Tag Archives: government

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.]

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.

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.)

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.]

Vint Cerf: Father Knows Best! (Part 2)

Capital I Interview Series – Number 2 (Part 2)

KimmiC chats with ‘Father of the Internet’, Vinton ‘Vint’ Cerf

(Along with our particular questions, we invited some of our readers to submit their own queries to Vint, which he was happy to answer. Thanks go out to to ‘ePatient Dave’ Dave deBronkart, Brent Hall, and Roger Kermode for taking part!)

This is the final segment of the KimmiC chat with Google VP and Chief Internet Evangelist, Vinton ‘Vint’ Cerf, known around the world as one of ‘fathers of the internet’. [Part 1 available here.]

There has been a great amount of debate about Net Neutrality Vint. Do you think it is important to ongoing Innovation?

Yes, in the sense that it is intended to assure that the limited number of providers of broadband access to the Internet, do not use their control of this pipe to interfere with competing  applications that rely on this transport. It is the anti-competitive aspect that is the most critical problem. A lot of smoke and misleading argument has obscured this basic fact.

The issue here is a business issue more than anything else. It is distorted and twisted around and treated as if its a technical problem or ‘just a bunch of geeks who don’t know what they’re doing’, but this is a real, honest business problem; especially in places where there is not much competition to provide broadband service.

When you don’t have a market that’s disciplined by competition, you have the potential for real monopoly or market power abuse. If you’re the only party supplying broadband access to the internet, and if you supply vertical services like video, then you may be persuaded to interfere with someone else’s service in order to take advantage of your control over the underlying pipe.

The situation in Australia largely eliminates that problem because of the way in which you’re investing in the NBN. Here in the United States we have a serious problem because Broadband is not very competitive. We have Telcos, CableCos and maybe you could consider satellite services to be a third possible competitor, but the synchronous satellite delay makes it a lot less attractive.

Last week a popular Ted Talk by ‘ePatient DaveDave deBronkart was launched. An eHealth advocate, Dave was pleased to have the opportunity to ask you:
 Increasingly, “e-patients” are using the internet to supplement the care they receive from professionals by connecting with information, and with each other, in ways that were never possible before.

ePatient Dave

Some have found life-saving information online, but others warn that there’s garbage amid the gold. And some doctors don’t like it when patients present information they haven’t seen.

Are there lessons from other fields that have similarly faced the democratization of information? 

There are several facets to this question. First of all, there’s a lot of misinformation on the internet about healthcare. There are a lot of quacks and people who tried things and think there are correlations. Things like, “I jumped around on my left foot and sacrificed a chicken over my computer, and I got better.” So they conclude that you have to jump around on your left foot and sacrifice a chicken over your computer to get better.

Of course that’s all nonsense.  Anyone who goes out on the net looking for healthcare information should be very careful to look for bona-fides and some evidence that the information is valid.

On the other hand doctors are saying that they have more informed patients than they have ever had before because information is more readily available. I sense that people are paying more attention to their health conditions and they’ve learned a lot.

Doctors don’t have a great deal of time to tutor their patients about their problems. So one thing the healthcare system would benefit from is a deliberate provision of good quality information about either a condition, or its treatment,  its potential outcomes and possible side effects. Then the population can learn more without chewing up a lot of the doctor’s time.

As far as making a comparison with other vertical segments, none immediately come to mind, except perhaps Climate Change, which as you know is a hugely controversial thing. Perhaps one other would be in the financial services area where people go out on the net looking for advice about investments, specific stocks, or choices about home mortgages and things of that sort. All of that is subject to misinformation and deliberate fraud.

I think the honest answer is, people do get defrauded on the net. People do get involved in things that turn out to be unrealistic – ponzi schemes and whatnot. The only thing I can say is, if you don’t teach people, or at least encourage them to ask questions, or at least do some validation… if they don’t spend some time evaluating the information they’re getting, then they are going to be at risk.

The one thing that I would want to teach kids today about the net is: think critically about what you’re seeing and hearing – don’t accept everything that you see without doing some more homework.

As I’m sure you know, July 1 marked the 45th anniversary of the implementation of Medicare following President Lyndon Johnson signing the healthcare program on July 30, 1965.

How do you envisage eHealth developing with the advancement of the internet and broadband capabilities?

