The Realm of the Possible: Inventing a New City

After DRIVING past the new “death trap” paint on the Sydenham Bypass that’s meant to be a “cycle lane”, I am comforted to see that some cities have leaders who are prepared to re-make the world as we would like it, and not just rely on what has been past. .

Seattle to permanently close 20 miles of streets to traffic so residents can exercise and bike on them

Nichola Mallon, our Infrastructure Minister, isn’t being advised on what’s in the realm of the possible. It’s the problem with that department (and in particular Roads Service). When you ask a road engineer on what would solve a problem, they think in terms of roads.

I tend to think of the realm of the possible extends from impossible to impossible!

So how do we get people cycling and walking more?

Is it impossible to make cycle lanes which are more than paint?

No, plainly not. Here is a part of the Sydenham Bypass with a kerb! This would make cycling much safer. So, why is the department so happy with a line of paint? If we have it for part of the Sydenham Bypass, why not all of it? Why not extend it to Bangor and Ards?

Is it impossible to close BT1 to private street traffic?

No, it’s not. In fact, a lot of that is in the Regional Transportation Strategy including deflecting traffic from hope street straight to the Ormeau/Cromac area via a new road at Bankmore Square. Essentially the only cars in the centre outside of emergency services and buses, should be taxis and disabled vehicles.

Is it impossible to turn every non-disabled parking space in that area into cycle lanes to protect cyclists from buses, lorries and taxis?

No, obviously. We will see a decrease in traffic overall after the pandemic passes as a lot of people-intensive businesses will be re-looking at their leases for commercial property (some large businesses are closing multiple sites and having their workers work from home because working from home can improve productivity (as long as the kids are at school!) If you think about it, all of the streets in the CBD of Belfast are host to “car corpses”. Cars which are driven in and just lie dead all day. Our streets are littered with them. What are the knock on effects of that?

So we don’t need as many parking spaces? Or commercial parking lets? Or office buildings?

No, we really don’t – so that frees up huge amounts of space for cycling and pedestrians. Think of the lives saved from cars not careening into people.

What about those offices? Will they lie empty?

Well, Belfast City Council has been trying to square the circle of getting people to move into the centre of the city, but there just hasn’t been the space. So, if we are talking about maybe a million square feet of unoccupied office space right now and perhaps up to five times that in two years, that’s a thousand 1000 sq ft apartments now, and 5000 in the next decade. That solves the “Belfast is a graveyard” problem every evening as well as fostering small business in the city centre – including the eateries in the city which really deserve a bit of an uplift after the runaway rates and Covid-19 related collapse.

Thousands more living in the city would be a massive uplift for the city economy. And we have the space.

Are there other things we can change?

Of course, with decreased traffic and more reliance on public transport, we don’t need that M2/Westlink Exchange upgrade. That’s a waste as it is, it’s doubly so after the pandemic. We could invest that in live/work apartments in the city centre. We could invest in arterial segregated cycle lanes from four quarters of the city as well as dedicated cycle freeways along the M1, M2 and A2. With the decreased pollution of decreased traffic, Stockman’s Lane might be bearable to cycle through.

Anything else?

Well, I’m always going to say “free public transport”. The fact that it would decrease pollution and particulate matter, reduce the burden of road repairs on the taxpayer, increase social and economic mobility for just about everyone, equalise some of the society and put cash in the pockets of low and middle income workers is just the tip of the iceberg.

We have an opportunity to change the city and be an exemplar. Wouldn’t it be great to be proud of Belfast for things that were great and that worked? Stuff we could boast about that was good on a global stage and not just “better than what we deserve”. Can’t we aspire to greatness as a city? Celebrate our best and brightest?

Rather than a ship that sank, forty years of civil war and an alcoholic footballer?

Raise the bar: maybe you have a great idea…

Coming into mid-Spring, it’s now time to start making calls for the second cohort for our Raise programme. Every six months we start a new formalised intake (though technically companies can join at any time).

