Tag Archives: Technology

‘Better ways of working driven by COVID-19’ by SMF Perses Sethna  

Sainsbury Management Fellow, Perses Sethna- Director of Business Change Services at PRT Partners: Perses is a Chartered Engineer, Fellow of the Institution of Engineering & Technology, SMF and INSEAD MBA. He has held change leadership positions throughout his career at BT plc, Dixons Carphone Group and most recently his own business change consultancy PRT Partners Ltd.

He believes that mindful application of technology is the route to human progress, and that this requires above all the right conversations to be created between people across diverse business and technology functions in organisations.

In this article he reflects on the opportunity to accelerate the pace of such conversations, in response to the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.

For many years, we have heard that digital technologies can enable people to work and live in far more flexible and efficient ways. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the pace of this realisation, crashing through traditional barriers to change in the working environment.

Many people have been unable to work together in the same physical location, and miss the deeper level of social interaction. However, they are also appreciating the many benefits that new ways of working from home, enabled by digital technology, can bring.

Few people are missing the time and energy expended in commuting and travel to meetings just because ‘that’s the way it’s always been done’.

Huge benefits have been seen all over the world in pollution reduction and improvements to our environment in a relatively short time. This shows the enormous long-term benefits that are possible, if we prepare for life and work beyond lockdown in a mindful and flexible way.

Simply returning to exactly ‘the way things were’ is not going to be an option.

In his well-regarded article “The Hammer and the Dance” (note 1) consultant and author Tomas Pueyo advocated a response to COVID-19 that authorities around the world have since taken. The first phase is aggressive action including population lockdowns (the Hammer); the second is a much longer period of vigilance including selective action to target local spikes of infection (the Dance).

A key feature of this approach is that during the second phase, responsibility for decision-making and action will increasingly pass from Governments to organisations and individuals.

So, are we ready for ‘the dance’?
Being ready for a long period of selective action means that organisations will, above all, require flexibility to adapt their ways of working quickly and often as circumstances change. For example, organisations re-opening their offices to employees may need to switch back to only online working in specific locations during local outbreaks of infection.

In most cases, the technology has been readily available for some time to enable such flexible ways of working, at least for office-based people in organisations. But we have often simply chosen not to use it. Why? Organisations have a unique opportunity to ask themselves this and other key questions brought to the surface by the pandemic. By considering these questions, they can design more effective ways of working, tailored to their own specific needs and culture, for years to come.

Flexible working

  • Why do we insist on seeing our staff in the office all day every day? Are we set up to manage performance as measured by outputs and results, rather than simply monitoring time spent in the office?
  •  Would our office-based people be more or less productive if allowed to structure their own time to work in the office, at home or elsewhere? Would this improve work-life balance? How could we avoid negative impacts such as reduced downtime for employees?
  • New disciplines will evolve with flexible working, such as more regular but shorter progress calls, shared dashboards of progress against team goals, automated task tracking against agreed deadlines and so on. How can we build these potentially threatening routines in a collaborative and trusted way, to increase the motivation and effectiveness of our teams?
  • How can our people in business functions be fully involved in the design of processes and technology to achieve the benefits of flexible working and other ‘digital transformations’?

Collaboration

  • How can we extend flexible working technology to break down boundaries between tribes and silos, and to create multidisciplinary teams across locations?
  • How can cross-functional workshops be mobilised online to work through inter-departmental problems, to implement the fixes using joint action plans?
  • How can we use more digital ways of working to reduce departmental politics?

The office and the environment

  • How can our offices be re-purposed to become the Hubs of the new flexible way of working?
  • How can most of our office space be turned over to socially-distanced collaboration (formal or informal meeting areas) rather than individual desks- since individual work can be done as effectively at home?
  • How much of our office space can be released? What would be the savings in property and travel costs?
  • How can we maximise changes that benefit the environment, such as reduced commuting?

Flexible resourcing

  • How can we optimise our blend of permanent and specialist temporary resources, so that we maximise our flexibility to respond to changing requirements?
  • How can we bring in temporary skills for short, specific pieces of work, with payment against agreed outcomes rather than day rates? How can we ensure that this approach complies with IR35 legislation?
  • How can we work with our Consulting partners to update the ‘land and expand’ business model into higher value, short-duration interventions focused on increasing the capability of our own organisation?
  • How can we use temporary expertise to help our employees create new ways of working that are tailored to the unique needs and culture of our own organisation?