I have to confess that I had not been driven specifically by the eHealth vector in my work on the internet. But as it became increasingly apparent that the healthcare problem was going to get worse and worse here in the US, in terms of dollars spent per patient/capita I got more and more interested – for the same reasons that you mentioned.

As you probably know, Google has announced that its going to terminate its current efforts in the electronic health record effort. I’m disappointed at that. I think that we had hoped that it would have more traction that it did. Part of the problem is getting people to adopt and use those records – and interoperability and so on.

There is however, a small piece of light. The US CTO, Aneesh Chopra, at least succeeded in getting some agreements on a format for data that could be exchanged by email. As you know the concerns about privacy and health information have been quite intense here in the US. There’s a big, complex system here called HIPAA, (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), apparently he was able to cope with that and still get an interoperable agreement done.

US CTO Aneesh Chopra

From my point of view, there is no doubt that having records which are sharable, at least among physicians, would be a huge help. When people go in to be examined, they often have to repeat their medical histories. They don’t get it right every time, they forget stuff.  Yet the doctors are not in a great position to service a patient without having good background information. I am very much in favour of getting those kinds of records online.

The second thing I would say is that for chronic conditions, which are generally the worst problems we have in healthcare – whether its heart disease, diabetes, cancer, [obesity] – those chronic conditions cost us more per capita than anything else in the healthcare system. If we were able to harness the electronic healthcare system to provide incentives for people to respond to those problems, to take better care of themselves, then we would reduce a lot of the system costs, simply because we had a more healthy population.

On this point about a healthy population, if you are not collecting data, you can’t know what the state of health of your population is. We have to get better data.

There is a concern about Telcos on the whole, and in the US in particular, having asked for and received huge subsidies along with the removal of regulations and obligations for common carriage. In return, they have promised to provide improved services for everyone, and yet they have consistently failed to do so.

With that in mind, could you comment on Brent Hall’s question: What is the greatest threat to the future of a free and open  internet?

I worry about the: “Our business models don’t work anymore. We can’t expect the general public to pay for access to this expensive resource, so we have to find other sources of revenue to pay for the build out, which might mean government handouts,” argument. Or the, “Hey, look at those guys over there at Google and Facebook and Amazon. They’re sending streaming video over our pipes, and they’re not paying for it!

Of course we are paying for it! We pay commercial services a lot of money to put our servers up on the net. Now they’re saying, “Customers can’t pay!”
My reaction to that is: technology should be cheap enough that you can make this available to customers at a reasonable price.

Now, what are we going to do about it? Well, Google is doing something about it. We’re going to fibreize Kansas City. It’s not as big as Australia but it’s our attempt to do the work. We will expose what the problems were, what was easy, what was technically hard and what was fiscally expensive.

And by the way, I haven’t said this to [Senator] Stephen Conroy, but I would find it extraordinary if the Australian Government would be willing to share what the costs turned out to be. The reason for that is, it might encourage others, or at least give us a real datapoint so that if we want to do what you’re doing, we will all – the US and elsewhere – know what we’re getting into.

Australian Senator, and Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Stephen Conroy

This could be a dangerous thing. If it turns out that its all a cock-up of some sort, if it costs more than was expected and it doesn’t get done, then nobody is going to want to talk about it. I understand that. But I am increasingly confident that you’re going to pull this off successfully. I sincerely hope you do.

The world over, citizens in their millions are calling for more openness from their respective governments. As part of the Board of advisors of Scientists and Engineers for America, what is your view of the effectiveness and potential of President Obama’s Open Government Initiative and its mandate to create an unprecedented level of openness in Government?

As you probably know, Vivek Kundra who is the CIO at OMB (the Office of Management and Budget) was vigorous in his pursuit of that objective. He got an enormous collection of government databases up and running and made them easily accessible – including budgetary information – which of course is what the OMB is all about.

US CIO Vivek Kundra

What he did was to create a tool online, which enabled you to drill-down into the budget. It allowed you to find the actual person who was responsible for spending that ‘piece’ of money in the US budget, which is unprecedented. Nobody had ever done that before.

Coupling that with tools to visualize some of this ‘dry as dust’ information was really eye opening. You began to see historical trends and things you would never see by just leafing through pages and pages of table and figures.
I’m sorry to say that in the crunch of the national debt limits and concerns over entitlements such as healthcare, social security and so on – non-discretionary expenses… in the course of  trying to negotiate reductions in spending, they reduced the budget Vivek had for some of his projects.

