Category: Conferences

The worrying fragility of PSD2

This is the write up/script of a Pecha Kucha-ish talk I gave at the ustwo Fintech Talkies II event on Thursday the 19th of May 2016. What I actually said was recorded on video and will be embedded here when available. There are a few mentions of Monument Valley in here as the game was made by ustwo, this seems to have confused a few people who are seemingly unaware of this fact. Sorry. I have also added a load of links to the end of the preso if people want to read a lot of stuff about PSD2.



Slide 1: Hello. I am Aden and I want to talk about my favourite bit of European Parliamentary legislation and my worry over its wellbeing.  PSD2 is the second iteration of the Payments Service Directive a series of proposals to change to European law around the movement of money and transaction data. It will change the way we bank and I really want it to be successful in doing so.


Slide 2: Here is the legislative beauty. 90 odd pages of almost impenetrable legalese. Its stated purpose is to make a more integrated and efficient European payments market. And to level the playing field. What it means really is to kick banks assess to open up data and cut out dominant middle men from payments. It will introduce two key things. PIS and AIS.


Slide 3: Let me try and explain. Ada wants to buy the complete works of M.C. Escher, she takes out her Mondo card (she strikes me as a Mondo user) and she inputs her card details into Amazon. The payment request goes off to the acquirer, Worldpay – this is routed through the card scheme in use, MasterdCard here and then to Ada’s bank that issued her card. Money sent back for payment to amazon. Amazon keeps the card details on file. Repeat ad infinitum for other merchants.  (Thanks to Starling for the inspiration for these diagrams – link to the originals below)
Slide4Slide 4: In the new world of PIS. No card details are exchanged. Instead a token based connection is made, The merchant makes a request to Ada’s bank / card provider for a token based relationship to be formed. This then creates a direct link to Ada’s account. Unique to the merchant. Ada is in full control. A failing at the merchant means she does not have to cancel cards. The merchant must be licensed in some way to be able to move money in this way. They will be known as PISPs. This change also cuts out all those other pesky mainly American card scheme and allows new players to emerge, it also starts to make current accounts more platform like.


Slide 5: Let’s now take a look AIS. Here Crow, who is very organised with his finances as he is saving for a curse lifting procedure, Crow has his main account with Barclays and he downloads the transactions manually every so often in CSV format. Crow has a credit card with HSBC and he downloads his transactions in the bloody useless format of PDF because reasons. He swears. He also has a joint account at Lloyds with his crow lover. This is a semi automatic download and he has given his password details over to money dashboard to scrape his transactions. He is a reckless maverick. He then munges all this data together and manages his money the best he can. He caws with disdain regularly and walks around seemingly aimlessly in frustration. (No way I managed to say all this in 20 seconds)

Slide 6: No more pain in the brave new world my Crow friend! Similar to the payment relationships, in the future banks will have to provide an automated and much safer less painful means of transfer. Like the way you would connect your twitter account to a third party app.  The consumers of this data must be licensed ins some as yet undefined way. These new information aggregators will be known as AISPs.


Slide 7: Now I don’t know about you but these changes are exciting. AISPs and PISPs could effectively replace a lot of functionality of exisiting banks and allow for some hopefully much richer, simpler, more interesting interfaces, experiences and services. The rules were signed into European Law at the beginning of the year and the EU members must all be compliant with the proposals by the start of 2018….but all is not quite pelvis thrustingly awesome…although to continue the theme slightly


Slide 8: Now as we saw last week, Europe is a beautifully diverse set of countries who interpret things in many ways. When it comes to PSD2 and the need for some solid standards for APIs, communication and security variation and creativity might not be the best thing. The directives need to be transcribed by all 28 EU members into local laws, in the UK this will be part of the Payments Services Regulations.


Slide 9: There is another hitch. There are will be some Regulatory technical standards., RTS for nine areas relating to these changes. The key ones being around communication methods i.e. APIs and strong customer authentication to allow these functions to work. These things are not published yet. They are due ‘this summer’. The final ratification of the standards though could take 18 months. The EBA are confident there will be enough published in time for solutions to be created to meet the deadlines. This feels like shaky foundations to me….


Slide 10: Because we do not want the kinds of people that bought you these bloody things to be cobbling together technical standards that will drive the future of banking. We must not let those that forced the situation of today be in charge of the situation of tomorrow or we will end up with some very uncomfortable solution…


Slide 10a: *Uproarious laughter or tumbleweed and very bemused looks*





Slide 11: The lack of easy access to payments and more importantly data has forced awful workarounds that put brave users at risk and stagnate change for the mainstream. Scraping is a necessary evil and I hate that it has to exit. Thankfully PSD2 sounds the death knell for scraping banking data or at the very least ensures better methods will exist.


Slide 12: Thankfully our own fine land is on it. We have the Open Data Institute pulling together some open standards and bring lots of people to the party, we also have the competition markets authority this week demanding that APIs be ready by Q1 of next year in the UK for certain types of data. I do hope they have the power and the skill to make this happen…although I do have minor concerns about fragmentation of standards…and it is adding yet more committees and requirements and words to the debate…


Slide 13: Which is bringing to mind the classic battle of the Open Systems Interconnection reference model and Transport Control Portal and Internet Protocol. OSI was debated and designed to the nth degree, technically perfect and backed by regulators, industry, engineers alike….but it lost to something simpler yet flawed. This quote from one of the god fathers of the internet sums it up perfectly. I worry PSD2 technical guidelines will drag on because someone wants to make it a beautiful dream.


Slide 14: Meanwhile companies with real vision are living the dream. Brilliant UK based companies like Currency Cloud have shown what real platforms and smart APIs can build, Go cardless made direct debit easy, Mondo and Starling are both building for API driven worlds with current accounts as a platform. Thankfully some bigger banks are there too, BBVA with their open platform and Citi with their mobile API challenges.


Slide 15: Companies like Stripe have proven the power of treating APIs like products, making the developers real customers and making it easier than ever to make things involving the movement of money. They have raised the standards of the industry ten fold, pushing PayPal to buy Braintree, Mastercard and Visa to relaunch and redouble their API efforts regularly. These are the kinds of people I want to ensure are involved in the design of solutions for banking’s future.


Slide 16: Another nice little example that I like is Xignite. They provide market data with lovely APIs, they are building out an ecosystem of parties who all provide data in this same way. More ingredients to build more things. Fintech companies coming together to build something greater than just they themselves ever could. My utopian hippy self wants far more openness and collaboration between financial services firms for the benefit of people who want to make better things.


Slide 17: Because we need to challenge the stereotypical attitude of the banker, they are by no means all like this but still the attitude to PSD2 is this is our data we won’t make it easy for those bastards to just come in and steal our customers because we are shit at making decent interfaces. They need to see that decent APIs will benefit their own developers over anyone else. People being able to make things faster than ever before. The smart ones know this, they know they no longer ‘own the customer’ but that they need to integrate well into the customers whole financial relationship.


Slide 18: Ultimately I want to see the innovative players drive the market. Yes the regulation is welcome and needed. But what will really make the incumbents move is a mixture of regulation and the fear of missing out. Missing out on how banking will work tomorrow, how easily new players launch products and services, how easily business models are mixed and remixed and how their customers bank with the companies that fit into their lives the best.


Slide 19: PSD2 does feel like an illusory adventure of impossible architecture….but is certainly a challenge worth facing but unlike Ada there will be no forgiveness if this does not pan out the way it should. The people who have suffered rubbish banking have suffered long enough. Please let’s not fuck this up.



Slide 20: Thanks very much for listening. Slides and what I was meant to say are published here, I have also included a load of links to more reading material used to make this presentation. If anyone wants to hire me based on my awful presentation puns and passion for European regulation then please do let me know. Cheers.

Video link – Coming soon hopefully

View on Slideshare

Lots of other links to related material.

