Saturday, 27 September 2008

A busy day at summer Davos

Saturday was a busy day for me at the "Summer Davos" as the World Economic Forum meeting here in Tianjin, China is know. It started with a technology brainstorm and ended with a presentation by the Chinese leader, Premier Wen JiaBao and a Gala Soiree.

The first session that I attended was on "The Next Wave for the Web" and I led one of the group sessions. We "transported" ourselves to 2015 to imagine what life would be like for different characters. My group got an 87 year old Japanese lady, with family in the USA to play with. It was good fun leading a very lively brainstorm discussion about this, particularly when you have visionary folk like the founder of Wikipedia, the CTO of Cisco and the worlds foremost cybersecurity guru in your team.

Then off to a 20 minute interview with CNBC, where I was interviewed by the CEO of a $multibillion USA security company for a new series where the Chief Exec of a large established company interviews the Chief Exec of an emerging leader in the same industry, in this case McAfee and Garlik, to exchange advice and ideas. It was quite different being interviewed by someone who knows your industry inside out vs a normal presenter and I'll be interested to see the finished result. Apparently it will air on CNBC in Europe and Asia and possibly appear in the business clips that they put on flights too.

Next, straight after lunch I Chaired a panel discussion on Cybersecurity, with panelists including the CEO of the world's leading security company, the CEO of management consulting at Accenture, CTO of a large Swiss security company, CEO of a 10,000 strong global customer service company and the legendary security expert Bruce Schneier, currently Chief Security Technology officer of BT. Quite a panel and quite an exchange of views, with questions from an audience that included a Government Minister, Chief Exec of a telecoms company and many others. However it seemed to go okay, so I could breath easy after it was over.

Then off to a one on one discussion in the area set aside for business partner discussions with the VP of a large security company who expressed an interest in learning more about Garlik to see if there were areas for cooperation.

And finally into the big hall for a presentation and Q&A with the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. The Hall was packed with about 1,000 people, chief executives, entrepreneurs, government ministers from all over the world plus a large group of Party members who were sitting up front. I was sitting next to one of China's top TV news presenters who pointed out all the main Chinese and Hong Kong dignitaries and powerplayers to me. Premier Wen was eloquent (or the translator was anyway) and seemed quite relaxed in the Q&A, raising issues himself and commenting on them in much the same way that most Western leaders would.

The day ended for me at a spectacular Gala Soiree in the Exhibition Centre, where I was seated next to the Chairlady of Mozilla and an MIT professor. Over a thousand guests were seated in front of a massive stage with Chinese dancers, singers, acrobats in amazing costumes. For some reason that I don't understand though we were served Australian steak. So I made my apologies and sneaked off early back to the hotel to ordered myself a chicken sandwich and chips and a nice cup of tea. Ahhhh.....

Waiting for Godot

As we were driving to the Binhai Conference Centre, Tianjin, China for Day 2 of the World Econominc Forum conference, I noticed someone standing out in a field. He stood looking quite relaxed, hands behind his back staring casually at the road. Fifty yards along there was another chap. Then another. Then another. They looked like they were waiting for something. Then I realised what they were waiting for. Us lot. Their job was to wait for us to go past. That's it.

China has a lot of people and it seems quite good at puting them to work. Quite a lot seem to be employed to wait. There is the chap who waits by the lift. His job is to press the button as you approach the lift and show you how to step in to a lift. You know he's there because the chap waiting in the lobby points you towards the lift chap. There is the lady who waits in the hallway to the restaurant. She shows you how to continue walking down the hall until you reach the other lady who waits to show you how to turn right in to the restaurant in case you keen walking straight and bump in to a wall or something. While you eat, a chap waits just out of eyeshot behind you. If you stop eating to breath, he sweeps in and whips your plate away.

At the conference centre, there are eight ladies who wait at the entrance. (I would mention that they are all stunningly beautiful ladies but I think my wife reads this blog sometimes so I won't). They wait. When you walk between them they smile. I have tested this. If you turn towards the four on the left, they smile and the others don't. If you turn to the right they smile instead. I thought for a moment that they were smiling specifically at me, handsome fellow that I am, but I now realise that they would smile even if I was a chicken.

There is something about trying too hard, I think. It can feel a bit forced and unnatural. But, I suppose if you have a lot of people then getting them to wait in an orderly fashion is no bad thing. And China certainly has a lot of people. A news item yesterday said that by middle of next year China Mobile is expected to have 500m mobile phone subscribers!

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Blown to Tianjin by Typhoon Hagupit

It's not every day that you set foot on a new continent. In fact this is something you will do a maximum of 7 times in your life, so you should relish the experience.

