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?

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.

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.

The Importance of Clustering and How To Do It

Earlier this year I got an invite to a reception at Buckingham Palace as part of the UK Tech Clusters. The discussions around clustering tend to range from the aspirational (let’s working together to teach everyone in the country how to code) to very practical (if we have shared workspaces as part of our remit, why not provide passes to each other). But there needs to be more than this.

I am never a fan of intervention where it is unneeded but I am a fan of creating contrivances which lead to repeated behaviours. Digital Circle has never had the resource to create these contrivances but I think that economic development responsibilities (which lie primarily with DETI, InvestNI and the new SuperCouncils but also, in line with the programme for government, with every government department, agency and ALB), are something that needs intervention in order to be habit-forming.

Interventions do not need to be large but they need to be repeated.

But why are these things important?

The first thing that I would say is that it starts to create economies of scale. The more people sign up to your focused programmes, the more benefits they will bring. No-one likes to present to an almost empty room. Your indigenous SMEs will need people to talk to.

You also start to create networks of scale. This means the companies in the area start to lean on each other for work, for shared projects, for new bids for work. You have to build your indigenous companies until they are something to talk about.

Lastly you start to build reputation of scale. It’s easy to say that the Game of Thrones television series has brought attention to Northern Ireland but equally The Shore, Good Vibrations and The Fall have, perhaps to a lesser extent, created buzz. And this is why foreign direct investment companies are then attracted – they come for the work but through hiring and acqui-hiring, they gain a foothold and an investment in the region.

I was at DETI today and the topic of NORTEL came up. When NORTEL failed, it was at the height (or, depending on your perspective, the lows) of the Internet bubble bursting. But it had been a shrewd investment in retrospect as it ushered in a new software industry in Northern Ireland which led to new start-ups in cyber security, in mobile apps, in fin-tech and in health technology. It was a genuinely excellent investment as these start-ups are all indigenous and sometimes (like Wombat and NYSE Euronext) they lead to something bigger. (Thanks to Eoin McFadden in the Innovation Policy unit for the intelligence and foresight as well as the coffee!)

We’re busy using the power of our clusters to educate kids in coding and design, in 3D modelling and creating interactive experiences because we see that as being the future for a small-population knowledge economy. The difficulty in standing and competing on a global stage can be defeated with smart working, with market trend analysis and with working together to create something bigger.

That’s what clusters are for.

Rules of Norn Iron

1st RULE: You do not talk about Norn Iron.
2nd RULE: You DO NOT talk about Norn Iron.
3rd RULE: If someone says “stop” or goes limp, taps out then oppress their civil rights.
4th RULE: Only two guys to a protest.
5th RULE: One fight at a time.
6th RULE: Taps aff.
7th RULE: Fights will go on as long as they have to.
8th RULE: If you’re from Norn Iron, you HAVE to fight.

Belfast was featured in the Guardian online and in the Observer print edition.

Please do not share this to your FaceBook, LinkedIn or Twitter. Please do not comment on the Guardian web site. We want Belfast and Norn Iron to remain the best kept secret of Europe.

Modern Family

This is an illustration of a modern family.

Taking into account that my partner has a 3G device, my son has his own 3G device and I provide tethering to the rest of the family as well (which has used 64 GB this period so far and I’m only 2/3 of the way through that billing period), it seems to me that a family consisting of a mom, pop, two kids and two step-kids could easily use three quarters of a terabyte of data in 30 days. That’s 250 GB in 10 days. 25GB a day. And that’s just during their waking hours.

This comes from nearly everyone but me having a long list of YouTube subscriptions. My usage is mostly Netflix (and an episode or two of Breaking Bad a night isn’t going to break the bank).

It’s also worth saying that the bandwidth we’re using is restricted by the provision. We often see quality issues on YouTube and Netflix. Latency is often high. It would be fair to say that we’re at the top end of the broadband users but that’s what a modern family is.

The demand for this content and the demand for it to be ever higher quality will push our broadband demands though the roof. Is our infrastructure ready for that?

My submission to the Haass process

Here’s what I sent in. I’m not afraid of argument or debate. I’m not afraid of polarised opinions and I’m also not afraid of causing offence to those who consider the exercise of their culture to trump the rights of everyone else. I’m also not afraid to admit I may have gotten it wrong.