PSD2 Framework –


Discussion on RTS on strong customer authentication and secure communication under PSD2 –

EBA Discussion paper on innovative uses of consumer data by financial institutions

UK Gov – Call for evidence on data sharing and open data in banking –

Competition & Markets review of banking for SMEs

CMA – Retail banking market investigation Provisional decision on remedies(THIS IS GOLD)

UK Open Banking Standard Intro –

OBWG Short Proposal Apr 2016 –

Explaining  PSD2 – Starling Bank

W3C Web Payments group – PSD2

W3C first public working draft payment request API

OSI – The Internet that wasn’t

Programmable Web – Banking API directories

Big Bang Data, Big Bank Data


Last week I got chance to visit the Big Bang Data exhibition at the Embankment Galleries in Somerset House. It was great. You should go.


The exhibition explains the size, weight, shape, complexity and reality of data.

Timo Arnall’s Internet Machine film greets you as you enter. A floor to ceiling three projector fired video of a Telefonica data centre.  A look inside the physical home and engine room of the cloud. I did enjoy it because I am a data centre nerd but I must admit that I kept wondering why Telefonica had not implemented hot/cold aisle containment.

Next up was Ryoji ikeda’s Datatron which I loved. Pitch black room and a stark but mesmorising ceiling high visualisation of brilliance. IMG_20151210_145815

I spent a long time watching it on loop then try to take selfie’s (which are encouraged) in front of it with my rubbish Doogee X5 camera.

Then it is into the main exhibition space which features lots of individual pieces of work by very smart people some of which I have had the pleasure to meet.

It was great to see Stephanie Posavec and Giorgia Lupi Dear Data project in real life. A ‘year-long, analog data drawing project’ i.e. a weekly set of personal data visualised by the artists and then posted to each other as they lived on opposite sides of the world UK & West Coast of the US. as well as the cards you can see the test drawings and working out.

Dan Williams and Nat Buckley have been investigated the cabling and network infrastructure of London. Producing a crazy wall of photographs, notes, sketches and more to show the infrastructure under our feet and above our heads. The HFT in my backyard piece referenced below is well worth a read.


There is much, much more such as data storage mechanisams from punch cards to DNA, cross sections of undersea cables, maps of those cables and a global map of key data centres (not many banks though), David Mccandless’ Debtris,  James Bridle’s Where the fuck was I book and a great visualisation of redacted material, and to end the show a vending machine that dispensed a packet of crisps when a word related to recession and the credit crisis was tweeted. I waited quite a while to no avail.

I wonder what non-data nerds make of this exhibition I can imagine it opens quite a few eyes to what is done with our data and how it used, carried and manipulated. Go.



It also made me think about something I have long wanted to do with banking data. I would love to see a follow up to this called Big Bank Data that just focused on the Financial Services industry. They are as mysterious and as opaquely branded as the cloud.

It was touched on in this exhibit with references to the credit crisis and HFT etc. I am sure there is more about the size and scale of banks. Imagine a realtime visualisation of payments traversing the globe? Stock exchange traffic? Real HFT visualisations? Data from the countless cyberthreats banks have to deal with every minute of the day? the wax and wane of global real estate owned by banks for their branches, the number of banks today vs 10 years ago, what exactly are these legacy technologies banks run on? If they are public utilities should it not be public? How about delving into the links to governments.

I would love to get some massive bank data sets and hand them over to the artists involved in this exhibition. What stories would they tell? What insights would they glean? That would cause a Big Bang.

Removing fiction from payments

fiction in payments


I went to an API conference last week and someone showed this slide which had a fairly obvious spelling mistake. People in our industry often bang on about frictionless and seamless in regards to payments and banking but I don’t often see someone asking for the removal of fiction. Maybe payments and banking would be improved greatly by the removal of some fiction rather than friction.

Design of Understanding 2014

My first conference of 2014 was the majestic Design Of Understanding, otherwise known as the Max Gadney show. A personal selection of what he thinks is interesting and he clearly has good taste.

Will Hudson of ‘It’s nice that‘ started the day with a talk about something born out of a university idea to gather and publish things that make people feel good about themselves. He spoke of how the name frames their approach to content and editorial (you can’t be snarky when your reason for being is showing something nice). He also spoke of the challenges of growth, now he has a staff in double figures he worries about his attitude to risk and does everything he can to not kill the youthful exuberance of ideas. He referenced the young entrepreneurs of today the Zuckerberg’s, Karp’s, etc. but also said age and freedom of thinking is not just a product of age…which is a a relief.

Inadvertent Yorkshire

Inadvertent Yorkshire

Tony Quinlan constructed a narrative about how companies keep trying to construct narratives….and failing. ‘The moment a company writes down their values they have failed’. The obsession with companies to craft a story, the management version of story, normally where the product or the service or culture was the hero. Most companies avoid stories of failure when most resonance and learning came from those very stories. The micro stories from the water cooler would carry more weight for the brand especially with staff but they are never considered for such corporate messaging. Terry gave a brilliant example of taking the light from stories and applying them in a different context. The sanitation issues of Bangladesh. Villages happy to have a field set aside for defecation needed to be taught about the latrine. The more experts said you should have them the less they wanted to hear it. The key was social status. The message that worked was ‘Marriages where the home had a latrine were more successful’ The use of social status and shaming had a bigger impact than instruction ever could.


David Sheldon-Hicks had the coolest job by far. He designed fake computer interfaces for films and games. His company, Territory Studio, produced the interfaces in the film Prometheus and his insight into how the creation of those interfaces made for a fascinating tale even though he was not the greatest of presenters. The balance of fake/post shoot effects vs real working computer scream on set, Prometheus was more of the latter and the ship had over 100 working screens  meaning a lot of cabling and a lot of computers. The amount of craft and skill that went into something that could be on screen for seconds, cropped in the shot or even blurred, was astounding. When asked how they used data to feed the fake UI’s he said

‘As long as you give NASA credit at the end of the film they are happy to give you pretty much whatever data you want’


Andy Kirk gave an excellent statement union of data visualisation. I have attended one of Andy’s data design courses and his knowledge of the subject is exceptional. He spoke of the big data viz events and trends of the year. The New York Times look at how the US speaks, Gun Deaths and lost years, the age of cites and the mesmerising Earth by Cameron Beccario which beautifully visualises wind patterns on out planet. Andy has published his slides so you can see all the work he referenced.

He also explained the state of the ecosystem and it was clear he had a very negative view of the infauxgraphics (mega long scroll nonsense), marketplace (a space for the crap to gravitate toward). He was however more positive on the state of tooling and how the wealth of tools were starting to talk to each other more, holding Tableau and R up as a good example. More work to be done on the explanation of the space from a recruitment and understanding point of view but clearly a real growth area.


Jo Roach the cofounder of Makies, the 3D printed dolls talked of the struggles of being one of use first 3D printing manufacturers and the value of great PR and the luck of timing in the rise of 3D printing and media interest. From 3D printer David Cameron and Prince Harry to the tactic of sharing wildly what they had tried, built and envisioned helped them find a solution to the most random of problems eg the wear and tear on the doll joints being solved by silicone injection. The challenges facing a toy retailer of getting across the ethics and value of design for a £70 item vs a £10 Barbie was their big challenge for the future. I wish them luck and hope they succeed.


I felt that a strange sort of hushed reverence befell St brides for the talk of Durrell Bishop of Berg. Whether that was because people knew of his past or just realised they were in the presence of a great mind it was an interesting phenomenon and one that was cruelly hampered by AV issues. He spoke of the need to face the design challenges of today, rather than the creation of beautiful static things of yesteryear, the vase, the chair, today the need was for the explanation of the technical and the graphical. His way of looking at the humble VCR thought the use of simple kitchen implements (the sieve a screen, a tap for the tuner, a bottle as the recording mechanism etc.) helped see the workings in anew light. A new language for the interaction and behaviour of the machine. We cannot understand that which we cannot see. He called for a need for new designers. We are faced with the new mega systems in the world primarily designed by software engineers. Graphic designers have not been able to step up…who will?