Whether it was causative or not, I don’t know, but recently Vivek announced that he is going to Harvard to the Berkman Centre. I don’t know who his replacement will be, but whoever it is will have less budget than Vivek originally had for the pursuit of this stuff.

President Barack Obama

I don’t think the President or any of his senior people are any less enthusiastic about openness and making information transparently available. I think they’re facing a reality of a budget problem that’s going to be hard to fix.

Looking to your past, who most influenced you in high school? I ask this, as I find it amazing that you, Jon Postel (editor of the RFC document series) and Steve Crocker (co-creator of the ARPANET) all went to the same school – was there a particular teacher, or club who inspired you there?

I actually did not meet Jon until we met at UCLA as graduate students.

Jon Postel

Steve and I were, and are, best friends -we were best men at each other’s weddings and have collaborated in many ways over the course of 5 decades.

Steve Crocker

I think the biggest influence for me in high school was the enrichment program sponsored in part by the National Science Foundation in the wake of Sputnik.
I was a direct beneficiary of the emphasis placed on science, mathematics and technology in American high schools in the 1960s. I had teachers who encouraged me in all academic subjects including history, creative writing and literature, not only math, science, physics, chemistry, etc. Steve and I were members of the math club and he was president. The club won city-wide awards in contests and that was very satisfying.

And today, why is Google a good place for an Internet Evangelist and Futurist?

Google is vibrant and alive with ideas, energy and a youthfulness that leads to innovation and Innovation. The leadership is willing to aim at big targets and is willing to allow for failure as long as the targets are ambitious enough. The company has a highly successful business model and a culture of invention and collaboration.

Vint, thank you so much for your time, which I know you extended for me. If there’s ever anything I can do for you, don’t hesitate to let me know!

If you could figure out how to fix the exchange rate between the US dollar and the Australian dollar so I can could buy more Australian wine, I’d really appreciate that!

(Kim and Vint Skype’d between from their homes in Sydney and Washington D.C. Part One of their conversation was published  on July 1, 2011)

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

Capital I Innovation Series Introduction

Vint Cerf: Father Knows Best!

Capital I Interview Series – Number 2 (Part 1)

KimmiC chats with ‘Father of the Internet’, Vinton ‘Vint’ Cerf

(Along with our particular questions, we invited some of our readers to submit their own queries to Vint, which he was happy to answer. Thanks go out to to “e-Patient Dave” Dave deBronkart, Brent Hall, and Roger Kermode for taking part!)

Imagine having the opportunity to ask Johannes Gutenberg about his thoughts on how his printing press would change the industry – let alone his opinion on how his press would change the world. Well, essentially, that’s the chance that I’ve had this morning, when I was given the opportunity to speak to Google‘s VP and Chief Internet Evangelist, Vinton ‘Vint’ Cerf, known around the world as one of ‘fathers of the internet’.

When looking for a ‘poster child’ for Capital I Innovation, Vint is, to many – myself included – at the top of an impressive, international list. His list of awards and medals from around the globe is vast, as is his experience and range of interests. I do believe, in this instance, it is fair to say that when discussing Capital I Innovation – especially as it relates to the internet – ‘Father really does know best’.

As this series is based on Capital I Innovation, Lets start with how you define Innovation?
I think capital “I” innovation happens when something new is invented that has very large potential for cultural and/or economic change. However, it is important to appreciate that some innovations are stillborn if they are not, in fact, taken up widely.

In a recent book entitled Why the West Rules – For Now by Ian Morris (2010, Farrar Straus and Giroux, New York), evidence is given that strongly points to the long term evolution and adoption of agriculture ultimately replacing a hunter-gatherer way of life. The process is not instantaneous but it has dramatic effects on culture and economy.

We sometimes think of Innovation as a sudden invention but often it takes decades and even centuries to have an effect. The printing press took centuries to have its primary effect. The telegraph, railroads, highways, radio, television and even the Internet took decades but those are a blink of the eye in terms of human history, which is fairly short itself (a few tens of thousands of year for prehistory, perhaps 8,000 for “history”).

Do you see a difference between ‘little i’ and ‘Capital I’ Innovation?
Yes, I think of the lower case instance as sequential refinement and adaptation while the basic Innovation might be a dramatically different way of doing something.