I am afraid of the status quo.

I’m very concerned about what the last year has brought as I am seeing a rapid brain-drain and loss to the net industry of skilled workers. This is greatly affecting the ability of our local industry to grow and expand our markets. The troubles of the last year have also affected our ability to attract significant FDI into the local industry because, despite our expertise and talent, the message that was received in Japan from a recent Nintendo FDI visit, was “Belfast Mean Riot”. Similar visits from Bohemia Interactive and Square Enix in the last year turned out the same. The opportunity cost of this runs into the tens of millions in FDI alone.

I express our disappointment that our elected leaders continue to attack each other even while they are in a shared coalition government. I note the rising discontentment within the “Other” community who never get invited to the table to talk. More than 50% of Northern Ireland is not “green” or “orange” but no-one consults them because they don’t carry guns under the table.

I would beseech you to give recommendations on these contentious issues that support the rule of law, that give considerations to the population who do not take offence at the actions or words of others in celebration of culture and who truly understand that tolerance is something you seek within yourself and not something you demand of others. If we continue to capitulate to the threat of civil unrest masked as demands for “tolerance”, we can never move forward as a nation.

On Parades and Protests:

I fully support the rule of law and the rights of individuals to peaceful protest. We would consider that once a protest has become violent, that the security forces should move in to disperse or contain the unrest. To do otherwise is seen as appeasement by the “other” side which encourages them to further test the limits of civil society. These parades are defended as “tradition” but tradition in a country that is less than 100 years old is a sham.

My recommendation is that we can do something with the Maze/Long Kesh site in the provision of a parade ground and that parades are located there. It will bring much footfall to the rural area, providing a contained opportunity for tourism and concessions. If people must parade in this country, let it be a net gain and not a net loss for the nation.

The flow of public money to cultural organisations to organise parades and events should predicate on their cross comity involvement. There is an opportunity for either side of the struggle to take the high road and be inclusive. But if they will not take it voluntarily, they must be persuaded.

On Flags, Symbols and Emblems:

A US citizen appreciates the power and respect of a flag. In my time in the US, I witnessed how flags and emblems are to be respected. I do not see that in this country. Our streets are festooned with rags, some of our national flag and some commemorating terror organisations from our dark past. Civil society should treat signs and emblems of the IRA and UVF and other terror organisations as Germany treats the Swastika. These emblems represent our terrible history and serve to open wounds on all sides of the community. People who are not opposed to them still feel intimidated by them.

Flags should be reserved for flagpoles. They should fly during civil celebrations and they should be removed not more than one week after the event has passed. Flags that are not tagged by the erecting organisation should be removed immediately. We cannot legislate on flags on private property but the Council should have a record of every flag erected and have powers (and protection) to remove flags that are placed inappropriately.

Murals should be messages of solidarity and peace, not threats of war. They should not depict skulls, weapons or masked men. Slogans and emblems of intimidation should be banned. Councils should have the responsibility to deal with this and we would look to the Minister for Justice to enforce this.

On Dealing with the Past:

There needs to be a policy of seeking healing rather than justice (or retribution). We cannot forget the sacrifice of many in the defence of peace but some cannot forgive the transgressions of others. Our society must realise that as we pick open wounds, we cannot heal and move on. We have to recognise there were many victims of the Troubles, physically and mentally, but the response to this must be a conscious decision rather than an emotional one. Victim groups that are allied to one side or the other are counter-productive. We also have to accept that a mother killed in a bomb in a town centre is different to a son killed while trying to plant a bomb. We have to realise that we cannot continue to glorify individuals who spent a lifetime propagating horrors. We cannot congratulate terrorists for laying down their arms when they brought us into terrorism in the first place.

That said, the work of the Historical Enquiries Team is important because it highlights the transgressions of the past. Justice is needed if only because members of the security forces colluded to kill civilians. Justice must, however, be blind to the demands of victims and responsible only to the need for society as a whole. Criminals should be punished and shamed.

We are ashamed that there is a need for external intervention in Northern Ireland but we acknowledge that it’s necessary and we hope that there is a result from this.