Before the COVID-19 crisis, businesses globally were set to spend $7.1 Trillion over the next four years on the use of digital technology to improve their operations (note 2). Many such transformations have failed in the past (note 3), and the new environment will make success even more challenging.

Therefore, it is especially important that these questions are discussed by leadership teams to prepare for the ‘new normal’, fully engaging their people and their technology, business change and resourcing partners.

Coming soon: Look out for video interviews with the people creating better ways of working for the new normal.  These will be posted on the video page on this website from July 2020.  

Notes & sources

  1. Coronavirus: The Hammer and the Dance. What the Next 18 Months Can Look Like, if Leaders Buy Us Time. Tomas Pueyo https://medium.com/@tomaspueyo/coronavirus-the-hammer-and-the-dance-be9337092b56
  2. IDC FutureScape: Worldwide Digital Transformation 2020 Predictions https://www.idc.com/getdoc.jsp?containerId=US45569118
  3. Unlocking success in digital transformations. McKinsey&Company https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/unlocking-success-in-digital-transformations

Government Regulation and Today’s Tech Giants: How Far Should They Go?

There have been several points in our recent history whereby a new innovation or technology has come hurtling towards us, but debate and regulation on these advances don’t come to fruition until they are engrained into our daily lives. One of the best examples of this is the motor car. By the turn of the 20th century, owning your own motor car, although a reserve of the wealthy, was not especially uncommon. It wasn’t until nearly two decades later that the first road sign came along and that serious conversations were being had about safety, necessity and regulation.

Technology is inside our lives. We depend on digital technology in virtually every arena of life, whether it be shopping, doing our jobs, navigation, entertainment, communication… technology plays a huge part. This puts a lot of power in the hands of those who own and develop the technology that is now so integral to our modern existence. Of course, regulation and debate have been part of this landscape for quite some time, so long in fact that we, the public, and the lawmakers, government organisations, are starting to fatigue.  Technology has been moving so fast for so long, and the regulatory bodies have been trying to catch up before the next advance, that tech firms are, arguably, starting to break away.

Laws and regulation are key to the way society works and the tech giants that now hold so much power should be held within some kind of regulatory structure, but to what extent? How important is it to strap laws on to our technology? Should these big technology innovators be allowed to have the power that they currently seem to wield? Will over regulation stunt innovation and development? It’s a big subject, with many sides to it and many strong arguments to back them up. However, let us explore just a few of the ideas surrounding this, to help inform the arguments around this important global discussion.

GDPR and Trust
One of the largest, if not the largest concern around modern digital technology hinges around trust. Can we trust the internet and the people who hold the keys? The fear that many people have really stems from the fact that large companies are not generally perceived as entirely trustworthy. This is not surprising, as although technology is generally developed to improve our lives, the main aim of a company is to make profit.

Personal data was being mistreated in many cases, which led to the introduction of GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) in 2017. The main purpose of this was to, essentially, put some control back into the hands of consumers, and less so the tech companies. This legislation has been effective in making companies treat personal data more carefully, and in increasing transparency about how they use information. This accountability seems to be beneficial to all on the whole, but has it stunted innovation and company growth significantly?

Tech Company Power and Necessary Privacy Violation
This issue is littered with grey areas. Of course, we should be the owners of our own personal data and should have power over where that information goes and who uses it. However, let’s take an incident from 2016; the FBI approached Apple in 2016 to attempt to unlock a convicted terrorist’s phone. This phone had been programmed to delete all data after ten failed password attempts. Apple refused to comply due to company policy. Who was in the right in this case? Well, there are, again, strong arguments on both sides. The issue here is that neither the FBI nor Apple were legally in the wrong; which tells us that the power of tech giants is very real and not to be underestimated.

Limiting Growth
The problem that many technology companies have with regulation, and indeed the potential for ‘over-regulation’ is that it has the ability to significantly stunt growth and innovation, or even halt it altogether. The thought is that, with the altercations and debates currently flaring up between the government, the public and the companies themselves around many legal, ethical and restriction issues, overly compensatory legislation will be passed. That is, in order to ‘get ahead’ of the rapid advances happening in the industry, unnecessarily drastic and stringent laws may be passed in order to give the government time to catch up. This may help to redress the power balance, but it might also prevent new ideas and developments from breaking through.  

