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.

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

How to Deal with the TED Effect

Nancy Duarte, CEO of Duarte Design and author of the books Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences and slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations has written a great blog post about what she refers to as the TED effect. The TED effect refers to the impact that the TED conferences have had on all of us who need to present as part of our daily lives.

Nancy’s basic assertion is that “in public speaking it’s no longer okay to be boring”. In the years BT (before TED) it was okay to deliver boring presentations because actually no one knew if you were being boring or not because most people’s bar for what constituted a good presentation was pretty low anyway. In the dark years of BT we would all just sit stoically through those presentations that bored us to death and missed the point completely because bad presentations were just an occupational hazard we all had to learn to deal with. If nothing else it gave us time to catch up on our email or quietly chatter away to a colleague in the back row.

Now though everything has changed! For anyone that has seen more than half a dozen TED talks we know that if we are not engaged within the first 30 seconds we are ready to walk. Not only that if we felt you were wasting our time we go onto Twitter or Facebook and tell the rest of the world how boring you were. If however you did engage us and managed to get across your idea in 18 minutes or under (the maximum time of a TED talk) then we will reward you by spreading your ideas and help you get them adopted and funded.

As technical people software architects often struggle with presentations simply because they are communicating technology so, by definition, that must be complicated and take loads of time with lots of slides containing densely populated text or diagrams that cannot be read unless you are sitting less than a metre from the screen. But, as Nancy Duarte has explained countless times in her books and her blog, it needn’t be like that, even for a die-hard techno-geek.

Here’s my take on on how to deal with the TED effect:

  1. Just because you are given an hour to present, don’t think you have to actually spend that amount of time talking. Use the TED 18 minute rule and try and condense your key points into that time. Use the rest of the time for discussion and exchange of ideas.
  2. Use handouts for providing more detail. Handouts don’t just have to be documents given out during the presentation. Consider writing up the detail in a blog post or similar and provide a link to this at the end of your talk.
  3. Never, ever present slides someone else has created. If a presentation is worth doing then it’s worth investing the time to make it your presentation.
  4. Remember the audience is there to see you speak and hear your ideas. Slides are an aid to get those ideas across and are not an end in their own right. If you’re just reading what’s on the presentation then so can the audience so you may as well not be there.
  5. The best talks are laid out like a book or a movie. They have a beginning, a middle and an end. It often helps to think of the end first (what is the basic idea or point you want to get across) and work backwards from there. As Steven Pressfield says in the book Do the Work, “figure out where you want to go; then work backwards from there”.
  6. Finally, watch as many TED talks as you can to see to see how they engage with the audience and get their ideas across. One of the key attributes you will see all the great speakers have is they are passionate about their subject and this really shines through in their talk. Maybe, just maybe, if you are not really passionate about what your subject you should not be talking about it in the first place?

Discover Problems, Don’t Solve Them

A while ago I wrote a post called Bring me problems not solutions. An article by Don Peppers on Linkedin called ‘Class of 2013: You Can’t Make a Living Just by Solving Problems’ adds an interesting spin to this and piles even more pressure on those people entering the job market now, as well as those of us figuring out how to stay in it!As we all know, Moore’s Law says that the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles approximately every two years. As this power has increased the types of problems computers can solve has also increased exponentially. By the time today’s graduates reach retirement age, say in 50 years time (which itself might be getting further away thus compounding the problem) computers will be several million times more powerful than they are today.

As Peppers says:

If you can state something as a technical problem that has a solution – a task to be completed – then eventually this problem can and will be solved by computer.

This was always the case, it’s just that as computers are able to perform even more calculations per second the kinds of problems will become more and more complex that they can solve. Hence the white collar and skilled professional jobs will also become consumed by the ever increasing power of the computer. Teachers, lawyers, doctors, financial analysts, traders and even those modern day pariahs of our society journalists and politicians will continue to see their jobs become redundant.

So if the salaried jobs of even those of us who solve problems for a living continue to disappear what’s left? Peppers suggests there are two potential areas that computers will struggle with, one is to become very good at dealing with interpersonal issues – people skills (darn it, those pesky HR types are going to be in work for a while longer). The other way is not to focus on solving problems but on discovering them.

