Chairing: DBA: An evening with Marco Steinberg

For the Design Business Association I conducted an ‘in conversation’ with Marco Steinberg, Director of Strategic Design at Sitra (the Finnish Innovation Fund), on 13 November at Interbrand in London.

We discussed Steinberg’s work at Sitra, what it means to innovate in the public sector, addressing ‘grand challenges’, and whether the design community is ready to help government redesign public services.

More on the event: An evening with Marco Steinberg on the DBA site.

In conversation: Jimmy Wales, 2012

As part of the Mayors London 2012 Debates at City Hall I conducted an ‘in conversation’ with Jimmy Wales

Jimmy Wales and Nico Macdonald in the Mayor’s London 2012 Debates

As part of the Mayor’s London 2012 Debates – hosted to complement the London 2012 Olympics – which took place in the City Hall council chamber, I conducted an ‘in conversation’ with Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales on ‘Technology: Disruption and Convergence’; chaired contributions by selected respondents; and facilitated an audience Q&A. I was also involved in producing the event, which was created by Global Cities in collaboration with the Mayor of London’s Office.

Structure and participants

The event was introduced by Deputy Mayor of London for Business and Enterprise Kit Malthouse; the respondents were James Harkin, author of Cyburbia; Dean Bubley of Disruptive Analysis; former MP Derek Wyatt; Josef Hargrave of Arup Foresight; Anne Lise Kjaer of Kjaer Global; Professor James Woudhuysen of De Montfort University; Lucy Hooberman, Professor and Director of Digital Media and Innovation at WMG, University of Warwick; and Alan Patrick of Broadsight (see his blog post on the debate and his contribution).


Tweets from the event were curated into a Storify [no longer available]. The event was written up in The Next Web (Jimmy Wales Speaks out on UK Law and Freedom for Startup Growth, The Next Web, 2012). After the event I was also interviewed for the BBC Radio 5 Live show Outriders: listen to the MP3 of ‘Pods 07 Jul 12: Hacking, singing and debating’. For an overview of all coverage see the event coverage page on Lanyrd [no longer available].


Nico Macdonald on Twitter

Off to chair Jimmy Wales (@jimmy_wales) @MayorofLondon 2012 #LondonDebates on Technology: Disruption and Convergence:

Alex Stanhope on Twitter

great job @Nico_Macdonald on a scintilating interview with @jimmy_wales ; now back to the family before my day pass runs out

Alfie Dennen on Twitter

off to the mayoral debates at city hall with @jimmy_wales keynote compered by the inimitable @nico_macdonald

Rishi Dastidar on Twitter

A good ‘un MT @Nico_Macdonald: @jimmy_wales on Technology: Disruption & Convergence @MayorofLondon #LondonDebates, Sat

Paul Downey on Twitter

Jimmy Wales #LondonDebates held at London House, hosted by the @MayorofLondon and chaired by @Nico_Macdonald



The other debates in the series were ‘Preparing for the Asian Century?’ with Jim O’Neill; ‘The Environment Imperative’ with Matt Ridley; and ‘Cities: Crucibles of Change’ with Saskia Sassen.


See Tweets about #londondebates on Twitter. See what people are saying and join the conversation.

Jimmy Wales speaking in the Chamber at City Hall, London, 2012
Jimmy Wales speaking in the Chamber at City Hall, London, 2012

[Notes] [Tasks]

Review: Release 2.0 by Esther Dyson (World Link)

Release 2.0: A Design For Living in the Digital AgeRelease 2.0: A Design For Living in the Digital Age by Esther Dyson

Esther Dyson stands head and shoulders above other IT commentators. She presents clear explanations and elegant solutions but sometimes misses the bigger context. Release 2.0 is an invaluable read for anyone already enthusiastic and informed about the digital world. Is it a book for your less clued up relatives? Probably not. Read my review in World Link, March/April 1998.

View all my reviews

Response: Apple vs Google is not an Apple-Microsoft re-match

Insanely Great cover

In the FT this week, John Gapper debunks some of the hype around Google’s business and development model (Google’s open battle with Apple, John Gapper, Financial Times, January 6 2010 [Shared bookmark]. He writes:

The contest [between Apple and Google] appears to pit not only two companies but two approaches to business. On one side is Apple, a secretive endeavour that is seemingly wedded to old, closed ways of competing; on the other side is Google, a champion of open source software and open systems… Yet Apple is not as closed as Google portrays it, and nor is Google as open… This is, of course, like Microsoft’s drive to commoditise hardware during the 1970s and 1980s… Apple lost to Microsoft in desktop computing in the 1980s because it did not grasp the true value of openness… [Will this] be repeated in mobile… Apple has not pursued a fully closed strategy with the iPhone, but has been tactically pragmatic… One thing both Apple and Google have learned is that a solely proprietary strategy has flaws, just as one of pure openness does.