Intellectual Property
The once distant idea of artificial intelligence (AI) is now very much a reality. With self-learning tech and AI being a large part of our global technology platforms, the lines between who owns what are becoming increasingly blurred. This not only has potential pitfalls when it comes to legal issues but also the ability for technology to learn, independent of human input, which could lead to the acquisition of personal data on a huge scale. This may be a place where strong legislation is vital.

The essential question with all of this is: ‘is our technology safe and fair?’ This, through lawmaking and legislation, has always been the government’s aim with new, culture-shifting technology. However, the speed at which technology now advances makes this pursuit very tricky indeed. Yes, rules and regulations should be present, but to what extent? Do the cons of the current technological power balance between businesses and governing bodies outweigh the pros?

What do you think?

What sectors can we expect AI to transform?

Perhaps one of the biggest transformations unleashed by the AI revolution is that of customer insights. James McCormick, writing for Forrester, predicts that AI will be “rapidly assimilated into analytics practices” by the end of the year, offering businesses “unprecedented access” to powerful, contextual, data-driven insights. Up until now, unstructured and undifferentiated ‘big data’ has been difficult to navigate, much less tie to a customer base. AI is becoming more and more relevant to every sector.

With investment in AI predicted to triple across sectors, as well as the emergence of cognitive computing solutions better able to unpick and integrate data into analytics, this will provoke a sea change in how business is conducted in many sectors. In a 2015 survey, 80% of business leaders stated they believe AI will create more jobs and increase productivity. Let’s take a look at some of the sectors already feeling its impacts.

Insurance
AI’s ‘smart’ grasp on data is already having big impacts on the insurance sector, as one story earlier this year demonstrated. Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance, a firm based in Japan, made the headlines when over 30 of its employees were made redundant and replaced with an AI system. Capable of analysing and interpreting any data, IBM’s Watson Explorer calculates insurance payouts to policyholders at such an accelerated rate that the firm predicts it will increase productivity by 30%, saving the firm about £1 million per annum. It’s a good example of how AI in its current form is drastically increasing efficiencies while altering the structure, size, and skill set of different organisations.

Education
Education is already being transformed by VR and AI technologies, among other things. The rise of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), such as those run by Udemy, are a prime example of how large ‘classes’ can be run online with hundreds of students. AI is set to make these courses more and more effective. We are already seeing specially-trained AI programmes (an ‘e-rater’) mark and grade exam papers, as well as virtual teaching assistants being deployed throughout universities and schools to help answer student questions about the course. With the global market in education-based applications of AI set to grow exponentially over the next four years, it’s clear that AI is not only getting better at learning but teaching too.

Medicine and healthcare
AI has seen a lot of investment partially thanks to its huge potential number of applications for medical research and front-line healthcare. AI chatbots, such as WoeBot, are now being offered as a way of augmenting mental health treatment. Meanwhile, the analytical power of AI is being used to help make cancer diagnoses earlier and more accurately, with Vinod Khosla, cofounder of Sun Microsystems, even predicting that human oncologists will become obsolete in the face of much more data-competent AI systems. “I can’t imagine why a human oncologist would add value, given the amount of data in oncology,” he told an audience at MIT this month. IBM’s Watson is likewise being introduced to the doctor’s office.

Law
From processing deeds to identifying relevant documents, the traditional work of lawyers is slow and painstaking. Law firms are now using AI technology (often a version of IBM’s Watson) to augment their legal research functions, empowering lawyers towards more comprehensive and efficient analyses of legal precedents, contracts, and cases. The first ‘top five’ law firm to sign a deal with an AI service provider was Linklaters, early in 2016, with other firms quickly following suit. Some of the systems in use can reduce tasks that usually take three hours down to three minutes, which could lead to cheaper access to legal services and even redundancies of paralegals, as one legal consultant predicts – although some are more sceptical. Robert Morley notes that training contract numbers have increased, so lawyers are not becoming redundant – AI is, rather, a “remarkable tool”.