One of my favourite talks of the day was from Matt Sheret of the Government Digital Service talking about a subject I have no real interest in, comics. It is just a medium that has kind of passed me by but Matt’s interest, enthusiasm and knowledge for the subject just pulled you in. He explained how to read comics…a seemingly needless exercise but his explanation the gaps between the panels acting a context, making the reader work to fill in the story for the next scene. He spoke of the challenges of new methods of consumption effecting how comics were read, touch screens lending themselves to the flicking between panels and giving the capability of zooming into the scenes. The challenges of the form across new mediums, that morphed and jumped across new channels such a twitter, tumblr, YouTube and ending up at lost and broken urls on MySpace or trapped behind the broken iOS updates of apps. He gave a brilliant quote about the failing of the old world to adapt to the new

Middle aged future

Middle aged future

‘DC comics is a good example of how moribund an industry can become when you just have 40 year old white guys writing stories for 40 year old white guys.’

This resonates with me on may levels but as a soon to be 38 year old am I trapped in the same old also seems I am worried about my age. I digress. It was a great talk. Matt has posted some notes/videos and links to further reading from his talk.


The last ‘talk’ of the day was actually Max interviewing Russell Davies while using a set of slides Max had created as some thinly veiled reference to his questions. Very thinly. It was of course brilliant. What follows is a lot of notes/quotes and rambling explanation from me.

Russell has lots of experience working with big organisations (Nike, Microsoft, W&K and now the Government) and he seems to effortlessly produce solid gold nuggets of insight every other sentence. I like to think these are a mix of the cuff thoughts beautifully worded mixed with some well honed bon mots crafted over many a plate of eggs, bacon, chips and beans. So here are the best quotes I managed to (hopefully correctly) capture;

On Nike Run London. A campaign for W&K to get non runners to do a 10k run. ‘no inspirational Nike shit, this will be hard, the first month will be hell but it will be worth it’. It was about helping people start, not becoming the very best athlete.

‘We advertised all over the underground to catch people at their bleakest moment’

He gave some great insights on why Nike were better than the other sporting goods manufacturers. They hired people who could get things done by any means. This meant they could deliver just an extra 10% more than the competitors.

‘The only hard problem in big organisations is getting something done’.

When Russell questioned why they did not try and fix the internal problems he received this amazing piece of wisdom about large organisations

‘No matter what you fix in big companies the crap always arrives’.

Nike also had some good habits that helped them immensely. Regional managers would be set the normal sales target but also if you could not show that you had done something new each quarter then you would be done for. Another example of doing differently was the brief for the World Cup. A series of pictures of Ronaldinho that just said things like ‘Fast’. No laborious guidelines and rules, pictures and a word. ‘Post literate’ A kernel of an idea and latitude.

BoJo, MaGa & RuDa

BoJo, MaGa & RuDa

On brands ‘The only people who believe in the power of brands are those that sell belief in brands and those that are really against brands.’

‘Brand is a poisonous word. Brand is just a side effect of an interesting project’

On the advertising industry and his time at Wieden’s.

‘A lot of my success has been making the type being big enough and not mumbling. Clarity is key.’

He spoke of how Wieden’s had a way of framing the work that made them stand out

‘Try and make it better than anything you could look at, at the time’.

On pitching he was a big believer in just saying what you really mean. An example he gave was an architectural firm that presented to some board and just stood up and said ‘look at this building it is beautiful’. A person with charisma and a clear message not laden in concept will more often than not win out.

‘Advertising is a brilliant industry to leave. It is like a foundation course for the creative industries’

Russell has also been lucky enough to present to Jobs and Gates….

‘Billionaires are the best people to present to as they have no concept of constraints. To successfully present to company CEOs you have to realise their weakness, the gaps in their power’

Calling back to Will’s talk at the start of the day it was clear he was not a great fan of the Silicon Valley obsessed tech world and the fascination with young white startup stars.

‘Being young is not a sustainable business model…The privilege of being able to work 18 hour days with no commitments’

If you keep giving privileged young white men lots of money then some of them will make impressive things but clearly that is a limited strategy in many ways.

Although on he subject of age he wished he had started his Really Interesting Group collective when he was a younger man to benefit from that youthful lack of commitments especially the need to earn so much cash (I must admit I would like to see them reform as some sort of super group in their 60s and see what they would produce). Get a very smart bunch of people with differing but complementary skills and interests and get out of their way

‘The Magnificent Seven as a business model. Give them a mission and set them on their way’.

Either Russell did not talk too much about GDS or I was too busy listening and took lousy notes. What he did stress was the work that had gone into the writing. ‘We have writers, not interested in prose but in communication’ he mentioned that the Government used to write clearly but somewhere lost there way and brand experts got involved and messages got lost in concepts. What the world need was a return to the likes of Tom Eckersley

‘The government used to say things like tidy away your hammers’

Tidy Away Your Hammers

And on that note I shall end these very long notes. I could maybe do with a few years at Wieden’s & Kennedy to learn about brevity and clarity. Thanks again to Max for putting on a good show. A great day of increasing my understanding of a great many things.

Banking conferences are broken…

…and what I would like to do about it.  This is a self-centered post based on my frustration at some banking conferences, it is mainly down the cost of entry but there are a few other issues. This is my attempt to articulate those frustrations and what I would want to see from a banking event effectively designed for me (by me?). Like I said, self centered. I might be making a rather large assumption that anyone other than me would be interested in attending such a thing but a man can dream (albeit a dull one about banking conferences)

That being said, surely it must be possible to put on a decent event about banking that does not cost the earth, is not all bankers in the audience and on stage, covers a broad range of topics about the existing systems, processes, people and the new things trying to improve or destroy them.


Expensive by design?

The event that brought this to a head was the recently announced Wired Money conference. It is due to be held this July in Canary Wharf at the financial technology incubator on Level 39 of 1 Canada Square. This relatively new hub of fintech startups is a good signal of the growth and momentum in London in this space. The event has a great line up of speakers (Kevin Slavin being a big draw) with the majority being based in the UK and a few being flown in from the US and Europe. My main problem is the cost. £995 for a one day conference. Now of course if anyone involved wants to offer me a freebie I am hypocritical enough to accept it gleefully.

Another great conference that the cost of irks me is Finovate. This year a ticket was £1100 for two days made up of 7 minute demos by fintech startup companies. These companies also have to pay to present. I am glad Finovate came to London a couple of years ago, their main conferences are in San Francisco and New York, and they have helped raised the profile  of the UK and European Fintech scene. That being said it is still prohibitively expensive for me.

Next week we have another example – Customer Experience in Financial Services. A strong lineup of senior banking folk talking about exciting things like ‘deepening customer relationships through face-to-face interaction’ and ‘Engaging the millennial generation’ and while I am sure it will be a fine conference I doubt there will be any customers there to talk too face to face or any millennials who can afford to attend.  So will it just be assumptions about what they like and want? Just £1000 for a ticket or £1600 if you want to attend day two as well, Social Media in Financial Services. I am sure it will be a good conference I am just venting now.

I know conferences have to make money or there is no point hosting them but it feels like these banking conferences are being priced at such a level the price tag means prestige or only senior executives can afford to attend. While I fully understand these influential folk are key to making the changes needed to banking or having the budget to invest in some of these startup companies it feels like there is an air of exclusivity which does nothing to change the attitude to banking for the better. Some of the new finance events feel more like ‘Let’s get all the cool kids of new finance to parade their wares and ideas in front of the kingmakers’.

There are of course good examples in banking. Last years Next Bank Europe event last year in Rome had a great lineup with speakers coming from all over the world and the ticket was 300 euros. It is bordering on the expensive but a damn sight more affordable than those already mentioned, even with a flight and hotel in Rome. BarCampBank London now in its sixth year was held the day before Finovate and the price was the princely sum of £10.  Now there were sponsors and a few favours pulled but profit was not the driving factor. (UPDATE: Dave Birch, the organiser of BarCampBank London messaged me to say the ticket money was also donated to charity ‘We sent £685.34 to Jubilee Action for their work with street children in Kenya and with former child soldiers in Uganda‘). Last year’s TEDxLeeds had a new finance focus and for a shortish evening event managed to pull together a good selection of speakers for not much money.

