Putting your ideas on the line

Since 2007, Roland Harwood has been running Nesta Connect, a programme for collaborative innovation. I’ve come to Nesta to meet Roland because so many projects I’ve covered in the book, including Steve Moore’s 2gether and RSA Networks, have received funding through this initiative.

A central aspect of Nesta Connect’s research is the question of how big companies can organize themselves effectively in today’s “fluid” economic, technological and social environments.

Roland’s team helps large multinationals such as Procter & Gamble, Oracle and Virgin connect with the small innovative companies – and individuals – that can help them.

The question of who owns what intellectually is key in these relationships. Small players are fearful of being taken advantage of, while larger businesses are increasingly sensitive to accusations of greed or exploitation.

“With P&G we looked at IP in a project called “The Future of Laundry”. That may sound kind of trivial but domestic laundry is a massively important market… P&G set the bar very high – they only wanted to look at [collaborative] products with potential revenues of $1m or more per annum.”

It’s common for large businesses to have a policy of not signing non-disclosure agreements.

“You need to have a patent in place if you want to talk to [these companies],” explains Roland. “This is because they’ve had situations in the past where they’ve developed something similar in house [to that which a potential collaborator has proposed] and been taken to court. But securing a patent is expensive and can take years so potential partners are often excluded.”

P&G has a long history of collaboration but it wasn’t until the company’s share price collapse in 2000 that “Connect and Develop”, a programme specifically aimed at outside collaborators, was created. While the company’s strategy is to increase the percentage of products which involve an external collaborator, the need for patents was creating a barrier.

Nesta Connect stepped in and acted as a kind of “trust broker” between P&G and its potential collaborators.

“We were trying to open up the dialogue between P&G and small innovative companies. We formed what was essentially an “air lock” between Nesta, P&G and the small companies.

“The big learning from that whole project was that if you want large and small companies to communicate you need to build trust, and involving a neutral third party can be a good way of doing that.”

All in all, Roland’s experience of working with multinationals has been hugely positive: “I’m surprised at how receptive large companies [are] to trying this stuff.”


Planet Rock

It’s nearly a month since the launch of Audioboo and Mark Rock is quietly pleased with progress.

This morning the social audio network was name-checked by Chris Moyles on his Radio One show. Tony Blackburn, Stephen Fry and the BBC’s Technology correspondent, Rory Cellan-Jones are all fans.

Corporate clients include The BBC, ITV and The British Library.

Audioboo enables people to record and upload audio from anywhere using an i-phone. The technology will soon be available via other mobile phone networks.

Audioboo is not only easy to use – it’s completely free.

When Mark’s company, Best Before Media, launched Audioboo in partnership with Channel 4’s 4IP fund, they decided to make it a “Freemium” service.

This means that the majority of users can access the software for free; a small proportion (currently around 5 per cent) pay a monthly subscription of £2.95 for additional features (eg: easier uploading, larger photo allowance) while a tiny number of corporate clients pay around £500 a month for customised versions.

There are three reasons for launching Audioboo like this, says Mark:

1. It’s a social network so it doesn’t work without content
2. The costs of adding each extra user are minimal
3. It’s an innovative product – a relatively new idea

Podcasters love Audioboo: earlier this year, Christian Payne (aka Documentally) audiobooed the birth of his son. And news journalists are also finding it useful: when BBC reporter Matthew Weaver forgot his digital recorder at the G20 protests in London in March, he used Audioboo instead.

Mark is keen to build on this initial enthusiasm: he has ambitions for his new baby to be “the audio version of Twitter or Flickr”.

So he’s been thinking a lot about “sound ecology” (our aural environment) and speaking to people called “acousticians. Like all true innovators, Mark is carving out a market for something that we don’t know we needed – until now. Mark sells it winningly:

“When my three years old is 15, imagine how great it will be to have an audio record of her life!”

Every profile and tag on Audioboo has an RSS feed. And users can create audio maps featuring any type of sound they like. Soon, Best Before will publish an API that’ll enable people to build applications that expand Audioboo’s functionality. It’s very much a work in progress.

