I’m a passionate believer in getting more people to learn to code. Like a lot of those my age I grew up with a ZX Spectrum and learned basic programming on a BBC Computer at school. Not only did it reap benefits then (my horse racing game was a triumph, albeit not a financial one), but it gave me an idea of how computers worked that removed any fear of them when I went into the workplace.
And, as my career in PR has progressed, more and more of what I do has a technical element to it – whether that is getting a WordPress site up and running or stitching together data from different tools to measure the impact of campaigns. Not understanding technology or being unable to use it would significantly impact my productivity and my overall job prospects.
When I look back, comparing my childhood to now, the world has changed dramatically. On the plus side we’re now in an era where geekiness is cool and entrepreneurs are celebrated for their ideas. But the opportunities we have to code have been lessened – rather than ZX Spectrums we have gaming consoles that cannot be programmed, except by studios with multi-million pound budgets. Yes, we have the iOS and Android ecosystems where anyone can create an app, but the majority of us are consumers, not programmers.
Clearly there’s a need for change, and initiatives such as the Raspberry Pi and the inclusion of coding in the National Curriculum from September are helping accelerate this. However the fiasco that is the government-backed Year of Code project is an unwelcome bump in the road to the future. For those that haven’t heard of it, the Year of Code is supposed to be an umbrella organisation to encourage everyone to learn to code in 2014.
Unfortunately so far it appears to be a PR-led initiative to muscle in on the work that is already being done. Backed by venture capitalists, and the TechCity community, its main claim to fame is the ill-fated appearance of its executive director Lottie Dexter on Newsnight, where she earned the ire of Jeremy Paxman by admitting that she didn’t actually know how to code. More importantly it appears to have alienated many people who have been working in the space for years by simply not recognising what has already been done.
And, judging by its website, apart from a promotional film (warning – contains footage of George Osborne) and a commitment to “banging the drum for all the fantastic coding initiatives taking place over the course of year and helping many more people engage with technology and access important training opportunities,” it isn’t actually going to do much that is concrete. Essentially it is PR spin on a serious subject, trying to take the lead in the same way as the government has decreed that TechCity is the only viable tech cluster in the UK. It is jumping on a bandwagon and trying to take the reins from those that know what they are doing.
Coding is essential to our competiveness and the future of our children – it is simply too important to be left to a slick marketing machine that is imposed from the top down. Time for the Year of Code to be switched off and then on again to remove the bugs from the system.
The world of work has changed immeasurably over the last ten years, not just in the UK but across all developed countries. Repetitive, process driven jobs have been automated, with technology replacing paper-based workflows. In many cases this has led to a hollowing out of sectors and companies, with the remaining workforce split between menial roles and higher level management.
And these changes are accelerating. A report in The Economist points to new technological disruption in the workplace, driven by computers getting cleverer and becoming self-learning. Lightweight sensors, more powerful cameras, cloud computing, the Internet of Things, big data and advances in processing power are all contributing to helping computers do brain work. Innovations such as driverless cars and household robots don’t require human intervention to operate, and can do more than traditional machines.
Research from Oxford University suggests that 47% of today’s jobs could be automated within the next 20 years. Many of these roles are in previously ‘safe’ middle class professions such as accountancy, the law and even journalism.
So, this begs two questions. What skills do people need if they are going to thrive in this new world – and are we teaching them to children quickly enough?
The employees of the future will require skills that complement machine intelligence, rather than mirror it. Empathy, the ability to motivate, and being able to think outside the box will all be needed. Essentially soft skills, backed up by specialist knowledge that is based on experience that cannot be replicated by machines. Professions such as therapists, dentists, personal trainers and the clergy are all seen as being relatively safe from replacement by robots. Interestingly entrepreneurs often possess these talents, so expect them to thrive as they use technology such as the cloud to bring their innovations to market quickly.
As a knock on effect, the will be a change in the size of companies people work for. Before the Industrial Revolution most people worked either for themselves or in small organisations (the village carpenter and his apprentice for example). Industrialisation required scale, so vast mega companies grew up. These won’t disappear, but the number of people working for them will shrink dramatically as intelligent machines take over. We’ll move to a larger proportion of the population being self-employed, providing their services on a personal basis.