The two one day conferences I have been able to afford to attend this year, The Design of Understanding and The Story have been excellent and the combined cost of tickets for both was just over £200. The people behind these conferences, Max Gadney and Matt Locke respectively, are very talented, smart and respected in their fields and they clearly have great taste in choosing interesting topics around their chosen themes of information design and narrative. They are choosing talks they want to hear talk over and above making money.


Pass the tissues

‘Oh boohoo poor little mid management banker can’t afford to go to conferences, my heart bleeds’ Yes, yes I can imagine there is very little sympathy for me but all I want is an event that tries to bridge the worlds of new and old but also opens the door to others that may be interested. At a price I can afford to go to as well. We have a wealth of digital talent in the UK and I feel like the majority are not engaged in any meaningful way with ‘banking and financial services’ over and above their day to day use, complaining about the deficiencies of their Internet banking offerings or doing great redesigns hoping the banks will notice. I want to get hackers, designers, writers, makers whatever in to a room to listen, learn, contribute and get excited about the future of finance.

As I said before we have some great things happening in London. Great companies like TransferWise and OpenGamma are leading the way. The London based Anthemis Group have their laser like eyes focused on investing in the best of the best with a view to redesigning and replacing the banking systems so they are fit for tomorrow not struggling to be fit for today. Sean Park of Anthemis has a great line about this momentum shift.

“We are starting to see a Cambrian explosion of new ventures, new companies, entrepreneurs focusing on this space. The fruit maybe high on the tree but it is enormous and juicy”

He is right, we are seeing a change and it is exciting to bank geeks like me. How do we get people outside the industry to learn more about this? Get more people eyeing up that fruit?

For me John Kay’s 2009 book titled ‘The Long and the Short of it: A Guide to Finance and Investment for Normally Intelligent People Who Aren’t in the Industry’ sums it up perfectly, although I would of course like to see people from the industry in the audience.


Aircraft engines & ‘opaqueness’

The other thing I would want from my dream event is not just about the new and the innovative. I want to know more about the existing system. There was a great quote recently from Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan when he was challenged by Paul Singer that their accounting was unfathomable.

“Businesses can be opaque. They are complex. You don’t know how aircraft engines work either.”

When I say great quote I mean it was a great insight into the attitude of some in banking. You might not know how aircraft engines work but they are built by multiple providers and that is repeatable. We can build new ones that improve on the old ones. That is not so easy when applied to the bank network.

There are many vast and complex systems that make up the banking world and they are systems we use every single day and impact our lives in ways we may never think about but it is fascinating. How is a cheque actually cleared? How on earth does an ATM work? How is a debit card made (I want a video like this please)? What the hell is a complex derivative? There are so many elements of the banking system that are understood by so few (including some people that work for banks i.e. me).

Contrast the comment by Mr Dimon with this one by Ben Milne of Dwolla.

“Payment networks should have a memory. You absolutely should be able to login to and see every transaction you have ever engaged in with a Visa card. The fact that you can’t do this is ridiculous.”

For those with  a modicum of banking / card issuing knowledge might laugh at the naivety of this statement i.e. the Visa cards are issued by a number of other companies and as such Visa should have no way of tieing all this data together. This only shows how brilliant web thinking is when applied to the historic models that make no sense to new generations, of course you should be able to search every transaction you have ever made. Just the ability to search a years worth of transactions would be a massive leap forward for most financial institutions.


Dream event

So…after all that rambling what I would love to have is an annual event aimed at those that just have an interest in banking and finance and where it is today and where it is going. Hosted away from the steel and glass of the Wharf and somewhere a bit friendlier like Conway Hall, the venue for The Story and another excellent conference, This Is Playful. With a price that makes it accessible to more than those with tailored suits and handmade shoes but for anyone who already works in this area or just people who are interested in learning more. It should be neither focused on banker bashing or bankers only but a happy medium that can hopefully foster soemthing approaching coherent debate.

I would like to hear Joris Luyendijk’s stories about all the real bankers he interviewed and get past media stereotypes (or confirm them), or how about some people who try to circumvent the banking processes for their own gains (no, not bankers), James Bridle talking about the design and architecture of data centres alongside someone who actually designs them, Pelle Braendgaard on OpenTransact and can open source code really replace the banking network etc. etc.

My initial Twitter rant caught the eyes of a few people who were willing to offer advice and help so we will see what they say after reading this rambling word spew. My partner is about to give birth to our second child so I will have no time until May to think about this but in my humble opinion the best time to hold it would be the Thursday after Finovate as there are plenty of new finance types around which could give a head start for speakers and attendees. Finovate London has traditionally been in mid-February so it also gives a bit of time to get things organised if there is enough interest. Feel free to leave any thoughts below especially if you think this is a good idea and what you would want to see from such a conference if you do.

Design of Understanding 2013

My first conference attendance of 2013 was a belter. I attended the Design of Understanding last year and it was so good I had to attend again. I wrote the bulk of this post on a train to the north and I struggled to comprehend my spider leg in ink, handwritten notes so apologies if this is very disjointed / full of misquotes/misrepresentations of the speakers at the event. I guess this was/is my understanding of the design of understanding based on my memories and notes a week and a bit later.

The first three talks of the morning sessions were all fantastic. Matt Cottam of Tellart spoke about the creation of the Google Chrome Web Lab exhibit at the National Science Museum. A wonderful tale of a lot of hard work to create a truly interactive exhibit for both physical visitors and for people interacting via the web. A theme for the day (I am assuming due to the direction of organizer Max Gadney) was showing your ‘working out’ i.e. how was it made. Matt told of the challenges from the original brief where they focused on the physics of theses displays mixing physical objects such as moving balls with digital displays. They realised this was the wrong path and that attempting to explain how the Internet actually worked was a much richer seam than some forced interaction between physical and digital objects (although the metal ball that rolled behind a screen and kicked off an animation was nice).



Matt also mentioned a great Joi Ito quote about innovation (this was not to be the last time his name was mentioned).

‘The cost of assessing risk now is greater than the cost of failing’

What they built was very impressive. It attempted to explain a number of web concepts that we take for granted such as streaming of video or the concept of the web being this physical thing i.e. billions of wires that traverse the globe under sea and over mountains. The exhibition can be visited in real life until July.


Second talk was by Joe Parry of Cambridge Intelligence, a company that specialises in mapping networks of email flow for the Enron scandal, internal vs external members of an organisation to show sales networks, networks of terrorists across Europe, networks of data centre devices and services. The software they use allows the networks to be filtered and morphed to help bring to the fore previously invisible insights such as the key email sending behaviour in Enron and who the key players were, where the terrorists connect and congregate across continents and highlight key countries involved.

He showed a brilliant image of George W. Bush staring at a giant print out of a terrorist network following the twin towers attack and he glibly said ‘I wrote the software that generated that picture’ (or something close to that, my notes are sketchy). It showed the power of paper and scale in the viewing of these networks. He mentioned the cliché of the lone investigator in films staring at the wall of information looking for the links. Still very valuable even with enhanced digital tools.


The starting hat trick was completed by Phil Gyford talking about his work on bringing Samuel Pepys diary to the web. For those unaware Phil had moved to London and decided to read Pepys famous diaries. As well as reading them he had the idea of publishing the diary entries to the web on a day by day basis linked to the day Pepys wrote his original entry. Pepys diaries spanned a period of ten years. Phil ‘finished’ this project in summer last year. He had posted a diary entry every day for ten years. As he posted he had annotated and expanded on the text by crafting a huge volume of additional commentary on the characters involved in the story, summaries of the story so far and also pulling in extra information on characters from other sources e.g. Wikipedia.

Pepys like the rest of us

Phil played a lovely animation going back in time to 2002 when he started this project to show how little of the web we know today existed. In a time of the instant gratification web it is awe inspiring to see someone so dedicated to a thing that they would take all that time and effort to see it through. What was even more amazing was that Phil has started again. He rebuilt the site using new technologies and is now repeating the process albeit with a lot of the hard work done it is still going to be herculean task, not least crafting new Tweets. Amazing.


