Sunny Side Up

July 3, 2014

Nadine May - Solar EnergyThe red squares represent the area that would be enough for solar power plants to produce a quantity of electricity consumed by the world today, in Europe (EU-25) and Germany (De).

Amazing fact/quote: ‘in just six hours, the world’s deserts receive more energy from the sun than humankind consumes in a year.’

From Wikipedia (which gives the history of the associated project plus it’s pros and cons as well as the remarkable graphic above):

“The DESERTEC concept was originated with Dr Gerhard Knies, a German particle physicist and founder of the Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation (TREC) network of researchers. In 1986, in the wake of the Chernobyl nuclear accident, he was searching for a potential alternative source of clean energy and arrived at the following remarkable conclusion: in just six hours, the world’s deserts receive more energy from the sun than humankind consumes in a year.

The DESERTEC concept was developed further by Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation (TREC) – an international network of scientists, experts and politicians from the field of renewable energies – founded in 2003 by the Club of Rome and the National Energy Research Center Jordan. One of the most famous members was Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan. In 2009, TREC emerged to the non-profit DESERTEC Foundation.”

Official site, for additional info: DESERTEC Foundation.


Stealing Ideas

June 18, 2014

‘One can steal ideas, but no one can steal execution or passion.’ – Tim Ferriss

I’m not sure some people get this. Telling someone your idea is not the same as giving the game away, if it is then the idea must be very small indeed.

 


Ideas Are Like Rabbits

May 29, 2014

congdon - rabbits_cover

Picture credit: Lisa Congdon


The Apple Approach

May 19, 2014

6213990415_1ce6904d8a_b

This infographic from Lifehack caught my eye.

Apple wasn’t just Steve Jobs of course and in all likelihood reality was far more complex than that illustrated above but it’s nevertheless stimulating food for thought. In particular the emphasis on secrecy which is quite at odds with ‘sharing’ company cultures.

An example is provided by the iPhone development project (see here):

Secrecy on the project was so rigid that the few employees who were directly involved (Christie described his team as “shockingly small” but wouldn’t elaborate on an exact figure) could only work on it at home if they did so in a secluded part of their homes, cut off from other family members. All images of the device were to be encrypted.

 


Benefitting From Random Ideas

April 4, 2014

I keep notes on most things I do, from work to personal interests. These range from speculative, random ideas to well-defined project tasks. Regarding the random ideas, now and again I go through them and am often surprised at how many I’ve completely forgotten about. Also, as time progresses, the original idea will often have quite a different connotation and occasionally be in a better position to be acted on. However I don’t really do this trawl in a very systematic way, say via a regular review, so progress comes through luck and mood rather than method.

I recently read about Steven Johnson‘s approach to this general problem, he uses the idea of a ‘spark file’:

This is why for the past eight years or so I’ve been maintaining a single document where I keep all my hunches: ideas for articles, speeches, software features, startups, ways of framing a chapter I know I’m going to write, even whole books. I now keep it as a Google document so I can update it from wherever I happen to be. There’s no organizing principle to it, no taxonomy–just a chronological list of semi-random ideas that I’ve managed to capture before I forgot them. I call it the spark file.

The key aspect is the regular use of a review:

Now, the spark file itself is not all that unusual: that’s why Moleskins or Evernote are so useful to so many people. But the key habit that I’ve tried to cultivate is this: every three or four months, I go back and re-read the entire spark file. And it’s not an inconsequential document: it’s almost fifty pages of hunches at this point, the length of several book chapters. But what happens when I re-read the document that I end up seeing new connections that hadn’t occurred to me the first (or fifth) time around: the idea I had in 2008 that made almost no sense in 2008, but that turns out to be incredibly useful in 2012, because something has changed in the external world, or because some other idea has supplied the missing piece that turns the hunch into something actionable.

I might try this myself although I’ve also started using some innovative software called TheBrain (from TheBrain Technologies) to do something similar.

Whatever approach you use, the importance of the regular review remains of course, so I’ve now got the next three scheduled in my calendar. I’ll also make brief notes on the reviews and include them in the list as well as that’ll be an interesting way to see how my thoughts grow.

Aside: TheBrain has been described as a knowledge visualisation tool but to get a feel it’s best just to watch one of their many explanatory videos. The free version of TheBrain is very good in it’s own right so you might want to give it a trial (it runs on Windows, Mac and Linux). For an independent assessment, see also the illuminating posts on Steve Zeoli’s site.