Looking at education, schools will also need to change. Pupils need to understand the world around them, so they have to be taught a certain number of facts and dates, but rote learning of what made the British Empire great is going to be useless for a large proportion of people’s careers. What is needed is to teach skills for learning and adapting, thinking for yourself and how to motivate and show empathy to others. Essentially, children starting school today will be going into careers that may not even exist yet – so lifelong learning and flexibility are critical.
The predictions of the havoc that technology will cause to the world of work may be overstated – just because something is technically possible, it doesn’t mean it will quickly become mass market. And governments, worried about massive social change, are likely to step in to mitigate the worst impact through legislation. But changes are coming, and we need to think more like entrepreneurs and less like machines if we’re going to thrive.
In many ways the news that Google has bought smart home company Nest Labs shouldn’t be a surprise. It has been talking to the company for some time and apparently lots of Google employees had installed the company’s sensor based thermostat in their own homes.
More to the point I think it fits in with Google’s overall objectives. As analysts have pointed out, Google isn’t a search engine company (and hasn’t been for some time), but is about data – collecting it (analysing search results, Google Glass, StreetView) and then using it to either sell you things (through adverts) or make your life better in some way.
With billions of sensors embedded in previously dumb objects that will be communicating in real-time, the Internet of Things promises to create a tidal wave of data. Each piece will be tiny, but if you can bring it together and analyse it you can get an even deeper view of the world around us, and the people in it. Nest’s products are much more than thermostats, and provide Google with the sensor/Internet of Things expertise it needs to add to its product portfolio. It already has Android-based smartphones/tablets to act as controllers, the mapping technology to show where sensors are located and the technology to analyse billions of events in real-time. And with Google Fiber rolling out in several US cities, it has a network to send the data through as well.
A simple example – your Nest thermostat notifies you that your boiler has gone wrong via your smartphone while you are at work. And suggests a registered tradesman that can fix it by trawling the web and any recommendations in your Google+ circles. Or alternatively gives you the address of the nearest clothing shop, so you can stock up on thick jumpers.
Many people (myself included) would find this a bit creepy, but it is potentially possible if you can knit all the technology together. What I think is interesting is how utilities will respond to the future entry of Google into the market. After all, as publishers and others have found, Googlification can squeeze out incumbents through sheer scale and by engaging more closely with customers. Utilities have to decide whether they want to partner with the likes of Google, risk losing the customer relationship and become commodity suppliers of gas and electricity or take a stand and build stronger engagement with customers. In current circumstances that’ll be difficult – people are at best ambivalent about their utility supplier, and in an era of rising prices and poor customer service many actively dislike them.
So there’s a big opportunity here – and something that Cambridge’s cluster of smart home/green tech companies could exploit. For example, AlertMe already has a partnership with British Gas, while Sentec is working with metering companies to make their products smarter. If energy companies don’t want to work with Google then they have two choices – do it themselves (teaming up with smaller tech companies), or partner with larger industrial tech companies, such as Siemens or Bosch. And these industrial giants will need the specialist expertise that smart home companies can provide.
The utility market doesn’t move fast, so don’t expect to see Google running your home in the next year, but the Nest acquisition should actually spur the whole sector on, attracting both interest and investment. The world just got more interested in smart homes, which is good news for relevant startups in Cambridge and beyond.
As I’ve said before, startup clusters are springing up all over the place and that’s great. There’s even one in my village (population 3,000) – well, two startups and a group of support services, including myself.
Clusters encourage innovation, particularly through external economies of scale – i.e. by providing access to the people, resources and infrastructure that startups need but don’t have themselves. And the more startups there are in an area, the lower the price of these services as they are shared across a greater number of companies.
A lot of these clusters seem to be driven from outside, particularly as both central and local governments realise that startup clusters are (a) sexy and (b) cheap. Why not give them a small pot of money/some space/a patronising visit to show you’re supporting innovation?
So, putting cynicism aside, what does a startup cluster require – and how does Cambridge measure up? I’ve been looking at Brad Feld’s work on building a startup ecosystem, based on 20 years experience in Boulder, Colorado. The aptly named Boulder Thesis highlights four things that these communities must have:
- They should involve entrepreneurs and feeders (people/institutions like universities, government, venture capitalists, lawyers, PR people). BUT they have to be led by entrepreneurs if they are to truly take off.