Lloyd Shepherd spoke about the beauty and complexity of note taking. An author by trade he had to do masses of research for his historically set novels and he was unhappy with the tools of today. They are incapable of capturing the neural connections made by the person taking the notes or the links between each note and source. He showed some great notes from Matt Jones of Berg that showed how the layout and design of those notes told so much of the story and almost showed the thought processes of the person capturing the notes. How do you represent that digitally? He has published his talk online which is very helpful for people who did not take good enough notes.


Stef Posavec is a designer who uses data in an amazing way. I have seen Stef speak three times now and I am amazed by her work and how it is made. She spoke extensively about a new project called 94 elements where she was building graphical representations of the 94 naturally occurring elements. Stef broke down how she took the various attributes of the elements and how she looked for patterns in the data that could be transformed into unique simple representations of each. She settled on the atomic numbers of the elements and ended up with gem like representations which could be enhanced with colour and texture.


The talk that caught me by surprise was by Justin McGuirk. He spoke about activist architecture in South America. In twenty minutes he taught me a lot about how ‘modern architecture had gone to South America to die’ and with it how the dreams of building homes for the poor had also failed massively. This gave way to the rise of the slums that spread prolifically and had swamped many of those architectural dreams.

Failed attempts to build sustainable housing, designs that allowed people to improve and extend were admirable but ultimately too expensive. The approach now seems to have changed. The focus has switched to building beautiful and functional buildings and spaces in the middle of the slums to basically lift the area. Examples of multi use community centres or brilliant pieces of infrastructure such as cable cars that meant journeys to the centre of cities no longer took two hours but took nine minutes made it easier for people to work but also reconnected people to wider society.


Stefanie Posavec & Justin McGuirk @ The Design of Understanding 2013

Some lovely visual notes by Eva-Lamm Lotta


The talk that probably resonated most with me was by Beeker Northam. Beeker was due to speak at last year’s event but had to cancel due the fact she was heavily pregnant with twins, who she mentioned as she was worried they would become the girls from the Shining while her partner wanted them to grow up to be like the Winklevosses. As Beeker’s maternity leave was coming to an end she was starting to think about innovation and how it should work in digital agencies but her thinking was so true that is applies far wider than the agency world. Beeker admitted it was a work in progress but I thought it was pretty close to being done.

My notes only contain three sentences as I was listening so intently. They are as follows.

‘Nearness, Collaboration, Craft > Intersection’ (this was me describing a Venn Diagram that were the key themes of the talk.

‘Anyone who says they have a ten step plan for innovation is wrong’ YES.

‘This 3D printed thing looks like take me to your dealer at Camden Market’. My garbled capture of a great joke on how 3D printing is churning out complex patterns and object that look a bit hippyish but you can clearly see it is going to change the world sooner rather than later.

Beeker also made the second great mention of Joi Ito. Talking about his approach around lots of small, measurable experiments being the closest we will get to a process for innovation. I am unable to do justice to the talk as it was a brilliant collection of thinking that I am incapable of explaining.

As my colleague Betony said after it had finished ‘I thought you were going to take off your shirt and start roaring COME ON!’ thankfully for all attendees I did not. Fantastic.


Last talk of note was Ben Terrett, Head of Design at the Government Digital Service. He had to follow a lady from the BBC who talked about their Olympics offering i.e a load of stirring clips and some stats about how impressive their online service was, which was very impressive but felt like cheating.

Now obviously I am a GDS fanboy. The way they are doing IT right in a big bureaucratic organisation is obviously impressive.  Again it was good to see how they were going about that from the aspiration to build something in the digital space as important as the road sign designs of Margaret Calvert (who they were actually working with and was a fierce critic and continued inspiration.)

The space to put so much effort into design is something I am in awe of. 250 staff at GDS. 16 designers. Strong ratio.

Combined working. New approaches were being tried at the GDS. Instead of designers crafting and pushing pixels in Photoshop they designed in the browser. This meant a designer and a front end coder would pair up and build together. So obvious yet so brilliant.

Mission patches. The thing that inspires me about GDS is the purpose. It drips out of everything they do. I am sure it is not all sweetness and light but from the outside it looks pretty bloody good. Ben shared a great example of mission patches, borrowed from NASA. For each major piece of development and release they handed out mission patches to all involved. These stickers are badges of honour on the laptops of those involved. A seemingly simple thing but a great display of team work.

mission patch

Paring back to an absolute minimum. Ben gave a great example of some feedback from Margaret Calvert where she had challenged them to really go back to basics with information design. What did the page design look like with a single font at a single weight? Was it still clear and understandable? This minimum viable approach helped shape their thinking and while they did not stick with one font and one weight they only use three weights and the single font they chose was actually the digital version of Transport, the font used on the road signs and designed by you know who.

Like so many of the talks it was a shame this was not recorded in any way. I guess my last words on it will be this…

‘What is the user need, not what is the government need’ Replace the word government with your industry and there is the focus so often disregarded. If you forget that then you are only going to be ever designing from a point of misunderstanding.

Banking in the ‘Glocal’ world

This awkwardly titled post is thusly titled because it is the name of an event that Betony Taylor, my esteemed colleague from the UK media relations team, and I were invited to speak at recently. The event took place in Zurich at the Swiss Stock Exchange and was hosted by Capco and the Swiss Finance Institute.

The venue for the day

The term Glocal (a portmanteux of Global and Local) is not just some awful marketing creation but is actually the basis of some detailed geographic research. The event was looking at the challenges being faced by banks due to the increasingly global nature of their customers through travel, the virtual erasure of borders through the use of the web and the realtime access demands due to the rise of mobile technologies.

The day started with a keynote from Peter Stringham of Young & Rubicam, and as it turned out he was also ex HSBC. His firm had undertaken a large piece of research into trust in industries. As you might expect the traditional retail and service industries had seen a huge decrease in consumer trust and the web based companies were seeing a great increase in trust. Peter’s research pointed to the fact that people just did not believe the messages coming out of those so called old world industries. I would like to see the research to dig into it a bit deeper but I have a feeling that people trust the big web companies more because what they do just works. They keep it simple.

The Occupy movement has been a big wake up for the financial industry. It is not just the normal protestors. Peter showed an image of a child protester to make the point that this will affect generations and how they think about banking. Recovering that trust could take generations. This lack of trust makes people want to disntermediate the system.

Occupy Bacon

An Occupy site just yards from the event

One example given was payments startup Dwolla. They want to do payments without touching the traditional bank network as much as possible. If banks continue to fight and defend against the Internet as people will try and disintermediate the bank network.

Peter also discussed the lack of cross border identity, even between so called global institutions. He mentioned Amex being particularly painful to deal with when he moved from Canada to the US. They explained that he was a customer of Amex Canada. He felt it was strange how they don’t brand like that. He moved to the US and had sold a house for ‘several million dollars’ yet had no credit rating in the US (at this point I of course had very little sympathy for him but I agree there is a problem). These problems are caused by regulations and a lack of really understanding the customer need. The companies that can best unsnarl the regulation will be the ones that win. Consumers don’t care about regulation, they care about being able to do what they need to get done. A great start to a day I was worried would be way over my head. It allayed my fears, albeit briefly.

The first panel focused on reputation management and followed on nicely from Peter’s talk. The general attitude seemed to be that the banks had taken their eye off the ball and the blind pursuit of money had cost them dear. They knew they had to engage at a more human level to regain what they had lost.

The second and third panels were way over my head the second panel was also way over my personal wealth. They looked at the future of cross border private banking and the regulatory environment and its effect on the Eurozone crisis. I will be honest, I did not understand a lot of what was said for about 90 minutes. I have looked back at the presentations and discussions and I am still none the wiser.

What those panels did however do is remind me of the scale, importance and complexity of the financial system. I tend to forget how big banking really is and there is nothing like a session on macro prudential regulation in relation to cross border private banking to make you think your obsession with this piddling little social media stuff might just be the banking equivalent of a child’s toy.

Are the banks stuck between a rock and a...

