular in answer to the question, “Who would you give a ‘Capital I’ Innovation Award to?”  It also led me to ask, who next – who will step into, or at least grow into Steve Jobs’ shoes?  Who is the next creative thinker, the ‘Capital I Innovator’ who thinks out of the box enough to engender real change?

With that question in mind, I chose to share my interview with a young man who leads the way in encouraging entrepreneurship and Innovation from a young age. Instead of teaching students how to pass standardized tests, Kent Healy believes in teaching them to think, to understand, to yearn to learn.

I’m going to begin with one of my ‘foundation’ questions, Kent.  If you could give a ‘Capital I’ Innovation Award to anyone, who would that be? 

Gosh, that’s a great question.  There are so many people we rely on that remain nameless… people that don’t get the PR.  [However] people who obviously come to mind immediately are Steve Jobs and Richard Branson.

[Editor’s Note: Steve Jobs was the entrepreneur Richard Branson most admired according to a recent statement by Mr. Branson.]

I say that because I use their products and every time I do, I think: “Duh!”  I put my palm on my forehead and [think]: “Why didn’t someone do that earlier?”

How essential has innovation been in your career to date?

Extremely important.  At fifteen, I was living in New Zealand… I went to California and saw skim boarding, which I loved and wanted to bring back to New Zealand.  Once I returned I went to my surf shop and started looking for a skimboard.  I couldn’t find the type that I was looking for anywhere, so I decided to make my own.

Long story short, my brother and I ended up making different models and selling them to local surf shops and internationally.  It was a lot of fun.  And that opportunity would never have come about if I didn’t ask: “How can I fix this problem?”

Kent Healy (right) with his brother Kyle (left)

When I was about nineteen I finished my first manuscript.  I started working with an agent to get a publisher;  I met with a lot of them but I just didn’t see eye to eye with what they wanted.  I stuck to my guns and my brother and I started a publishing company.  We did everything from the cover to the marketing, and I think it turned out to be a better product.

Why do you feel so strongly that collaboration is important?

It goes back to an underlying maxim, ‘one mind is never smarter than two or more combined’.  I think that the mind is designed as a collaborative tool and I don’t think humans were made to live in isolation.

"We do better with collaboration and we feed off of different ideas."

The brain is a network filled with synapses taking one idea and trying to link it to another.  I think there are many time when ideas are simply inspired… when a connection is made, which never would have been made if somebody else hadn’t thrown down a random idea, completely unrelated, that managed to bridge the two separate ideas.

When you’re thinking, it’s still somewhat linear if you’re on your own.  If you’re working with other people the conversation can take many unexpected turns, and that can lead to an immense Innovation.

I think if you’re working on a specific solution isolated research can certainly help.  But, if you want to improve something and do the giant Innovation, collaboration is extremely helpful.

That could be a useful example to young people who may feel disconnected, if you will, from the possible positive outcomes their Innovative ideas could develop.

Absolutely. I think that we learn so much from example. It’s easy to write about innovation, but it is a nebulous topic. It’s really hard to say: “This is how you innovate.”  I think it’s much easier to say: “Here is something that this person did. Isn’t that great?”  That’s what inspires me. Earlier you mentioned New Zealand, are you a natural born Kiwi?

I was born in northern California, San Jose.  But, when I was ten, my family moved to New Zealand because they thought it would be a great place to raise kids.  So, we packed up and left, not knowing anybody in New Zealand.  We lived there for eight years.  Those were my teenage years, which were very formative, so New Zealand is a big part of my life.

With that in mind, do you think that location matters… does Innovation have a nation?

Absolutely. In more ways than one. I think there is your immediate environment, be it a coffee shop, library or busy mall.  I think all of those things, as energies, are going to influence the way that you think.

Culture is another big thing –  how do people in that culture look at Innovation. Some people really encourage it, and some people don’t.  I think it’s really important to be around a group of people that encourage it, that will say, “I like where you’re going with that,” and start looking for the benefits before they shoot down the idea.  It’s always good to have a devil’s advocate, I agree; but you want more supporters than you do devil’s advocates, if you want innovation to continue to occur.

