How could blockchain drive a more responsible approach to engaging with the arts?

Image Courtesy of Tran Mai Khanh
Image Courtesy of Tran Mai Khanh

This is the transcript of a talk I gave at the 2018 Colloquium on Responsibility in Arts, Heritage, Non-profit and Social Marketing at the University of Birmingham Business School  on 17th September 2018.

Good morning everyone. My name is Peter Cripps and I work as a Software Architect for IBM in its Blockchain Division.

As a Software Architect my role is to help IBM’s clients understand blockchain and to architect systems built on this exciting new technology.

My normal world is that of finance, commerce and government computer systems that we all interact with on a day to day basis. In this talk however I’d like to discuss something a little bit different from my day to day role. I would like to explore with you how blockchain could be used to build a trust based system for the arts world that I believe could lead to a more responsible way for both creators and consumers of art to interact and transact to the mutual benefit of all parties.

First however let’s return to the role of the Software Architect and explain how two significant architectures have got us to where we are today (showing that the humble Software Architect really can change the world).

Architects take existing components and…

Seth on Architects
Seth on Architects

This is one of my favourite definitions of what architects do. Although Seth was talking about architects in the construction industry, it’s a definition that very aptly applies to Software Architects as well. By way of illustration here are two famous examples of how architects took some existing components and assembled them in very interesting ways.

1989: Tim Berners-Lee invents the World Wide Web

Tim Berners Lee and the World Wide Web
Tim Berners Lee and the World Wide Web

The genius of Tim Berners-Lee, when he invented the World Wide Web in 1989, was that he brought together three arcane technologies (hypertext, mark-up languages and Internet communication protocols) in a way no one had thought of before and literally transformed the world by democratising information. Recently however, as Berners Lee discusses in an interview in Vanity Fair, the web has begun to reveal its dark underside with issues of trust, privacy and so called fake news dominating much of the headlines over the past two years.

Interestingly, another invention some 20 years later, promises to address some of the problems now being faced by a society that is increasingly dependent on the technology of the web.

2008: Satoshi Nakamoto invents Bitcoin

Satoshi Nakamoto and Bitcoin
Satoshi Nakamoto and Bitcoin

Satoshi Nakamoto’s paper Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System, that introduced the world to Bitcoin in 2009, also used three existing ideas (distributed databases, cryptography and proof-of-work) to show how a peer-to-peer version of electronic cash would allow online payments to be sent directly from one party to another without going through a financial institution. His genius idea, in a generalised form, was a platform that creates a new basis of trust for business transactions that could ultimately lead to a simplification and acceleration of the economy. We call this blockchain. Could blockchain, the technology that underpins Bitcoin, be the next great enabling technology that not only changes the world (again) but also puts back some of the trust in a the World Wide Web?

Blockchain: Snake oil or a miracle cure?

Miracle Cure or Snake Oil?
Miracle Cure or Snake Oil?

Depending on your point of view, and personal agenda, blockchain either promises to be a game changing technology that will help address such issues such as the world’s refugee crisis and the management of health supply chains or is the most over-hyped, terrifying and foolish technology ever. Like any new technology we need to be very careful to separate the hype from the reality.

What is blockchain?

Setting aside the hype, blockchain, at its core, is all about trust. It provides a mechanism that allows parties over the internet, who not only don’t trust each other but may not even know each other, to exchange ‘assets’ in a secure and traceable way. These assets can be anything from physical items like cars and diamonds or intangible ones such as music or financial instruments.

Here’s a definition of what a blockchain is.

An append-only, distributed system of record (a ledger) shared across a business network that provides transaction visibility to all involved participants.

Let’s break this down:

  1. A blockchain is ‘append only’. That means once you’ve added a record (a block) to it you cannot remove it.
  2. A blockchain is ‘distributed’ which means the ledger, or record book, is not just sitting in one computer or data centre but is typically spread around several.
  3. A ‘system of record’ means that, at its heart, a blockchain is a record book describing the state of some asset. For example that a car with a given VIN is owned by me.
  4. A blockchain is ‘shared’ which means all participants get their own copy, kept up to date and synchronised with all other copies.
  5. Because it’s shared all participants have ‘visibility’ of the records or transactions of everyone else (if you want them to).