Today I relished the experience of setting foot on the continent of Asia for the first time in my life, as I landed first in Hong Kong en route via Beijing to Tianjin, China to represent Garlik at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting of the New Champions 2008.

The journey to this "one small step" was not as smooth as it might have been. Typhoon Hagupit hit Hong Kong the previous day, delaying most flights. So I actually spent about 6 hours "setting foot" on every bit of Heathrow Terminal 3's departure lounge and barely resisted setting foot on the necks of the rather unhelpful Cathay Pacific ground staff who seems unconcerned about the connecting flight that I would miss as a result of the delays.

However after a 6 hour delay we boarded the 11 hour flight to Hong Kong, followed by a 3 hour wait at HK International, a 4 hour flight to Beijing and a 3 hour coach drive to Tianjin. Allowing for my journey from home to Heathrow at the beginning and it took about 33 hours door to door. Phew!

So, what are my first impressions of China? Well there's no sunlight for starters (but that might just be because it's night time. I'll find out in a few hours I guess).

And it feels very different. I have travelled in Europe, America, Africa and the Middle East so I am used to "different" but this is a new kind of different again which is very interesting. A few things have struck me already.

China is confidently big. We all hear the stories about China being big but it's difficult to appreciate until you see it. Starting from the international airport in Beijing which I am told (by one of the lead engineers who happened to be on the coach with me) has the largest roof in the world, you are hit with "bigness".

But it is confidently big. It doesn't feel like it's building big things just to show that it can (take note Dubai). It just has a lot of space, a lot of money, a lot of people so it builds really big stuff. When the coach rolled in to Tianjin at night and we saw the lines of top flight hotels and conference centres lit up and the huge straight roads stretching off in every direction the immediate impression was of a very new, very clean, very big version of Las Vegas without the gambling.

The second thing that strikes me is that I don't understand anything. Even though I don't speak any other languages (and believe me, I've tried) most places I visit I find that the odd word, phrase, written sign feel vaguely familiar and I can feel my way along. Even in the Middle East I got the hang of "hello", "thank you" and "is that my barrel of oil?" pretty quickly. But here unless there is a direct English translation, I understand nothing, I can read nothing, I have no sense of what things mean and left to myself I think I would come to a complete halt.

The third interesting things is that I am back to being a sub-group of one. In this day and age it is pretty difficult to go anywhere and be literally the only black person in sight, particularly in a very busy international airport. Last time I noticed this was in the 90's when I visited a place called Snellville, Georgia, USA, and the hotel staff kindly advised me not to go for a stroll in the evening for my own wellbeing. But this time the furtive glances in my direction are looks of curiosity rather than hostility.

However this has the potential to be a fascinating place. I am looking forward to learning more about China over the next few days and I hope I don't have to stay huddled with hundreds of other visitors in the conference centre all the time. In the meantime "míng tiān jiàn" as we say in China :)

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

The Silk Road

Today I am off to Tianjin, China for a World Economic Forum conference entitled New Champions. It's a gathering of a thousand or so business executives, politicians, volunteers with a focus on new emerging companies with the potential to have a global impact. The event will be opened by the Premier of China.

Garlik has been selected to attend and I will be leading a session on cybersecurity alongside some fascinating people.

Tianjin is a fairly small city in China, I think it only has about 12m people and ranks as China's 27th largest city. Phew!

I have never been much further east than Essex so this is a completely new experience for me. I am looking forward to sharing my first impressions, but I am not looking forwards to the 17 hour journey that I am about to embark on....

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Near death experienced

I heard on BBC Radio 4 this morning that a new, large scale study into near death experiences is being coordinated by the University of Southampton. This is the phenomenon where people near death report of floating above the medical staff or seeing a bright light. The interviewer on Radio 4 was quick to dismiss all this nonsense and the scientist tried to tread a fine line between enthusiasm for the subject and not being seen as one of those loonies who actually believe that nonsense.

Well, I could save them a huge amount of money and time if they really want to know whether these things happen. They could just ask me.

36 years ago, I was travelling in various parts of Africa with my father. I stayed for a couple of months in a small, distant village in West Africa and, having acted as a hearty meal for a whole community of mosquitoes over several weeks, unsurprisingly I got malaria. I was laid up for a few days with fever and so on as I battled my first encounter with the potentially fatal malaria without the benefit of proper medication. A group of local women were dispatched to sit at my bedside and wait for me to either die or get better.

After several days it appears that things were going in the wrong direction because I can remember as clear as day hovering up by the ceiling looking down on the ladies and smiling to myself (as only a hovering, cheeky 9 year old boy can) thinking "hahaha look at them, they are looking down at my body crying but they don't know I am up here behind them all the time hehehehhe".