And then, finally, there are magnet cities that draw in certain like-minded people. Silicon Valley is an example probably everybody [knows].  If you want to do a start-up venture in the tech world, there really are a few places to be that are as buzzing and as influential as that.

Bearing that in mind, could you compare New Zealand to the US as far as being an ‘Innovation nation’?

That’s a really good question. In New Zealand I really admire the propensity that people have to come up with a solution.  If it’s a problem… fix it!  That means, go into your shed, pick up your tools and your tape, and try to figure it out by yourself before going to the store and buying a replacement.  I was so young when I was there that I didn’t really notice the difference, but I do now.

I pretty much grew up in a shed.  My neighbor had a massive shed full of tools and we would spend every day building something and improving it again and again and again.  I developed the attitude, “where there’s a will, there’s a way,” which was very important.

I do think it’s a little different when it comes to business, though.  I would say that business innovation is definitely more supported in The United States than it is in New Zealand, where there is still is a little bit of that ‘tall poppy’ syndrome. However, I think the global culture is starting to stamp that out a little.

For entrepreneurship I’ve found the States to have a very supportive community, which is now moving on-line, so it doesn’t really matter where you are.

Do you think there is such a thing as a ‘natural entrepreneur’?

I think that people vary so much in their natural abilities and their tendencies that it’s hard to generalize.  [But] I’ve met some people who, to me, are absolutely born entrepreneurs; they just look at the world from a different perspective.

I’m pretty divided on the issue, but if I had to give a short answer I would say, as human beings we do have a propensity, a drive and an interest, to innovate.  I think it becomes suppressed largely because of our environment.  That includes culture, role models, authority and laws… all those things make a difference. As Pablo Picasso once said, “All children are born artists, the challenges is remaining one when we get older.”

That’s a lovely quote, and leads me quite tidily to ask you about your interactive eBook, ‘Maxims for Mavericks’. How did that inspirational bolt strike you? Maxims for Mavericks came about when I was really [getting] into quotations and thought: “Gosh, these are great; there is so much intelligence, and so much wisdom in so few words!”  I started collecting quotes I thought were great, and then had the idea of writing a short reflection on each quotation.

What makes quotes unique is that they really express peoples’ personal belief systems.  Once you understand, or adopt, a new belief system, everything about yourself and your life begins to change… your perception of yourself, your perception of the world around you.

How did the title come about?

The more research I did,  the [more the word] ‘maxim’ came into my head, and then I always loved the concept of being a maverick. I married the two together and I thought: “Wow, that makes perfect sense.”

In the 1800s, Samuel Augustus Maverick went to Texas and became known for not branding his cattle. He was more interested in keeping track of the land he owned than the livestock on it… unbranded cattle, then, were called ‘Maverick’s.’  The name came to mean anyone who didn’t bear another’s brand. – New York Times

I put a few together and published a little book, in physical form, that I would give away when I would speak.  I started getting messages and e-mails from people around the world who really liked it, and I thought: “I need to make this more available.  Now that we are in a digital age, let’s start applying this maverick mentality.”  And that’s what I did.

I created an eBook to give away.  I asked myself: “How can I reach more people efficiently and cost-effectively?”  The obvious solution was to create it in digital form.

Would you then equate mavericks and innovators as being the same thing? 

I definitely think there’s a huge amount of overlap.

I think a maverick is somebody who is simply original, [someone] who embraces who they are and is willing to take risks by pursuing something they think is important.  They question the status quo, conventional thought, old systems and tired assumptions.  That’s what mavericks do as people, and that leads to innovation.

Do you think your education assisted your savoring the maverick within you?

For me the division between education and action started at such an early age.  It’s hard to say if education actually changed me.  What I will say is that starting businesses at an early age changed the way that I looked at education and, therefore, it really changed my relationship with education.

If I were relying on my education to be innovative, to be a successful business person, I think I would fail miserably.  I don’t think that school inspires or encourages the innovative entrepreneurial mentality.

