Koreo Prize: Do you know any smart young people in the UK aged 18-27?

I’m really pleased to be a judge for the inaugural Koreo Prize, a competition to encourage young people in the UK aged 18-27 to explore some of the most pressing issues of our time.

The Koreo Prize is a national storytelling competition for young people to unlock fresh takes on some of the complex social issues affecting the UK, using any combination of media. A UK first, we’re asking participants to choose one or more of six issues aligned with the UN’s Global Goals: gender equality, social mobility, food security, community resilience, wellbeing & social housing.

This competition is open to anyone between 18 and 27, there are no right or wrong answers – just a unique exploration of the issues! Plus, entrants get to be part of a community of emerging young thinkers whilst having the opportunity to win £5,000, paid work placements, free learning opportunities, tickets to global conferences, and mentoring opportunities.

The deadline for submissions is 4 April 2017 and will be judged by a panel of experts from across the public, private and non-profit sectors, including yours truly.

If you know anyone who fits the bill, do encourage them to apply! More info on the website.

My favourites from the Designs of the Year 2016

I went to the Designs of the Year exhibition a couple of weeks ago at the recently-reopened Design Museum. The annual exhibition is something I’ve been visiting for a few years now. There’s always some extremely inspiring stuff -some commercial, some clearly not as commercial – but all worth knowing about. Here are my picks of the exhibition:

Lumos Helmet: To be clear, I’m not a bike rider, but the incidences of bike accidents on the roads of London have been alarming lately. The Lumos Helmet began, as many of these projects do, as a Kickstarter project, and ‘beautifully integrates lights, hard brake, turn signals, and helmet into a single cohesive whole’.

The Bottom Ash Observatory: I’ve never thought of municipal waste as a thing to spend time thinking about (beyond its sustainable disposal), but Christien Meindertsma has published a book showing the richness she was able to extract from ‘100 kilos of incinerated household and industrial waste: the “waste of waste.”’

The Smog Free Project: Daan Roosegaarde’s Smog Free Project is a 7-meter-high structure that effectively functions as the largest air purifier in the world, ‘creating a circular zone of clean air for citizens to experience and enjoy’. It cleans ‘30,000 cubic meters per hour using ozone-free ion technology and a small amount of green electricity’. Currently installed in Beijing and Rotterdam, I know many a city that needs multiple versions of this. Admittedly it helps clean up, instead of forcing people to acknowledge the issue in the first place – but maybe that can be an evolution of it.

Hello Ruby: I heard about this when it first came out (again a Kickstarter project, but back in 2014) so it was nice to reacquaint myself with it here. Hello Ruby is a children’s book for those aged 5 or over that teaches them to code in a fun way.

Joto: This is such a brilliant idea, and I know I sound like a parrot here but it also came from Kickstarter (public launch due in 2017). It’s an internet-connected Etch-a-Sketch, or in other words, you can draw or send messages from the web to a frame on your wall. Super creative.

Refugee Republic: Premiered at the Amsterdam documentary festival IDFA in 2014 and winner of a Dutch Design Award in 2015, Refugee Republic is an interactive documentary about life in a Syrian refugee camp in Domiz, Northern Iraq. A really immersive way to get your head around some of the human stories playing out even as we speak.

Design That Saves Lives, Bangladesh: When the Rana Plaza collapse happened in 2013 killing over 1000 people, I was only too aware of the risk of something like that happening multiple times a day in crowded cities that I’m familiar with, like Delhi. So I was immensely relieved to see the work of Arup’s Ireland office in Bangladesh in the months following the collapse: a structural safety assessment that now helps to save thousands of lives.

MTV’s Martin Luther King Day media campaign #thetalk: I missed this when it came out in 2015, but it appealed to my time in a media agency as one of the most creative ways to get an important message across using TV. On MLK Day, MTV telecast all their programmes in black and white, prompting discussion of race by their target audience, millennials.