Can unicorn startups thrive whilst ignoring regulation?

a worker asks for a transition to a patch on a piggy bank, but receives only a tease

The world of tech startups is peppered with stories of overconfident, brilliant entrepreneurs who disrupt the way business is done in traditional sectors, transforming consumer behaviour and challenging current legislative frameworks, often with detrimental outcomes to their business as in the landmark Uber employment rights case.

High profile tech innovators are sometimes branded arrogant “jerks” who try to by-pass national regulations in order to achieve success. But is the fair? Is arrogance a prerequisite to achieving a major shift in consumer economic behaviour? The new Sainsbury Management Fellows Business Survey asked business leaders/entrepreneurs for their views on the behaviour of Unicorns (billion dollar valued start-ups), with some divergent views.

Arrogant or just determined? Divided opinion
Sixty-seven of the 150 opted-in panellists took part in the survey and 37.5% agreed that Unicorns in the sharing economy are arrogant in their compliance with regulation and interestingly, over 51% of all respondents said that a degree of arrogance is actually required for new technology startups in traditional markets to beat incumbents and grow.

Arrogance of Start ups Survey Question `1

Echoing similar views among the 51% of respondents, David Bell, an engineering graduate on Rolls-Royce’s development programme said, “In order to gain advantage in the sharing economy Unicorn startups had to exploit loopholes and gaps in existing rules to rapidly develop market share before regulators can act to prevent these unforeseen practices. While no specific company was put in the spotlight, Bell said that some of the tactics include ignoring regulator warnings, claiming new technology’s exemption from old rules, asking customers to lobby on their behalf, and asking for forgiveness and paying penalties after their market position has already been established.”

Arrogance of Start ups Survey Question 2

On the flip side, just over 42% of all panellists stated that arrogance is not a prerequisite for success and startups are misunderstood and the public should not “confuse arrogance with self-confidence.” In this group’s view, such startups are simply pushing boundaries, testing new models and finding new ways of competing with incumbents.”

No place for arrogance in business
Successful serial entrepreneur Chris Martin, CEO of ADC Therapeutics SA said, “There is no room for arrogance in business – startup or not. Some Unicorns I have worked with were best in class and so may have been perceived as arrogant when they were just very, very good.”

Sinead O’Sullivan, an MBA candidate at Harvard, an aerospace engineer and entrepreneur stated that it is vital that not all startups are painted “with the ‘arrogance’ brush.” Some tech startups are being led by millennials who can appear overconfident.”

While some startups can be arrogant, most aren’t. Some simply operate with supreme “self-confidence and dogged single-mindedness,” said Phil Strong, CEO at Zymbit.

The role of arrogance in business
Asked to name a company that behaves arrogantly, unprompted 18% of respondents named seven companies, with Uber taking pole position. The others were Prowler, Theranos, Avery Dennison, Airbnb, Tesla, and Dyson.

Led by CEO Travis Kalanick, Uber develops markets and operates the mobile app which provides on-demand taxi service, connecting passengers to cab drivers at much lower costs than other services. While many deem Kalanick to be a brilliant entrepreneur and legendary CEO, he is also generally perceived to operate in an arrogant way. While this arrogance is seen by some as negative, the trait is said to be rampant in Silicon Valley, with investors rewarding supposedly callous tactics with tons of capital. The view of the Uber leadership is that it consistently acts as if the company is above the law and the ethical norm.

Sinead O’Sullivan reinforced this point saying, “While misplaced confidence can be damaging to the reputation of a company, this behaviour is encouraged by “the way the whole venture capital game works.”

Demonstrating polarity of views, one entrepreneur, Nimesh Thakrar, CEO of Banneya gave Uber kudos for changing “the status quo of how we are currently operating in that [taxi] space”, and that policies and regulations “need to change and be reflective of the modern world we live in.” However, another young entrepreneur Farid Singh argued that the way Uber has gone about doing things has become “similar to dumping free inventory” and that while “regular taxi services run out of cash and have to shut down, they [Uber] start squeezing the drivers and raising their prices”. He believes that these practices have created an “unchecked monopoly”.

Airbnb, the world’s fourth largest startup is criticised for its supposed arrogance by the American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA). The AHLA launched several campaigns to counter Airbnb’s so-called hypocrisy and to fight for “the need to curb illegal hotels and ensure a level playing field”. As one panellist stated, startups are not always good just because they’re new, claiming that “Airbnb has damaged B&B markets.”