So where would you direct young people to go to get inspiration or to find a path they can follow?

First of all, the earlier [they start] the better.  Just like you develop physical habits, you can develop mental habits.  Start young.

It pains me so much to hear a student say: “Well, I’m a student now, so I’m just going to enjoy.  When I’m out of school then I’ll do ‘this’.”  I call that the ‘defective student’ label.

If you’re a student that means that you’re trying to educate yourself, in some way, shape or form.  And that’s exactly what you should be doing.  Join groups!  I think that business groups are fantastic to organize or be part of.

They have something called NFTE here in the States, the Network For Teaching Entrepreneurship, and it’s fantastic.  Its an entrepreneurial program for people to get involved, to start thinking differently, at a young age. You can turn to books and you can also turn to places like Youtube… Yes, believe or not, there’s more than just animals doing silly things on there.  There’s unbelievable videos that you can learn from: speeches, keynotes and so forth.

There is mentorship as well. Reach out to people and say: “Would you mind spending some time with me?” Once a week, twice a week, once a month. [Youth} can be a huge benefit here,  you can use it to your advantage and get to people who wouldn’t normally do it, or who would normally charge a fee.

You’re proud of the relationships you’ve formed with world leaders in the field of personal development.  Who are some of these world leaders and why did you seek them out in particular?

Just to name a few Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen, and Richard Carlson. Those were the three most important.  Of course I’ve met a lot of others along the way that I have exchanged e-mails and conversations with, but in terms of personal relationship, I’d identify those three.  It started with each of then when I [began] writing my first book. When I started ‘Cool Stuff They Should Teach in School’ I was consumed [by] self-help and non-fiction.  I would do anything: read it, listen to it, go to it, talk to somebody who embodied it.

It started to rub off on me and eventually I wanted to think bigger and bigger and bigger.  So I asked myself: “Who is the leader in this field of self publishing?”  Jack Canfield came to mind as co-creator of the ‘Chicken Soup for the Soul’ series, of course.  I thought it would be excellent to meet this person, so that’s exactly what I did.

I put him on my vision board, sought him out and told him a little bit about my idea.  That was pretty terrifying as a teenager, but I caught his attention.  I asked for his support, he agreed and we stayed in touch. The same thing happened with Mark Victor Hansen, who is also the co-creator of the ‘Chicken Soup for the Soul’ series, and Richard Carlson, who was the creator of the ‘Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff’ series.

Unfortunately [Richard] passed away, but he was unbelievable as a role model in terms of showing me a bright, supportive, constructive side of the world.

Of course I’m going to have to ask, what is the ‘Cool Stuff They Should Teach in School’?

Good question. The book (since you’re referencing that) covers everything from basic ideas about psychology, motivation, attitude and goal setting to more practical skills such as money management and communication.  Those were all topics I thought were extremely important that should be taught.

And where can people get their hands on the book?

It’s available at Amazon [and] at Coolstuffmedia.com.

Ironically it’s become required reading in schools.  I never thought that was possible, but a lot of teachers have really embraced it.  They order it every year and have classes based on it. In your eBook, you talk about the importance of unlearning. So, I’m wondering, what is the most unimportant peace of information you’ve unlearned.

Ironically, it’s that you don’t have to have a college degree to be educated.  You don’t have to have college degree to do something important and to make a positive impact.

Growing up everything was about: “Get good grades and then work your way towards an excellent job.”  That’s what I was told and I had to unlearn that.

I think unlearning that has been unbelievably liberating.  It took a lot of pressure off. [But] the problem with doing that is you become very critical about what you are learning.  Which is both good and bad.  I now question everything.  If it doesn’t make sense to me and I really can’t come up with a reason to do it, I’ll usually put up some sort of a fight until I can understand why it’s worth my time.

Is it safe to say that yours will be a never ending study of life?

Absolutely. I subscribe to the maxim that says: “Investment in self yields the greatest return.” I think you’d be silly to stop your education, because that’s the only edge you have.  Without it, it’s really hard to stay inspired and be creative.