Post/Biotics by Vidhi Mehta: A project by an RCA student in Innovation Design Engineering, this project aims to draft the public into helping to test natural substances that might be able to function as antibiotics. Antibiotic resistance is becoming a huge challenge to scientists the world over – in fact it is also the focus of the £10 million Longitude Prize. Post/Biotics is a very low-touch way of working on this problem, and reminds me of campaigns like Cancer Research’s Genes in Space mobile game, where players were drafted to find a solution to cancer.

10 random things I learnt in 2015

I’ve been meaning to do a list like this for a few years, and thought it was high time I started. It’s obviously not ALL I’ve learnt (or at least I hope not!) but it was actually HARD to put down in writing what exactly I could recall in terms of trivia gleaned from the year. In no particular order, here is a random list. Maybe there are things in there you weren’t aware of either?

I’ve decided to present them as Jeopardy-style questions.

  1. What are Fostat fragmentsHow did I come across this? The Fabric of India exhibition at the V&A Museum, London (on till January 10th, 2016)
  1. What is a cinquainHow did I come across this? While watching The West Wing, Season 4, Episode 14 (The Inauguration – Part 1). There are tons of things I learnt from this show – just didn’t note them all down, unfortunately!
  1. Why do most people suffer from the Barry Manilow effectHow did I come across this? While reading ‘Why we can’t get over ourselves’ in Nautilus.
  1. What is an infinite procedurally generated galaxy and how would it work? How did I come across this? At the Designs of the Year exhibition 2015, which featured the game No Man’s Sky developed by Hello Games, the most evolved example of this technology in action.
  1. What is zemblanity in the context of technology? How did I come across this? This is a HUGE one. I saw Venkatesh Rao speak about his work and theses Breaking Smart this year, where he explained it a bit (I haven’t even finished reading all of it, so this post serves as a useful reminder to myself to do that). Essentially zemblanity is the antonym of serendipity, if such a thing exists. His point was that we need to get to the best of technology by trying different things – if done right, we chance upon amazing things serendipitously, if we’re unlucky we find things that are not so great in an episode of zemblanity – which is when we should change course and use the technology for something else altogether. He created this useful list of links if you want to explore zemblanity and serendipity some more.
  1. What is sisuHow did I come across this? The aforementioned talk by Venkatesh Rao.
  1. Who created sanisettes, or superloos, on the streets of Paris and London? How did I come across this? A presentation by Mr. Jean-Charles Decaux, Co-CEO and part of the J.C. Decaux family, at a glitzy event earlier this year.
  1. What is Martian poetryHow did I come across this? While reading this interview with Martin Amis in the Paris Review.
  1. What is chaos defrostHow did I come across this? In this Guardian piece about microwaves.
  1. What is a Cadillac insurance planHow did I come across this? There was a lot of discussion this year about Obamacare, and it cropped up in many of the online reports, such as this one. And no, I hadn’t heard the term used before.

An e-book from @kaviguppta & me: Disruption in the Developing World


Over the last decade or so, technology has changed all of us, some more so than others, and crucially, some parts of the world much quicker than others. Access to technology is a core part of this, with the steadily lower cost of production putting technology into the hands of those who never had this privilege. This has changed behaviours, relationships – and governments.

Last year, I  started a weekly newsletter called the Other Valleys to chronicle some of the inspiring creative and technology projects emerging from far-flung corners of the world that were not as familiar to the Western tech press as Silicon Valley might be. Kavi Guppta, who writes for Forbes amongst other things, thought this was a good idea too, and we got chatting online. That’s where the seeds of this project were sown: what are some of the best ideas that all of us, and people in public roles especially, should be paying more attention to? If we were part of a government in Asia, Africa or Latin America, most of whom are grappling with huge societal challenges, what kinds of tools might just help make life easier? Kavi and I decided to put some time and energy into exploring these ideas in a slightly more detailed manner.

‘Disruption in the Developing World’ is a short e-book that is the result of our collaboration. We’d like it to create awareness of some of the brilliant activities already underway across the world, and create debate about what might be able to be done better. If it then leads to even one person changing something somewhere to make life better for a group of people, we’d consider our time well spent.

You can download the e-book here for a recommended donation of $2 (or more – hopefully you will think it is worth it); money that will go to organisations engaged in Nepal relief efforts. If you can, please spread the word to your friends and colleagues on Twitter and LinkedIn too – much appreciated.