The panel Betony and I were involved in covered social media and new technologies (quelle surprise) It was preceded by a talk from Dan Marovitz of Buzzimi and once of Deutsche Bank. Entitled, Banking in the Digital Slipstream, it looked at how our actions on the web are ever increasing and as such so is the footprint of what we leave behind. This data is the new gold. Banks sit on an interesting set of this data that none of these web companies have access too yet. Are banks making the best use of it?

The panel discussion that followed covered these topics with a particular focus on transparency. How could the banks deal with the demands of social media and its incessant march against secrets. The consensus seemed that they had to adjust. My own point of view being that no longer can they hide behind complex business models and terms and conditions. I mentioned BankSimple CEO, Josh Reich, and his thought that banks make money by keeping their customers confused. I don’t believe they do that wilfully but I think that banks forget how complex banking is as they live in this bubble where they understand the terminology and the ins and outs. Amusingly no one in the room (except the panel members) had even heard of BankSimple so maybe I live in my own bubble as well.

On the wider topic of social media. I wanted to make clear that it is just a brand name. Just like web 2.0 before it and social business that follows it. It is just the evolving web, the twenty something year old all conquering web. We need to embrace it because it is starting to reach its true potential.  Earlier in the day social media had a few mentions and there was some confusion with it being about popularity and celebrity. Peter Andre was mentioned as doing well in social media but banks will not. Rubbish. The question was asked earlier in the day of how many companies are on twitter. This is the wrong question, how many of your named people are allowed on twitter to represent your brand. It is not about pumping out news on your brand in a broadcast manner it is about being a human being and adding some value.

I would love to see HSBC economists on twitter but there is so much regulation around them that they can’t say anything. They probably can’t even tweet about having a ham sandwich for lunch because that might impact the wheat and pork belly futures markets.

The panel moderator, Nick Levy of Capco, threw in his next question about dumb pipes, as in are the banks destined to become just a layer of infrastructure. I have written about this topic recently and the experience on the panel made me finish that long held post. In short I think yes they will but this is not a bad thing.

The view from the panel...enthralled suit based audience

Throughout the day I kept thinking about the levels of complexity on banking and how the evolving web’s great power had been to simplify processes and business models which has led to the rise of these new trusted companies, while banking and its many regulatory bodies and the governments of the world continue to add layer upon layer of rules and restrictions. I kept thinking about Clay Shirky’s piece on the collapse of complex business models. It is a fairly obvious yet pessimistic correlation to make. Yet the big trusted web companies are now starting to face the same problems, as Google’s recent privacy policy issues show. As the web giants encroach further on the ‘real’ world then rules and regulation are sure to follow. Will the new trusted companies be the ones that can innovate around regulation? Or the ones that unsnarl it and challenge the so called dark matter? Will the digital footprint be increasingly understood by consumers and will they realise the power it wields and demand that they have sight and control over it?

I don’t think the digital pieces of infrastructure required to really replace any meaningful parts of the banking system exist today. Digital identity and the elements of trust, systems that can eradicate the ability to hide money in dodgy offshore havens or through complex derivatives built on top of mythical AAA rated bonds. Transparency, trust and simplicity are the things required for banking in a Glocal world but they are very, very difficult to create. Ultimately a lot of these discussions around new technologies and trends and how you need to behave come down to good old fashioned trust. The day had come full circle.

All the presentations from the day (apart from Peter’s keynote frustratingly) are available here. There are some videos presentations and panels, although thankfully not the one I was on. Thanks to Capco and the SFI for inviting Bee and I to speak. It was a complex thought provoking day that reminded me exactly how big banking is and how it maybe needs to learn how to be small again.

BarCampBank London 5

The 6th of February was the date for the 5th BarCampBank London. Held at the same loation as last years, Nesta, it brought together around a hundred or so financial service innovation types to discuss the hot topics of the moment. Last year there had been a focus on alternative currencies and economies this year they were largely absent from the sessions (the ones I attended anyway). NFC was also another big topic last year but this year it felt like the disillusionment was setting in.

I was kindly asked by conference organiser Dave Birch to help group the themes from the post it note avalanche at the start of the BarCamp. It allowed me to be biased and shape a session on one of my current pet topics, APIs/Open Data, although to be honest I did not have to be that biased as it was a topic a lot of other people wanted to discuss.


‘What does a bank API look like?’ was the question used to frame the discussion. I was asked to lead the talk which was a tad daunting with some of the experts in the room thankfully I don’t think I made too much of an idiot of myself. The first job was to explain what an API was to the mixed knowledge group. An API is an Application Programming Interface and as the name implies it allows programs and services to connect and interact with it to control the business process it sits on top of. My primary focus is around creating APIs to deliver access to a customer’s transaction data so if they so desire they could use a third party PFM, like Mint.

But what is the business benefit of an API? Why would a bank open up its data to 3rd parties when they can keep all that good stuff for themselves? Well the discussion coverd this quite a bit and the conclusion was that the biggest benefit is around internal development. The API should be used to build your own tools. If banks had APIs then building tablet, mobile or Internet Fridge banking apps would be a piece of cake.

Obviously the immediate concern when anyone mentions an API plugged into the financial transaction data of customers is what about the hackers?! Yes an API to financial data would be quite the honey pot but surely these issues can be overcome. If PayPal (the developer arm is now known as  X Commerce) can provide API access to some of its services then why can’t other banks?

In Germany they have had APIs of a sort for quite some time in the form of the FinTS set of services. We were lucky enough to have several people from Germany in the group and they said that while FinTS was useful the way it had been implemented by the banks varied wildly between institutions. Open standards are desperately needed.

We were lucky enough to be joined by Simon Redfern from the Open Bank Project. An organisation looking to build a layer for the banks to plug into and then provide some standard data feeds in JSON with some RESTful APIs to hook into. Unsurprisingly they have not signed up any banks to take this on just yet but on paper this looks like just the kind of thing needed.

We discussed what the role of Swift was in all this. The Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication is a global messaging network which deals with payment instructions. They would not really have access to the customer level data I am interested in but it would certainly be interesting to plug an API into this world.

Another angle was the Government. In the UK we have the MiData project kicking off at the moment. With the vision of handing customer data back to the customers. Some banks are signed up to this but as yet the detail around how data will be provided is not that well detailed and I think data extracts maybe preferred over API type access.

This is a really interesting topic that I think will be a major focus for the banking industry over the next 18-24 months.


Second session I attended was entitled ‘Does social media change everything or nothing in financial services’ I am not sure about the title of this thing (maybe replace social media with ‘ever evolving web’) but I like the sentiment.

I think the obvious thoughts are the likes of Google and Facebook will sweep aside the banking industry as we know it. I really don’t agree with that. Those companies have no interest in being banks. They might want some of that sweet, sweet financial data to better tune their marketing efforts but they don’t want the hassle of Basel 3 compliance etc.

That being said you cannot ignore the effect the web continues to have on society and banking is certainly not exempt from that. The two networks need to get closer and I believe the two can coexist. The banking one may look a bit long in the tooth comparatively but it is pretty good a transferring trillions of dollars per day without much issue (the small matter of global economics withstanding).


My third choice of the day was ‘Can you imagine a world with no POS terminals or plastic payment cards’. Like the previous session the big assumption is that mobile devices will change the way we pay to such an extent these mechanisms of trade will be consigned to the dustbin. Square might be the FS darling in the US at the moment but wide scale merchant usage at a corporate level will not be possible with such a system (the mag stripe alone makes it unusable outside the US). The discussion focussed around what the big players in this market actually do and why displacing them will be very hard.

The key element being the payment schemes and the functionality contained within them e.g. chargebacks, where customers of Visa could demand a refund from them if the goods the customer purchased from a third party were substandard. Are the new players going to be able to build these huge complex processes? The feeling from some part of the group was that this was maybe a bridge too far. This means the big players will probably stay as the big players…also Visa have a pretty big stake in Square anyway.


A slightly bizarre end to the day in the form of something that I had found difficult in the last session i.e. imagining a future without something so fundamental to pretty much everything we do today ‘What would be the plot of a movie about the future of the financial system?’.