The Uncommon Life Blog

You can’t associate creativity and innovation with stagnation, it just doesn’t work. You need to be in motion at all times.

The minute you stop doing something I think you really put yourself in a very risky situation, both in your physical and mental health.  This is why studies have shown that a lot of people end up dying within two to five years after their retirement.  You know, they fail to engage in something.

With innovation that is absolutely true. You have to not only consciously try to be creative and innovative, but you have to seek it out, you have to look for it… you have to actually want to learn.

Steve Jobs… what a loss. Kent Healy, quite a find.
Kent Healy is twenty-eight years old. One can only imagine what he will accomplish in the coming decades! 
Readers are invited to follow Kent on Twitter as well as join his The Uncommon Life groups on Facebook and LinkedIn and his Maxims for Mavericks group on Facebook. 
If you would like to know what Kent’s favourite Maxims are, watch this video to find out!  

Do Fries Go With That Business Shake(up)?

Capital I Innovation Interview Series – Number 5

Vincent Hunt is a man on a mission. And what is that mission? To make change. With his  tool box including the skill sets of lateral and creative thinking along with design, he is an enthusiastic, some might say evangelistic, proponent of the newly emerging role of CIO – Chief INNOVATION Officer.

Now I must be honest and say that, first off, that after ten years in the Netherlands, and two years in Sydney, sometimes the only change  – let alone innovation – I’m looking for in the hospitality industry is, well, some hospitality. That said, there is definitely a a scent of change in the air, and there are those that are leading the way. One such leader is Vincent Hunt.

Vincent is Co-founder, Chairman & Chief Innovation Officer at Kind Intelligence, which leverages cloud, mobile and social technology to bring Innovation to the hospitality industry through Hospitality Intelligence.

Vincent, how essential has innovation been in your career to date; and how important do you envisage it being going forward?

Innovation has been, in essence, the foundation of my career for quite some time, I can not remember a time where innovation has not been a factor in my professional development.  As individuals, I believe that we each have a responsibility to ourselves to continually challenge ourselves through rethinking, redefining and re-inventing who we are. EVEN as it pertains to our career, in-fact, I believe that this is one of the areas of our lives, more now than ever, that we should be exposing ourselves to “internal innovation” – evolving, and growing in a time where our historical perceptions of work are being challenged .  So not only has innovation been important in MY career, innovation has quintessentially shaped my career.

What do you think is imperative to allow ‘Capital I’ Innovation to occur? reform

I’m totally anti-politics, so I am going to steer away from that end of the question, BUT what I am going to do is dig in where my heart resides. Education.

I believe that if we are to see and benefit from one of the greatest paradigm shifts in innovation we will ever see in OUR lifetime, and if not this lifetime, one shortly after… We MUST authorize, and unleash one of the greatest and most powerful innovative forces the world has ever seen… Generation Y, the Echo Boomers and post Echo Boomers, and I think it starts with the education system.

This generation is growing up in a post-industrial world, and experiencing an industrial education system. While there is little emphasis on the arts, creativity in equal parts, and we are seeing children as young as 7 or 8 years old being diagnosed ADHD and sedated out of their creative potential, simply for the sake of conforming to  a system that was pretty much designed to produce industrial minded contributors, citizens… We have to not only evolve the education system, we have to turn it on it’s head and start exploring the creative capacity of our children.

What do you think are the main barriers to the success of innovation?

Some of the main barriers to the success of innovation, in my humble opinion are, and some of these may overlay one another…

1. Resistance to change

2. Rigorous conditioning by the collective mind

3. Fear

4. The protest of “play” within the workplace

5. Habit/Routine

8. If you could give a ‘Capital I’ Innovation Award to anyone, who would you nominate? 

This one is tough because I believe in so many of the Capital I Innovators… So can I give two? Please??!!

