VI: What is needed…

Just an aide mémoire on what is needed:

  • 2000 square feet minimum (around 200 square metres)
  • Light and heat
  • Internet Access (with wireless and wired points)
  • Desks and seats
  • Catering faciities
  • Several square kilometres of whiteboard space
  • A way of paying for itself (which includes it being my office)
  • Links to Youth Organisations
  • Private companies.

The space will then be open to any digital company that doesn’t focus on services – but on products aimed at a global marketplace.

The space will be open to a digital business which commits to always collaborating at lunchtimes if they’re in the office. Core hours of work may be sacrosanct to their own business but at lunchtimes or if you take a coffee or comfort break, expect to be asked questions.

The space will be open to companies who will take on at least one apprentice. That means they’ll have to have a spare computer, they’ll have to dedicate a day to training and they’ll have to pay proper attention.

The space will be open to anyone who want to come in and learn a new digital trade. It’s not limited to being socially deprived or being part of some programme. If you want to learn, come in, take a desk and learn. You might not get the same attention as if you were on a formalised course but you’ll be immersed in it.

The space will be open to companies who will always take on school placements and that means we’d want them to get a member of staff registered with Access NI.

So, what am I missing?

Work: Interrupted

One of the RSA talks nails it again:

[Audio File]

How can we get people more engaged, more productive, and happier at work? Is technology part of the problem — and could it also be part of the solution?

Dave Coplin, Chief Envisioning Officer at Microsoft, imagines what might be possible if more organisations embraced the full, empowering potential of technology and encouraged a truly open, collaborative and flexible working culture.

This is the way I’ve tried to work over the last five years. It’s meant resisting 1970s micro-managers and 1990s macro-managers to enable myself to be doing stuff most of the time. It means I’m inevitably involved in everything. It also means that it doesn’t feel like work. This isn’t anything magical, it’s just the way people work in this era.

By default, we are open. This is exactly the opposite way of working in the past. That part of the video really resonates with me.

There’s Digital Hubs and digital hubs.

There is an inevitability of a concentration on the digital knowledge economy for Northern Ireland. We have a thriving group of developers and designers in Belfast, a huge amount of ambition in the North West and a heap of activity building in the Southern and Western counties of the province.

Last week I went to the Digital Hub along with Momentum, Belfast City Council, InvestNI and representatives from DCAL and OFMDFM.

We heard the spiel about how it brought some regeneration to the area, that they still have a considerable subvention from the government after 10 years (less than €2m a year, but overall investment has been around €30m since inception and may not include transferred assets).

I also spoke to some of the guys in some of the businesses. They said they wish the Hub was one mile closer to the city centre, that the reason they use bikes and public transport is because they don’t want to bring their cars to that area of town and even the big lads feel a little concerned leaving the Hub with a laptop.

It re-iterates my belief that a city centre location for a Belfast Hub is essential. Not least because Davy Sims put together a map of Digital Media companies in Northern Ireland back in February of 2010 and discovered most were within a square mile in the city centre.

View Belfast Media Square Mile in a larger map

I don’t think we want a straight property play like the Hub in Dublin. We’re a small region with a big ambition so we have to think much more strategically about what goes where. We also need to be 100% joined up. I think I have the support of the Digital Circle steering group in my opinions and in my vision for a digital hub-type infrastructure in Northern Ireland. It’s a big plan, an ambitious plan, even an audacious plan and if it delivers, it will bring the concept to the province as a whole rather than just to a small region.

I have a dream…

Last night I dreamt of a future. It involved talking to people about my new companies, sailing a little wooden boat and travelling a lot. I woke up exhausted.

Image from

But the present is why I’m not going to be able to commit to being involved in anything new. This includes putting some things (like lategaming and City of Tomorrow) on the back burner and we’re still talking about what to do about StartVI. If I don’t have the time for it, then we need to find someone who does.

For the next two months or so, I’ll be concentrating on updating the Northern Ireland Digital Content Strategy (PDF) with some colleagues both from industry, academia and InvestNI.

The Strategy was launched in 2008 and described the need for organisation within the Digital Sector in the province. It paved the way for Digital Circle.

If you want to be involved in re-writing the strategy document, then please comment below.

Steal the Future; Change the World

My friends Rory and Anita at The Creativity Hub are pretty much the nicest people I know. That’s not entirely surprising considering the work they do in creativity and conflict resolution. I know Rory from a few years ago when he was working in the rehabilitation of prisoners (from our unique political ‘situation’) and I was very glad to re-acquaint myself with him not long after the start of this job – both for work and socially.

