There can be a tendency in Cambridge to think that innovation ends at the city limits, and particularly that we’ve got the monopoly on tech startups in East Anglia.
Proof positive that this isn’t the case was on show last week at SyncNorwich, where more than 300 entrepreneurs, developers and members of the Norwich tech cluster talked about their diverse successes. This included market leaders such as FXhome, which produces special effects software for both Hollywood blockbusters and amateur filmmakers, Liftshare.com, the world’s most popular car sharing site and mobile interaction/payment firm Proxama. A whole host of newer startups, such as targeted mobile advertising company Kuoob, music community site SupaPass and educational software provider Wordwides (set up by a 16 year old) also talked about what they could offer.
There’s obviously been lots of activity in Norwich for quite a while (FXhome has been going for 10 years and Liftshare.com for 15), but what the evening did was give outside endorsement to the cluster. Mike Butcher from Tech Crunch came along and it gave everyone present belief that they were on the right road and that they should be shouting about it. In the days since, I’ve seen emails offering co-working spaces and there’s even a cluster name (Silicon Broads) being bandied about, along with a startup map.
Norwich isn’t the only cluster rising to prominence across Europe – the growth of cloud-based technologies, new agile development methodologies and a focus on entrepreneurship mean they are springing up everywhere. Some people see this as a bad thing – they point to the size of Silicon Valley and wonder how hundreds of disparate European cities can compete or scale. But as Butcher pointed out, the Valley has a 60 year head start and what is needed is to build bridges between the different hubs – after all takes 2 hours to drive from London to Norwich (or Cambridge), the same time to get from one end of Silicon Valley to the other.
What Europe needs to do is to use the nimbleness of having multiple centres to its advantage and turn disparateness into diversity. I’m reminded of the story of the ‘discovery’ of America. At the same time as Christopher Columbus was touting his plans around the courts of Europe, the Chinese Emperor was assembling a great fleet to explore the same area. Given the scale and backing put into the expedition it would have been likely that the first non-native settlers in the present day United States would have been Chinese, not European. However the Emperor died and his plans died with him – there was no alternative power that could take them on. In contrast Columbus, originally Genoese, travelled round Europe for years until he found a backer in the Spanish monarchy. The result? The world we know today.
So it is time that European startups (and political leaders) stopped dreaming of a single super hub that on its own can rival Silicon Valley. It’ll never happen and what we need to do is build bridges between the enormous variety of hubs across Europe. Making everyone aware of what is going on up the road (or further afield) is crucial to driving collaboration, unlocking opportunities and building a successful pan-European tech ecosystem that can break down barriers and silo working and deliver jobs and growth.
As everyone by now has been reminded by their children/mother, there’s less than a month to Christmas, cueing mass panic and a rush to Amazon.
Rather than starting shopping I thought I’d look at the marketing behind Christmas and how it has evolved over the past centuries. From the Christian Church to John Lewis brands have attempted with varying degrees of success to link to a midwinter celebration. Here’s a top four of marketing successes:
1 The Church
Before people start getting upset about the hijacking of the Baby Jesus’ birthday by commercial interests it is worth going back to pagan times. Before the Christian Christmas began there was a major celebration of the midwinter solstice, around the end of December. There’s no record of when Christ was actually born in the Bible, so essentially the church merged the existing pagan festival with Christ’s birth from around the fourth century as part of a move to increase converts and popularity.
2 The Victorians
For popularising other traditions (such as present giving around the day itself, rather than at New Year, and Christmas trees) we have to thank Queen Victoria and her consort Prince Albert, helped by the pen of Charles Dickens. The stereotypical Christmas scene of snow, robins and greenery comes directly from Victorian times, despite the current lack of ‘seasonal’ weather on the day itself. What better way to spread colonial strength than by giving the world an excuse to celebrate?
3 Coca Cola
There’s a widespread belief that Father Christmas’ red and white costume comes directly from Coca Cola’s 1930s ad campaigns. This may not be completely true – his forerunner St Nicholas dressed in red and white bishop’s vestments – but it is certainly something that the soft drinks giant cannily exploits to this day.
4 John Lewis
Over the last twenty years the competition to own the Christmas experience has led to more and more lavish advertising campaigns. Thanks to a heavy dose of hype these ads now attract press coverage on their own, with commentators discussing their relative merits, and now monitoring the social media buzz. Undoubted winner of the past few festive seasons has been John Lewis, which has knocked Marks & Spencer off its perch as the must see Christmas advert. This year it has spent a reported £7m on its animated Hare and Bear campaign, which generated over 14,500 tweets in its first few hours of release.