1. Tom Peters and

2. Apple …

Tom Peters, has, in my opinion, single handedly turned the business world upside down for the better. In his provocative book Re-Imagine (2006), Tom Peters gave us a Manifesto for the way we should view work where, not only was he Visionary and concise, BUT he ushered in a whole new way to think about business. Tom Peters talked about Social Media well before the phrase “Social Media” existed.  And TO THIS DAY, Tom Peters continues to define the foundation of business from a radical new paradigm, that gives Innovators a roadmap to navigate by…. Revolutionary.

Apple… Not only does Apple have the “chops” to create incredible products, the iPhone (game changer), the iMac (simply beautiful, and oh yeah… powerful), the iOs (revolutionary)… BUT they also believe in Design Thinking like no other company that I can put my finger on today (besides the champions of the thinking, Ideo, Frog, to name a couple), and it’s this “difference” that leads them to design and innovation excellence.

As it pertains to their “Capital I” contribution… one product that really rings true to me is the iPhone, and later the iPad.  I can remember when the iPhone first came into the marketplace, and I clearly remember the competition saying things like “It’s just another cell phone, with an oversized screen and touchpad… Big deal…” AND big deal it was… Because it was not only the beautiful aesthetics that made the iPhone amazing, it was the thinking behind the iPhone that was the “Innovation”.

The iPhone was the first hand-held device that gave the users the power to create the experience THEY wanted, and that was, and is, magical. Apple totally rethought the cell phone, and what it meant to us as a people, and the “mobile device”  (surely we can’t keep calling them cell phones now… right) will never be the same.

How do you see Capital I Innovation changing the hospitality industry?

The Hospitality Industry is going through a major shift right now, greatly in-part to the emergence of what I like to call the “Connected Consumer”.  Consumers have more opportunity than they have ever had, to shape, and re-shape, their experiences.

For the first time, the voice of the consumer is richly audible and influential, and brands are starting to understand that their brand experience is in large part, at the mercy of the consumer voice [via] Yelp, Facebook, Twitter, Urban Spoon, Foodspotting… enabling technologies that are a direct line of influence on the hospitality industry.  If one person has a bad experience at a hotel, that one bad experience can instantly change the perception of thousands upon thousands of people that MAY be thinking about visiting that hotel, and one tweet, retweeted can make that happen.

At Kind Intelligence, we conceptualize and develop breakthrough ideas that 1. help hospitality industry professionals streamline operational efficiencies, but more importantly, 2. we are feverishly thinking about ways that we can turn the hospitality industry on it’s head to deliver rich, and meaningful customer experiences.  Our innovations rest in “delivering better ways of doing things based on new sets of data”… new, deeper, demographic information (Hospitality Intelligence 2.0).

We think about empathetic intelligence. I can learn more about you. I can learn your mood at any given point of the day, and for the first time, I can market to moods. The Connected Consumer is giving us more data than every before, the question is how do we leverage that data and how do we make solutions that improve the customers experience. Does this means that one day you’ll be able to walk into a restaurant and be offered a completely unique experience, could that be possible? Absolutely.

I can see Capital I Innovation shifting how consumers connect with hospitality brands, but more importantly, how hospitality brands connect with the consumers.

Do you think the ‘Groupon Effect’ emboldening innovation in the industry?

I think that Groupon is a great idea, from the consumer side of the house, as they’re are able to get deals and save a lot of great money. But I think it hinders the growth and potential of some restauranteurs and other companies because they discount their products and services and reduce the value of their offerings.

What is the difference between ‘Possibility Thinking vs Competition Thinking’?

This is something that I am fanatical about, and it’s become the foundational thinking that we embrace at Kind. We don’t think in terms of  ‘competition’ because we feel that that only leads to incremental (at best) change. We lean towards focusing on what is ‘possible’, which often leads to a more disruptive form of innovation.

Right now we are working on a massive project with Mutual Mobile out of Austin Texas called Menulus, that we feel will totally reinvent the dining experience. Menulus, [which we’re launching in the first Quarter of  2012] was designed based on possibility thinking, and some of it’s abilities are going to “shake up” the mobile space in a very profound way.