We’re delivering remotely (as we have for a decade) though when lockdown ends, we have existing office space in one of the best streets in Belfast.

Raise is the only commercially focused accelerator for startups in Northern Ireland – we only succeed when you do. If you don’t understand why that’s important, come and talk to us. And if you don’t care, well, there’s some incubators out there where you can gestate on your idea for as long as you like.

What do we do?

Well, we teach the things that others can’t or won’t. We get you familiarised with the terms so you won’t be blindsided. We will challenge your idea, contribute to your plans, help you build confidence and develop your pitching style. We’ll help with grants, forms, proofing, explaining. We’ll introduce you to investors, advisors, non-execs, designers, developers and troubleshooters.

So, with that in mind, and with the fear of failure neatly pushed under the rug for a bit, what do you really have to lose? Apply now.

Sustainable Electro-Motive

I’m attending the Eden Project Communities Camp this May and that’s where I hope to talk about Sustainable Electro-Motive.

This project ties several interests into one whole. One part is working with my friend Stuart and his extracurricular work with GreenPower NI. One part is my interest in maintaining our way of life without necessarily increasing our impact on the environment (and ideally, reducing our impact massively). My other interests are social enterprise, the democracy of community energy resources, the digitisation of energy and transport (which is more about the change in the economies than any real addition of technology).

I hope SEM to be a great example of a social enterprise, of “altrupreneurship.

100% electric transportation and 100% solar by 2030

I don’t find just Tony Seba believable, I find his conclusions inevitable. While I am sceptical on driverless cars, it’s because of human nature not because of doubts about the technology.

When you add the variables of the efficiency of electric motors, the possibilities of software for improving how we drive and the virtually endless resources of renewable energies, the result is plain.

This is why I’m starting a new thing. This.

The CTO CoFo and other quasi-mythical beasts

Jase Bell is mostly, pardon the pun, on the money:

Put bluntly it’s a big stand off. The startup founder (“Hey, I’m the ideas guy/gal!”) goes tail wagging desperately looking for a tech co founder, someone who can look at the holistic view of the startup, the long term, code the iOS app, the Android app and the back end, the reporting…. those unicorns don’t come cheap, circa £75,000 p/a if you want a quality tech co-founder, someone who will be “all in”. Your short runaway will become a lot shorter, that £300k seed you need to get going is basically mandatory.

Of course there is another side to this. A finder needs to identify a good CTO.. It’s not like there is a large supply.

I’ve been on the fringes of the local software industry for the last 20 years I can count on my fingers the people I’d approach for such a vital role.

Part of this is their ability: they have to command respect, have a good reputation, be pro-active and have a can-do attitude and probably have done more than just worked for a wage in a local company.

The other part is my ability. Will I have to manage them? Am I a good judge of ability or character? Can I raise the cash to get them paid? And if I can, have I judged correctly; is this just another job or are they part of the team?

Over the years I have, with friends, built a heap of stuff you’ve never heard of. The 23rd Letter, SpaceNinjaCyberCrisis, ZOMBI, Syncbridge, Rickshaw, Infurious Comics, Eagle Lake; stuff that was always ahead of the market and if I had been smarter, better connected, more business-savvy, more predatory then I might be talking to you from a private island.

My opinion is this.

CTOs are incredibly rare in Northern Ireland. And when you find them, chances are they will be working for a high five-figure salary with benefits within a secure FDI company doing work well beneath their ability. Their lifestyle will have grown to demand that salary and only inspiring friendship or a mid-life crisis will urge them to move. That will be a lot of risk for the aspiring CEO – because you’re banking someone’s life on the strength of your idea and using your relationship as collateral. And the money had better follow.

As you get older it will be more about the money and less about the relationship: so start young.

BelTech: thanks to all who made it happen

Just spent two breakneck days at the BelTech conference. Had a great time meeting dozens of techies on day one and hundreds of kids and educators on day two.

Thanks to Tom Gray of Kainos for the vision and congratulations to Sheree Acheson also of Kainos for launching Women Who Code Belfast.