So, why is it important? Firstly, Christmas has come to dominate the retail landscape, with many chains doing the majority of their business in the months around 25 December. Secondly, spending is still cautious (despite what official figures say about the UK moving out of recession), so competition for every pound spent is fierce. If you can tap into the Christmas spirit not only will you generate seasonal goodwill, but you will also bring in revenue from customers who will remain loyal over the whole year.
This means that while it is easy to sneer at the over-excitement about TV ad campaigns, they are only the successors to previous attempts by brands to ‘own’ Christmas and therefore win over their audiences – whether to sell soft drinks, Victorian values or even Christianity itself. As the investment shows Christmas is far too important to be left to Father Christmas. Myself, I’ll stick to Scrooge………
The world is becoming increasingly urban, with the UN estimating that 70% of the global population will live in cities by 2050. Making sure that cities can cope with the unprecedented pressure on their resources is therefore critical. Hence the idea of smart cities that interconnect infrastructure, services, technology and culture for the benefit of citizens and visitors alike.
Technology is at the centre of this, providing a platform to make lives easier for everyone and vitally, letting them interact in new ways. At a basic level sensors can collect real time data to make day to day activities (from monitoring air quality to finding a parking space) easier, ensuring there is a reliable, predictable and efficient infrastructure. And, more importantly, using this platform brings people together to enable the free exchange of ideas, letting people interact in new ways and create surprising stuff.
From the outside Cambridge has many of the ingredients of a smart city – a highly educated population, strong technology industry, lots of bright ideas and is concentrated in a relatively small area. So, last week’s Cambridge Festival of Ideas debate discussing “Is Cambridge a smart city?” looked like it might go either way.
But peel back the surface and Cambridge’s smartness seems to be currently focused in people’s heads. Making the case for the motion, the best efforts of Alex van Someren of Amadeus Capital and Claire Ruskin of the Cambridge Network seemed to revolve around having some signs that tell you when the next bus is due and a desire by many geeks to patronise the arts.
In contrast, the speakers against Smartness had an array of arguments. Andrew Nairne of Kettle’s Yard pointed to the fact that Cambridge should be a city of potential and imagination and clearly isn’t delivering, while the divides between town and gown, city and countryside highlighted the lack of a common feeling between groups in the population. And that’s before people got onto transport planning, the cost of housing and a lack of joined up vision as impediments to smartness. Unsurprisingly the motion failed, with 82% voting against it.
So what does Cambridge need to become smart? It has the brains, but from what I’ve seen it comes down to not having a single, unified vision that everyone buys into. There are a lot of disparate groups in a small population – nearly 25,000 of the 125,000 residents are students, while you also have the University of Cambridge and its colleges (which own most of the land), those involved in tech businesses, tourists and the general public. And as the limited space available in the city mean that a large number of people can’t afford to live in Cambridge, you have a sizeable commuting population. Cambridge isn’t even a unitary authority, so there isn’t even one public body to represent the city.
All of these groups have different ideas for what would make Cambridge smart, but there isn’t a single agency that joins up all their needs and provides a dynamic vision for the future. It is time for this to change if everyone is to benefit from Cambridge’s success going forward.
Jobs wax and wane in popularity and, while quite a lot of this is down to salaries or how interesting they are, their public image also has a big input. For example, mention you’re an accountant to someone and a mental picture of a grey man/woman in a grey suit pops immediately into many people’s minds.
So, taking this to its logical conclusion, which profession has the worst public image in the UK – essentially who is most loathed by the country as a whole? I’m taking out politicians as that’s too easy a target, but looking at what’s left, they seem to fall into two groups. There are those professions that are belittled for not doing their job properly, where the Daily Mail (and politicians) use the failings of a few to tar a whole group with the same brush. I’m thinking of social workers, doctors, nurses and teachers, where, often for political reasons, they are paraded as uncaring or uncommitted when nothing could be further from the truth.
The second group, which more people can agree on, is those that are accused of fleecing the Great British Public. So bankers, overpaid businessmen/women, footballers, bureaucrats (especially of the ‘meddling Brussels’ variety) and highly paid lawyers fit into this category. What’s interesting is that none of these people make physical things – vilified businesspeople tend to be fat cats presiding over service industries/shutting down manufacturing plants while increasing their pensions rather than the likes of James Dyson.