‘Possibility Thinking’ is innovating based on what is possible in todays marketplace vs ‘Competition Thinking’, which suggest that we simply innovate, a little, to beat the competition. It’s the difference between taking an ‘innovation’ stance vs a  ‘disruptive innovation’ stance.

It sounds like Menulus is going to enable Micro-pitches to the consumer. 

Through micro-pitches we have ways of extending Kindness, and that’s where the name of our company comes from.  Kindness is a choice, but I need tools to help me make better choices and that’s where the semantic web and Web 3.0 really empowers what Menulus is all about.

Could we potentially have a POS (Point of Sale) System that’s integrated into the menu in real time? Could we have consumer facing tools that allowed us to discover food and restaurants in completely new ways that are more catered to our preferences – all the way down to our calorie counts? Can we do that? Absolutely. And we did it.

Tell me about The Hospitality Intelligence Company.

Kind, The Hospitality Intelligence Company focuses on conceptualizing and developing breakthrough ideas that streamline operational efficiencies and improve customer experiences within the hospitality industry.  Our value proposition rest in our  “thinking” vs our “doing”.  We work with really creative people to develop new products, services and brands that can fulfill our companies objectives and ethos… The pursuit of design and innovation excellence.

When we formed Kind Intelligence I knew I had to take the position of CIO, Chief INNOVATION Officer, as I wanted the ethos of the company to reside there, in design and innovation excellence. I oversee the Innovation Initiatives of this company, I drive that. Its interesting to be in this role at such a critical time in our economic transition, going from the Industrial Age into the Creative Age.

Here in the US the role of Chief Innovation Officer is fairly new. You have them, but you don’t have that many of them. The other component to that is that I am African American. I think I am one of only a few African American Chief Innovation Officers in the country.

Why do you think that is?

If I talk to 10 colleagues and ask them what a CIO is, they’ll all say ‘Chief Information Officer’. They just don’t know that this position exists, so they don’t know to pursue it.

That’s one of the reasons I’m excited to be in this role, because I plan on championing it and bringing it to the forefront. Saying, “This is what a Chief Innovation Officer does; and yes, you can be one!”

Its seems that in his role as Chief INNOVATION Officer, Vincent Hunt is shaking up more than the hospitality Industry. I know I’m not alone in seeing where his enthusiasm and expertise lead.

[More information on the Semantic Web and business here.]

Barry Flaherty – A Trend Spotter’s Perspective

Barry Flaherty has worn many hats on his route to his current incarnation as a digital media expert. These include being an International Business Development Director, and a technology early adopter for over 15 years, driving global innovative solutions in marketing, digital media, and mobile technology. His client experience has covered Vodafone, Cisco, Intel, Microsoft, Nike, and the Qatar Foundation to name but a few.

An avid blogger and trend spotter, Barry is currently engaged on projects with a variety of clients ranging from start-ups, fast growing organisations, corporates, broadcasters and digital media agencies in the UK, Europe and the Middle East. Added to this, he sits on the Advisory Boards of several high profile digital media networks.

Currently working with Mediaventura in London on M&A advisory work and fund raising for fast growing digital businesses, Barry is also crowd sourcing digital case studies for inclusion in a new version of ‘Understanding Digital Marketing’.

This follows hot on the heels of the recently launched, ‘The Best Digital Marketing Campaigns in the World‘ published by Kogan Page.

Barry, you’ve been searching for, and driving forward Innovation for many years. How do you define Innovation?

Innovation to me is like a Rubix Cube. Multi-faceted, full of different colours and almost impossible to crack UNLESS you happen to be very good; be that as an individual or an organisation. I suppose a good place to start is understanding the essence and meaning of Innovation.

A convenient definition, from an organisational perspective, is given by Luecke and Katz (2003):

“Innovation is generally understood as the successful introduction of a better thing or method. [It] is the embodiment, combination, or synthesis of knowledge in original, relevant, valued new products, processes, or services.”

Do you think entrepreneurs are born or ‘made’?

Good question. Depends what life throws at you. There’s probably ten or twenty different ways in which entrepreneurs are created.