Thanks also to Orlaith and Connla of Aisling Events for their military precision in running a tech conference. Apple and Google should hire you.

Thanks to Paul Braithwaite of the Building Change Trust for giving me a platform to speak about social innovation through digital.

Thanks to Willis McBriar of VIEW Digital for helping me man the Coder Dojo and 3D Dojo stand.

Thanks to Stuart and Ron from Mac Sys for paying for the island stand that would house not only Digital Circle and Coder Dojo but also Farset Labs and VIEW Digital.

And finally thanks to the US Consul General Gregory S. Burton and his wife for hosting us at the official residence at the close.

A quarter of our 18-24 years olds are unemployed – and that’s up over the last year

Between the ages of 18 and 24, I left school, went to university, worked in a newsagents/stationers, joined the QUB OTC, joined Dragonslayers at QUB, rewrote their constitution to include a convention, founded Q-CON, set up and organised the Star Trek Megagame and wrote my first book, The 23rd Letter. I do believe I was lucky to have my parents, my mother was a RMN and had a senior job in the health service and my father had been a serial entrepreneur with a series of ‘do what he liked’ businesses until he got ‘sick‘. The thing is – the drive to do things is not borne of privilege or luck, but it is a state of mind. The problem we are faced with is not that we have some of the worst deprivation in Europe and it is not that we have suffered under the threat of civil war for the entirety of my life (because, like it or not, the threat has never gone away) and it is not that we are on a small tip of a small island on the edge of a crumbling empire. The problem is that our young do not believe in themselves.

There have been times when things were not working out the way I had hoped and even my boundless arrogance was blunted. But a kind word from friends could often put me right and get my will directed again. Sometimes I need to be reminded of what I have done and reminded to be proud of these things. I may not be racing around in a Porsche or living in a mansion with a sea view but I know I have something to be proud of. I know this is not going to be the same for everyone.

We have and continue to fail our youth. We trust that the things that made us will make them whole. We give them pen and paper while they are bathed in the most distracting age the world has ever known. Every second of every day they are blasted with enticing imagery on how to do everything quicker – whether that is to lose weight, look cool, get laid, get rich, get famous. Our society lies to our children and when they fail to achieve all of these impossible dreams, they feel worthless. We are unrelenting in our scorn for failure. When even a supermodel feels the need to photoshop her own body for Instagram, what hope is there for socially awkward tweens trying to emulate them? We are failing to provide a safe environment for our children.

So, what the fuck are we doing about it?

Equity Egality

Following on from the announcement that Mapbox just secured $10M in Series A and conversations this morning with a NISP EIR, I am left wondering how Northern Ireland can justify selling Series A of the scale of £200K with a 10% fee return and equity stakes of up to 30%?

Doesn’t that just end up de-motivating the founders? Don’t you just end up with an institutional stakeholder who has difficulty following on especially when the expectation of the return on the fund is less than zero?

Doesn’t it push valuations down when our geography would indicate that to approach your Series B (which will be a year away) you will need to look beyond these shores and spend a chunk of your Series A funding that process (and not focusing on product)?

Doesn’t it mean the job of the CEO becomes the endless search for further capital and not the development and expression of the team vision? How much runway does £200K provide for a globally focused startup compared to $10M?

And what is the purpose of public backed funds? I would expect them to be tasked with the role of creating value-added startups who will be fit to employ others, equipped to challenge anyone and financed to play on a global stage? I would not expect term sheets that were predatory, equity stakes that were nausea inducing, valuations that were humbling and anti-founder clauses (including an insistence of a hostile board member) that caused founders to disengage from the process early.

The point of public-backed funds is not to get as much value for money as possible (in terms of startup equity and founder enmity) but to accelerate the development of these companies to some sort of exit, up to and including merger, acquisition or even IPO. Inadvertently we have incentivised exactly the wrong activity in our public venture funds. I would be curious to see if it happens again.