Revolutionary Measures

Is Cambridge a smart city?


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. 

November 6, 2013 Posted by | Cambridge, Creative | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Do you really Like that?

Facebook Like stamp

Be careful what you like on Facebook – that’s the warning to take from research carried out by the University of Cambridge. The project used algorithms to predict religion, politics, race and sexual orientation based solely on what people chose to Like on the social network.

By correlating personality tests and the demographic information of 58,000 volunteers, the researchers were able to compare Likes with an astonishing level of accuracy. The algorithm used was 88% accurate in predicting whether someone male was gay or straight and between 65-73% accurate in guessing marital status and substance abuse for example. And it wasn’t based on simple linking – fewer than 5% of gay users clicked obvious likes such as gay marriage. Instead it used information such as likes on TV shows, films and music.

This is music to the ears of marketers (and social networks desperate to sell advertising to them). It could even help Facebook’s depressed share price perk up a little. And if you can accurately predict detailed demographic information from just one part of a person’s online footprint, imagine what you can do if you add in web browsing, search and other social network data. No wonder Google wants you to sign into its multiple services so it can collect the maximum amount of data, whatever device you are using.

From a consumer point of view there’s two ways of looking at this – most people will see it as an intrusion into their privacy and change their settings, but brands may well rationalise it as offering people exactly what they want. And as Mark Earls has pointed out in his book I’ll have what she’s having a large number of people’s decisions are herd led. So offer them an easy option that means they don’t have to think and they’ll jump at it. In many cases consumers may not even realise they are being sold to – which could be very worrying when people start being segmented on sexuality, religion or political affiliation.

So marketers need to treat this data with caution. Yes, it gives unprecedented insight but be too aggressive when using it and you’ll cause a public outcry which could damage your brand – and trigger governmental action to tighten privacy settings on the likes of Facebook.

However my own view is that we’ve been here before. Remember when store loyalty cards came in everyone predicted that we’d be laser targeted with relevant offers that drove us to up our spend? But if I get a mailing from a well-known chemists the vouchers are pretty much identical to my wife’s, with obvious male/female differences. It seems that marketers haven’t got to grips with shopping data in enough granular detail to deliver the killer offers that will drive me to automatically purchase without thinking. We may have the data, and even the technology to analyse it, but until marketers move to a digital mindset we’re unlikely to be brainwashed into buying things we don’t even know we wanted.

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March 13, 2013 Posted by | Cambridge, Marketing, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lucky vs hard working

What brings success? Is it hard graft or can you short circuit the years of work by just being a bit lucky?

Roulette wheel

That was the topic of a recent CfEL Enterprise Tuesday, where entrepreneurs Rahul Vohra and Shamus Husheer discussed what makes some businesses succeed when others fail. For the lazy amongst us, the unfortunate conclusion was that you need hard work as well as opportunity if you’re going to make it big. But you do need both – as Shamus pointed out, if hard work led to success, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire, and unfortunately they’re not.

Essentially you need to put yourself in the position to be lucky – so make sure that you are in the right place at the right time, and then grab the opportunity. For me the perfect example is Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. He took an existing idea (a paper directory of students) and wrote an initially simple computer program to put it online solely for Harvard University students. As any programmer will tell you, Facebook itself isn’t the world’s most complicated piece of code, but it attracted users and the rest is history.

But look a bit deeper and there’s more hard work involved – Facemash, the first version of Facebook, was closed down by university authorities for breaching security, copyright and individual privacy and Zuckerberg was lucky not to be expelled. So he persisted, refined his idea and tried again. From Rahul and Shamus’s experience iteration is a key part of success – things aren’t necessarily going to work first time, but that doesn’t mean your idea is worthless. Other people came up with Facebook-like services but through hard work Zuckerberg’s got the users it needed to take off.

So, while it is an easy response to describe someone successful as ‘lucky’ you make your own luck in this world. Aspiring entrepreneurs need to make sure they are looking for opportunities, making intelligent guesses about what might be a success and then working hard to develop a product or service that customers actually want. Like a swan, ‘lucky’ people may look calm, but underneath the surface their legs are paddling very hard………

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December 5, 2012 Posted by | Cambridge, Startup | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A weekend to change the world (part 2)

Judge Business School, Cambridge, England.