“It’s an agile model. The customer is more important than the business plan. You iterate. It’s all about trying stuff. Because a product isn’t fully developed, it means you launch as free.”

It’s early days and the product has yet to become profitable, but Mark is optimistic for the future. He cites networks such as Flickr, Vimeo, Last.FM and Spotify as examples of other networks apparently succeeding with the Freemium model.

There are competitors in this space: Twitmic and Evernote – but Mark’s social focus may just give him the edge.

Part of the challenge is thinking laterally. Among other plans, Audioboo hopes to tie in with The Guardian Hay Festival later this year. Watch the the Best Before blog for further updates!


Regenerate: collaborate

A century ago, around the time the block of flats I live in was built, the Regents Canal a few streets away would have been seen as a massive nuisance. The canal boats, carrying bulk goods such as coal and grain, were powered by coal-burning furnaces which spewed out dust and pollution. All day long, people would have heard the barge men shouting out, not just to each other but also to the horses who trotted along the towpath, helping pull the boats. And the waterway itself would have been clogged with sewage: industrial flotsam and jetsam, as well as debris from the cleaning out of cages at the nearby London Zoo.

Today, after years of neglect, the industrial area around Kings Cross is finally opening up. The canal, while not completely free of rubbish and the occasional oil spill, is a muddy but natural brown; there are even fish. We’re about to have a dazzling new piazza just behind Kings Cross station, with an expanse of white paving stones and fountains, and gentle steps sloping down to the canal-side; previously, the canal bank was choked with weeds and sealed off behind fences of corrugated iron.

The industrial age gave us smoke- and chemically-damaged buildings, polluted water-ways, contaminated land and smog-filled air. Canals, railways and factories were, as much as possible, sectioned off from residential areas. The more money you had, the further away you hoped to be from any overt sign of industry. But much of this is changing now. All over the UK, factories and warehouses have been converted into offices and living spaces. The areas alongside waterways are being opened up, with walks, open spaces and parks replacing what was previously wasteland. Sites from the Victorian gasholders at Kings Cross to Battersea Power Station have become much loved symbols of our national heritage.

The Granary Square development behind Kings Cross seems a good metaphor for 21st century business. As industry (albeit slowly) becomes cleaner and greener, post-modern urban design is all about opening up and re-connecting. Instead of silos, the future is one of hybrid work/life spaces. We are beginning to realise the inter-relatedness of things. The way forward is one of collaboration and co-existence.

In this week’s Media Guardian, Jeff Jarvis talks about a new approach to community journalism at the New York Times. The Times has dispatched two of its correspondents to communities in New Jersey and Brooklyn. The job of the reporters will be not so much to break stories as to build relationships, working with community leaders at grassroots level, as well as local blogging sites:

“All these parties must collaborate, not compete,” writes Jeff. “They must create complementary content that fills out their local news worlds so that each of them adds value and stands out for it […] The days of one news organisation owning a town and its news are over; no one can afford to do that any more. Instead, if these experiments succeed, they will do so by collaborating to create a new network – a new ecosystem – of local news.”

This approach is part of the new “long tail” trend of “hyperlocal” (which Jeff describes as “the ability to serve readers and small advertisers in highly targeted geographic niches”). The assumption is that stakeholders within these niches are dependent on each other for survival and therefore co-operation is essential.

This is a hypothesis which is being put to the test not just at a local level and within communities of interest, but also within markets.


From soy sauce to open source

It’s gone 1.30pm and it’s been a long morning. James Governor and I are sitting in the Hanoi Café in London’s Kingsland Road watching the owner’s two daughters run, play and generally get in the way of the ever-smiling kitchen staff as they try to prepare food.

When the Vietnamese waitress finally arrives with plates of steaming Cha Nem Chay (spring rolls), Pho Xao Dau Rau (stir fried tofu) and Dau Xao Sup Lo Xanh (Spicy Broccoli tofu), we tuck in, hungry.

