Thinking Digital’s been really good. One of the things that has amazed me today has been the variety of topics and speakers. Kicking off was Paul Miller, the man behind School of Everything (matching people who want to learn with people who want to teach) and Social Innovation Camp (bringing together innovators and hackers to solve social problems). Paul was really quite inspired and energetic, calling out “that cyberspace is dead” and meatspace is all it is now (cf. my own discussion on how the barrier between ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ has come down) – technology should be more urgently directed to social problems. The kicker is, where is money going to come from – School of Everythng has a half-decent business model of taking commission, but SI Camp is still volunteer and sponsor-powered; as a recession kicks in will this be a problem (or maybe it won’t be – unemployed geeks volunteering to keep them sharp and improve their CVs, maybe?)
In a similar vein, there was also an interesting talk by Jim TerKeurst, director of the Institute of Digital Innovation, something I must confess has never really been on my horizon. Jim showcased some of the IDI’s fellows, who have worked on diverse range in the arts and technology – both art and artefacts. As a things geek, I was initially more impressed with the artefacts, such as chandeliers made from recycled plastic, the silver nanotechnology or the chairs that change according to your mood & clothing – annoyingly the IDI’s site doesn’t seem to showcase much, which is a pity. That said, later on one of the performers supported by the IDI, The Sancho Plan, gave us a great of their combination of live percussion controlling weird and wonderful computer animation, which I really liked – check out one of their videos:
The morning sessions weren’t just about targeting social problems or supporting the arts and creativity, but also about cold hard business. Well, with a cuddly side. Alex Hunter of Virgin group (though a committed Diet Coke drinker) talked about how he’s reshaping the Virgin website for a Web 2.0 & social media outlook. It was for the most part a well-presented Cluetrain Manifesto but still had some interesting lessons; Alex regards Digg’s blog as the best corporate blog – not just because it’s written by the guys at the top, but because it’s a multiplicity of voices and they respond to their fans. Geeks with fans, who would think it? But then, Digg know the audience they’re blogging for, and it’s harder for non-tech brands, so be careful of using them as an example.
Still, Alex was evangelistic about embracing social media in the business word, and made it clear it works for brands big and small (citing Qype and Zappos as examples). We also got some insights in the Virgin process – they have Virgin Eye a beautiful visualisation of mentions of their brands on the web (from over 5,000 sources) and other “labs”-style projects from Virgin at Explore Virgin. They have a new website, more of a community platform out which they’ve spent a year and a half listening, researching and creating, which is an impressive level of care and attention (although in a world where online fads come & go in days, risks being stale on the day it launches).
From another business point of view, Harry Drnec talked about his experiences as MD of Red Bull. His philosophy was from the emotional end of the spectrum rather than the practical – find your consumer, touch them, thrill them. Marketing wank? Possibly. But there’s no denying how attached people are to Red Bull as a brand, despite the ridiculous price it sells at (Red Bull made it a policy of not cutting price to increase sales, preferring the premium cachet). Now he’s trying to do the same for computers – make them rely on as little skill on the user’s part as possible. A noble goal, but I hope they don’t confuse simplicity and intuitiveness; by making things too simple to use we risk destroying their power and potential. Intuitiveness is what counts.
Right, enough business. Next post – hardcore geekery and genuine leftfield afternoon weirdness.