After the financial meltdown, I’d say that bankers topped the polls of the most loathed. Not only had they brought the world to the edge of financial ruin but weren’t contrite in any way. They still seemed to be rolling in enormous bonuses, while the rest of us were scraping by without pay rises in Austerity Britain.
But the last couple of weeks has seen a new target overtake even bankers – management at utilities companies. The combination of enormous, above inflation, rises in gas and electricity bills coupled with dire warnings about potential future power cuts have made them public enemy number one. Never a group to look a gift horse in the mouth, politicians have levelled their guns on the sector. From Ed Milliband threatening a price freeze to (of all people) John Major calling for a windfall tax on utility profits, it is open season on the industry. With a growing percentage of household incomes spent on utility costs, it isn’t surprising they are a target – even though the companies claim that a large chunk of bills goes either to the government in terms of green levies or is swallowed up by global price rises in the cost of oil, gas and coal.
But utilities aren’t helping themselves. British Gas decided to run a Twitter Q&A session on the day of its recent price rises – unsurprisingly it got more abuse than intelligent feedback. And Scottish Power has been fined £8.5m for misleading customers between 2009 and 2011. No wonder the whole industry has been summoned to appear before MPs shortly to explain themselves.
So, putting my PR hat back on, what can utility companies to improve their public image? They can’t reverse the price rises, but need to show that they genuinely care. That means no pay rises for senior management, closer work with charities that help those who can’t pay their bills and a commitment to providing better service to the rest of us. And this needs to be a long term move – not a quick PR stunt that ends after a couple of months. Only then will they be able to step away from the public eye and let others (probably bankers) take over the mantle of most loathed profession – at least until the 2015 election….
This week BBC director general Tony Hall launched a slew of initiatives designed to reposition the beleaguered broadcaster. The aim is to show that the BBC is central to meeting the needs of consumers now and in the future, and to draw a line under an annus horribilis for the corporation, which has been plagued by scandals from Jimmy Savile to excessive payoffs for senior managers.
Amongst the news of a BBC One + 1 channel (by my maths that’s BBC Two), and expansion of iPlayer, one thing that caught my eye was a pledge to “bring coding into every home, business and school in the UK”. As someone who grew up in the 1980s it made me misty-eyed with nostalgia for the last time the BBC got involved in technology, with the original BBC Micro. Essentially the BBC put up the money for the machine to be given to every school in the UK, as well as producing TV programmes and courses on coding.
While I never had a BBC (I was a Sinclair Spectrum diehard), we used them in at school and it did help me learn to code. It really was a golden age for UK computing, as it introduced a generation to computers they could play games on, but equally program and learn with. Programming your own creations was a viable alternative to just treating these machines as games consoles – particularly as a Spectrum game took about 10 minutes to load (and often mysteriously crashed just before it should have started). I was incredibly proud of my amazing horse racing game (complete with betting and flickering graphics), even if my programming days are now long behind me.
Not only did the BBC/Spectrum age produce a generation that wasn’t afraid of coding, but it also helped shape the UK IT industry. Acorn, the makers of the BBC Micro, spawned ARM, now a world leader in chip design, while countless games companies developed from bedrooms into multi-million pound concerns. You could easily argue that Cambridge wouldn’t be the technology powerhouse it is today if it wasn’t for the BBC.
But then IT became marginalised as a school subject – essentially replaced with learning to use desktop applications rather than program. In a global economy where companies compete on knowledge, the need to rekindle that interest in coding has never been greater. The BBC is not the first to understand this – the Cambridge-designed Raspberry Pi has become a global phenomenon as it brings back the spirit of adventure and exploration to children weaned on iPads and Wiis. There’s also a new computer science curriculum for schools and coding courses are becoming increasingly popular across the UK.
So where does the BBC fit into this? There’s a lot of hyperbole in the announcement about “using world class TV, radio and online services to stimulate a national conversation about digital creativity”, but very little detail. The challenge for the BBC is to pitch whatever it offers in a way that doesn’t replicate what is being done in the private sector and doesn’t dumb down coding to a simple point and click level. As seen in the 1980s, the backing of the BBC can be a major force for good, but it could equally stifle the innovation and creativity that it is trying to encourage. The jury’s out, but I hope it can turn the undoubted niche success of the coding revival into a mainstream movement – working with the industry to create the Acorns and ARMs of tomorrow.