The Industrial Revolution is capitalized because of that – a shift from manpower or animal power to harnessing non-biological forms of mechanical energy (water power from rivers; steam from coal and wood; hydro-electric, oil, gas, wind or solar generated electricity; internal combustion engine; fractional horsepower motors).

The Transistor (and reed switches or vacuum tubes) ushered in the harnessing the power of “mechanical” thought using computers and programs. The Telegraph ushered in new forms of communication that eventually lead to the telephone, radio, television, optical fiber, coaxial cable, microwave, etc.

Printing Telegraph

The combination of computing and communication, once the economics reached a certain level, created the conditions for the invention of packet switching and, eventually, the Internet and many other kinds of computer-based networks.

With that in mind, do you think that Cloud Computing is big enough – different enough – to be capitalised?
Yes I do, for a couple of reasons. I’ve been jokingly saying that it is like time-sharing on steroids, as, like time-sharing, it does share the same resources. However, the scale of a Cloud system is so dramatically different than any time-sharing system that’s ever existed that it does deserve to be Capital I. There is a common belief that once you scale up by a three or four orders of magnitude you are in a different space than you were before.

Of course, this raises a very interesting question about the internet, because the internet is now 6 orders of magnitude bigger than it was when we first launched it in 1983. You have to ask yourself, is it still the same architecture, the same protocols? What’s different?

Of course one thing that’s different is that there are two billion users. Another thing that’s different is that the world wide web wasn’t there, and now it is – that [came] 10 years after launch. Its also available on mobiles, which didn’t exist. So, there are a whole bunch of things about that scaling up, including data and video, which could allow you to argue that this is a whole different beast now.

The meeting I just came back from in Paris suggests this. If anyone had suggested to me in 1983 that in 2011 there would be a meeting of 50 or so countries in the OECD, for two days talking about the internet economy, concerns about intellectual property, crime on the net and so on… I would have scratched my head and said, this thing is for the military, and the research community.

You’re called by many, one of the ‘fathers of the internet’. What do you think of your baby now?

  • Astonished at its evolution and growth,
  • Hopeful that it will reach well beyond the present 2 billion users,
  • Amazed at the response to the WWW infrastructure,
  • Worried about government intervention that might seriously harm the openness that has driven innovation in and around the Internet,
  • Excited by the possibility of extending its operation across the solar system to support manned and robotic space exploration,
  • Envious of kids who get to use it at age 5 when I had to wait until I was 28… and we had to invent it first!

What is the most important piece of innovation, which has launched in your lifetime?
The obvious answer for me is, of course, the Internet, but in fact it depended on the creation of conditions that allowed this idea to be explored and, ultimately, exploited.

The ARPANET, the successful invention of packet switching, the invention of the Ethernet, the invention of the Unix operating system, the invention of the mini-computer (ie. something that could afford to be replicated and used as packet switches or routers), the invention of high speed, long distance communication technology (wired, wireless, satellite, mobile…). Those, and so many more technologies, all had to be readily available for the Internet to grow.

Business models had to be invented, not only to make and sell the equipment and software needed for the Internet to operate but for the support of the enterprises that grew up around the World Wide Web (WWW). The WWW itself would not likely have amounted to much had it not had an Internet on which to be supported. It was invented or at least became operational in a single node in December 1990, six years after the Internet became available to the academic and military communities and contemporary with the development of a commercial Internet service.

I was born in 1943. I grew up using a three-party, black dial up telephone with long-distance operators. There was no television to speak of. Jet planes were purely military. Early in my life, the atomic bomb was invented, tested and used. Microwave and radar were military systems. Sputnik happened when I was 15 and just entering high school.

We landed on the moon when I was 26. At 18 I worked in a small way on the F-1 booster rocket engines used in the Saturn V rocket that put the astronauts in orbit around the Earth.

The microwave oven became a commodity in my lifetime as did jet travel. The computer was very new during my early lifetime and I was introduced to the tube-based SAGE system (Semi-Automated Ground Environment) when I was 15.

Lasers were invented in my life time and have myriad uses today. Robotic surgical systems such as the Intuitive Surgical Da Vinci system were invented in my lifetime. So was the Pill (by Syntex and others, for birth control). The discovery of the structure of DNA occurs around 1953 when I am ten years old.