 


Cultivating Innovation And Deciding What To Fund

March 6, 2014

nesta-spending-2012-13

Chart of Nesta spend from their Annual Report 2012-13

I spent over 15 years of my career involved with bids, ranging from the small to the very large. They were all in the hi-tech area and focused on innovative solutions to a wide variety of business problems. Sometimes they involved bids for internal funding, to develop a new product idea, but more usually for external project funding (and usually in alliance with other parties).

Over this period I had experience from both sides of the fence: reviewing bids and giving feedback and submitting bids and receiving feedback. It’s a tricky area to get right: not to waste time on putting together a bid that will not get anywhere (for a host of reasons, which are often only clear afterwards, if at all) to the opposite, of being clear as why you’ve (really) won over other competing bids.

In the light of this I was interested to read about the approaches the charity Nesta are taking in cultivating innovative approaches in the areas that they focus on, including social innovation.

Nesta is a very interesting organisation and more info on them and their projects can be found from their site. In summary (here):

Nesta (formerly NESTA, National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) is an independent charity that works to increase the innovation capacity of the UK.

The organisation acts through a combination of practical programmes, investment, policy and research, and the formation of partnerships to promote innovation across a broad range of sectors.

Nesta was originally funded by a £250 million endowment from the UK National Lottery. The endowment is now kept in trust, and Nesta uses the interest from the trust to meet its charitable objects and to fund and support its projects.

The key points so far are (with some extracts, see here for details):

1. Ideas matter, teams matter more

We’ve tried different approaches. Pitching sessions are useful, but you need to allocate enough time to get beyond the pitch and have a conversation; and one conversation is never really enough.

2. Information has a cost

One technique that seems to work is conference calls where we answer questions and clarify our goals before we ask teams to tell us their proposals.

3. Every contact should aim to add value

Often that’s about designing the selection process in a way that increases the knowledge or skills of the teams applying. We’ve held workshops on how to prototype and test ideas, connected people with coaches and experts, and supported teams to develop their theory of change.

4. Reach out for different perspectives

We haven’t found a simplistic formula that we can apply to our selection processes (if you know of one, please get in touch). What we do know is that we get much better decisions when we seek out different perspectives.

5. Expect iteration, know when to walk away

Sometimes the right thing to do is walk away; never easy after you’ve invested not only money, but your time and reputation into an innovation.


Thinking Of Facebook As A Disease

March 4, 2014

From an article in the (free) online maths magazine +plus:

If Facebook is a disease, then most of us know the symptoms: obsessive checking, a compulsion to share trivialities, and confusion about what’s real and what isn’t. But if Facebook is a disease, then why not use epidemiological methods to try and predict its future? This is what two scientists from Princeton University, New Jersey, have done. And they predict that Facebook is heading for a “rapid decline”: between 2015 and 2017 it will lose 80% of the users it had when it was at its peak in 2012…

Mathematical modelling is a tricky business, of course, because everything depends on the underlying assumptions. As the statistician George Box once said, “all models are wrong, but some are useful.” But Cannarella and Spechler did test the strength of their model on a social networking site that has already all but died out: MySpace. And they claim that it simulates MySpace’s life cycle well enough to validate the model. But if you try you could probably come up with plenty of arguments why Facebook and Myspace are two different kettle of fish, or other reasons why the model may not be valid…

Facebook responded (very quickly and amusingly) to the Princeton paper – see here:

In keeping with the scientific principle “correlation equals causation,” our research unequivocally demonstrated that Princeton may be in danger of disappearing entirely…

As data scientists, we wanted to give a fun reminder that not all research is created equal – and some methods of analysis lead to pretty crazy conclusions.

Either way, and ignoring vested interests, it prompted some interesting thoughts!


Hunger For The Higgs

February 22, 2014

higgs_boson_explained

I was fascinated to read that (see here):

More than 10,000 people have signed up for an online course to study the work of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Professor Peter Higgs.

The free seven-week course, called The Discovery of the Higgs boson, begins this week and is being run by the University of Edinburgh where Prof Higgs worked when he developed the “God particle” theory.

The course is being run on the FutureLearn platform, a partnership of 23 universities.

The requirements seem quite modest: The course requires a basic level of mathematical skills, at the level of a final-year school pupil. A basic knowledge of physics is helpful, but not required.

Although it’s already started, it may be worthwhile joining if you’re interested in the topic as just 2 hours a week is needed. The link to the course is here.

I’ve previously written about the Higgs here and here (I did academic research in this area for over 10 years before moving to the commercial sector).

Picture credit: LiveScience.


Skills For The 21st Century

January 29, 2014

On the 4th February, you can watch or listen live to a summit being held at the RSA on the above topic:

As of September 2014, the UK will make computer programming part of its national K-12 curriculum, making it the first G20 country to put coding at the centre of education reform.