Rory introduced me to the concept of “Advanced Civilisation” (which he said is also available on the Internet as Beachhead). It’s something I had used for my creative writing but I had not really considered using it for work-related purposes. I do find now that I use it a lot – that imagination figures heavily in how I want to enact change in the world around me. The secret to achieving things lies in the discovery of great people, not in the funding programmes that are available.

This weekend we will complete the proposal document for StartVI year two and we will be looking for 6 great start-up ideas. We have a much more cohesive programme planned for the 2011 intake, more mentors and a better idea of what can be achieved now that we’ve shown it can work.

I’m also proposing the founding of a new co-working, research based technology centre in Belfast. And a solution to improving the quality of software engineering in Northern Ireland – comprising of a industry-tailored education programme and a community focused technology freeschool. Of course I alone am not qualified to do all of this. That’s why I’ve been looking for great people to help change the world; to steal the future; to get there earlier.

All of this to create a hub of 21st Century Enlightenment.

Code4Pizza: The Free School

John Girvin sent this link: Why aren’t we teaching our kids how to code?

So the future is in technology. But what are our children actually learning? Depressingly, the answer is almost nothing useful. Maths and programming will be core to the majority of future innovation, businesses and jobs. Yet maths education in the UK is a joke: the curriculum is outdated, children hate it, and it has little practical value.

The conversation started because of a general malaise about the quality of software engineering and computer science graduates in the UK. I am slightly encouraged by reports that graduates worldwide are pretty rubbish and it’s not just in the UK. But I’m more interested in how to fix the problem and more specifically; how to fix it here.

The original idea for Code4Pizza was to provide pizza in the evening and invite anyone, schoolkids, teachers, professionals, students in to work together, learn together. The problem, as with everything, is opportunity.

But I’m reckoning that time might be approaching.

So, apart from getting some local disgruntled software developers together to try and put together a syllabus for “coders” and then presenting that to local FE colleges and the Department of Employment and Learning, I reckon there’s also room for an industry focused “FreeSchool”. FreeSchools are an actual thing, that any charity, community or industry body can set up. But I’m not really aiming this at replacing schools or even being a full time education alternative – this is about additional education, for free.

Yes, this links into my ideas for creating a hub of 21st Century Enlightenment. Yes, this is another “Change the World” idea. But at some point we need to deliver on this. I’d love to meet some volunteers who would put something in the comments below on what they feel they could teach? Whether they’d want to help out with learning coders? Whether they’d help people make stuff.

#TIC, #KTN, #Science, #Technology, #Innovation

I wrote my first business plan for a co-working space in about 2006 – in response to some encouragement from an ex-colleague who was in Investment Belfast. It helped crystallise some ideas I had with regards to not only co-working, but skills, inclusion, business incubation and innovation.

Over the last two-and-a-bit years I’ve been included on snippets of longer conversations regarding the ‘need’ for a Digital Hub in Belfast. It’s something that inspired us to create StartVI, among other things. I’ve been part of these attempts and also witnessed them being opposed by people who should be helping.

But while CoWorking spaces are generally places to “work” and by that I mean write, create spreadsheets, lay out books, edit images, create software and network online. They provide desks, light, heat, WiFi, coffee, armchairs, water coolers and toasters.

is there a way to have a coworking (or co-researching) facility for freelance scientists?

and this article continues:

A coworking space has three important components: the physical space, the technological infrastructure, and the people. A Science Hostel that accommodates people who need more than armchairs and wifi, would need to be topical – rooms designed as labs of a particular kind, common equipment that will be used by most people there, all the people being in roughly the same field who use roughly the same tools.

But in the modern world, there can be more of those. There will be vast differences in size, type and economics. Some will be built and funded by large, rich institutions. Others will be cooperative projects. Some will be free, but by invitation only. Others will be open, but charging for space and use of the facilities.

We don’t have the resources in Northern Ireland to create a vast Fraunhofer-style network of collaborative research institutes so we have to be clever. £200m will be spent on this network of elite technology centres and despite our low population, the strength of our two local universities will mean we can expect to get >£10m of this, which would build 2-3 such centres. I would be disappointed if they were just carbon copies of what had gone before or worse, they just extended the duration of stuff that wasn’t working particularly well in the first place.

One of these in Belfast, using the Technology and Innovation Centre model, could provide access to shared facilities and useful knowledge which would help make up for the small population we have in Northern Ireland. The initial candidate areas of energy & resource efficiency, transport systems, healthcare, ICT and electronics, and photonics & electrical systems all require a significant ICT resource, resource which could be shared and which could take advantage of ‘traditional’ co-working models – bringing in our local experts in software engineering, user interface design and content. Just as a co-working centre contained writers, designers, software engineers, journalists, teachers and life-coaches, so a co-research centre could contain biologists, chemists, physicists and other disciplines – harnessing relationships with the universities for particularly specialised equipment but only containing individuals dedicated to the future of scientific progress.

