Interesting North

Saturday the 13th of November was a date I had been looking forward to for quite some time. This day saw the culmination of a lot of hard work by Tim Duckett, Greg Povey and a band of merry helpers that I was lucky enough to be one of. The hard work was to set up a conference in Sheffield based on the Interesting conference run in London. Interesting has been run since 2007 by the post digital god Russell Davies. Tim Duckett, an Interesting veteran, had the idea of transporting the concept to Sheffield and I suspect he did not really know how much work that idea would entail. Numerous planning meetings were held in local public houses and Chinese restaurants. Following these planning sessions lots of work was undertaken to get to this day. Saturday the 13th of November was the day Interesting North opened its doors to the lovely ticket buying audience.

Cutlers Hall

The team had an early start with the majority of us arriving at 8am to set up the grand venue that we had chosen, Cutlers Hall.  When I got there things were well underway with the AV all set up and the only thing for me to do was help with hanging some bunting and then get ready for registrations.  I never knew how much hard work signing 250 people into an event was but let me tell you it was difficult, difficult, lemon difficult.  Thankfully the rest of the day was being run by Tim and Greg with an efficient air so the good folk that did show up were not to be disappointed.

The plan was 20 talks, 2 coffee breaks and lunch all in just 7 hours. Ambitious? Foolish? Either way it represented great value for money for just twenty English pounds no matter what happened.

As much as  would love to write about all 20 speakers I lack both the energy and skill required to do so.  Instead here are a handful of my favourites.

The first talk I had earmarked as must see, was by Stefanie Posavec. I first became aware of Stefanie’s work a few years ago when I came across her lovely visualisations of On The Road by Jack Kerouac. Her talk for Interesting North was on Baseball Scoring. Stefanie bravely asserted that Baseball was better then Cricket (she is of course wrong) but did recover by telling us that an English man made Baseball the sport it is today by introducing peanuts and beer. Stefanie explained the intricacies, differences and notations used in Baseball scoring.  It was clear that she was passionate and emotionally linked to Baseball scoring as she admitted that she would only score the game in the same way her father does.

All round nice chap and black pudding fan, James Boardwell, asked ‘As we peddle more how might cities change’.  Following a recent cycling accident where James was hit by a taxi and unsurprisingly came out worse. James wondered if the city could be made softer to benefit the cyclist rather than the car driver. He showed a fantastic automated bicycle parking machine from China, some amazing stunt cycling that made the most of how our cities were already laid out and he also got a little over excited on stage over bike porn.

Peddle Peddler

James Wallis deserves a special mention for the funniest talk/list of the day with his fantastically titled session called ‘Works of Fiction with Really Stupid Titles Involving the National Socialist Government of Germany 1933-1945’ or to put it another way books with Nazi in the title. As someone who works for a bank my favourite was ‘Gnome: A young Swiss banker deals with the Nazis, He remains ambivalent’

Frankie Roberto had the tricky task of enlivening the crowd post lunch but he took it in his stride with a passionate talk about the joys of Lego. As well as showing a photo of his fantastically organised Lego collection (think lots of well labelled tupperwares) Frankie also covered the issues that the passionate community of AFOLs (Adult Fans Of Lego) spend a lot of time discussing such as the colour tone differences of new grey bricks, dodgy product tie ins e.g. Shell and the tricky issue of minifig skin colour.

Best game of the day was designed by Oli Shaw. Oli spent a year studying the behaviours of people who fall asleep on public transport.  Oli has built up a splendid collection of photos of these sleepers. He told of, and showed, the innovative pillow usage, considerations of how to deal with your bags (hold on tight or be more nonchalant) and the contagious nature of the sleeper. As his studies progressed he began to add game mechanics to these photos assigning points for sleepers e.g. 1pts for a sleeper, 2pts for a unique sleeping position, 3pts for use of a real pillow and 10pts for capturing someone mid yawn.

As the sun set and the grand room began to darken the stage was perfectly set for Marcus Brown a.k.a. The Kaiser a.k.a. Jack The Twitter a.k.a. Sacrum.  Mr Brown told a tale of how he had lost 12 days, ended up in a tent camping in a field even though he hates camping and does not own a tent.  Following this he checked himself into a mental institution. The most engrossing and affecting talk of the day.

Marcus Brown

Last speaker of the day was Toby Barnes, MD of Mudlark. Toby is good friends with Greg but the fact he was on last and that it was at least an hour later than he was originally planned to go on meant that as he was being wired for sound he had some harsh and very amusing words for Greg which I can’t repeat here but that made me laugh a lot. A theme which continued through his talk.  Toby told us of his love for the future with a special mention of modernist architecture. As a child growing up in in Portsmouth he would love to visit the, now sadly derelict, Tricorn shopping centre.  The fact this futuristic concrete vision has now fell into disrepair highlights how we no longer have the desire to build and invent the future we were promised in the design, science fiction and future gazing of the past.