Gapper is correct to play down the difference in open-ness between Google and Apple. Google is as secretive as the next major corporation – about its mobile and every other strategy – and shouldn’t be embarrassed about that. But he is wrong about the dynamics of the personal computer industry, and the parallels he draws with the mobile Internet.

It wasn’t Microsoft that commoditised hardware, as Gapper claims, but Compaq, then Dell – building on IBM’s ‘accidental’ open platform – and Apple suffered for being closed and unable to take advantage of hardware economies of scale and industry advances. And he is incorrect in claiming its approach to software was closed. The products that made the Macintosh were almost all third party: Aldus PageMaker, Adobe Ilustrator then Photoshop and, of course, Microsoft Word then Excel. (Until recently Apple had little success in software: from HyperCard to FileMaker it made interesting and good, but irrelevant, products.)

Apple’s early success was in making the personal computer usable, and a pleasure to use. But in the corporate world – the key battleground between it and Microsoft – these characteristics were almost disadvantages. Windows was a good enough graphical user interface that didn’t encourage white collar workers to be too creative, and it could be controlled by the IT department – the real customer for PCs in that realm – who ensured it was anything but open to users. (I considered some of these dynamics in my review of Insanely Great: The Life and Times of Macintosh, the Computer that Changed Everything by Steven Levy: see Down to Earth, World Link, March/April 1994.)

The dynamics around the mobile Internet are different. Gapper quotes Henry Blodget on Apple repeating its mistake by selling a “tightly controlled, fully integrated hardware and software device”. However, these devices are purchased not by IT departments but by real people, who do care about usability and pleasure of use. This can be better guaranteed today by Apple’s semi-open, end-to-end approach (which also better controls viruses and ‘malware’). Apple also focuses on all aspects of design, and always has, where Google in its early years had no designers on its staff, and still doesn’t prioritise it.

Apple, and Steve Jobs, have their strategic flaws, but repeating the failed Macintosh strategy isn’t one of them.


In his Above the Crowd piece Android or iPhone? Wrong Question Bill Gurley argues that:

Users won’t switch in mass from the iPhone to the Android. It’s the other 3.95 billion cell phone users that are highly likely to consider Android a step up from their current feature phone… Android will be the choice of the masses, and with its sleek design and non-compromising price point, Apple will rule the high end… Android gives every Korean, Taiwanese, and Chinese manufacture whoever wanted to approach these markets a huge head-start… it is Google that is attempting to be the Microsoft of the smartphone market [and] Apple is well positioned to be the “Apple” of the smartphone market

This of course raises the question of cost, which many have argued undermined Apple’s Macintosh in the consumer market. Apple did develop low cost Macintosh models, but the drive to computing in the home largely being work-driven (not least supplying ‘free’ software) facilitated Windows entry there too. In the i-era, Apple has launched iPods that cover almost every market segment. This approach may also work for mobile Interent devices too.

More generally, we need to re-state and update our understanding of information technology adoption patterns, and find better ways to tie our journalism and analysis to them.

Review: Myths of the (networked) office, 2009

NLA: London’s Future Workplace series: Philip Ross: Into the Clouds: the Impact of Web 2.0 on Work and the Workplace
Friday, 21 August 2009 at 08:30
The Building Centre

Nico Macdonald on Twitter

Interesting NLA talk by Philip Ross on the Impact of Web 2.0 on Work and the Workplace (London)

Event overview

As part of NLA’s Workplace series, Philip Ross, CEO of The Cordless Group will look at the ‘empty building’, a near-future vision where all applications and data is stored ‘in the cloud’ – new data centres – and the office building becomes empty, devoid of almost all technology except thin clients and connectivity. This changes the need for cooling, power and voids, but also opens up a more fundamental debate about what our future buildings are for. The assumption is a place to bring people, but even here with new research that will be presented, some of our assumptions will need to be challenged. The ‘Facebook’ workplace will look very different.


The future of the workplace is an oft addressed subject, but in the broader discussion around the Internet, the complexities of office life are often overlooked, considered too esoteric. (Logistics, manufacturing and other economic essential are further neglected.)