A business blockchain network has four characteristics…

Business blockchains can be characterised as having these properties:

Consensus

All parties in the network have to agree that a transaction is valid and that it can be added as a new block on the ledger. Gaining such agreement is referred to as consensus and various ways of reaching such consensus are available. One such consensus technique, which is used by the Bitcoin blockchain is referred to as proof-of-work. In Bitcoin proof-of-work is referred to as mining which is a highly compute intensive process as miners must compete to solve a mathematically complex problem to earn new coins. Because of its complexity, mining uses large amounts of computing power. In 2015 it was estimated that the Bitcoin mining network consumed about the same amount of energy as the whole of Ireland!

Happily, however, not all blockchain networks suffer from this problem as they do all not use proof-of-work as a consensus mechanism. Hyperledger, an open source software project owned and operated by the Linux Foundation , provides several different technologies that do not require proof-of-work as a consensus mechanism and so have vastly reduced energy requirements. Hyperledger was formed by over 20 founding companies in December 2015. Hyperledger blockchains are finding favour in the worlds of commerce, government and even the arts! Further, because Hyperledger is an open source project, anyone with access to the right skillset can build and operate their own blockchain network.

Immutability

This means that once you add a new block onto the ledger, it cannot be removed. It’s there for ever and a day. If you do need to change something then you must add a new record saying what that change is. The state of an asset on a blockchain is then the sum of all blocks that refer to asset.

Provenance

Because you can never remove a block from the ledger you can always trace back in time the history of assets being described on the ledger and therefore determine, for example, where it originated or how ownership has changed over time.

Finality

The shared ledger is the place that all participants agree stores ‘the truth’. Because the ledgers records cannot be removed and everyone has agreed them being recorded on there, that is the final source of truth.

… with smart contracts controlling who does what

Another facet of blockchain is the so called ‘smart contract’. Smart contracts are pieces of code that autonomously run on the blockchain, in response to some event, without the interference of a human being. Smart contracts change the state of the blockchain and are responsible for adding new blocks to the chain. In a smart contract the computer code is law and, provided all parties have agreed in advance the validity of that code, once it has run changes to the blockchain cannot be undone but become immutable. The blockchain therefore acts as a source of permanent knowledge about the state of an asset and allows the provenance of any asset to be understood. This is a fundamental difference between a blockchain and an ordinary database. Once a record is entered it cannot be removed.

Some blockchain examples

Finally, for this quick tour of blockchain, let’s take a look at a couple of industry examples that IBM has been working on with its clients.

The first is a new company called Everledger which aims to record on a blockchain the provenance of high value assets, such as diamonds. This allows people to know where assets have come from and how ownership has changed over time avoiding fraud and issues around so called ‘blood diamonds’ which can be used to finance terrorism and other illegal activities.

The second example is the IBM Food Trust Network, a consortium made up of food manufacturers, processors, distributors, retailers and others that allow for food to be tracked from ‘farm to fork’. This allows, for example, the origin of a particular food to be quickly determined in the case of a contamination or outbreak of disease and for only effected items to be taken out the supply chain.

What issues can blockchain address in the arts world?

In the book Artists Re:Thinking the Blockchain various of the contributors discuss how blockchain could be used to create new funding models for the arts by the “renegotiation of the economic and social value of art” as well as helping artists “to engage with new kinds of audiences, patrons and participants.” (For another view of blockchain and the arts see the documentary The Blockchain and Us).

I also believe blockchain could help tackle some of the current problems around trust and lack of privacy on the web as well as address issues around the accumulation of large amounts of user generated content at virtually no cost to the owners in what the American computer scientist Jaron Lanier calls “siren-servers” .

Let’s consider two aspects of the art world that blockchain could address:

Trust

As a creator how do I know people are using my art work legitimately? As a consumer how do I know the creator of the art work is who they say they are and the art work is authentic?

Value

As a creator how do I get the best price for my art work? As a consumer how do I know I am not paying too much for an art work?

Challenges/issues of the global art market (and how blockchain could address them)

Let’s drill down a bit more into what some of these issues are and how a blockchain network could begin to address them. Here’s a list of nine key issues that various players in the world of arts say impacts the multi-billion pound art market and which blockchain could help address in the ways I suggest.

Art Issues
To be clear, not all of these issues will be addressed by technology alone. As with any system that is introduced it needs not only the buy-in of the existing players but also a sometimes radical change in the underlying business model that the current system has developed. ArtChain is one such company that is looking to use blockchain to address some of these issues. Another is the online photography community YouPic.