There’s a great quote from Twelfth Night:

“some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”

Many entrepreneurs are born out of many years of relentless effort – pushing themselves, and those around them, to the limit – and of course, having many failed business ventures before they finally become successful.

Right now trying to raise money from the market is like a trip to the dentist for root canal surgery. So if you have got a rich mummy or daddy or family member who can set you up on the path, well…

Many of today’s so called Entrepreneurs have had a helping hand in life. Sometimes this comes from billionaire families or trust funds, which have allowed many to start with the necessary ‘oxygen’ and capital to make turning their ideas into reality that much easier. Stelios Haji-Ioannou from Easyjet is an example of this. Kerry Packer, the  Australian media mogul, created an opening for his son James to flourish and take over the reins of their Empire.

Kerry and James Packer

We need entrepreneurs in society. They provide inspiration. They provide case studies for the plethora of Business Schools and MBA courses, and keep income rolling into the country. Innovation fosters dreams. The end product is a conveyor belt of ‘leaders of tomorrow’ entering the workplace armed with MBA’s and case studies in their heads from some of the world’s greatest innovators and entrepreneurs.

Speaking of a helping hand, you are about to become a father for the first time. What do you want to pass on to your child?

Common sense. This is where someone like Paul McCartney is a good example. He’s got hundreds of millions in the bank from years of royalties, and he still sent his kids to a normal school. Its about arming your kids for life.

Do you see a difference between ‘little i’ and ‘Capital I’ Innovation? 

Innovation is an important topic in the study of most things in society, be that economics, business, entrepreneurship, design, technology, sociology or engineering.

Innovation is, unfortunately, one of those words that you hear lots but is rarely practiced. I’ve attended many Conferences at the European Union, and within industry, on the topic of Innovation; and there seems to be a whole industry of people hell-bent on commentating on Innovation and policy making to foster it. But, these are not the true innovators. I hardly think a policy ‘wonk’ in Brussels is going to become the next Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg.

Once innovation occurs, innovations may be spread from the innovator to other individuals and groups. This life cycle of innovations can be described using the ‘s-curve’ or diffusion curve. The s-curve maps growth of revenue or productivity against time.

In the early stage of a particular innovation, growth is relatively slow as the new product establishes itself. At some point customers begin to demand [it] and the product growth increases more rapidly. I think it would be fair to say that lots of little i’s make up one big I.

It could be argued that innovation is one continuous journey rather than the final destination. Innovation is fluid, continuous and ever evolving. It’s a shame the big CAPITAL I seems to be the one that gets most column inches as there are innovative discoveries and successes happening on this planet on an almost daily basis.

Do you think innovation is an overused term?

I think it would be fair to say that it’s a term that is timeless but slightly jaded around the edges. There are a lot of so called ‘ambulance chasers’ who like to pontificate and tell the world they are innovative without really demonstrating or executing this.

We like Innovation. It’s like a warm blanket on a cold night. We are proud of it and we like to tell the world how innovative we are.

So what do we like to do?

That’s right! We create awards. Here is a recent example of one from the www.d-media.co.uk network in the UK. We have become good at giving ourselves a good pat on the back for just about everything. There seem to be more award ceremonies, for just about everything, than there are Companies!

Enter the IET Innovation Awards to raise the profile of your invention amongst those leading the way in science, engineering and technology innovation. Typical Award categories include:

  • Asset Management
  • Built Environment
  • Electronics
  • Embedded and Critical Systems
  • Emerging Technologies
  • Healthcare Technologies
  • Information Technology
  • Measurement in Action
  • Power / Energy
  • Product Design
  • Software in Design
  • Sustainability
  • Team
  • Telecommunications
  • Transport

How essential has innovation been in your career to date; and how important do you envisage it being going forward?

I’ve leant towards creative industries and this has led me to come into contact with many entrepreneurs and creative minds that have built successful businesses from scratch, or created true measurable value for the Organisations they work for.