- Long term. It can take 20 years to build a community, so entrepreneurs need to stick around, even if they’ve built and sold their company long ago. And the same goes for those that fail – encourage them to stick around.
- They need to be inclusive, welcoming anyone, no matter what their skills or ideas.
- They need to be active, with a range of events and accelerator programmes to help encourage and nurture startups.
That’s Boulder. Let’s compare it to Cambridge.
Firstly there’s a large community of entrepreneurs and feeders in the city (so a tick there) and entrepreneurs are taking a leading role. And given the longevity of the Silicon Fen success story there are plenty of long term entrepreneurs who have stuck around, from Hermann Hauser to Mike Lynch.
It’s the third and fourth points where I believe Cambridge has issues. Don’t get me wrong, there are some incredibly welcoming people in the Cambridge community and some great events/accelerators that nurture startups. But, perhaps because of the size and depth of the community, spanning everything from medtech to green IT, groups can appear disconnected, with everyone focused on their niche. Some of this may come from the research-led nature of many Cambridge innovations, but, even in academia, cross-discipline working is becoming more normal after centuries of specialism. Compare this to places such as Norwich, which has a smaller (but still substantial) startup community that seems more cohesive, with greater communication between disparate companies with radically different ideas.
What Cambridge does have, and that I think is missing from Feld’s thesis, is the combination of new and old blood. The universities, and increasingly tech businesses, attract talent, much of which stays on and contributes to the ecosystem. But enough leaves to make space for new ideas so that things don’t go stale.
So, in true end of term report style, Cambridge needs to try harder when it comes to building a cohesive, overarching supercluster. It has the constituent parts, but what is needed is stronger glue to stick it together and help connect the bigger picture. Let’s see if 2014 brings a solution to this long term problem.
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.
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.
Last week Mike Lynch, founder of Autonomy, announced the first investment by his latest venture, Invoke Capital. It has put money into Darktrace, a security company founded by Cambridge mathematicians. Darktrace uses Bayesian logic to spot cyber security issues by learning what is normal inside a company network and then flagging behaviour that differs from this.
Lynch is a divisive figure, but whatever your views on him, he built Autonomy into a multi-billion pound business, achieving the biggest ever sale price for a UK tech company when he sold it to HP for £6.2 billion. Of course, since then HP has sacked Lynch, written down Autonomy’s value substantially and asked authorities on both sides of the Atlantic to investigate possible accounting irregularities at the firm.
But two things that Lynch said stood out for me. Firstly, he believes too many European tech companies are sold too early in their development (normally to US rivals) – raising tens of millions rather than billions. Invoke plans to change that by investing for the longer term and providing experienced managers to take businesses to the next level.
The second thing he really encapsulated was the difference between Cambridge and Tech City businesses. Speaking in The Economist, he said “What you will find in Cambridge is something which is fundamentally clever, while what you are going to find in Tech City is something where the raw science isn’t fundamentally clever, but its more attuned to the market and the consumer.”
So the difference is between Cambridge clever and Shoreditch smart – but (as Lynch also says) we need both if we are going to build strong, vibrant tech sector in the UK. After all there’s no point in clever technology if it doesn’t have a market, while there is a limited opportunity for low IP businesses – we already have enough social networks.
What we need is to bring the two clusters together and develop a mutual understanding so that both can learn from each other, cross-fertilise ideas and even work in partnership. Let’s face it – they are only 60 miles away from each other, just a bit more than the distance from San Francisco and Silicon Valley. Some people in Cambridge have a tendency to look down on any ideas that haven’t originated here (or spent years in development in the lab). In contrast denizens of Silicon Roundabout often view Cambridge companies as too technical, too geeky and taking too long to build in comparison with their agile media startups.
Two immediate things would help this necessary cross-fertilisation. Firstly, a forum to bring the two groups together to share ideas and network, and secondly, a realisation by the government that you’ve got to look at the tech sector as a whole. At the moment a lot of effort goes into TechCity but that needs to be widened to encompass tech companies across the UK (not just in Cambridge, but in other clusters too) with a cohesive set of policies that encourage innovation and longer term investing. Otherwise Lynch’s vision of building billion dollar businesses in the UK simply won’t be realised, and that will hurt everybody.