Introducing YouPic Blockchain

YouPic is an online community for photographers which allows photographers to not only share their images but also receive payment. YouPic is in the process of implementing a blockchain that allows photographers to retain more control over their images. For example:

  1. Copyright attribution.
  2. Image tracking and copyright tools.
  3. Smart contracts for licensing

Every image has a unique fingerprint so when you look up the fingerprint or a version of the image it points out all of the licensing information the creator has listed.

The platform could, for example, search the web to identify illicit uses of images and if identified contact the creator to notify them of a potential copyright breach.

You could also use smart contracts to manage you images automatically, e.g. receive payments in different currencies, or maybe you want to distribute payment to other contributors or just file a claim if your image is used without your consent.

ArtLedger

ArtLedger

ArtLedger is a sandbox I am developing for exploring some of these ideas. It’s open source and available on GitHub. I have a very rudimentary proof of concept running in the IBM Cloud that allows you to interact with a blockchain network with some of these actors.

I’m encouraging people to go onto my GitHub project, take a look at the code and the instructions for getting it working and have a play with the live system. I will be adapting it over time to add more functions and see how the issues in the previous stage could be addressed as well as exploring funding models for how such a network could become established and grow.

Summary

So, to summarise:

  • Blockchains can provide a system that engenders trust through the combined attributes of: Consensus; Immutability; Provenance; Finality.
  • Consortiums of engaged participants should build networks where all benefit.
  • Many such networks are at the early stages of development. It is still early days for the technology but results are promising and, for the right use cases, systems based on blockchain have the promise of another step change in driving the economy in a fairer and more just way.
  • For the arts world blockchain holds the promise of engaging with new kinds of audiences, patrons and participants and maybe even the creation of new funding models.

What is Blockchain Good For?

Blockchain?
Photo by Hitesh Choudhary on Unsplash

The genius of Tim Berners-Lee when he invented the World Wide Web back in 1989 was that he brought together three arcane technologies (hypertext, markup languages and internet communication protocols) in a way no one had thought of before and literally transformed the world.  Could blockchain do the same thing?  Satoshi Nakamoto in his paper that introduced the world to bitcoins 20 years later in 2009 also used three existing ideas (distributed databases, public key or asymetric cryptography and proof-of-work) to show how a peer-to-peer version of electronic cash would allow online payments to be sent directly from one party to another without going through a financial institution.

Depending on your point of view, and personal agenda, blockchain the technology that underpins Bitcoin, either promises to do no less than solve the world’s refugee crisis and transform the management of health supply chains or is the most over-hyped, terrifying and foolish technology since Google Glass or MySpace.  Like any new technology we need to be very careful to separate the hype from the reality.

The documentary The Blockchain and Us made by Manuel Stagars in 2017 interviews software developers, cryptologists, researchers, entrepreneurs, consultants, VCs, authors, politicians, and futurists from around the world and poses a number of questions such as:  How can the blockchain benefit the economies of nations?  How will it change society?  What does it  mean for each of us?  The intent of the film is not to explain the technology but to give views on the it and encourage a conversation about its potential wider implications.

Since I have begun to focus my architecture efforts on blockchain I often get asked the question that is the title of this blog post.  According to Gartner blockchain has gone through the ‘peak of inflated expectations’ and is now sliding down into the ‘trough of disillusionment’.  The answer to the question, as is the case for most new technologies, will be it’s “good for” some things but not everything.

As a technologist it pains me to say this but in the business world technology itself is not usually the answer to anything on its own.  As the Venture Capitalist Jimmy Song said at Consensus earlier this year*, “When you have a technology in search of a use, you end up with the crap that we see out there in the enterprise today.” Harsh words indeed but probably true.

Instead, what is needed is the business and organisational change that drives new business models in which technology is, if required, slotted in at the right time and place.  Business people talk about the return on investment of tech and the fact that technology often gobbles up staff time and money, without giving enough back.  Blockchain runs the risk of gobbling up too much time and money if the right considerations are not given to its use and applicability to business.

If we are to ensure blockchain has a valid business use and gets embedded into the technology stack that businesses use then we need to ensure the right questions get asked when considering its use.  As a start in doing this you could do worse than consider this set of questions from the US Department for Homeland Security.

pisa-reassessing-expectations-blockchain-figure1

Many blockchain projects are still at the proof of technology stage although there are some notable exceptions.  The IBM Food Trust is a collaborative network of growers, processors, wholesalers, distributors, manufacturers, retailers and others enhancing visibility and accountability in each step of the food supply chain whilst the recently announced TradeLens aims to apply blockchain to the world’s global supply chain.  Both of these solutions are built on top of the open source Hyperledger Fabric blockchain platform which is one of the projects under the umbrella of the Linux Foundation.