In the final analysis…
While some of the SMF panellists deemed Unicorn startups as arrogant, others see this arrogance as merely a change in the way business and business owners are pacing themselves. Startup owners and operators are seen as bold movers and shakers who “challenge incumbents” and are in the business of “exploring new ways of solving old problems” said one panellist. The leaders of Unicorn startups are seen as new types of entrepreneurs who emphasise the need “to strive for survival and reproduction.”

Some respondents felt that the term “arrogance” is “emotionally charged” and has “strong negative overtones” and that society should be acknowledging their achievements; focusing on how these companies are pushing boundaries, testing new models, creating change and improving services for consumers.

Sainsbury Management Fellow and venture capitalist, James Raby argued that subverting regulation can be catastrophic for long term success. “Some startups regard regulation as the enemy. Because entrepreneurs are bringing new technology to the market, they think it is a protective shield from regulation. The standard response is to disavow regulation, yet everything that’s old is not necessarily bad. Startups should embrace regulation if they are serious about long-term success. They need to recognise that to work in real markets they must cooperate in a regulated market, as I’m sure the manufacturers of driverless cars will realise.

This means startups need to employ people who understand regulatory frameworks and the detail of how they apply in different markets and cultures. Without this depth of understanding, companies side-stepping regulation will be challenged and regulation will catch up with them.”

As SMF implores startups to re-think their approach to regulation, perhaps there is also a need for the regulators to improve their understanding of technology and be quicker at managing technology shifts.

photo (c) nuvolanevicata

What are the challenges of IoT?

various smart devices and mesh network, internet of things, wireless sensor network, abstract image visual

Professionals, particularly engineers, are enthusiastic about the promise of the Internet of Things (IoT).  Everybody talked about it when it wasn’t quite here. Now that it’s here, it’s growing exponentially.

Gartner predicted last 2014 that there would be 25 billion devices integrated into the IoT.  Cisco says figures would be near 50 billion. Morgan Stanley believes it will reach around 75 billion.

This growth will get closer to reality as devices become smaller and sleeker and computing grows more powerful and becomes more streamlined.

The IoT is simply the interconnectivity of devices through the Internet.  Great innovation at first sight, but it is not without consequences.

The connectivity that drives IoT is the same that could also cause dire consequences.   For example, there have been reports of hacking of baby monitors and Wired ran a feature on the simulation of hackers taking over control of a jeep on the highway.   Even power interruptions can cause serious problems.

Compatibility
As of now, there’s still no international standard for compatibility in IoT, particularly for tagging and monitoring devices. Of all challenges, this is the one that can be most easily solved. Companies just have to agree on a standard, which already happens in different products and services. The IoT won’t be any different.

Though standardisation is an easy matter to solve, technical issues will still exist.  Even today, Bluetooth, a relatively old way of connecting, still has compatibility problems. Issues about compatibility can lead to customers buying from one company only, developing monopolies that can hurt the industry.

Complexity
Complex systems offer more chances of failure. The Internet of Things can offer massive amounts of these chances.

An example of this failure is double purchasing. Let’s say a couple receives the same note from their refrigerator saying that they need to buy a loaf of bread.  There’s a chance that they both buy one, leading to the purchase of two loaves instead of just one.

Software bugs can also send notes to an owner telling him to buy a new light bulb even when he just bought a new one.

The complexity of the IoT also gives way to more intensive management and maintenance.  How will IoT companies make sure that billions of these devices are online and running? Can takeovers and interruptions be easily handled through billions of connections? Will the IoT require every device to be registered or will it only require a certain identified ‘residence’ to represent all devices within?

IoT will also handle massively growing amounts of data.  How will companies make sure that they deliver the expected results and withstand a growing workload at the same time?  How will consumers know if their devices are able to handle intense data flow?

Privacy and security
Since the IoT is founded on transmitted data, the risk of privacy breaches gets bigger.  We are still not sure of how good data encryption will be.  Sensitive information like medical prescriptions and financial status are exposed to bigger risk.

Extra security may demand higher prices, which will either attract only a few customers or none at all.

Looking at the bigger picture, we also do not know who will be controlling the IoT.   One company controlling it can lead to a monopoly that will do consumers and other competitors no good. Multiple companies handling the system can expose private customer information to many groups, which will compromise the close relationship of the customer to a specific company he adheres to.