While relativity and quantum theory were already a few decades old when I was born, the existence of quarks wasn’t really demonstrated until 1968 at the Stanford Linear Accelerator (SLAC), at about the time I am working on the ARPANET at UCLA. The cochlear implant, invented by Graeme Clark beginning in 1973, was a long process, but had utterly spectacular results. My wife, who was profoundly deaf for 50 years, has two implants and is living a second life as a result!

What piece of innovation did you expect to happen/take off, that didn’t?
Two things were really disappointing. When I was working on the Saturn F-1 engines in 1962, I really did think that we would have regular, weekly space launches in 20 years, maybe out of the Antelope Valley north of Los Angeles where the famous Lockheed “Skunkworks” is located. I also thought that we would be flying personal helicopters by then, too.

I also thought 20 years was a long time (more than twice my lifetime at that point). I was wrong about all three, but I am not disappointed to have outlived thrice my lifetime at age 19!!

Where does the Interplanetary Internet project stands at the moment – and why do you think it is important?
The standards are firming up well. There are implementations of the Bundle Protocol and the Licklider Transport Protocol that realize the Interplanetary Internet architecture. Instances are on board the International Space Station and the EPOXI spacecraft. Discussions are underway in the Consultative Committee on Space Data Systems to standardize these protocols for international use.

If all space-faring nations adopt these protocols, then all espacecraft will be able to communicate with each other. Once they have completed their primary scientific missions, they can be re-purposed to become part of an interplanetary backbone network. One can imagine the aggregation of a solar internet over a period of decades, in support of both manned and robotic exploration.

Here on earth, are entrepreneurs born or made?
I think there has to be a combination of conditions to allow entrepreneurship to happen. A person has to be willing to take risks, and that often has a genetic component. But a person’s experience with risk also has to have had some positive feedback effect. If you are never successful at taking risk, you are likely to learn to be very conservative.

Conditions also have to be right to allow the risk-taking to go on long enough to produce results. This is the so called “runway” needed to go from the idea to a successful, profitable or at least self-sustaining business. It should be noted, however, that not all inventors are entrepreneurs. They may take risks in the technical sense but not necessarily in the personal (livelihood) sense.

Conditions for invention may actually require that the inventor be shielded from economic risk while exploring ideas that may have a high pay off in some sense, but such high risk that no one could afford to take the personal risk needed to explore them.

This is one reason that it is often a government that has to make the investment in research in high-risk area,s since no business or inventor would take the economic risk. It is also why inventors often die in poverty (think of Tesla) [while] others harvest wealth in addition to technical success.

What do you think are the main barriers to the success of innovation?
Sometimes they are technical (can’t process that much information in a timely way, can’t store it, can’t build a big enough data platform, uses too much power) or economic (can’t deploy the necessary infrastructure, devices out of consumer reach) or operational (too bulky, battery life too short, displays don’t work in all lighting conditions). Sometimes the major barrier is that the private sector doesn’t give innovative employees the freedom to fail.

For any particular innovation, the conditions for its sustainable growth and use may simply not yet be ready.

What do you think is imperative to allow ‘Capital I’ Innovation to occur?
Not all Innovations require government support, but often this is the only path to initial success because the risks are too high for the private sector, even venture capital or angel investors to take.

Google was essentially entirely private sector funded and that’s something of an anomaly, given its stunning success. In that case, angel investment was an important component.

Economics is another critical factor. It is possible to have a breakthrough invention that is simply too expensive for widespread adoption.

Mobiles have been stunningly successful but took many years to emerge because the costs and the physical size, battery life, and infrastructure were a long time in development. Tax breaks can be sustaining but generally don’t lead to capital I innovation, to first order.

If you could give a ‘Capital I’ Innovation Award to anyone, who would you nominate? This could be individuals, organizations and/or companies (it could also be yourself!).

Does Innovation have a nation?
I think there is no country that has a lock on innovation but some places, like Silicon Valley, have conditions that support it better than many other places. You have:

  • a continuous stream of trained, high technology graduates,
  • experienced business people,
  • venture capitalists,
  • a liquid stock market,
  • mobility from company to company, and
  • a community of players that know each other.

It is a potent brew. There are more smart people, in absolute numbers, outside of Silicon Valley than inside, but the conditions in SV are remarkable.

Is innovation an overused term?
Yes in some ways. It is too much the focus when one should be asking “under what conditions can innovation take hold and become a real driver of economic growth?”.

