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Sunday, 16 February 2014


In October 2013 I attended a FIRE workshop in Ghent, Belgium. FIRE is an acronym that stands for Future Internet Research and Experimentation which is one of the research areas in the European Commission’s Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) research programme, which is part of what is called Horizon 2020, a seven year framework of research programmes that began operation in 2014. One can also find FIRE activities elsewhere in the world, for example in the United States.

I participated in this workshop because I am interested in experimentation with the internet in connection with the work I am undertaking on the development of an author-centric business model, which is designed to make life difficult for established interests such as publishers, who are already making life difficult for themselves through their outdated perspectives about the future of book publishing. They are a good example of how an established industry is being creatively destroyed by people and companies from outside the sector – this is what the internet helps to enable, and this creative destruction can happen at a ferocious pace, and it is also what free market economics is about (the internal process of creative destruction by which capitalism continually destroys itself by reinventing itself – otherwise called innovation by those not familiar with the jargon of macro economics).

I came to the workshop knowing that some of the FIRE projects have funds available for those external to the projects, to undertake experimentation using the FIRE facilities. I also knew that that the demand for these funds far exceeds their supply. What I did not know was that most of these funds are being taken by academia and research institutes and that industry demand for them is very low. I also learned that there is now an open access policy, whereby application can be made to use the FIRE facilities on a self-funded basis. Yet still it is necessary to make the application and to state what experiments are to be performed. This is an interesting assumption, for it implies that those wanting to undertake experiments have discovered the truth, that is to say that they know what it is that they want to do – the hallmark of those who inhabit a linear sequential world. The trademark also of European civilisation and a most peculiar way of thinking!

But the world I live in is one where the truth is not known, where problem finding and problem solving are deeply intertwined, where one comes to know the world by a complex integrated process of thinking and doing, which are also deeply intertwined, and where there are interactions taking place with what is happening elsewhere. This is the world of networked non-linear innovation which is a characteristic of the internet, and it is a way of operating that linear sequential minds find difficult to handle, even if they have realised that this is how innovation in the internet comes about. But have they realised this?

Life is a journey of discovery, where experiments are a way of helping to discovery some of the truth! The world on internet innovation is like this as well. And I note that, to use Amazon Web Services (AWS), which is also positioned as a place for internet experimentation, all that is necessary to provide are contact details and a credit card number, which is one of the reasons I will be exploring AWS in the near future and steering clear of FIRE, for it seems also they have decided that they are the ones who will decide who will experiment and who will not. I have no time for such nonsense.

The workshop can be summarised as a lot of conventional thinking and taken for granted assumptions, which only a few, those close to the real world of internet innovation, appeared to recognise as being largely inappropriate. FIRE as it was presented at the workshop assumes a linear process starting from Research and Experimentation, followed by innovation. This is only relevant in certain circumstances, which is something that is not widely understood. One of the speakers clearly understood this, when he referred to what he called the ICT mind-set, and I spoke to him afterwards and then had an exchange of emails after the event. The text of the email follows:

“About what we discussed at the end of the day - the ICT mind-set. It is actually an engineering one from the 19th century, applicable to building bridges but not internet based innovation. What we saw on Thursday were people building FIRE facilities as though they are building bridges; they design it, erect the steel and concrete, and only when it is finished do they allow people to use it. Users are generally not part of this process, for the bridge builders are also experts, and that is another paradigm (experts know best) that is also failing. This is a manifestation of what I call the Prometheus Syndrome and it is destroying Europe economically. This is the sort of thing I write about in my blog. If I were starting a FIRE project I would sign-up to Amazon Web Services (AWS) using my credit card and ask people to use it and start a dialogue with these people about how to improve it, what needs to be added, and so forth, and this is how the Future Internet would emerge.”

Being aware of the existence of another out-dated mind-set, the either/or one, I mention here that obviously such an approach is not relevant to all aspects of the Future Internet development, especially those that users are not interested in, but which they would probably notice in the future if they were not addressed.

What is most interesting is that Amazon is enabling internet innovation through AWS and all one needs is a credit card! This gives both individuals (by which I mean ordinary people who are not part of the ICT research community) and companies (micro, small and large) access to facilities that were once only available to large corporations (and European Commission funded research projects).  This is the sort of discontinuity that renders what Charles Handy wrote about in the 1990s, highly relevant. Handy said that “in the presence of discontinuities, the models of the past serve as no guide to the future, in fact they can be very dangerous; in such circumstances one has to reinvent the world.” He also noted that the people most likely to do this are the ones saying unreasonable things. If you read my blog on a regular basis, you may have noticed that I say a lot of – what seems to those who are trapped in the past – unreasonable things.

Back in 1994 I discussed in a book, many aspects relating to that which is covered above. I noted that it is not new technology that delivers competitive advantage, but the ability to manage, adapt, use and deploy technologies, as part of an approach that also takes into account all the non-technical elements. An ability to be able to adopt different design approaches, the ones that others find difficult to use, which include design strategy switches when these are necessary, is also important. The comment still applies. We are drowning in technology. There will always be more of it. Yet most of it can be imitated, or accessed via licenses. It is not generally a source of differentiation, unless it can be kept hidden, and its presence is not seen. But that in itself is an outdated approach.

The problem is that most people think that technology is at the core of competitiveness, which is an illusion. This mind-set is a techno-centric one. When people look at the world through the lens of technology, all they see is the technology and this leads to people to believe that technology is the most important dimension. This however is an impoverished reductionist view, and only works if everyone else looks at the world through the same lens. But there are new players in the game that do not share these particular European ways of behaving. Europe is no longer able to force the world to be European, so perhaps it is time for Europe to stop being European!

I have had to take to story telling and using metaphors to explain such matters, because few people seem to understand anymore what I and others are talking about. This is also why new perspectives are needed and why artists and writers need to move centre stage, to bring what is called culture-based creativity into the research and innovation process, for it is becoming increasingly evident that those who currently reside in this position – scientists, engineers and technologists – are, on the whole, not going to do very much different from what they have done in the past. As one of them said to me about 4 years ago when we were preparing a proposal that would address user-driven innovation, “it’s a good idea, so long as we do not have to do anything differently.” And I have quotes in my book from 1994 of people saying exactly the same thing, even when confronted with the evidence that shows that new ways of doing things work.

This, whatever you do never ask me to do anything differently mind-set, one can say, summarises the problems that Europe now faces – most of those to whom politicians look to for innovation, do not want to do anything differently. Europe has indeed become like Prometheus. DG CONNECT’s new initiative known as ICT-ART CONNECT, offers the hope of changing this circumstance, of exposing the invisible chains that keep Europe tied to the past, and of smashing them to set Europe free. But this involves doing research and innovation differently, which is why I suppose we will be looking mostly at replacing those who currently undertake this type of work, by developing a new breed of engineers and technologists, for the evidence suggests that the present incumbents will not change and do not want to change, which is the hallmark of something else – a paradigm shift.

So we are back once more to my forthcoming book Moments in Time, a novel about time, set in two times, which explores that which is timeless and that which is not – particularly the values and beliefs of scientists, engineers and technologists, for central character is an engineer, along with his industrial era values, beliefs and mind-set! And from this stems all the troubles that he creates for himself.

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