James and I were due to meet earlier but he has had to wait in for a special delivery – which it turns out was DHL coming to pick up his postal vote for the US presidential election. (Anyone who follows James on Twitter will be painfully aware that he’s an American citizen and there was no way he was going to miss his chance to assist an Obama win).

So, over Cha Nem Chay, we get to discuss the merits of open source business.

RedMonk, the industry analysis firm James co-founded in 2002, publishes research papers for free and is 100 per cent funded by ‘supporters’, ‘sponsors’ and ‘patrons’ who pay subscriptions for additional service packages. This is an entirely different model to others in the sector.

“The open source model came out of our frustrations with editing each other’s work,” says James, between mouthfuls. “We just started blogging and thought, let the internet be the editor. We don’t agree with companies writing white papers for vendors. You claim you’re independent but you’re really a PR man. Blogging became a much more natural way of developing our content.

“I am sure some white papers are ok. Mostly we don’t like doing them. When I started RedMonk I used to rail against our industry’s ethics – but these days I prefer to focus on value. I think the internet model, with internet based peer-oriented production, has significant value.

“[Before RedMonk] Software developers and information architects thought they couldn’t actually talk to industry analysts. But that’s exactly where our community is. We’re neither buy side or sell side, we’re ‘make’ side.”

In 2004, James and his partner Stephen O’Grady wrote a paper on compliance-orientated archictecture and published it under a creative commons licence.

“[The IT company] EMC took our paper and built on it, and gave it out to their customers. We told people they were allowed to create derivative works. We never got paid for it. Another company got back to us and said [what you’re doing] is completely changing our business model. That was great. But again we got no money.

“Then, in 2006, Thomas Otter [now Gartner Group, then SAP] got in touch wanting to use one of our papers in a workshop. This eventually led to SAP becoming a client.

“When you’re open in this way, other people become your evangelists. You don’t need a huge sales and marketing team.”

RedMonk is a bit like marmite to the IT industry – people either love it or hate it. Oracle was apparently none too pleased when James and Stephen merged names associated with Microsoft (Redmond) and IBM (Armonk) to christen their new business. And other industry analysts no doubt watch RedMonk’s rise with trepidation.

But James, Stephen, and the new team members, Michael Coté and Tom Raftery (who heads up sustainability initiative, GreenMonk) are popular speakers on the global IT conference circuit. Meanwhile, clients include IBM, Sun, Abobe, Atlassian, BMC, Dell, Eclipse, Loglogic, Microsoft and Redhat.

For James, the recipe is simple:

“We don’t sell content – at least, not white papers – but we sell services around that research. It’s all free, but when people want to take it somewhere else, then they have to pay. We’re out in these networks, without any groupthink, and that’s increasingly valuable.”


Sharing = love

In between the more classic songs (Jerusalem, etc) that we had to sing at my Church of England primary school, there was a happy clappy number which used to have my class teacher, Mrs Prentice, bopping from side to side in her purple kaftan (okay, so we quite liked it, too).

“Love is like a magic penny, hold it tight and you won’t have any, lend it, spend it and you’ll have so many, they’ll roll all over the floor.”

There is a similar sort of phenomenon at work on the web today. A culture of “I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine”.

The academic, Clay Shirky, uses the term “social capital”, which he defines in this way:

“When your neighbour walks your dog while you are ill, or the guy behind the counter trusts you to pay him next time, social capital is at work. It is the shadow of the future on a societal scale. Individuals in groups with more social capital (which is to say, more habits of cooperation) are better off on a large number of metrics, from health and happiness to earning potential, than those in groups with less social capital.” (Here Comes Everybody, p.192)

Socialtext’s Ross Mayfield puts it into a commercial context:

“Steven Weber [University California, Berkeley] points out that there is no such thing as a buy vs. build equation for deciding to share intellectual property. But we’ve a version of Socialtext that’s free for up to five users. We can afford to give that away.”

Socialtext doesn’t disclose how many of the 4,000+ companies it serves use only the free version, but Ross is clearly seeing the strategy reap rewards.