Brief thoughts after listening to @kevin_ashton speak about flying horses


I went to listen to Kevin Ashton speak about his new book ‘How To Fly A Horse‘ earlier this week. It sounds like an interesting book full of anecdotes of people building on the inventions of others to ultimately create something noteworthy. Some were flops; the ill-fated jump of Franz Reichelt from the Eiffel Tower in 1912 for example, in the belief that his birdsuit would be enough to help him fly, long before the success of the patient Wright Brothers (whose activities were inspiration for the title of the book, by the way).

Or Watson & Crick’s ultimate award of the Nobel Prize for the discovery of DNA – which they only really got because Maurice Wilkins, co-awardee of the Nobel with Crick and Watson, passed on to them the work of his colleague Rosalind Franklin, the crystallographer whose diffraction images of DNA led to the actual discovery, without her knowledge.

But most intriguing was learning about the first instance of the word ‘creativity’ as a noun, that misused word of today, in 1926 by Alfred North Whitehead:

The reason for the temporal character of the actual world can now be given by reference to the creativity and the creatures.

‘The creativity’. We’re the creatures, what is our creativity? What is yours, or mine?

If you’d like weekly links to companies outside of the West doing interesting stuff, sign up to my new weekly newsletter

I often get asked what the main information sources I read are. While most of them are pretty standard for anyone working in media and technology in this part of the world, lately I’ve been feeling a gap in my own knowledge when it comes to information from other parts of the world in these areas, especially given my personal interests in that region.

Over the last year or so, a number of interesting sources of information have launched online: The Next Web’s Jon Russell has an Asia-focussed newsletter, Bill Bishop’s Sinocism newsletter paints a valuable multi-hued picture of China, Quartz now has an India edition (and their Daily Brief email focussing on the region), and Your Story publishes news stories from across Asia and South-East Asia, to name a few. Of course there are also the more mainstream outlets like the Economist, Time, Harvard Business Review and so on. But what I was looking for was something beyond just the big news stories of the startup and communications industry outside of the West – it was information on the lesser-known companies and projects, albeit rooted in tech, that are disrupting markets across the world (and outside of just India/Asia). And also, information on companies in those parts of the world not founded by men (refer to Ada’s List).

So a while ago I started creating a list of these companies. And then I figured that writing a weekly newsletter would not only help me keep track of the most interesting non-US/UK/EU projects across the world in a more memorable way, it might also be useful for some other people (five of you, maybe ten, I don’t know).

So if you’d like, pop in your email address and see if what I find is interesting to you. It won’t be more regular than weekly (I only wish I had the publishing proclivity of the brilliant Dan Hon or the detailed perspectives of Frederic Filloux and Jean-Louis Gassée, but you have to go with what you have eh) so you won’t have to worry about me spamming your inbox.

I figure short and sweet is a good way to start – so each Wednesday expect a list of no more than a handful of companies that are interesting to me, based in or focussed on areas outside of Silicon Valley and Silicon Roundabout – you know, those Other Valleys.

PS: If you’d like to submit an entry for inclusion in the email at any point, I’m happy to take submissions which you can send through via this short form.


Interesting discussion @thecubelondon yesterday on culture & innovation


I try to avoid focussing on the word ‘innovation’ these days because it means too much and too little at the same time. In effect it’s become meaningless.

Yesterday I went to a workshop at The Cube that sought to answer the question ‘how do we create a culture of innovation?’, where innovation wasn’t so much the focus as culture was. Being familiar with enough companies that claim to be pro-innovation but in reality are anything but (read Bud Caddell on why he left advertising if you want more), I was there to see if any light could really be shed on the subject.