What these and other successful blockchain systems are showing is actually that another question should be tagged onto the flowchart above (probably it should be the first question).  This would be something like: “Are you willing to be part of a collaborative business network to share information on a needs to know basis?”  The thing about permissioned networks like Hyperledger Fabric is that people don’t need to trust everyone on the network but they do need to agree who will be a part of it.  Successful blockchain business networks are proving to be the ones whose participants understand this and are willing to collaborate.

* As discovered in the Medium.com post Firms need business model change, not blockchain.

Software is Eating the World and Some Tech Companies are Eating Us

Today (12th March, 2018) is the World Wide Web’s 29th birthday.  Sir Tim Berners-Lee (the “inventor of the world-wide web”), in an interview with the Financial Times and in this Web Foundation post has used this anniversary to raise awareness of how the web behemoths Facebook, Google and Twitter are “promoting misinformation and ‘questionable’ political advertising while exploiting people’s personal data”.  Whilst I admire hugely Tim Berners-Lee’s universe-denting invention it has to be said he himself is not entirely without fault in the way he bequeathed us with his invention.  In his defence, hindsight is a wonderful thing of course, no one could have possibly predicted at the time just how the web would take off and transform our lives both for better and for worse.

If, as Marc Andreessen famously said in 2011, software is eating the world then many of those powerful tech companies are consuming us (or at least our data and I’m increasingly becoming unsure there is any difference between us and the data we choose to represent ourselves by.

Here are five recent examples of some of the negative ways software is eating up our world.

Over the past 40+ years the computer software industry has undergone some fairly major changes.  Individually these were significant (to those of us in the industry at least) but if we look at these changes with the benefit of hindsight we can see how they have combined to bring us to where we are today.  A world of cheap, ubiquitous computing that has unleashed seismic shocks of disruption which are overthrowing not just whole industries but our lives and the way our industrialised society functions.  Here are some highlights for the 40 years between 1976 and 2016.

waves-since-1976

And yet all of this is just the beginning.  This year we will be seeing technologies like serverless computing, blockchain, cognitive and quantum computing become more and more embedded in our lives in ways we are only just beginning to understand.  Doubtless the fallout from some of the issues I highlight above will continue to make themselves felt and no doubt new technologies currently bubbling under the radar will start to make themselves known.

I have written before about how I believe that we, as software architects, have a responsibility, not only to explain the benefits (and there are many) of what we do but also to highlight the potential negative impacts of software’s voracious appetite to eat up our world.

This is my 201st post on Software Architecture Zen (2016/17 were barren years in terms of updates).  This year I plan to spend more time examining some of the issues raised in this post and look at ways we can become more aware of them and hopefully not become so seduced by those sirenic entrepreneurs.

What Have we Learnt from Ten Years of the iPhone?

Ten years ago this week (on 9th January 2007) the late Steve Jobs, then at the hight of his powers at Apple, introduced the iPhone to an unsuspecting world. The history of that little device (which has got both smaller and bigger in the interceding ten years) is writ large over the entire Internet so I’m not going to repeat it here. However it’s worth looking at the above video on YouTube not just to remind yourself what a monumental and historical moment in tech history this was, even though few of us realised it at the time, but also to see a masterpiece in how to launch a new product.

Within two minutes of Jobs walking on stage he has the audience shouting and cheering as if he’s a rock star rather than a CEO. At around 16:25 when he’s unveiled his new baby and shows for the first time how to scroll through a list in a screen (hard to believe that ten years ago know one knew this was possible) they are practically eating out of his hand and he still has over an hour to go!

This iPhone keynote, probably one of the most important in the whole of tech history, is a case study on how to deliver a great presentation. Indeed, Nancy Duart in her book Resonate, has this as one of her case studies for how to “present visual stories that transform audiences”. In the book she analyses the whole event to show how Jobs’ uses all of the classic techniques of storytelling, establish what is and what could be, build suspense, keep your audience engaged, make them marvel and finally  show them a new bliss.