In the organisational context, innovation may be linked to positive changes in efficiency, productivity, quality, competitive positioning, market share, etc. All of which can be affected positively by innovative forces. All organisations can innovate, including, for example, hospitals, universities and local governments. Some will flourish under its influence. Other will die. It’s survival of the fittest.

In my digital world, the ‘King of the Jungle’ one minute can be obsolete the next. Take MySpace or Friends Re-United for example. They were top for a matter of months, then swept aside by the likes of Facebook and Google. And even they have reached saturation now in many mature markets. They need growth in developing countries to stay on target for their target of 1 billion users and their over justified and bloated valuations.

On a wider level, car companies and manufacturing industries are making way for knowledge economies, knowledge clusters and an increasingly mobile workforce. The travel industry has been taken over by online offerings, disinter-mediation is ripping through more industries and supply chains than ever before.

Going forward, I want to stay involved with working at the sharp end of Innovation, thus working in Mergers and Acquisitions with fast growing organizations. That way, I stay close to the capital markets and also get to court the Innovators and entrepreneurs, feeding my desire for knowledge and having a pulse on the future.

As an extremely avid fan, Barry also stays close to Celtic FC.

You can read Barry’s piece on Celtic and New Media in the August edition of CQ Magazine (pgs 38 & 39) here

What do you think is imperative to allow ‘Capital I’ Innovation to occur?

That is of course the million dollar conundrum. Innovation isn’t always welcome in practice, in my experience. I’ve spent/wasted years of my life delivering solutions that promise change and progress and, let me tell you, they’re not always welcome!

Governments talk about creating innovation, Science & Technology parks and Innovation parks and, to their credit, most governments in the Western world have built these. They’ve created jobs and been responsible for breakthroughs in medicine, technology, life sciences and so on. The UK has clusters of Innovation Centres and Science Parks, and the European Union is one big Innovation hub, mostly because it sits on budgets of billions to throw at ‘so called’ Innovation projects.

Innovation with a CAPITAL I without cash will never materialise – governments realise this. Expensive public sector modernisation projects, transport infrastructure, new schools and educational institutions need private enterprise and money to allow this.

In the digital world, places like Silicon Valley play a crucial role in funding innovation, leading to new frameworks including user centric design, interoperability, co-operation, portfolio management and processes to shorten product development cycles.

I was fortunate enough to spend some time in the Middle East working with the Qatar Foundation and other projects such as  the Qatar Science Technology Park, Internet City in Dubai and AppsArabia in Abu Dhabi. They can attract the world’s brightest minds and talent as they can afford the money to prise the talent out of countries like the UK, Australia, USA and other western economies. Innovation tends to follow the talent and the capital, be that financial or human.

Private and public sector partnerships are crucial as not everybody has 100 years of liquefied natural gas (LNG) or oil sitting under their shores. We need only to look at Ireland, Iceland, Portugal, Sudan, and Greece as examples of countries who do not have the manpower, innovation, cash or energy resources of the BRIC economies or a region like the Middle East.

On the upside are the new business models, which predominantly aren’t reliant on huge cost bases – you can set up a business today for ‘$17 online and in only 5 minutes’ – you don’t have to have an office, a factory, or lots of staff.

Does location matters?

Of course it matters. Being born into the right country at the right time is tantamount to winning the lottery.

That said, Innovation is universal. It’s being created, dreamt about and implemented in classrooms in China, the boardrooms of Brazil, universities in India and in R&D labs and Universities the world over. Innovation travels. It has a passport; it speaks many languages and knows no bounds.

Like all journeys in life, it’s not always plain sailing for Innovation. There are barriers, obstacles and challenges, yet with the right network, funding, energy and drive, Innovation does eventually prevail.

The internet has created a level playing field where SME’s and individuals can go toe to toe with large organisations. People have a direct line to brands, governments and people in authority. It’s power to the people, and the people holding the levers of power and control had better start listening.

The recent overthrow of governments in the Middle East and Asia demonstrated this. In this ever connected world, there is no hiding place.

A man not backwards in coming forward with his opinion, there is likely no hiding place from Barry Flaherty either.