Inspired by this ambitious policy, Codecademy, Index Ventures, Kano, Pearson and the RSA convene a thought-provoking gathering to re-imagine “Skills for the 21st Century.” Together with international policymakers, business leaders and today’s most exciting education entrepreneurs, we will explore how to fix one of the most disturbing challenges faced by this generation: youth unemployment and the shortage of job seekers with relevant skills.

During the day, we will re-imagine a basic school schedule and the new approaches needed to teach each subject, with sessions on Entrepreneurship, Coding, Maths, Arts & Humanities, Science & Engineering and Design.

Hopefully they’ll discuss multidisciplinary aspects – I’ve always thought that breaking subjects down into strict domains was unnecessarily limiting, as showing or encouraging links can often be just as important.

And it’s not all theory, the 11 year-old daughter of a friend of mine is fascinated by Design through discussions and activities at school, as Design & Technology is a taught subject!

Why not contribute your views? Twitter: @SKILLSsummit


Goals And Key Conversations

January 13, 2014

conversation-sm

“Set a goal so big that you can’t achieve it until you grow into the person who can.” – Unknown

I came across this quote a couple days ago and it got me thinking, especially as I’m doing an annual review of sorts. The quote is helpful as it emphasises that goals and personal development (for want of a better phrase) can be strongly interlinked. Doing one can change the other and vice versa, it’s an evolving system.

There’s a lot of discussion on whether you should even set goals at all of course, whether they are just too confining and mechanical. In practice I guess I go through phases of having a concrete goal and then, almost as a reaction, to being more free-form just to ‘see what happens’. It may not be the most efficient approach but it does allow me to produce as well as to feel like I’m having fun. For instance, I’ve written over 80 posts on this blog this year plus about a quarter more as draft ideas that I decided not to publish plus a load of other book-related material.

For the first time, I’ve also been keeping a personal journal so I can better understand where my time and effort goes. I’ve tried various approaches but the most natural so far seems to be a ‘stream of consciousness’ method where ideas, web links, tasks etc all get captured and noted simply as they occur. I don’t tag or categorise as so far I haven’t found either helpful (I found I spent more time fiddling with my system that actually gaining any benefit from it). That’s probably because the outliner software I’m using (although excellent in it’s own way) doesn’t quite match my work/research flow (see aside below).

Looking through the journal entries for last year, it becomes quickly apparent that I tried to do too many things and conversely, there are an infinite number of interesting thing to try! Thank you internet.

To get good at anything takes time and discipline and to get even better takes even more time and discipline. So you have to make some hard choices on what you’re (mainly) going to focus on. Having some flexibility is important though as it allows for serendipity and the ability to change plans, sometimes in big ways.

However, apart from these generalities, perhaps the biggest insight I got was the importance of key conversations. All the best ideas got going through them, I can even remember each one quite clearly.

A conversation with a friend on something that really interests you, when perhaps you’re feeling a bit fed up or unsure, can be worth it’s weight in gold. A couple of minutes of positive and/or imaginative conversation can easily exceed hours of surfing for inspiration or ideas. You need both but, in hindsight, I spent too much time researching/thinking and not enough conversing! I expect this is fairly common.

Even though I wanted to talk on specialised topics (which I thought would not necessarily be of great interest), I found that:

  • People like to help and to feel that they can help (in their own, special individual way).
  • Some things are so obvious you need someone else to point them out to you (wood for the trees syndrome). Don’t worry when they’re astounded that you hadn’t realised the blindingly obvious as it usually works both ways.
  • Some ideas take ages to incubate, that’s just how it is, so don’t fight it. Friends might be surprised at the apparent lack of progress, but just feel lucky that change is happening at all!

From this, one novel ‘goal’ for 2014 would be to have more conversations with an ever wider group of acquaintances and friends on topics that are important to me.

I’ve never had this as a goal before so it’ll be interesting to see how this turns out. I’ll also write up details of the conversations in my journal, something I don’t usually do.

For a bit more on the role of conversation in business and research, especially the role of knowledge cafes and similar, see here.

Aside on note-taking:

There’s an innovative piece of software that might offer a more natural alignment to my work methods as it is designed to handle emergent structures. It’s mac-only and is called Tinderbox (an exciting new version is just around the corner, Tinderbox 6). One of my goals for 2014 is to get to know this software better.

Independently, the person responsible for Tinderbox, Mark Bernstein, has a really interesting blog – it’s worth a look, he certainly has a wide variety of interests (mainly books, cooking, politics and software)! There’s a good practical overview of the current version of Tinderbox here.


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