The iPhone product launch, though hugely important, is not what this post is about though. Rather, it’s about how ten years later the iPhone has kept pace with innovations in technology to not only remain relevant (and much copied) but also to continue to influence (for better and worse) the way people interact, communicate and indeed live. There are a number of enabling ideas and technologies, both introduced at launch as well as since, that have enabled this to happen. What are they and how can we learn from the example set by Apple and how can we improve on them?

Open systems generally beat closed systems

At its launch Apple had created a small set of native apps the making of which was not available to third-party developers. According to Jobs, it was an issue of security. “You don’t want your phone to be an open platform,” he said. “You don’t want it to not work because one of the apps you loaded that morning screwed it up. Cingular doesn’t want to see their West Coast network go down because of some app. This thing is more like an iPod than it is a computer in that sense.”

Jobs soon went back on that decision which is one of the factors that has led to the overwhelming success of the device. There are now 2.2 million apps available for download in the App Store with over 140 billion downloads made since 2007.

As has been shown time and time again, opening systems up and allowing access to third party developers nearly always beat keeping systems closed and locked down.

Open systems need easy to use ecosystems

Claiming your system is open does not mean developers will flock to it to extend your system unless it is both easy and potentially profitable to do so. Further, the second of these is unlikely to happen unless the first enabler is put in place.

Today with new systems being built around Cognitive computing, the Internet of Things (IoT) and Blockchain companies both large and small are vying with each other to provide easy to use but secure ecosystems that allow these new technologies to flourish and grow, hopefully to the benefits to business and society as a whole. There will be casualties on the way but this competition, and the recognition that systems need to be built right rather than us just building the right system at the time is what matters.

Open systems must not mean insecure systems

One of the reasons Jobs gave for not initially making the iPhone an open platform was his concerns over security and for hackers to break into those systems wreaking havoc. These concerns have not gone away but have become even more prominent. IoT and artificial intelligence, when embedded in everyday objects like cars and  kitchen appliances as well as our logistics and defence systems have the potential to cause there own unique and potentially disastrous type of destruction.

The cost of data breaches alone is estimated at $3.8 to $4 million and that’s without even considering the wider reputational loss companies face. Organisations need to monitor how security threats are evolving year to year and get well-informed insights about the impact they can have on their business and reputation.

Ethics matter too

With all the recent press coverage of how fake news may have affected the US election and may impact the upcoming German and French elections as well as the implications of driverless cars making life and death decisions for us, the ethics of cognitive computing is becoming a more and more serious topic for public discussion as well as potential government intervention.

In October last year the Whitehouse released a report called Preparing for the Future of Artificial Intelligence. The report looked at the current state of AI, its existing and potential applications, and the questions that progress in AI raise for society and public policy and made a number of recommendations on further actions. These included:

  • Prioritising open training data and open data standards in AI.
  • Industry should work with government to keep government updated on the general progress of AI in industry, including the likelihood of milestones being reached
  • The Federal government should prioritize basic and long-term AI research

As part of the answer to addressing the Whitehouse report this week a group of private investors, including LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, launched a $27 million research fund, called the Ethics and Governance of Artificial Intelligence Fund. The group’s purpose is to foster the development of artificial intelligence for social good by approaching technological developments with input from a diverse set of viewpoints, such as policymakers, faith leaders, and economists.

I have discussed before about transformative technologies like the world wide web have impacted all of our lives, and not always for the good. I hope that initiatives like that of the US government (which will hopefully continue under the new leadership) will enable a good and rationale public discourse on how  we allow these new systems to shape our lives for the next ten years and beyond.

Clouds Over Europe

uk and eu flags

This is meant to be a blog about technology not politics but forgive me if I deviate slightly from the norm to comment on probably the most dramatic event in the UK since the war. At around 6am this morning it was officially announced that 51.9% of the UK had voted to leave the European Union. Within minutes the pound went into free fall and the FTSE 100 index fell by more than 8%. Just before 9am the prime minister, David Cameron, resigned saying he would step down in October by the time of the Conservative party conference.

As I sit here typing this, I look out of the window at my garden, the sun is shining and nothing much seems to have changed since yesterday. For my generation, the one that had free university education, final salary pensions and the ability to fairly easily get on the housing ladder probably not a lot will change. In the short term our investments will go down, our houses may decrease in value and our German cars may become more expensive but in what time we have left on this earth I’m pretty sure we will not find ourselves starving or homeless.