Whilst some of the ladies wailed at me, much to my amusement, one of them rushed out to get my no nonsense dad. Very no nonsense dad. A few minutes later he came steaming in, charged over to the bed and sat down.

"Yikes" I thought. "If he looks around and catches me messing about up here on the ceiling when I am supposed to be sick in bed, I am in big, big trouble!" I was scared out of my wits, or rather I was scared back in to my wits because next think I know I am back in the bed looking up nervously thinking "Did he spot me on the ceiling? Am I for it?"

I texted him today (he's still in West Africa) after listening to the Radio 4 piece asking if he remembers. He replied immediately "That was 1972 I believe. It is indeed the case that high fever and delirium usually accompanying untreated malaria causes hallucinations and terrifying delusions".

Hrruumphhhh. Dismiss my near-death experience just like that eh, like the cynic on the radio? I know what I experienced. And anyway, what sort of person writes long sentences like that in text messages anyhow? (Gosh, I really hope he doesn't read blog posts or I am in big, big trouble!).

Friday, 12 September 2008

Every passport tells a story

I got a new passport yesterday. I am off to China in a couple of weeks (more on that later) and I discovered that my old passport didn't have enough months left for me to get a visa.

I'm flicking through my old passport, looking sad, battered and mutilated with its ears cut off, listening to Sam Cooke's A Change is Gonna Come and reminiscing about the places I've been over the past decade. A passport is like a diary. It's traces the tracks of your life in a tangible way. The bold and colourful visas from tiny, proud countries, the angled stamps piled on top of each other as Mr Immigration hunts for his page and stakes his claim. Each entry tells a tale and weaved together they tell your story. Here's mine...

May 1999 Jamaica
Oct 1999 USA
Feb 2001 USA
Oct 2001 USA
Nov 2001 Nigeria
May 2002 USA
Aug 2002 USA
Aug 2002 Jamaica
Nov 2002 USA
Aug 2003 USA
Apr 2004 USA
Aug 2004 Mauritius
Sep 2004 South Africa
Sep 2004 USA
Oct 2004 USA
Oct 2004 USA
Jul 2005 USA
Jul 2005 Jamaica
Aug 2005 USA
Aug 2005 Uganda
Sep 2005 Nigeria
Aug 2006 USA
Nov 2006 USA
May 2007 USA
Jul 2007 USA
Aug 2007 Kenya
Aug 2007 Uganda
May 2008 USA
Aug 2008 USA
Sep 2008 USA

Can you read my life? Were you there? Shall we all lay our passports out and see where our paths crossed?

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Physics: The one true science

Today, with the commissioning of the Large Hadron Collider, marked the rise of the Physicist. Forget about those other so called sciences (or as we think of them "arts"), chemistry and biology. Forget about that lapdog tool of the physicist, maths. Today is all about (us) physicists for we have build a really big thing in Geneva that makes really small things go really fast. Coooooool.

It's funny how physicists all over the world are walking around with their (our) chests stuck out, wearing "One Science To Rule Them All" t-shirts. Even those of us who studied it 25 years ago are joining in the gloating and pretending we know what's going on.

Physicists are even getting funny. You may have hear the series of knee-huggingly hilarious particle physics doing the rounds. No? Let me fill you in. But be careful. You may burst out loud laughing in the middle of the office or riding home on the tube. Ready? Ok, here goes.

A neutrino walks in to a bar. "How much is your beer?" it asked. The barman looks up. "To you, mate, no charge".


Still standing? Try this one

Female physicist to male physicist "Do my bosons give you a hadron?"


Ok, here's the killer.

Two photons walk in to a black hole.............


Perhaps we physicist are getting carried away! Oh well, this was our day in the sun. You won't hear from us for another 15 years. Well unless we create a black hole, but even if we do all you will see is thousands of smug looking physicists getting sucked into it, shouting "We did iiiittttttttttt......"

Friday, 5 September 2008

A Forumla for Innovation

The final day of the WEF 2 day conference on innovation held at Stanford University commenced as horribly early as the first. Fortunately we kicked off with a warm up exercise that got us out of our seats.

Today's topic was collaborative innovation i.e. how to generate ideas for your business by inviting suppliers, partners, customers and "the crowd" to get involved. All 100 of us were asked to stand in a line against the wall (shades of "The Usual Suspects") on a scale of 0-100 to indicate how much we use collaborative innovation today, and then move to where we felt we needed to be in 5 years time. As one wag muttered "that's the first time I have actually been a bar chart". Interestingly, the pattern did not follow the standard "normal distribution", which may say something about the cautious way that even innovative business leaders are adopting techniques like open source and crowd sourcing.

Mckinsey's model of collaborative innovation assessing a company's degree of openess (culminating in a 2x2 matrix as any good consulting model must) was quite insightful and provided a framework that help put things in to context.