The mercurial Philip Ross of the Cordless Group recently addressed a packed event at New London Architecture, former Blueprint publisher Peter Murray’s centre for the built environment at the Building Centre in Store Street, on the theme ‘Into the Clouds: the Impact of Web 2.0 on Work and the Workplace’. The Cordless Group consults on the future workplace, runs the Workplace Innovation Centre, and publishes and programmes events. Ross is the co-author of many books with Prof. Jeremy Myerson, Director of InnovationRCA at the Royal College of Art, including The 21st Century Office (Laurence King, 2005). And Cordless events include the WORKTECH series, the London event [404], one of which features Alain de Botton).

Ross’s talk cover low-cost telecoms and the death of distance, the limits of paper, and the dangers of building managers trying to ‘sweat the asset’. He looked at changing demographics, ‘digital natives’ and the ageing workforce (‘Kids see email as dead technology’). He discussed the modelling of communications, and what can be learned from it, and the importance of location-aware services. His Web 2.0 mantra was ‘Find, Use, Share, Expand’, and he cited research showing that the best answers to questions often come from colleagues one doesn’t know. He reported on a Sun Microsystems virtual building with avatars which connected to presence in more familiar systems.

New phenomena predicted included the ‘Internet of things’, the ‘pervasive Internet’, ‘ubicomp’ (ubiquitous computing). He referenced organisational dashboards monitoring, machine to machine communications, and smart devices such as fridges that could talk to your dustbin to work out what to re-order based on what you threw away. (Though he observed that throwing something away didn’t indicate you wanted more of it.) In wide-area communications, he covered WiMax vs LTE, and in local area networking the use of sensor networks in healthcare management (and the implications or insurance premiums). A key theme of his talk was ‘the cloud’, an always-on high bandwidth permanent network connection that would enable online applications and services. The future of the phone is around software and mobility, he claimed, and physical devices will be replaced by software: “Everything heads to software: the lump of plastic dies”. Meetings will be conducted via telepresence and will be wholly recorded for later reviewing. Ross didn’t dismiss the physical, and shared spaces, entirely, but argued that when one brings people into buildings one must have created a very different space, based around cloud-based organisations.

In interaction design he sees Microsoft’s Surface a realising the ‘Minority Report vision’. And the Amazon Kindle “leading to the slow death of publishing”, abetted by Plastic Logic’s roll-up paper. Meanwhile, wireless charging (already a feature of the Palm Pre) will be important, and we may use ‘intelligent mirrors’ as information devices in the home. We will live in a ‘Kandinsky world’ that is ad hoc, spontaneous, and peer to peer. Companies will jump on this to cut costs and attract the best talent, he argues, and cites examples of such workplaces, including the BBC’s Glasgow offices, WestPac in Sydney, Rabobank in Holland, Nokia in Beijing, Google in Zurich, and The Hospital in London (which he charming refers to as a ‘guild’).


Ross’s vision is seductive but exhibits a number of flaws.

First, it ignores the real world. People value working in offices for many reasons. Some are not clearly functional, others obscure and unexpressed. Interacting with people in person is more effective in many areas. And over-hearing peripheral conversations has great value in learning about and understanding what is going on in one’s organisation. On the other hand, remote collaboration tools are poor and thin. While Ross notes the limits of paper, he fails to acknowledge its strengths and affordances. See The Social Life of Information by John Seely Brown, Paul Duguid (Harvard Business School Press, 2000) [Goodreads] and The Myth of the Paperless Office by Abigail J. Sellen and Richard Harper (MIT Press, 2001).

It also ignores the challenges of culture and organisations. Kids may see email as dead technology but this is not a new observation. Rachel Abrams and I wrote about the limitations of email ten years ago (see Special Report: Interface Design ‘The Future of Email’ Nico Macdonald and Rachel Abrams, Graphics International, issue 61, 1998-1999), but little has changed despite excellent work such as IBM Research’s Remail project from its Cambridge, MA, lab. Organisations are conservative about moving away from email as the move to it was not that radical: it is about memos and attached documents. The overuse of, and continued adherence to, email also reflects organisational politics and risk aversion: higher-ups are CCd into to show that one is being productive, and to avoid doing anything that is perceived as risky.

Of interest to

Duncan Wilson, Lucy Bullivant, Tobi Schneidler, Garrick Jones, Tricia Austin, Gonzalo Garcia Perate, who I notified about the event. People interested via Archive

Originally published at