It could be said that a huge amount of the core innovations that we use seems to have come out of either government funding and/or telco’s (for instance MCI and AT&T). Do you agree with this? And if so, do you think it was past structural, political and economic situations that made these innovations possible.
I think we should be very careful to distinguish between innovation and participation within the infrastructure. MCI supplied point-to-point high speed pipes to build the NSFNET backbone, to build the vBNS network, and to ultimately build Internet MCI a publicly available internet service.

Where they DID pioneer was in the commercial use of optical fibre. You have to give them credit for that, and for participating in the National Science Foundation Network by contributing underlying transmission resources. The fact that they were willing to get into the game is different than them being the inventors of it.

The real innovators for NSFNET were Merit and IBM. Particularly IBM, which designed and built the original routers; though they didn’t really follow up on that. Ironically IBM built the routers for the NSFNET back bone but Cisco systems, Juniper and others turned out to inherit all the commercial value from it.

AT&T, as a very successful monopoly, had an enormous amount of resources, which they put into AT&T Bell labs. Bell Labs was absolutely one of the most innovative places anywhere in the world. Nobel prizes have come out of there, the transistor came out of there. There’s no doubt in my mind that something was lost when AT&T was broken up.

The one thing about MCI which was interesting was that, instead of doing research, they would dangle a $250m dollar cheque in front of company and say, “If you can do this, I will buy a quarter of a billion dollars worth…” Its amazing how much R&D you get out of people when you do that. So, rather than taking all the risks themselves MCI simply said, we’ll buy a lot of stuff if you make this happen.

And yes, there’s no question in my mind that government sponsorship for this kind of high risk research is important.

Many nations are in the midst of debates about Broadband. You were recently quoted as saying that you believe” internet bandwidth can increase exponentially,” adding that this would, among other applications, “enable greater access to high-def video.” Other than being able to get the latest blockbuster downloaded in no time, where else do you see it being of use?
The term “exponential” is not one I would use (a reporter put that word in my mouth). However, I do believe we are far from fully taking advantage of communication technology to achieve many gigabits per second, end-to-end on the Internet.

These speeds have a transformative potential because they dramatically reduce the cost of moving information in large quantities from one place to another. It allows replication for resilience and safety. Large files like MRI scans will be easily retrievable and processable with higher speed transport.

We can build much larger data processing systems when we can interlink the processors at terabit and higher speeds. In a recent technical session, serious mention was made of 1000Tbs (that’s a petabit per second). Holographic simulations will benefit from speeds of this kind.

By the way, Stephen Conroy was in Paris with me for the OECD Conference, and I have to say that I continue to stand in awe of the Australian Government decision to fund the fibre network.

Stephen Conroy launching the Digital Strategy 2020 (zdnet.com.au)

This is the kind of infrastructure investment that probably would not ever be made by the private sector. There would be parts of the community left out, there would be economic decisions that would reduce capacity….

This is a very big deal and I’m hoping that it all works out. If it does, it would be a bell weather example of why government investment in fundamental infrastructure is so important.

This leads neatly to Roger Kermode‘s question: What advice would you give Australian ISPs, governments and businesses to take best advantage of the NBN?
First of all, because its a Level 2 infrastructure, anybody who wants to is free to put up a level 3 routing system on top of it. That means they can all compete for any business or individual subscribers service. Then on top of that you have the enabling effect of the broadband capability. This means that people can put applications up there that they would never have put up without such a broadband infrastructure.

Next, with the fact that everybody is online, or very nearly everybody, you can begin to say, “We are going to do ‘X‘ for the entire population,” and have a reasonable expectation that you will, in fact, reach the entire population.

For example, when it comes to healthcare, and the possibility of remote diagnosis and things like that, you’d be in a position to actually exercise that idea. Whereas, most other places, including here in the U.S. would not.

I anticipate that if this infrastructure goes into place and it operates reliably that you will be exploring a space of ‘online-ness’ which no other country has ever experienced.

End of Part 1 – Follow our blog and Part 2 will be delivered to your in box next week!

Part 2 – Next week we talk about net neutrality, eHealth, Telcos, Google, the Open Government Initiative and more (including a message to Australian Senator Stephen Conroy)!

(Kim and Vint Skype’d between from their homes in Sydney and Washington D.C.)

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