As another example, Ross points to the success of WikiHow – one of the most-used wikis on the web:

“A while ago Jack Herrick (WikiHow’s founder) decided to start using a Creative Commons licence. He can send you a graph where you can see massive growth take place at the point where he changed the licence.

“That’s Web 2.0 – how sharing control can create value. We’re seeing more transparency. We’re seeing a culture of sharing versus one of hoarding… we’re shifting from a need to know culture to a need to share culture.”

Ross points me to a recent blogpost by a member of the US State Department which sums this up nicely.

With even established US government organisations as the CIA (Intellipedia) and US State Department (Diplopedia) now using wikis, it’s surely only a matter of time before everyone starts “sharing”.

But sharing needs to be done in the right spirit to work properly.

Purple-clad “Mrs.Prentices” the world over will be watching!


Don’t worry about Bluebeard

It’s February 2008 and I’m putting together a session on legal issues for my creative entrepreneurship students at Kings College London.

I’ve been reading Don Tapscott’s thoughts around Wikinomics and excited by the business possibilities of open source development and creative commons licensing…but the media lawyer coming in to talk to my students can’t – or won’t – cover that area.

So when the invite to the Open Rights Group workshop: Creative Business in the Digital Era drops into my inbox, I’m curious. The workshop’s in March, a few weeks after the legal session for my students has taken place, but at least I can relay any new info to them.

So I apply for a place, get accepted and trundle along to the basement in Soho where the workshop’s taking place. And that’s how I come to meet Suw Charman, former ORG Executive Director, blogging doyenne and keen social media activist.

Suw’s wearing a suit and talking legalese in a posh accent, but she’s got her nose pierced, so she must be okay.

Suw and I get to meet up a couple of times over the next few months, and it’s clear that no search for leadership 2.0 would be complete without getting her take on it.

Fast forward to August and we’re sitting in the amenable confines of One Alfred Place on a sunny Wednesday morning, talking shop.

Suw loves a good open source business model

So what does Suw think the main problems are when it comes to business taking on these new approaches?

“The challenges are cultural more than anything. People don’t understand how giving something away for free can form a viable business model. There’s so much propaganda out there – in the film industry, the music industry and, to a lesser extent, the publishing industry – it’s easy for people to get swept up by it. Copyright violation isn’t theft. It’s a completely different thing. If I steal your wallet you don’t have it any more, but if I copy your music…it’s different. The main issue is mindset.”

Why is she particularly interested in what’s happening in the creative industries?

“I like the Tim O’Reilly quote about obscurity being much more of a threat to artists than piracy. The boundaries are being pushed a lot more in certain creative sectors – publishing, for example.”

Sue cites publishers such as Baen, Tor, Friday Publishing and even Penguin with its 1000 Penguins Project, as examples of businesses who are willing to experiment.

“It’s logical for writers such as Neil Gaiman to have blogs, to build up an online community. The blog builds up anticipation and then, when you actually publish your book, you can release it into your reader community.”

But Suw feels such approaches (what ORG has termed the “loss leader” model – giving some of your intellectual property away in order to sell further intellectual property) are by no means limited to creative businesses.

“For example, look at manufacturing. Look at the maintenance manuals for those classic cars that people have a soft spot for – they go for loads of money on eBay. If you’re a fan of the Ford Capri or the Ford Cortina and Ford gave you access to those old manuals online, you’d love it.”

Suw thinks that every company should do an IP audit to find out what could be released out into the market to help build and/or sustain a community.

“Obviously 100 per cent transparency isn’t good. If you’re Worcester Sauce, you don’t want to give away your recipe – that’s your unique selling point – but it’s all about being open and imaginative. Every company owns some IP that would be useful in building a community of fans. It’s all marketing. It all goes into generating warm and fuzzy feelings of goodwill.”