The fact that personal data will be exposed to the Internet once IoT gets implemented will render any consumer vulnerable to hacking, fraud, identity theft, and other crimes involving sensitive information.

The government itself, which is supposed to be the most secure entity in any state, can easily be hacked by hacker groups.  The group Anonymous has already done this to the US government.

Personal safety
What if a hacker changes your preferences for medicine, food, and other products?  Once your data is breached, this can happen.  In the IoT, consumer safety depends on how good the system can verify real information that passes through automated processes.

The IoT is constantly growing, and even at its early stage, the whole system, as well as the dangers it faces, are already overwhelming. Data breach can affect huge sectors of the system like a disease.

At the very least, we need to easily spot where problems originate in the system.  Monitoring must be optimum so Big Data tools must be able to alert authorities when security incidents happen.  Threats must be taken care of in real time with little to no delays.  As of now, we need to know what these systems would look like and how companies can make these systems real.

Mass unemployment of unskilled labour
The demand for unskilled workers will plummet to the point of irrelevance as automation will prove itself to be more efficient.  This always happens whenever technology takes a leap and will require humans to level up its education.

This phenomenon can cause social chaos and maybe a change in how people see technology, as technology is supposed to make life easier for people, not harder.  Unemployment will also decrease consumption, which will be bad for a growing IoT industry because any new industry will need a growing market.

Since human involvement in the delivery of products and services will be minimised, the consumer expectations will increase too. Failure to meet expectations may add fuel to an already spreading fire caused by unemployment.

Over reliance on technology
It is almost certain that IoT will make humans a lot more dependent on technology to the point that it will take control of our own lives. As of now, young generations are already attached and addicted to technology for every aspect of their lives.  Do-it-yourself is now do-it-with-gadgets.

Today, information is easily searchable through Google.  People who can help you can easily be reached through social networking sites. False news can easily be spread and disproved using search engines. Writing turned into typing and typing turned into taking pictures of texts.

Society must determine how much technology must run human life.

Embracing, not Evading, Innovation in Clean Technology

sam-cockerillOver-used, over-hyped, misunderstood, and much maligned – the word ‘innovation’ often gets a bit of a rough ride in the media. Part of the problem is that the word’s literal meaning ‘to bring in a new idea’ is very broad, and depends very much on the context into which a new idea is brought. The conceptual novelty of innovation differentiates it from the mere renewal of old stuff or ‘renovation’. And as I am often reminded by my patent attorney, innovation or novelty alone is not the same as invention which requires a non-obvious connection, an inventive step. If I repaint my front room, I am renovating. If I use a robot to repaint my front room I am innovating. If I design the first robot that can paint rooms, I am inventing.

Of course, technology innovation is only one type of innovation. Innovation in the arts, in fashion, in media, in politics, and even in religion is possible – any field of human activity or thought in which an old idea can be displaced by, or incorporated into, a new one has the capacity for innovation (Whether there is an appetite for such innovation is another story).

But technology innovation is different, because both supply and demand for this type of innovation are accelerating. Population and economic growth, demographic change, resource scarcity and climate change each present major challenges, and create the demand for new approaches and ideas that technology innovators are racing to come up with. On the supply side, rapid progress across many disparate fields of science and engineering in the past few decades has created and proven a vast array of new materials, equipment, information and method/process technologies. Technology innovators can pick and chose from this body of ideas to create valuable new products and services, and as the library of proven technology inventions generated by research and development expands, the potential for technology innovation grows exponentially. For the technology innovator, this poses a number of key questions, for example:

  • Is there a way to combine a selection of these technologies to meet an unmet market need?
  • How do I discover and select the best of each of the technology elements I need?
  • Are the technology elements all proven, are some still in their infancy?
  • Are there any gaps where I need to invent something myself?
  • Will anything unexpectedly bad (or good) happen when I combine these?
  • Do the benefits outweigh the costs and risks, i.e. does this solution create value?

The connectivity and reach provided by the internet has slashed the information costs of answering these questions. It has helped researchers disseminate information about their technology’s progress and performance in current applications, and has helped innovators reach out beyond their own industries for the technology elements they need to create the products and services of the future.

For clean technology entrepreneurs, there has never been a better time to innovate.