Discovering problems is something that computers find hard to do, and probably will continue to do so. It’s just too difficult to bound the requirements and define the tasks that are needed for creating a problem. Discovering new problems has another name, it’s also known as “creativity.” Creativity involves finding and solving a problem that wasn’t there before. How to be creative is a very profitable source of income for authors right now with more and more books appearing on this subject every month. However, here’s the irony, just as we are realising we need to be fostering creativity as a skill even more we are quite literally turning the clock back on our children’s innate abilities to be creative. As explained in this video (The Faustian Bargain) “the way we raise children these days is at odds with the way we’ve evolved to learn”.

Sadly our politicians don’t seem to get this. Here in the UK, the head of state for education, Michael Gove, doesn’t understand creativity and his proposed education reforms “fly in the face of all that we know about creativity and how best to nurture it”. It seems that the problem is not just confined to the UK (and probably other Northern Hemisphere countries). In India the blogger and photographer Sumeet Moghe is thinking that his daughter doesn’t deserve school. and is struggling with what alternatives a concerned parent might provide.

So, what to do? Luckily there are people that realise the importance of a creative education, fostering a love of learning and nurturing the concept of lifelong learning. Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk on how schools kill creativity is one of the most watched presentations of all time. So, what to do? Watch this and other talks by Ken Robinson as well as other talks on TED that deal in matters of creativity. Learn what you can and get involved in the “creative life” as much as possible. If you live in countries that don’t support creativity in education then write to your elected representative and ask her or him what they, and the government they are a part of, are doing about it. For the sake of all of us this is a problem that is too important to let our leaders get away with not fixing.

Tim Brown on Design Thinking

If you don’t watch any other TED podcasts watch this one by Tim Brown. IBM sponsored TED at Oxford last year (no invite for me unfortunately) and Tim Brown (CEO of IDEO) presented on Design Thinking and had these ideas which I think apply equally to architectural thinking (is it different anyway).

  • Big problems need big solutions. Back in the 19th century Isambard Kingdom Brunel imagined an integrated transport system (he thought big). His vision was that of a passenger boarding a train in London and leaving a ship in New York. Big problems (global warming, health care, international security) need big thoughts to provide solutions. Focussing on the small may provide incremental change but will not provide solutions to some of the big, hairy problems we are faced with today. If we could focus less on the object (the individual system in IT terms) and more on design thinking (systems of systems) we might have more of an impact and be able to solve more of the really difficult problems there are out there.
  • Design thinking begins with integration thinking. Design thinking needs to balance a number of fundamental “forces”: what people want (desirability), what technology can provide (feasibility) and what can actually be built given the constraints of cost, resource and time (viability).
  • Design is (or should be) human centred. Although it needs to be both feasible and viable if it is also to be desirable then that needs to start with what people need. Here the needs we are considering are not what we want from the next version of iPod or Porsche but a safer, cleaner, healthier world. Understanding the needs of the multiple stakeholders that there are out there when building big systems is crucial of the systems are to be not only desirable but also useful.
  • Learning by making. Don’t just think what to build but also build in order to think. In todays model-driven world where we architects can often go off into a huddle for months on end we sometimes forget that the important thing is not a very fine model or specification but the thing itself. Prototyping is as important today as it’s ever been but we sometimes forget that getting our hands dirty by and building small-scale throwaway parts of systems is an important way of learning and understanding those systems. As Fred Brookes said, you might as well plan to throw one away because you will anyway.
  • From consumption to participation. Design of participatory systems where everyone is involved will lead to new and innovative solutions which may not have been envisaged initially. This is the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts and in IT terms is best articulated in Web 2.0 and the whole social networking phenomenon.
  • Design is too important to be left to designers. Often the important innovations come not from the people charged with designing the system but from the people who are using  the system. Don’t forget that the most important stakeholders are the everyday users or the current system.
  • In times of change we need new alternatives and new ideas. We are living in times of great change and our existing systems are no longer fit for purpose. Design thinking needs to explore new and unthought of ideas without being constrained by current systems and ideas. Design thinkers need to be multi-talented, left and right-brain thinkers. Hint: this will also increase dramatically your chances of staying employed in the coming years. Good design thinkers know that the key to a good and better design is asking the right question or at least framing the question in a way that will not constrain the solution. So, rather than asking “how do I build a better benefits system” ask “how do I build a benefits system that will result in more of the benefits reaching the people who need them most and less in paying people to run the system”. Of course this is hard because answers to such questions can sometimes have difficult or unpalatable side-effects such as people losing their jobs. The first step of design thinking is to ask the right question.

There are lots of ideas here and many of them resonate with the practice we in IBM call Architectural Thinking. I will return to some of these ideas in future blogs.