- Invoke Capital Makes First Investment in Fundamental Cyber Security Technology (prnewswire.com)
- Invoke Capital Makes First Investment in Fundamental Cyber Security Technology (virtual-strategy.com)
Everyone is packing more into their working lives – and work is increasingly invading our leisure time. Apparently 69% of us cannot go to bed without checking email, and in the US, employees spend an extra 8.5 hours working every week compared to 1979.
And we’re continually being told to do more. But this normally translates into wasting our energies on ultimately unproductive activities such as sending and answering emails or sitting in endless meetings. McKinsey believe the average highly skilled office worker spends over a quarter of every day answering emails. The Dutch talk about vergaderziekte, which translates as ‘meeting sickness’. On one hand we make snap decisions to get emails out of our inbox and on the other fall asleep in day long meetings that seem to have no purpose.
It wouldn’t matter so much if this busyness translated into better business. But Robert Gordon of Northwestern University argued last year that the any additional productivity caused by the internet is much smaller than previous innovations such as indoor plumbing or electrification. Do you feel more productive?
For those of us in the creative industries the distractions and interruptions caused by modern business are particularly dangerous. And it is no accident that lots of startup ideas come from academia, where there is more time for uninterrupted research.
Creativity doesn’t come in the midst of an email or a meeting, but when you have time to think, unfettered by the ping of an incoming message hitting your inbox. Otherwise ideas come out half formed without reflection or perspective. Research at the University of California removed email from 13 people for five days and saw concentration levels rise and stress drop.
To win back our creativity and give time to thinking we need to regain control over our working lives. I’m no management guru, but here are five things that might help:
- Set aside thinking time. Leave your office, switch off your phone and just take an hour a week to focus, uninterrupted, on the big picture.
- Go for a run – get up from your desk and do some exercise. The added bonus is that if your company doesn’t have showers you won’t be invited to afternoon meetings.
- Use a pen and paper. Get your thoughts down longhand before opening up Word.
- Be ruthless. Turn down meetings (politely if possible) so that you have blocks of time to concentrate on what is important.
- Do less. Follow Ronald Reagan’s dictum “It’s true hard work never killed anybody, but why take the chance?” Do you need to check your email – and do you actually need to send that email to 20 people, with another 10 cc’d.
Whatever industry you are in, creative or not, take a step back and refocus if you want to be happier, more productive and more creative. Easier said than done perhaps, but the potential benefits are vast.
As anyone who’s tried to walk down King’s Parade knows, Cambridge is a magnet for tourists. However while visitors have plenty to look at, most of it is pretty old. From the colleges and Senate House to Fitzwilliam Museum the impression is of wonderful past achievements, rather than demonstrating the innovation and new breakthroughs that are happening now in the city.
Cambridge is leading the world in scientific research and is one of the centres of the UK IT industry, but up until recently the casual tourist would have been hard pushed to see any of this. And, let’s face it, simply seeing imposing medieval architecture and porters in bowler hats is going to put off a lot of young people from applying to study here.
The good news is that this is changing. In February, the Cambridge Science Centre opened its doors, inspiring the general public by enabling children (and their parents) to try hands on science experiments. Having had to physically drag my children away from it on our first visit it definitely delivers an engaging alternative to King’s College Chapel.
This week the Science Centre will be joined by The Centre for Computing History, which opens its permanent base in the city. The culmination of a two and a half year campaign, the Centre will give hands-on access to a huge collection of machines from the last 40 years, including a 1980s classroom with working BBC Micros to bring back memories for those of us of a certain age.
So far, so good. But having just visited the enormous @Bristol Science Centre and seen what has been achieved there as part of the city’s regeneration, there’s plenty more that Cambridge needs to do. The Cambridge Science Centre is essentially operating as a showcase in small (but well-utilised) premises while fund raising and the search for a larger location continues. And the Computing Centre needs volunteers to staff the building as it seeks to establish itself.
There’s been an enormous amount of support for both centres from local companies such as ARM and Red Gate and entrepreneurs including Hermann Hauser and David Cleevely. But now, during the summer holidays is the time for visitors and locals alike to stray from the tourist trail and try something different. You won’t regret it – and you may well help to inspire the next generation of scientists and programmers to continue the Cambridge success story.