For the millennial and subsequent generations however this may not be the case. This is the generation that is already drowning in student debt with little ability to buy their own houses and have a secure future. As a parting blow to that generation* we have now taken away their right to the freedom of movement to live and work in 27 other European countries. We are about to remove the protections they have from European laws covering their human and working rights and we are threatening to cut off the free flow of immigration that has contributed both economically and culturally to the lifeblood of this country, certainly in my lifetime. All for what? To save ourselves £8 Billion a year which for even a higher rate tax payer only equates to something like £100 a year in income tax and National Insurance.

So what to do? As my friend Jeremy Walker says in this post let’s use this time to take stock of where we are and where we want to go as a nation. Let’s not allow the nationalists and “little Englanders”to dictate our future. As this referendum has shown, politics is important and impacts all of our lives. One week ago a British politician was murdered because what she believed in did not tie in with the beliefs of someone else. Hopefully that is an isolated incident that will not be repeated. As a nation we now need to work together more than ever if we are to navigate our way through the choppy waters we are all going to face for the coming months and years.

Just a few short weeks ago I and several hundred other people attended TEDx Brum where the theme was the Power Of Us. In both the speakers and the attendees it was heartening to see such an array of ages, gender, race, genre and opinions – diversity in every spectrum that all fed into the aim of the conference. After yesterdays historic and game changing referendum result we now need more than ever “the power of us” to pull together as a nation and to work with, rather than against each other.

Please can we do that.

61% of those over 65 voted to leave whilst for the 18 – 24 year olds 75% voted to remain.

TEDx Brum – Power of Us

IMG_0346

Last Saturday (11th June) Birmingham held its very own TED conference, TEDx Brum – Power of Us, at its Town Hall in Victoria Square. To say this was one of the most incredibly well organised events I have ever attended is a major, major understatement. Everything about TEDx Brum was just superbly well designed; from the beautifully laid out and printed program of events (below) to the military like precision of the event itself where a continuous stream of speakers and performers came out on stage and wow’ed the audience with their passion and the power of their messages.

DSCF1087

Lauren Currie, one of the speakers at this years conference, has summarised why this event was so different and greater than its #PowerOfUs hashtag here. For me, her point ‘no painting-by-numbers’ really sums up why this was such a different conference from ones I, and I’m sure many others at the event, have attended before.

“It was a conference that wasn’t about ‘meeting new people’ or ‘learning new things’ – which are very middle-class objectives for actions. Nobody had an objective of getting new business cards. No speaker had slides full of ‘tweetable wisdom’. These weren’t presentations that had been done a thousand times before to a thousand different conference halls – this was new and real. There was no existing structures justifying themselves. Only the new, the vibrant and the experimental – at a stage where we can start to test and adjust and adapt and copy.”

Anyone who has watched a TED talk at ted.com will know that the presentation skills of the speakers are absolutely top-notch and something any of us that does public speaking, no matter how small or large the audience, aspires too. I can honestly say that every single one of the speakers and performers at TEDx Brum could easily have presented at a full blown TED and exceeded the very considerable speaking skills of those presenters. Whether it was @AdnanSharif1979 telling us about the horrors of forced organ donation (and why we should all sign up to be organ donors), @AnisaHaghdadi, founder of @beatfreeks telling us we needed to “build the thing that builds more things” or the heartfelt and incredibly brave talk by @JayneHardy, founder of Blurt who got a standing ovation for speaking about her own struggles with depression, everyone spoke with total and absolute passion and dedication to their own cause as well as the wider one of unleashing the #PowerOfUs.

As @ImmyKaur the curator of TEDx Brum says in her introduction to this years conference:

“Birmingham is an archetype of the future many cities face. This future will not come without hard work, disruption and genuine collaboration. We will need to come together across our traditional sectors and divides to create, imagine and build the future together. We must unleash the true #PowerOfUs to catalyse this transformation.”

There are lots of truly amazing things happening in Birmingham right now. I was part of an event a few weeks ago whose aim is to pull together the tech community in Birmingham and its wider surrounds. All of these strands need to come together to make the change that this great city deserves and which is long overdue. Here’s to the #PowerOfUs and all the great people in Birmingham that are making this happen.

What Makes a Tech City? (Hint: It’s Not the Tech)

Boulton, Watt and Murdoch
The above photograph is of a statue in Centenary Square, Birmingham in the UK. The three figures in it: Matthew Boulton, James Watt and William Murdoch were the tech pioneers of their day, living in and around Birmingham and being associated with a loosely  knit group who referred to themselves as The Lunar Society. The history of the Lunar Society and the people involved has been captured in the book The Lunar Men by Jenny Uglow.