It’s only thorough these collaborations that create “some of the luck and coincidences that gave us huge leaps in science and technology.

Who’s interested?

Amazing companies are built on free.

I caught a comment on Twitter recently that “a company built on free would be a pretty shitty company”. The author has since deleted that tweet, presumably because some of the best companies are built on free.

Brands like Gillette ($43B), Google ($185B), Apple ($205B) all leveraged ‘free’ in some form. King Gillette gave away his razors and sold the blades a hundred years ago. Google gives away ‘freemium’ access to their apps and services. The foundation of Apple’s amazing operating system is open source and given away for free and they’ve created and given away a world-class web browser engine, WebKit, which is being used free of charge by Nokia, RIM and Google in mobile products that are competing directly with Apple.

Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary celebrates the notion of free (paying for flights using anciliary revenue – in-flight meals, bag checks, hotel and car bookings, internet and games):
“The other airlines are asking how they can put up fares. We are asking how we could get rid of them.”

Amazing companies are built on free. 20th Century companies were built on the notion of scarcity. They focussed on the shipping of real goods, the transportation of atoms. The scarcity was real. With the exception of High Fructose Corn Syrup, we have a scarcity of many items because duplicating items means duplicating costs. But there’s no scarcity of bits. Bits are the lingua franca of the Internet and we have an abundance of them. Bits enable ‘virtual goods’ to be duplicated endlessly. The cost of duplication is zero so you’re left with the initial cost of creation which, when amortised over the potential millions of recipients, drives the individual cost towards zero.

Now the economics of scarcity keep some people in power – this is the essence of the haves and have-nots. But in a future where the real currency, the currency of bits, is something that is abundant, even more abundant than the air, how can these people retain their power? They can’t obviously and what’s worse, they don’t understand it and it scares the shit out of them.

The scarcity/abundance economics are the reason we’re setting up StartVI. In Belfast there is an artificial scarcity of office space (with over 1.26 million square feet of empty office space in Belfast). The scarcity is created by pricing the office space beyond the means of the businesses which could make use of them. It seems utterly insane that we’re talking about a scarcity of empty space. So, we’re removing the essence of that scarcity. And we;re providing more than empty space. Desk space in StartVI is free. Internet access is free. Light and heat are free. And we’re filling the empty space with people: hopeful entrepreneurs, wise business advisors, savvy investors. And they’re giving their time for free.

The Last Mile

Last week there was a public debate on “Monetising Kelvin” held out at the Northern Ireland Science Park. The event was sponsored by MATRIX and Hibernia Atlantic.

Project Kelvin is a joint €30 million initiative between DETI and DCENR and is partly funded through the EC INTERREG IVA programme. The new cable will link Armagh, Ballymena, Belfast, Coleraine, Londonderry, Omagh, Portadown and Strabane to Europe and North America. In addition, the cable will also provide links to Letterkenny, Castleblayney, Dundalk, Drogheda and Monaghan. This build marks another key milestone in Hibernia Atlantic’s history, as the communications company is the first to deploy a cable from North America to this region. This build is also notable for Northern Ireland and global companies alike, as it offers a new wealth of capacity and the ability to directly and securely connect to Canada, US, UK and mainland Europe.

This proposal adds high speed connectivity to the existing Northern Ireland Saturn Ring (NISR):

Locations on the Saturn Ring are already possessing high speed connections but if you’re not in a building sitting on a Point of Presence (POP) then you’re kinda buggered anyway. The cost for laying a 2 Mbit leased line from a very close POP is currently around £6K and a 10 Mbit line can be had for around £8.5K. The further you are away from a POP, the higher the cost.

The problem that Kelvin isn’t resolving is the Last Mile.

This refers to the fact that you can drag a high speed cable three thousand miles across the Atlantic ocean but when it gets here, you’re stuck on a slow upload link. But, I hear you protest, we have 50 Mbit internet links in Belfast? Download yes – which is fine if you want to have a nation of consumers but rubbish if, for example, you want to upload digital content (home-grown movies for example) to content delivery servers in the USA. In essence, if Kelvin doesn’t usher in a new heap of wireless connectivity, it’s not actually as much use. Unless, of course, you own one of the POPs and have a heap of office space to rent out.

So, what’s the solution for getting the data out there?

A few years ago, a group of cheeky folk mobbed around Belfast with iBooks and Windows CE handheld and large Omni and Backfire antennae and played with the idea of setting up an intra-Belfast wireless network. that group folded – people went off and did their own thing – but the concept itself is still valuable. Why don’t we have a wireless delivery system for bandwidth from a local POP? How much does it really cost to buy an access port on the POP and then feed that out to folk who need it?

I guess this is another vote for “who is looking after the little guy?”