At a time when the world seems full of young companies aiming to be the next Facebook, it is easy to write off technology startups as predominantly pointless pipe dreams that won’t contribute anything meaningful to society.

But the good news is that the power of technology can change the world. Whether it is in education, improving the environment, revolutionising healthcare or helping communities the power of technologies such as the internet, mobile telephony and even social networks can change many people’s lives for the better.

Unlocking these ideas and giving them the help and support they need to take realise their potential is the mission of Idea Transform. A Cambridge-based initiative, backed by the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning (CfEL) it supports meaningful startups through events and mentoring.

Run by a stellar organising team (including myself), the first Idea Transform weekend attracted over 100 entrepreneurs, developers, students, business people and mentors. 26 ideas were pitched on the Friday evening and teams then formed to work on projects, which were judged on the Sunday evening. Projects spanned healthcare, education, the environment and community.

The range of ideas was astounding – from in-road electric charging to biometric identification for healthcare. What united them was that they all had the potential to change the world – and a plan for achieving it. Attendees threw themselves into the weekend, bringing their skills to bear on helping develop the ideas, ably supported by our experienced mentors and inspiring speakers.

The great news is that Idea Transform 2013 is now up and running. It will be held between 15-17 March 2013 at the Cambridge Judge Business School and promises to be as exciting and exhilarating as the 2012 edition.

Whether you’ve got an idea that you want to work on or have skills or energy that can help develop projects, take a look at and come along in March. With high level speakers and experienced mentors, you’ll learn new skills, meet new contacts, have fun and contribute to making the world a better place. Sign up now!

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November 28, 2012 Posted by | Cambridge, Startup | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Unlocking innovation for the good of us all

An unashamed plug this week for Idea Transform, an event I’m helping organise between 20-22 April 2012 (so just a week’s time, depending on when you read this).

Essentially Idea Transform aims to support people with bright ideas that use technology to benefit society in general – whether in the fields of healthcare, education, environment or the community.

While technology has lowered the barriers to turning ideas into reality, the majority of potential projects still come unstuck along the way – either because they are missing a crucial skillset or lack the mentoring support to help overcome inevitable hurdles.

Idea Transform will help these ideas through a combination of events and ongoing mentoring. The first weekend bootcamp event (20-22 April, Cambridge Judge Business School, tickets at will bring together those with ideas and people with business, development, marketing and creative skills to help them. People pitch their ideas on Friday evening, teams form and then work on ideas over the course of the weekend, before a high profile judging session on Sunday evening. Winners get the opportunity to develop their ideas through mentoring, support and the chance to potentially pitch for funding from the Cambridge Angels.

And for anyone worried that it will just be a weekend of hard work, there will be the chance to network, have fun, listen to high profile speakers and get advice from a team of experienced mentors. We’ve already heard about a whole range of ideas, from mobile health tracking using biometric technology to mobile and experimental maths learning to mapping the disused rail network so we can put it to better use, and there are bound to be many more pitched on the evening itself.

It promises to be an exhilarating, exciting and enjoyable experience – take a look at and I hope to see you there.

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April 12, 2012 Posted by | Cambridge, Startup | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Time to Startup innovation in every company

Image representing Startup Weekend as depicted...

Image via CrunchBase

I had the privilege of being involved with helping to organise last weekend’s Cambridge Startup Weekend. Essentially a Startup Weekend brings together people with ideas and skills to create a new application in just 54 hours. People first pitch ideas and teams then form to work on the most popular ones. The idea is that some of these teams and applications then go onto become real, viable businesses.

Sound exhausting? It was. But what amazed me was the energy and enthusiasm amongst the 90+ delegates. Everyone was incredibly committed to the projects they worked on, despite the fact that they had only just met their team mates or come across the ideas. People were happy to work non-stop through Friday and Saturday night to achieve some pretty incredible things, learn loads and make lasting friendships.

This all made me think – just imagine if you could replicate this energy and teamwork within larger organisations. Innovation would skyrocket, as would morale as everyone worked towards the same goal, rather than in individual silos. Rather than going away on team building retreats/jollies, I believe innovation weekends are something every company should look at – or risk people with ideas just walking out the door.


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March 16, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | 1 Comment