Sam Cockerill is CEO of Libertine FPE Limited, developing “Linear Power System” technologies that will make decentralised power generation the norm – bringing clean, reliable and affordable power to wherever it is needed.  Sam is currently in San Francisco along with fourteen other UK cleantech start-ups as part of the Clean and Cool Mission 2015. This week-long trip is an opportunity for the entrepreneurs to hone their business pitches, learn from leaders in the field, and talk about their amazing products to potential investors and partners. Clean and Cool 2015 is organised by Innovate UK, together with The Long Run Venture, UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) and CoSpA (the Co-Sponsorship Agency).  You can follow the progress of the Mission on Twitter@innovateukmedia,@CleanandCool and #cleansf.

Clean and Cool Mission at the Long Now Foundation

sam-cockerillBehind a smallish shop front on Marina Boulevard, the Long Now Foundation resembles something between a trendy coffee shop, second hand bookstore, art gallery and museum of mechanical computers.  This was to be the culmination of a morning’s tour of downtown San Francisco for the Clean and Cool Mission, providing the group with a cultural, geographic and historical orientation to help frame the coming week.

Long Now Foundation Shop Front
I had previously come across The Long Now Foundation in articles written about its most famous project, a mountain-scale clock designed to keep time for the next 10,000 years.

Planet earth on the inner solar system position indicator mechanism of the 10,000 year clock

Planet earth on the inner solar system position indicator mechanism of the 10,000 year clock whole indicator mechanism

This design brief is both breathtakingly audacious and utterly perplexing.  And for good reason, because the questions posed by this project run to the heart of what the Long Now Foundation is about.  How do you design a clock that must outlast not only its designer but perhaps even its designer’s language and civilisation? What will power it? What events could occur in the next ten thousand years that might stop the clock or break it?  How will the next five hundred generations maintain and repair it?  And then there’s the small matter of ten millennia of weathering and climate change to deal with.

These questions and many more have been addressed in a beautifully conceived mechanical design which is now being installed in a man-made cavern in Texas, and a scale model of part of the mechanism stands in the Foundation’s entrance.

The Long Now Foundation is the brainchild of Danny Hills, Stewart Brand and Brian Eno ‘to creatively foster long-term thinking and responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years’. It provides thought leadership and inspiration through a wide range of activities that span cultural, linguistic and genomic archives as well as digital information, software and computing projects. The Foundation also provides a forum for debate and idea sharing both through an active online community and a series of seminars hosted by co-founder Stewart Brand at the Foundation’s headquarters.

Originally a museum for the Foundation’s work, the building has recently been developed to include ‘The Interval’ –  a meeting place and café – and hosts a crowd-curated ‘Manual for Civilization’, a collection of around 3,500 books considered most essential to sustain or rebuild civilization. One striking feature of this library is the prominence of science fiction which sits side-by-side alongside more practical manuals on how to build and understand things. One of the four basic categories which the library is composed of is “Long-term Thinking, Futurism, and relevant history”. In this category, well known history, anthropology and socio-political titles jostle for position with futurology and science fiction works. What many of these have in common is the contemplation of real or imagined changes in human society across millennial spans of time. This vision stands in stark contrast to the ‘short now’ of daily life, with an urgency driven by the exponential pace of change in technology, information, resource consumption and economics.

As the morning’s fog lifted, the relevance to our Clean and Cool Mission became clear. Every one of the cleantech businesses here understands the role that new technology can play to help address global sustainability challenges in the coming decades. The Long Now Foundation has taken this idea and, by looking out across millennia rather than decades, has made it much, much bigger.

Sam Cockerill is CEO of Libertine FPE Limited, developing “Linear Power System” technologies that will make decentralised power generation the norm – bringing clean, reliable and affordable power to wherever it is needed.  Sam is currently in San Francisco along with fourteen other UK cleantech start-ups as part of the Clean and Cool Mission 2015. This week-long trip is an opportunity for the entrepreneurs to hone their business pitches, learn from leaders in the field, and talk about their amazing products to potential investors and partners. Clean and Cool 2015 is organised by Innovate UK, together with The Long Run Venture, UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) and CoSpA (the Co-Sponsorship Agency).  You can follow the progress of the Mission on Twitter@innovateukmedia,@CleanandCool and #cleansf. Follow the author @LibertineFPE.