Why 3D #3ddojo

Yesterday we had record numbers at #3D Dojo at the University of Ulster. There were kids designing game objects, real-world objects and expressing their imagination. The future for this is preparing children for a world where they will be interacting equally with virtual objects as real-world objects.

The 3D Printing revolution is literally on the cusp. I predict that 3D printers will be on the Christmas lists of many kids in 2014 and I would be surprised and shocked if Microsoft doesn’t produce a 3D Print Kit for the XBox One, complete with a Kinect-based scanner, a controller-based modelling tool, an asset library and a 3D printer that only works with the XBox, Windows, Surface and Windows Phone. In fact, they should do this because Apple won’t.

Some people wonder what the attraction of 3D printing is – I’ve often joked that it’s because we can never get enough of small pieces of brightly coloured plastic crap but it’s much more than that. It’s beyond the production of tiny toys that would previously have come out of breakfast cereal boxes. It’s further along that, perhaps revolutionising the Kinder Surprise (currently illegal in the US due to a choking hazard – but heck, print your own Surprise!). It’s even further than allowing a few specialist applications such as printing your own camera-mount gromit for your telephoto lens.

But it’s really the transformation of bits, the transfer of information, into atoms, into physical objects. We call it 3D Printing but we could also call it Cyber Manufacture – this is a revolution as big as the printing press. This is infinitely bigger than the desktop publishing revolution.

3D printing isn’t about printing someone else’s plastic crap, it’s about printing plastic crap that is specialised to you. That has your unique signature.

  • You receive a hearing aid that you print the housing for, fitted perfectly for your ear without the cost being borne by the health service.
  • Your dentist is able to 3D print dentures or implants while you’re still under the numbness of an injection reducing the number of visits and shipping of parts.
  • Fitting of prostheses becomes incredibly personalised and you might be able to bring your own designs home for printing and colour-matching. Your false hand can match your evening wear.
  • But remember that we’re not limited to plastic in the future. Why can’t a 3D printer layer in porcelain or bone to match your bone injury.
  • Why not print in cartilage or a bio-inert structure and then layer in epithelial cells. That’s an ear or nose replacement. Or even a non-human prosthesis. Cat ears? A tail?
  • Through research in Stem cells, the limits for personal body parts – organs, blood vessels, skin – becomes unlimited.
  • Why can’t a 3D printer lace circuitry through a piece of plastic crap? Laying the pathways for electronic components. That would result in a lot of really cool Iron Man costumes with blinking lights.
  • We’re not limited to one type of plastic, or one material in the same printer. The limitations are really in size. How big is the printer and will the structure self-support?

Teaching competency and comfort in 3D is one further way that our country can differentiate itself. Folk like Greg Maguire and Greg O’Hanlon (both at the University of Ulster) are doing stuff right now. 3D printing might end up bigger than the Internet, it will certainly be bigger than ship-building.

Brand NI

It’s fair to say that “Brand NI” has suffered over the past few weeks. A small group of people (numbering in the hundreds) are causing civil unrest in their own section of the city. The security services, unwilling to create an escalation, seem to be more interested in containment rather than ending the trouble. I think they’re waiting for a dialogue to end the rioting rather than just arresting any agitator.

The trouble has pushed people to the extremes of their politics. Ignoring that the Alliance forged an agreement from Sinn Fein and the SDLP to fly the Union Flag over Belfast City Hall (on designated days). Thinking about that, the significance of that, should have impact on reasonable individuals. While this trouble was inflamed by the DUP and UUP (and by the leaflets distributed by the DUP hardliners), it’s clear that they no longer have any control over it.

But this is damaging us, locally and internationally.

We will have difficulty applying reason to this trouble. It’s not possible to reason with the unreasonable. And the rioters, allegedly aged between 14 and 16 years old, are most definitely unreasonable. They didn’t live through the Troubles, they are children of the Peace Process. And they are suffering; under-achievement in education being a significant reason. And the underachievement is because of a community mentality that values peer respect and holds education in contempt.

To get them to stop, you have to make them a better offer. That’s why Digital Circle is working to create more open access computing clubs (similar to Coder Dojo). Will that solve the issue? No, of course not. But this is a question of options and exits. How do you provide a better offer to a 14 year old who can see the money and power offered by doing what the crime lords of East Belfast demand?