BIF-3 – Wednesday
So, first, some background to set the scene. BIF is hosted at Trinity Rep Theater, a cute little 300-or-so seat repertory theater in downtown Providence. Each speaker – or as they are more commonly referred to here, storyteller – is alloted about 20 minutes to make their presentation. Some choose to use powerpoint as a visual aid while others wing it on words alone. The audience is seated in a semi-circle and many of the presenters stick around, sit in the crowd, and mingle during the generous inter-session breaks. Basically, it’s rapid-fire ideas.
Day 1 at BIF-3…
The morning session began with Matt Cottam, cofounder and principal of Rhode Island design consultancy Tellart. He showed video of three of his recent projects. One was of medical modelling for the Department of Defense, one was a change in the design of emergency response suits, and one was on improving the advance life support capabilities of first responders to mountain and wilderness rescues. The common thread to all of these, he stressed, was the ability to jump into and then out of such different projects. He backed this up by discussing how key a learning experience it was for him, a designer, to study medicine and to actually become an EMT. There’s an important role to play, he said, as a “professional amateur.”
Cottam was followed by Euan Semple, an independent advisor on social computing for business and the former head of Knowledge Management for the BBC. Semple related two stories about how social computing has emerged. The first one was about how years ago a doctor had misdiagnosed a medical problem of his. This led him to question the traditional gatekeeper approach of expertise. The second one described how video editors at the BBC were, on their own accord, pushing the envelope on how new technologies were used. Together, these situations helped prove to him the powerful value of weblogs, wikis and on-line forums. At the Beeb, it encouraged internal storytelling and promoted a more natural way for people within a giant institution to speak naturally.
One of the more evocative presentations today was the one delivered by Colonel Dean Esserman, Providence’s Chief of Police. Starting with a questionable link between the US murder rate and Bin Laden, the chief spoke about the importance of community policing. Crime is intimate and personal, he said, and when it happens to you you usually call who you know. He lamented that it’s often no longer the cops who are called first. Why? Because they had become anonymous and distant strangers. So his solution has been to develop community relationships again and establish the neighbourhood officer as close to families as their doctors or pastors.
The first session wrapped with an interview rather than a presentation. Wall Street Journal columnist and BIF co-host Walt Mossberg asked Jason Fried, founder and CEO of popular web-based software 37signals. (I’m not so sure the different format worked so well; Mossberg did most of the talking.) Fried is a passionate leader in the field of simple, clear, and elegant web-based user interface design and he spoke in favour of editors in the software industry, against feature creep, for more opinionated companies, and in firm belief that design needs to be integrated right from the beginning, not just as paint added afterwards. Addressing his sometimes controversial views, he insisted that it’s better to be loved and hated than to be neither. I caught a second Q&A with Fried later in the evening and must hand it to him for championing a very clear and uncompromising picture of the 37signals brand.
Up next was Jay Cohen, Under Secretary for Science & Technology at the Department of Homeland Security. He showed off some video footage of a naval/coast guard “x-craft,” a large, modular, high-speed ship now called the Sea Fighter.
A sharp turn from military to green, the following storyteller was architect Chris Benedict. Benedict recently completed a 38-unit new construction project that uses 85% less energy than standard designs! “My business is selling less, by simplifying, and upping the comfort and stability of buildings.” She likened buildings to bodies with inter-related systems, and she spoke of how her overall goal with any project is to design spaces where people leave them feeling better than when they arrived.
Eric Bonabeau spoke next. He’s the CEO and Chief Scientific Officer of Icosystem and author of the bestselling book Swarm Intelligence. Much in his career has been about exploring the limits of human decision making in a complex, decentralized and unpredictable world. For this presentation, he questioned Louis Pasteur’s famous claim that chance favours a prepared mind. Instead, Bonabeau wonders if the prepared mind should favour chance. Luck is a crucial and underrated factor. We should be trying to create a luck generator, he mused. Two possible ways: 1) the serendipity based on others’ actions (eg. StumbleUpon), or 2) Intelligent recommendation (eg. Pandora and Nymbler).
It was a pleasure to see Steven Johnson, blogger, best-selling author, and founder of local conversation hub Outside.in. Johnson’s topic today was hunches – how most ideas start as hunches (not eureka moments), how hunches often take an extraordinary amount of time to evolve, and why we need to build hunch-supportive environments. Similar to what Bonabeau was saying, serendipity can be encouraged by introducing different people from different disciplines. Johnson takes that a step further and suggests that because people care most about and are most expert at what is local to them, hunches can be fostered particularly effectively at a neighbourhood scale. Very enjoyable talk.
Following lunch, Fast Company co-founder and Mavericks at Work co-author Bill Taylor hosted a session series on “how ideas move”. It started with Made to Stick co-author Dan Heath, who made a solid case for the much-maligned box that everyone feels such a need to get out of. He argued that, like with improv comedy or elevator pitches (for films, for example), we’re actually conceptually more prolific when working within parameters. “We need to find many boxes until finding the catalyzing one.”
Founder and CEO of word-of-mouth marketing firm BzzAgent Dave Balter was up next and with his company’s artist-in-residence painting behind him, he talked about various angles of the WoM business. In particular, he discussed the benefits of having a staff artist. 1) it creates buzz for the company, 2) clients talk about it, and 3) it adds storytelling to the company culture.
Then Paul English, co-founder and CTO of Kayak.com and, perhaps more famously, founder of the gethuman project, shared his story. Gethuman gained notoriety by providing company contact information so that consumers could talk to actual employees instead of automated machines when they call a helpline. And this was the main point of his talk, that we need to remove the layers between the customer and the engineers and restore the human dignity lost to impersonal business communication. In his view, companies should prioritize as follows: 1) fun, 2) customers, 3) business. Customers drive the business but fun drives you and that means everything.
One of the best and smoothest presentations of the day was Matt Mason‘s. Mason is an ex-pirate radio DJ from London and the author of a forthcoming book titled The Pirate’s Dilemma. “I’m obsessed with the space outside of markets.” Mason argued that pirates are probably the most intense innovators out there and that it’s worth looking closer at what they’re doing because it may be the next big thing. He used examples from music, news media, film, and pharma. “If the core part of your business model is to throw lawsuits at people, you don’t have a very good business model. … The best way to remove a pirate is to compete with them.” But that’s the dilemma. Will definitely be getting this book.
Next up was Juan Fernando Santos, CCO of digital marketing agency Studiocom. He spoke about “democratic publishing” and how the tools to create are now so much more widely available. Not a particularly new observation.
Finally, to close out the afternoon, Mossberg interviewed author, architect, TED founder and Newport resident Richard Saul Wurman. After some friendly chit-chat, Wurman showed a video for 19.20.21, his latest project exploring the 19 world cities with over 20 million people in the 21st century.
All in all, not bad for one day!