“Amid fields and hills, the Lunar men build factories, plan canals, make steam-engines thunder. They discover new gases, new minerals and new medicines and propose unsettling new ideas. They create objects of beauty and poetry of bizarre allure. They sail on the crest of the new. Yet their powerhouse of invention is not made up of aristocrats or statesmen or scholars but of provincial manufacturers, professional men and gifted amateurs – friends who meet almost by accident and whose lives overlap until they die.”

From The Lunar Men by Jenny Uglow

You don’t have to live in the UK to have heard that Birmingham, like many of the other great manufacturing cities of the Midlands and Northern England has somewhat lost its way over the century or so since the Lunar Men were creating their “objects of beauty and poetry of bizarre allure”. It’s now sometimes hard to believe that these great cities were the powerhouses and engines of the industrial revolution that changed not just England but the whole world. This is something that was neatly summed up by Steven Knight, creator of the BBC television programme Peaky Blinders set in the lawless backstreets of Birmingham in the  1920’s. In a recent interview in the Guardian Knight says:

“It’s typical of Brum that the modern world was invented in Handsworth and nobody knows about it. I am trying to start a “Make it in Birmingham” campaign, to get high-tech industries – film, animation, virtual reality, gaming – all into one place, a place where people make things, which is what Birmingham has always been.”

Likewise Andy Street, Managing Director of John Lewis and Chair of the Greater Birmingham & Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership had this to say about Birmingham in his University of Birmingham Business School Advisory Board guest lecture last year:

“Birmingham was once a world leader due to our innovations in manufacturing, and the city is finally experiencing a renaissance. Our ambition is to be one of the biggest, most successful cities in the world once more.”

Andy Street  CBE – MD of John Lewis

If Birmingham and cities like it, not just in England but around the world, are to become engines of innovation once again then they need to take a step change in how they go about doing that. The lesson to be learned from the Lunar Men is that they did not wait for grants from central Government or the European Union or for some huge corporation to move in and take things in hand but that they drove innovation from their own passion and inquisitiveness about how the world worked, or could work. They basically got together, decided what needed to be done and got on with it. They literally designed and built the infrastructure that was to be form the foundations of innovation for the next 100 years.

Today we talk of digital innovation and how the industries of our era are disrupting traditional ones (many of them formed by the Lunar Men and their descendants) for better and for worse. Now every city wants a piece of that action and wants to emulate the shining light of digital innovation and disruption, Silicon Valley in California. Is that possible? According to the Medium post To Invent the Future, You Must Understand the Past, the answer is no. The post concludes by saying:

“…no one will succeed because no place else — including Silicon Valley itself in its 2015 incarnation — could ever reproduce the unique concoction of academic research, technology, countercultural ideals and a California-specific type of Gold Rush reputation that attracts people with a high tolerance for risk and very little to lose.”

So can this really be true? High tolerance to risk (and failure) is certainly one of the traits that makes for a creative society. No amount of tax breaks or university research programmes is going to fix that problem. Taking the example of the Lunar Men though, one thing that cities can do to disrupt themselves from within is to effect change from the bottom up rather than the top down. Cities are made up of citizens after all and they are the very people that not only know what needs changing but also are best placed to bring about that change.

With this in mind, an organisation in Birmingham called Silicon Canal (see here if you want to know where that name comes from) of which I am a part, has created a white paper putting forward our ideas on how to build a tech and digital ecosystem in and around Birmingham. You can download a copy of the white paper here.
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The paper not only identifies the problem areas but also how things can be improved and suggests potential solutions to grow the tech ecosystem in the Greater Birmingham area so that it competes on an international stage. Download the white paper, read it and if you are based in Birmingham join in the conversation and if you’re not use the research contained within it to look at your own city and how you can help change it for the better.

This paper was launched at an event this week in the new iCentrum building at Innovation Birmingham which is a great space that is starting to address one of the issues highlighted in the white paper, namely to bring together two key elements of a successful tech ecosystem, established companies and entrepreneurs.

Another event that is taking place in Birmingham next month is TEDx Brum – The Power of US which promises to have lots of inspiring talks by local people who are already effecting change from within.

As a final comment if you’re still not sure that you have the power to make changes that make a difference here are some words from the late Steve Jobs:

“Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.”

Steve Jobs