Alastair Dryburgh spoke about how we should ban the word ‘culture’ because it indicates that without certain prerequisites innovation cannot happen. What we should discuss are our habits and beliefs and which ones we need to change for maximum impact with minimum input. Forget the issue of creating a ‘culture’ of innovation. He also spoke about the huge role failure has to play in innovation; ‘the secret to being innovative is to get better at failing’. It’s how VC’s work: if 1 out of 10 investments becomes the next Facebook and is big enough to cover the cost of the other 9, that’s good enough for them. I know this is a very simplistic way of looking at things but it’s true. The final condition he mentioned as being important for enabling innovation is the ability to move fast even without knowing everything. He spoke about the Barclays mobile app and how CEO Antony Jenkins pushed back at his IT people who said it would take 2 years to build, by saying they had 180 days, with the good news being that it didn’t need to be perfect – just 60% of an ideal product. They could finish the rest based on customer feedback, which is what they did.

Bostjan Makarovic, a policy and regulation consultant, came at the question from a systems perspective. He was very philosophical and mentioned that life is self-referential. When a company is presented with a new proposition, it looks back into itself to assess if it is something that makes sense for them – that’s just the way things are. Companies exist to reduce transaction costs in the market, it’s their reason for being, and they are not wired to accept a cost without understanding the benefit immediately. Anyone who has worked agency side trying to deliver innovation to clients will be familiar with this behaviour. Dr. Makarovic went on to say that any innovation-oriented proposal presented to such companies will be perceived as noise. You cannot create change when you are seen as a troublemaker or cage rattler. Point being: if a company isn’t open to it, you can’t help them. They need to understand that you can create business-impacting change without tagging the project on to the rest of the business. He spoke about a company where a couple of consultants created a side project because they weren’t encouraged to work on it during office hours. That side project then started being used by the whole company and 10 years later was sold – by that very company that the consultants worked for – for $200 million.

Araceli Camargo who is studying innovation from a neuroscience perspective and is the founder of The Cube had an interesting point of view to add: the brain can be both interconnected and modular at the same time. The problem with most corporations is that they try to apply macro rules to a micro situation. They need to get used to splitting the two out because it is possible. The discussion then went on to how, as with most apps today for example, a lot of people are creating answers to problems that don’t exist. We’ve heard this before but it was a good reminder: ‘what problem am I trying to solve’ is the question to start with.

Ben Byford, technologist, spoke about how tools can impact innovation. Reaching for the right tool can make your innovation better, but crucially it also needs to be usable by the majority of people. There is a huge education piece when it comes to technology.

The discussion in this section touched upon the question of whether the use of technology was about power, and how innovation was about empowering people. Someone who works with the NHS in innovation spoke about how typically we like to employ people like ourselves, which means less diversity, and therefore less innovation. From an innovation perspective it looks like herd behaviour therefore is not conducive. In my experience this is true: think of common brainstorming techniques like sticking dots on post-its with ideas you think are good during a brainstorm. If you think about it the dots all start aggregating.

Ben ended by saying that technology isn’t magic (sorry Arthur C. Clarke). The use of technology needs to be taught, or the barriers to its use will be too huge.

The evening concluded with a talk by Niall McDonagh, management educator, who spoke about the behaviours needed in leaders to encourage innovation. He referred to Clayton Christensen (‘if we can change our behaviour, we can change our creative impact’) and made a point that stood out to me: innovative leaders tend to ask more questions. They also observe, network with people outside of their usual circles and are therefore better at making useful associations – and encouraging these associations as well.

There was definitely a lot in there when it came to culture and innovation. Definitely food for thought.

Introducing Ada’s List


Those of you who read this blog know I’m a proud feminist, and in case anyone STILL has any doubts, that merely means a belief in the equality of men and women.

So it is with great pride that I’d like to announce the launch this week of Ada’s List with 3 very smart women: Nicki Sprinz, Merici Vinton and Rosa Birch.

What’s Ada’s List:

  • a forum where ladies can talk off the record about professional, tech and science related topics
  • share job listings (yeah, that’s right – let’s create a wicked pipeline of talented women across all of our industries, companies, startups, etc)
  • conference panels and calls for submissions
  • a great place to find talented ladies to write about…and maybe some sources
  • support for co-founders, entrepreneurs, freelancers, corporate innovators
  • informal mentoring
  • sharing some cool, related events

Here’s a bit more about what we hope the email group will be. We’re already up to almost 70 very interesting women, and growing. If you’d like to join us, sign up here!