Now obviously the premise was quickly established that the financial system as we knew it had completely failed (crippling virus or AI reached such a level of sentience that the HFT algorithms ran riot and heavily funded biotech which lead to the creation of an army of financially trading cyborgs that also had a physical presence so they could take over the world or a more plausible continuation of the real world events going on now). Either way the way things work today cease to be. Trying to think through what would happen if you no longer had any access to money. No way to buy. No reason to work. Hording would begin. Looting would break out. Society would surely break down. This would be a pretty depressing dystopian future so we had to try and inject some happy/hippy transitions.

Obviously barter systems would flourish (They have seen a resurgence in Greece recently) and the world would find new means of trade and currency and the things would be right again (as the rebel survivors successfully defeat the evil cyborgs) and no one would ever be short sighted or greedy again. There was a slight twist in the end in the form of a very clichéd cut to an underground bunker with a lone evil banking cyborg that had escaped the cull. Can’t see it getting made any time soon with a plot like that, I also suspect securing funding would be very difficult.


I personally got more out of this year’s event over last years. Not sure if that was to do with the more relevant/interesting topics or just feeling more comfortable with the format/audience/my willingness to shoot my mouth off. There was still a lack of (UK) bankers at the event which was a bit of a shame…that being said who wants a load of bankers at an innovation event anyway?

Nice work once again by Mr Birch and his associated organisers. Finovate Europe which was held the day after has meant some of Europe’s smartest in the industry come together in London for a few days. Organising events at either side of it is a no brainer. Same again next year please maybe with a few more events added on to make a week of it.

The Design of Understanding

Let’s give this blogging thing another go after a couple of months post free. Last Friday I went to a place in London and listened to some clever people talk about some interesting things at an event called Design of Understanding. Here are some words that don’t do the event justice.

It was an eclectic mixture of speakers brought together by a seemingly nice chap called Max Gadney. He kicked off the day with some words of wisdom, the ones which caught my ear the most was ‘all forms of communication should impart understanding’ be the the way we perceive and use physical device or interpret a barely coherent post. This phrase seemed like a nice framing of the day. Here are some notes on my 3 favourite talks of the day.

Timo Arnall of Berg shared his love of film and how he believed it to be the most powerful means of communication. Berg are interested in how new technologies fit into the world. Film gives them the ability to show time, behaviours and to allow them to unpack (this may have been the most used word of the day) technologies. He showed a beautiful example made by Polaroid in 1972. An 11 minute film by Ray & Charles Eames that explained how the SX-70 folding SLR camera worked. No marketing guff of today but a clear and concise explanation of the science behind the device.

The myths that evolve around technology were another source of interest. RFID technology that is still perceived as a new technology even though there are around 4 billion RFID tags and chips in the world. This technology invokes irrational fears and leads to people creating things like copper wired jeans to block the devices being tracked. Is this in part due to the fact that so few people know how these things actually work? How they interact with the world around them? Berg produced a video visualising the fields around the device by using LEDs and sensors, mixed with long exposure photography.  The resulting video is a thing of beauty.

The use of film in this was by Berg has lead them to create something they are calling new grammar. The video almost becomes the product of their design work. The power of this communication form has been proved many times by Berg. Matt Jones wrote a fascinating piece about new grammar and its origins.

Timo ended with the Heathquote. Wise words from Chris Heathcote of Dentsu.

 “the world is going to get strange and magical, and people will be confused and fearful. Designers will have to do what they do best, helping people navigate these environments”

RFID (and its bigger brother NFC) will become increasingly used to the point of ubiquity over the next 5-10 years. How these technologies are designed to work in the world will be key. I think Berg will certainly help figure that out.

It was a bloody good start to the day.


Just before lunch it was the turn of  James Bridle. Not really sure how to explain who James is or what he does. In Max Gadney’s speaker notes he said this about James, which I think sums hims up very well.

“I am always impressed at how his interest in something means he needs to make it, not just to create an objet d’art but more that in order to investigate and understand he makes the thing”

I agree. He is also whip crack smart and a very funny fella.

One of the similarities between James and Timo’s talk was time. James is interested in the effect time has on things in this digital age. He created a series of books that documented the Iraq War based on every edit to the Wikipedia page about that event. A historiography of argument about a series of facts. James jokingly said that because of his background in publishing he always made books. He has also created a book based on his whereabouts over a whole year based on the tracking data from his iPhone, entitled Where the fuck was I. He has also published 50 versions of the Charles Dickens novel, Hard Times, with each version being slightly different. One edition is translated into Russian and back again into English.

Another element of time mentioned was the penchant for taking photos today with smart phone cameras and applying retro effects. As we strive to get our photos looking like the Polaroids of the 70s what does this do to the perception of time. If we see a street scene with a sepia tint we would assume it was from a bygone age. But what does the future look like? What are the digital effects or the contents of the photo to make it look more futuristic. This lead into one of James’ key themes of interest/research which he has called the New Aesthetic.

“For a while now, I’ve been collecting images and things that seem to approach a new aesthetic of the future, which sounds more portentous than I mean. What I mean is that we’ve got frustrated with the NASA extropianism space-future, the failure of jetpacks, and we need to see the technologies we actually have with a new wonder. Consider this a mood-board for unknown products.”

You can see this collection at the new aesthetic Tumblr. He said he was now receiving links from people asking ‘Is this the New Aesthetic?’ I can confess I am guilty of this.

I highly recommend you watch this talk by James from last year as he explains the topic in a far more eloquent way than I ever could. You should also check out his portfolio and some of the other things he has made such as Rorschmap (a kaleidoscope view of the world from above), A ship adrift (a bot set adrift based on weather conditions…currentlky somewhere over eastern Europe) and the recently launched Bus Tops, which he called ‘the worlds largest animated GIF sharing infrastructure’ i.e. connected screens on the top of bus shelters to display art. Lunch.


Last talk of the day came from Dan Hill. Dan is a Strategic Design Lead at Sitra, the Finnish Innovation Fund. They look into many things but mainly how design can be used to enable change at a city wide level ‘A single building cannot change a city’.

He spoke of the need to change the dark matter that binds the huge organisations/organisms that are cities.  The dark matter being the name Dan gave to the rules and regulations that the city must abide buy even though some of these rules are seemingly unwritten. Sitra looking into new building materials. They wanted to used compressed laminate beams for building structures as they are more environmentally sound than concrete but they are classed as wood, even though they do not burn. The regulations from the 1900s do not allow this. We see so many problems of the 21st century trying to be fixed by 18th century organisations and the rules they created. I can see no parallels with banking here what so ever.

Another example given was around food trucks in Helsinki. They have 10 food trucks for the whole of Helsinki. They all sell the same thing…which did not look pleasant. All restaurants close at 10pm. Drunk revellers seek food much later. They have no choice. The licenses required to open a food truck become available every 10 years. The dark matter of the city prevented innovation around the very important subject of food…or did it? Illegal food sales have began to spring up in parks. People sell food from their windows getting round the restrictions. One brave soul decided to build a crepe truck, Caminoette, and defy the rules. The city regulators were not happy but an 11,000 fan Facebook page and subsequent campaign lead the city, in election year, to reconsider its strict stance. What Sitra are interested in is how more flexibility can be added to the rules to allow for more spikes of innovation. Unpacking the dark matter to make it matter.

These three speakers were the primary reason I wanted to attend this conference. They did not disappoint. I would love to set them loose in a certain industry beginning with B. To see what Timo’s films would unpack, what James would make of the data and what Dan thought about the whole bloody thing. Wonder if I can make that happen? Why on earth would they want to?

There were more speakers and they were all good. Gill Ereaut spoke about the language of corporations and how the way people talk, or name departments lets the culture seep out. Luis Rey talked about the importance of illustration mixed with research, a desire to challenge and a sense of drama to alter the way historians thought about dinosaurs. Tom Armitage spoke of rules and mechanics in games and how the fun of play and ultimately understanding comes from the friction between those collections of rules and mechanics. ‘What toy do you give a 9 year old to show them what the future looks like? Video Games’

A fine first conference of 2012 for me. Thanks to the organisers and the speakers for a brain filling day. I will be the first to admit though that I am not smart enough to have understood all of it. Only so much design you can do.