In groups, we debated issues ranging from ownership of intellectual property if you use these models of collaboration, how to incentivise communities to get involved and platforms that facilitate collaboration. The conclusion I came to was that even amongst these innovative luminaries no-one really knows the magic formula for getting a huge, wise crowd of strangers to do all your innovative work for you (mores the pity!).

However, Geoffrey Moore, the celebrated author of Crossing the Chasm, closed the conference with an excellent fast paced session developing a formula for innovation. This was the best session of the two days as he presented his proposed formular (Innovation = A + B + C... - D - E) and facilitated a quick fire, interactive session with us all to challenge and enhance it, whilst the amazing graphic artists sketched furiously away on the walls in the background.

All in all, this 2 day innovation conference was great for networking, good fun and quite thought provoking. My key take away was the power of collaborative innovation, but also the feeling that its okay to experiment as no-one really knows how to do it yet, so you can expect to see Garlik experimenting with some large scale collaborative innovation ideas over the next few months.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

What is innovation?

If you find yourself at an innovation conference, like the WEF one that I am attending in Stanford, California over the next two days, then make sure you don't start by asking "Can we have a definition of innovation, please?".

One brave participant tried this at the kick off session this morning and, in a room full of Professors of innovation and assorted consultants, it very nearly caused a riot!

The Arrillaga Alumni Centre, Stanford has a spacious conference hall which today is divided into segments with large, mobile, curved room dividers. Roving graphic artists stop at boards casually sketching cartoons and capturing key points that speakers are making, as they make them. Huge photos adorn the wall, colourful hand written innovation quotes are everywhere, bestselling innovation books lie around with several of their authors in the room, photographers and video cameramen capture the scene and occasional outbreaks of jazz music confirm that this conference is about innovation from head to toe.

With a mix of short, sharp presentations and breakout sessions, we kick off with Mckinsey outlining the research they have recently completed on innovation. This huge piece of research, based on analysis of over 9m patents worldwide and many other data points reveals a global map of the main innovation talent clusters. The usual suspects crop up - Silicon Valley, Tokyo, Tel Aviv and of course Bristol, UK. Wait, did I just say Bristol? Yep, it seems that when Mckinsey crunched their numbers Bristol emerges as a top talent hotspot!

My first breakout session brings together a Stanford Professor, a Boston entrepreneur, a New York corporate executive, French telecoms exec, Israeli IT exec, Tokyo academic and CEO of a London start up (me!). We had an interesting debate on what makes for successful regional clusters, including an exploration of whether geographic clusters even matter in this virtual age.

Sometimes at conferences like this, it is the random comments and odd asides that make for interesting listening. Like the patent professors assessment that most patents are just junk. The revelation that India is investing $65Billion (yes $Billion) on education over the next four years. Or the demographics presentation that revealed that by 2050 there will be over 2 billion people aged 60 and over in the world. I panicked about the implications for my business, Garlik, for a moment until I realised that I would be about 100 years old.

I was amused by the idea that a key ingredient of successful innovation clusters was lots of disfunctional families. And that a regional cluster needed stability, but not too much stability. But I particularly enjoyed the description of the idea of writing your "failure resume". You write your CV from the perspective of everything and every decision that has gone wrong, then stand up and present it to the group and explain what you have learnt from each failed step along the way. In the UK we talk about being comfortable with failure but I've never seen this done before. By the way, if you want to see my failure resume, click here.

What, you really clicked? You must think I'm crazy!

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Innovating in Silicon Valley

Timing is everything when it comes to innovation. If you want to know how to innovate successfully, that is lesson number one. For starters, if you wake up late and miss your flight to an important innovation conference taking place at Stanford University in the heart of Silicon Valley, as I very nearly did today, you are not going to learn anything at all.

Fortunately after a desperate sprint through the turmoil of Terminal 3 and with the support of a friendly member of Virgin's ground staff I just made the flight. Ten hours later, having driven down California Highway 101 and checked in to the Palo Alto Sheraton I am ready for the conference.

The World Economic Forum, Davos, has organised a 2 day conference called Innovation 100 and as Garlik was selected as a WEF 2008 Technology Pioneer company, I was invited along to join 100 other leading innovators from corporates, start ups, consultancies, government and academia to discuss the challenges of innovation. Attendees from around the world will explore what drives innovation and what makes regions like Silicon Valley work as innovation hubs.

Looking down the attendee list, there are some very interesting folk here so it should be a fascinating couple of days. At the very least the weather in Palo Alto is great. 70 degrees with a gentle evening breeze. It was raining and grey when I left London. Perhaps there is a very obvious reason why innovative people flock to Silicon Valley to do their thing!