Toby was also concerned that the so called good guys in popular works of fiction such as James Bond and Star Wars were always blowing up really cool architecture e.g. Blofelds Volcano Lair and The Death Star. His other concern was that we have all these cool futuristic things today e.g. iPhones, and that we take them for granted. A point which he made by referencing Frank Chimero’s post ‘There is a horse in the Apple store’ which looks at how we take the extraordinary for granted.  My poor usage of the English language really does not do his talk justice and hopefully the video of the talk will be online soon.

Once Toby had delivered his excellent yet depressing talk (I want the future we were promised as well) it was time for Tim to wrap up and get the rapturous applause his tireless work deserved.  After that it was off to the pub for a well deserved pint or six and to finally get the chance to chat with the audience, speakers and fellow organisers.

I would like to add that it was an honour to be involved (although my contribution was minuscule) and I have to take my hat off to Tim for pulling this together.  A truly amazing feat and I am so glad the day went as well as it did as he truly deserved it. Also a special mention for Greg who worked his own special blend of magic to make the event what it was all the while maintaining his dry caustic wit.

You can find out lots more about what went on at the Lanyrd page where we will collate all write ups, photos, videos and anything else we can post online. I have taken a few average quality photos and for some much better photos I strongly encourage you to check out Dan Sumption’s images of the day.

Hunch Cultivation Mechanisms

Cultivation MechanismI recently watched Steven Johnson’s TED talk on where good ideas come from. Steven talks about how the coffee houses in England in the 1600s were fertile breeding grounds for good ideas.  The smart and wise would meet to discuss the latest scientific theories or the political issues of the day and provide solutions to the worlds great problems. He jokes how innovation increased once ideas were discussed over stimulants rather than the previously heavily used depressants i.e. Gin, and while I don’t agree with this fully, I hate coffee, I can see his point.

Steven says that we need these kind of environments for ideas to grow and flourish and to quote another recent TED speaker, Matt Ridley, have sex. Have sex? Yes we want ideas to flirt, fornicate and reproduce. Organisations could do with some modern day coffee house equivalents or better yet idea nightclubs where cheap and easy ideas go to dance and look for lust (get your coat you hot idea you’ve pulled).  Sure there will be a few morning after pills and a few trips to the GUM clinic but hopefully a few meaningful connections will be made as well.

Inside organisations these environments for stimulant fuelled idea discussions are few and far between. Sure they have canteens and maybe some other informal meeting spaces but the chances of getting the right people together in these spaces are slim.  This is due to the usual reasons such as people are busy and the fact that in large organisations they work in vastly different geographic locations.  The relatively new enterprise 2.0 collaboration tools are still in their infancy so online hunch cultivating fields are not yet tilled.  Maybe we need some more interesting analogue solutions, how about dry wipe boards on the back of toilet doors, the perfect space to think.

Outside the office environment it is much easier to connect ideas, to search out people to validate your hunch, as the big wide world more than likely contains people that think like you, where as the average sized company may not.  The collaboration tools are also much more mature externally. Twitter, GitHub, Slideshare etc. allow you to sow those hunches and see if they germinate (metaphor being overworked like an arid patch of land).

For all the external environments benefits, for those that work in certain industries e.g. banks, the discussion of ideas outside the factory walls can have a disastrous effect on a persons career. Whether loose lipped individuals let innovative ideas slip in a real world coffee house or virtual coffee houses such as Twitter they are certainly skating on thin ice.  Does this lack of ability to cultivate externally hamper the growth of these hunches?

How about some physical Hunch Cultivation Mechanisms? All these social collaboration tools are all well and good but why has the world not delivered us something that really can cultivate hunches? I am thinking something along the lines of everlasting gobstopper machine in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Instead of the machine spitting out gobstoppers it actually takes in your hunches (not sure how, may involve the transfer of bodily fluids) and spits (maybe that is the bodily fluid transfer method)  out perfectly formed and delicious products/services/things of beauty.

Maybe it is more like The Matrix where a cable is plugged directly into your brain, or better yet your belly button as we all know the hunch is a gut feeling. Your hunch is transferred into the digital realm where it can instantly be filtered and matched against the millions of other hunches. The computed and digitally generated idea can then be faithfully reproduced in The Matrix complete with green hue to give it that Wachowski feel.

Not really sure where this is going so I better wrap up.  The key hunch cultivation mechanism is a human being and the one who had the hunch in the first place but they do need tools to help them cultivate the hunch. I need a stiff drink to help me think about all this and not one made from ground coffee beans and hot water.

You can buy Steven’s book, Where Good Ideas Come From, and I have just taken delivery of it so I am hoping he has the answers to my questions above.