Suw’s not the first person I’ve spoken to to reiterate that our current Taylorist mindset has only really taken hold in the last 100 years:

“We have to remember that there’s this limited period that started with mass production and ended with digital production. [Mass social media] marks the end of a small minority of people having control. We’re seeing the democratization of culture.”

Be that as it may, Suw is clearly exasperated current legislation:

“Copyright law is becoming an ass. It’s technically illegal for you to copy a CD that you own onto your iPod. The law is so out of step, it’s becoming like Latin – a dead language. It’s not protecting the rights of the artists or the creators. It was created to benefit society. Now it’s no longer doing that. Technology has moved on, while copyright law has become massively more restrictive. You have to ask, what good is society getting out of this? When any law starts getting massively out of step with the society it represents, there is going to have to be a massive change.”

Suw is critical of the DCMS for going against the findings of the Gowers Review, which concluded that there would be no long term economic gain from copyright term extension.

“The Gowers Review was a very sensible report which recommended that we reconsider copyright law. The DCMS has completely ignored it and now says that it’s backing term extension. It all goes back to that question of propaganda. The very word piracy is overloaded with pictures of bluebeards and people getting their heads chopped off.”

So, is she optimistic for the future?

“It all depends on how successful the old school are in perverting legislation to prevent development of the natural business models. There’s so much corporate lobbying around. What’s interesting is how far the pendulum will swing one way before it comes back again.”


Coming soon to a TV near you…

Arup HQ at 13 Fitzroy Street

The headquarters of Arup (although no-one in the firm would like to refer to them as such), is made up by three shiny buildings on Fitzroy Street, on the north-east edge of London’s West End.

Two of the buildings have been recently gutted and re-furbished, while the third, newly re-opened, was razed to the ground and completely rebuilt.

At first glance, the buildings don’t look too dissimilar to the ordinary office blocks in that part of town. But then you look a bit more closely and see a flourish here, a serpentine line there.

Arup is a hybrid firm of engineers and architects, and has been at the top of its game now for some 60 years. Sydney’s Opera House, London’s Gherkin, Edinburgh’s Scottish Parliament, Beijing’s Bird’s Nest – they all have the Arup signature.

Futurist Duncan Wilson meets me at no.13 Fitzroy Street, and shows me round the new public exhibition space, currently focusing on Arup’s work in China – nicely timed, with the Beijing Olympics are taking place as we speak.

Duncan’s job, as one of the eight-strong ‘Foresight’ team, is to run ‘thought-leadership-type’ workshops and create content for the ‘Drivers of Change’ project, which publishes books and flashcards on future trends for both in-house and public use.

Duncan Wilson with the Foresight website

He admits that Arup is a great place to do this sort of work. Famous for its flattened hierarchical structure, with 10,000 employees all owning the firm, Arup is renowned for its innovative culture.

“If you go back to Ove Arup [founder] himself, his whole approach was that design should be holistic. In the 1960s and 70s, that was highly unusual. That collaborative approach (engineers working in conjunction with architects) is embedded in the culture here. There’s a ‘de facto’ sharing nature. People expect it [openness] of Arup.”

However, even Arup’s directors do not always sit easily when faced by projecs requiring open source and alternative approaches to intellectual property.

“One of the issues is that we’re starting to use new technologies. Senior executives don’t use Flickr, Facebook etc (in fact, sites such as Facebook and Youtube are banned as they are considered a waste of time and, more importantly, bandwidth). The underlying message is ‘how can we control this stuff’. But it’s mostly just a fear of the unknown.”

One of Arup’s current projects is the design of Don Tang, a huge eco-city in China.

“We’ve whole teams of engineers working on the modelling process, seeing what works and what doesn’t, trying different things. We already use games technology for a lot of the modelling. But it would be great if, rather than just number crunching in isolation, we could open source some of this information, put it into a Sim City type of environment and watch what happens.

Traditionally, like most industries, the engineering sector doesn’t share, but Duncan can see huge public benefits opening up it certain types of data could be pooled.