Death Star desires and regrets at Playful 2011

Rainbow Teeth & IsaacFriday the 28th of October was a day I had been looking forward to for a while. It was Playful 2011. It came after a week in which I had to give two big presentations that had been playing on my mind for quite some time so for me it was nice and relaxing to sit back and watch others present on a range of fascinating topics.

The day was kicked off by Toby Barnes of Mudlark. Last year he bemoaned the proliferation of gamification, summed up with a line that has stuck with me ‘no one wants a playful bank’. This year he bemoaned the fact that the future he had been promised as a child had not been delivered. No more space shuttles, no Death Stars, no futuristic concrete shopping centres. Nothing that makes a dent in the world. He always bemoaning. He is right though. This set the tone for the majority of the day. A future lost. A mundane future. We need to dream big again.

Al Robertson was the first non-Toby speaker of the day and he told how most Sci-Fi turned out to be wrong. The Mekon did not arrive in the mid 90s and Lycra suits will never be in fashion. Because of this some people found it too risky to become involved deeply in a form of fiction that is too far from reality and that in all likelihood will never be true.

Cities were mentioned several times throughout the day. Matt Sheret of Last.FM talked about the made up city of Altdorf from Warhammer, the voice given to city objects and infrastructure like Tower Bridge in London and how new stories were being weaved about future towns via metadata using the Derby 2061 project as an example. Are these fictional constructs to be used for good or evil? Is making buildings talk creepy? Will Derby really have a future? And was the game Warhammer just an excuse for Matt’s friend to try and kill him. Either way we need to pick a side.

Another worry from the day was the automation of things and how we interact with them. Louise Downe was worried about toilets. Automatic air fresheners and self flushing toilets. How do you flush the toilet twice? Stand up and sit down again? The issue is about trust and intimacy with these machines. Until they think like we do or we can truly put ourselves in their shoes to understand how they work then that intimacy will never occur.

Louise used a couple of great examples to show how people lack intimacy with the systems around them. How people keep all their receipts as they think credit card companies systems always try to steal from you. How the stories around how ID theft occur get more and more vivid the greater the lack of understanding people have.

The funniest talk of the day came from Brendan Dawes. A man raised in a shit north western seaside town (not Blackpool). A town where the future arrived in the form of arcade machines. Machines With perplexing interfaces like the button laden Defender machines. Darkened rooms full of these machines and the noises and atmosphere that went with them. There were no fruit machines there though as they were for scallys, he told us.

These interfaces shaped Brendan’s outlook and he told of a Microsoft Surface project using knobs that interacted with the device when placed on the screen. The client for the project wanted to add instructions as they thought it was too complex ‘I will resign if we have to put instructions on this’ he told the client ‘I wouldn’t as I need to pay the mortgage’ he confided.

Brendan likes to make things. He told us everyone needs a shed but that for him his shed was a mental construct or as his wife called it, the back room. Brendan did not feel the future had let him down he thought right now we are living in a very exciting period. A time when he can have a 3D printer in his back room and he can print egg cups to replace his broken ceramic ones.

After lunch it was time for The Kaiser, Marcus John Henry Brown. Lovingly introduced by Toby as a scummer (he comes from Southampton the sworn enemy of Toby’s home town of Portsmouth) Marcus set about saying the future we dreamt of is clouding our vision. We are seemingly bound by the Sci-Fi cannon and the ideas they presented in the 50s, 60s and 70s. Marcus called this the middle aged future. Middle aged men obsessed with what they had seen as children. We need to think further out. Marcus urged us to think like really young children. Give a box to a four year old he will go to the moon. Give it to an 8 year old and they will put books in it.

As a writer Marcus has tried to construct some futures 120 years away to try and escape the cannon. The Billion Dollar Dream, a world with no oil, no travel, no plastics etc. A dream within a dream, layered futures and Murder they wrote the future we wanted actually happened then what. Try to Think like a child in these scenarios and it is very very difficult because of our constricted view of the world and the baggage of the world we imagined.

The most explosive and fear inducing talk of the day came from Matt Ward who talked about fake bombs. He had worked on a project called Green = Boom the aims of which were around ‘exploring the notion of ‘recreational bombs’, as a reaction against the over sanitisation of everyday life’ or to put it another way to see what we could create to put people in very tense situations.

The group he worked with made ever more complex fake bombs with balloons simulating the explosive effect. Balloons/Bombs were stuffed up jumpers and placed on heads to add an element of real fear to the diffusion of the fake bomb. The sense of cutting that red or green wire became much more visceral and just like the movies. They found that getting people to suspend their disbelief was easier than they had imagined and real fear was felt in varying degrees by all participants. The people involved in testing the devices were also willing them to go further to heighten the tension e.g. Show a video of some children held hostage, further adding to the research that not only were people willing o suspend belief they were also more than willing to become sick terrorists. It made me think how you would apply these tensions and mechanisms into real life to stop you doing something stupid.

Could you build some sort of fake bomb type device that made you think twice before putting your logon details into a strange site or how about adding some bomb defusing tension to a payment transaction to stop you making a terribly expensive error e.g. buying an expensive item of clothing that you would wear only once.

As the day drew to a close there were two talks that, due to tiredness, I did not have the mental capacity to really appreciate fully. They were both excellent.

The kinkiest talk of the day came from Georgina Voss who talked about the risks, ethics and consent in play using examples from the world of BDSM. For those unaware the acronym BDSM is derived from Bondage, Domination, Submission and Masochism and various mixtures thereof. More commonly aggregated by the unknowing as S&M. Gemma talked about the importance of consent in play and how the rules around acceptance of play are important.

One term in my the talk stood out and in my notes I had written the word with a star next to it. The term was RACK and here is the description from Gemma’s presentations notes.

rack’ – risk aware consensual kink. This refuses any unrealistic commitment to safety over risk taking. Instead it includes an adult awareness of potential risk, accompanied by harm reduction strategies, where risk is defined as the potential that something unwanted and harmful may occur.

This adult attitude to riskier forms of play could relate to many things. Naturally I thought about the financial world and the more complex trading and investment environments.I am sure there are lots of obvious jokes around linking BDSM to investment bankers but like Torture Garden it is probably best that I don’t go there. Great talk and I highly recommend you download the slides and notes.

Second brain tester towards the end of the day came from the BBC’s Paul Rissen. Paul wants to make the web more playful o to be more accurate the web of data more playful. Paul explained about the ever growing ecosystem of linked data and that while this is a very important thing it is a bit dull. He laid out a triangle structure of the data world, the physical world and the fiction world. The interactions between these elements offering differing views of the world with some of the interactions being more under utilised than others. I can’t really do justice to this talk without listing all the examples given. Better to just go and read Paul’s detailed notes on the talk. This is the talk I will most likely be coming back to over the next few months.

The day ended with a ramshackle, pitch laden car crash of a presentation from UsTwo. It was hilarious. They told how they had spent a lot of their investors money on lots of games that had sold minuscule amounts. They were all in on one last project. 4,500 hours spent already. 100s of thousands spent. Pressure. They showed designs and concepts from the game. Showed a music video of the theme tune that was recorded by Gruff Rhys from the Super Furry Animals and told how they had added achievements at the last minute as everyone loves badges.

The game is Whale Trail and over its first weekend on sale it sold 38,000 copies. It had been made Apples game of the week globally the day before the talk. They were suffering from major hangovers. The game is great. Buy it.

And that was it for another year. A really great selection of talks. Some mind noodling ideas that are still fizzing round my brain. Some of my less enlightened colleagues fail to see the correlation between Playful and banking and questioned why I attended the conference. I could wheel out stories about the adjacent possible as explained beautifully by Steven B. Johnson or regurgitate quotes from Steve Jobs about the need for a breadth of experiences but I will just say that listening to a lot of smart people’s ideas, experiences, hopes and dreams is good for the soul and the brain. Excellent work by Greg and Toby to organise such a great event. Roll on Playful 2012.

PS Toby won’t ever have a Death Star. Hopefully his children just might.