“Take post-occupancy valuation for instance. That’s when a team of architects go back into a building to see if it’s functioning correctly, if it’s providing the type of environment it was designed to provide. The role of the facilities manager within companies is becoming more strategic and important as environmental concerns are increasing. I can see a future where the data of what a building is doing – eg, how much energy it’s using, and where – can be streamed for public consumption.”

You read it here first – time for the ‘what my building is doing’ channel.


Heroes don’t like to get their feet wet

Despite quite possibly the wettest July day ever, around 40 sturdy souls came along to Cass Creatives’ Fifth Birthday Heroes of the Revolution.

Big thanks to our fantastic panellists:

The digital heroes nominated by the panel included: Lovefilm, HBO, IFC, C4 Education, Alex Tew of Million Dollar Home Page, Ben Keane and Mark James of Tribe Wanted, Last fm, SoundCloud, Tunecall (to be launched) and, apparently…Soulja Boy (who was, it was reluctantly agreed by everyone, as successful as he might be irritating).

There was plenty of talk around the nature of creativity and the fact that anyone can get their creative work out there these days, no need for gatekeepers.

We still do drafts of our work (music, writing etc), but we do them online, in public. Then we correct them – and our communities correct them – as we go along. (This blog is just one such example.)

It strikes me that the same is true for entrepreneurs. Who was it who said if you’ve got a mobile phone in Africa, you’ve got a business? Well the same is true everywhere.

Today, anyone with an idea and the right amount of willpower can be an entrepreneur. Absolutely no cash needed to get things going. You put your idea online and bingo, if it’s truly ‘good’ (ie, what the market wants at the time, as Helen Keegan succinctly puts it), then there’s no real reason why the idea shouldn’t take off.

As Russell Davies said (below), business doesn’t have to separate strategy from execution any more.

And as with so many other sectors, the business world itself seems to be splitting into a billion tiny atoms to accommodate these changes.

What will the businesses of the future look like?

One audience member pointed out that the brave new start-ups of today could very easily become the News Corps of tomorrow. I can see his point – but somehow I’m hoping for something different.


Is Open Source a closed book to business?

It was great to hear Robert Cailliau talk at Media Futures 2008 as part of a panel discussion on openness and innovation.

Cailliau is an ex-employee of CERN and worked with Sir Tim Berners-Lee at the inception of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s.

Here is his take on the use of open source:

  • At that time [when we were creating the web] there were many different people thinking about this idea [the web] and ours was the one that took off. If we’d locked it up [ie: not used open source], those other people would have got in on the act.
  • I likened [the development] to a field of weeds rather than a strong forest. Because of the diversity [of people involved], it wasn’t possible to pick out the good contributions. After a short while you began to see who was competent and who was not competent.
  • A hierarchy of ideas and of people began to develop. This became the Consortium (in 1995) and the Consortium was a way of getting the web standards in place and of keeping them open.
  • How do you actually pay for your open systems? This is a problem. I saw a number of people who were very enthusiastic but then lost interest and became involved in something else. And you lost their ideas. Because there was no rigourous authoritarian structure to keep them.
  • We need a way in which people can make anonymous payments and end this vicious triangle of author/reader/advertiser.

I asked Robert and the rest of the panel how they thought we could encourage businesses in general to use open source – not so much for software (where the case is proven) but for completely different products and services, the Goldcorp Mining example used by Don Tapscott, for instance?

Mark Birkbect (webBackplane): The open source ideas of trust and openness will work in business – but the business mindset is set against that. I believe businesses will open up eventually.

Ian Forrester (BBC Backstage): Read The Cluetrain Manifesto and also Reading The Cluetrain, the blog of Sarah Mines, a marketing woman at the BBC (who I convinced to write a blog about her changing perceptions as she read it).

Matt Webb (Schultz & Webb): The web is in danger of becoming polarised – on the one hand we’ve got people believing in freedom at all costs and on the other there are people who want to close everything down.

Robert: I’ve nothing to add.

Well it was late in the day and I guess everyone had their eye on tea and cake, but I was saddened I didn’t get the chance to corner Robert afterwards and press him on this!