Category: Innovation

Futuristic Film Money

I made a little Tumblr to capture all the futuristic methods of currency, money usage, devices related to money, new forms of credit/insurance etc. in films and TV, as some sort of design inspiration / excuse to make something. It is also some sort of lens / output device that might make me focus on films for a specific reason / tune my view. You can find the site at

Please do send in submissions of any kind. I have added a few things so far and I have a list of about 25 things more to add. All help greatly appreciated and I will pay you in Aden Bucks.

AI won’t absolve you

2016 will be the year of AI or so lots of articles, consultants, conference talks and tweets tell you almost robotically. I don’t disagree that the fields related to AI are starting to mature but we are a long way off from true general AI. Never the less this year will see a lot of people in a lot of organisations thinking they need to get some AI projects on the go. I worry for a lot of them. AI will not absolve you from design, effort, communication etc. etc.

There are a lot of fields underneath the banner of AI.

AI ecosystem

My worry is that artificial intelligence and machine learning as brands conjure up fanciful images of answers being produced as if by magic by these mega software and hardware beasts. Lots of things being conflated underneath the brand of AI. It helps fuel the hype it can also deform the reality.

AI will not be the answer to all of your problems. You can’t just AI away design problems. It might fix some issues and help you do some things you never could but it certainly won’t fix them all and it will certainly throw up some interesting new complex ones.

And talking of complex, complex software requires ever more complex skilled humans to understand and implement well. You cant just take all that lovely big data you have been hoarding for years and doing nothing of note with and fire it into these things and expect magic to pop out?

Without getting into the whole complex issue of bias built into the systems by the humans that design them, what does fake/machine learned empathy look like? Then again what is human empathy really?

There is definitely phenomenal potential in AI advances but it is still in its infancy and infants need a lot of adult supervision. They are capable of brilliance in between tantrum laden meltdown, soiled underwear, and refusal to eat what you try and feed them sometimes leading to spectacular vomiting.

“The business plans of the next 10,000 startups are easy to forecast: Take X and add AI. This is a big deal, and now it’s here.”?—?Kevin Kelly

Before buying into the hype get some of your best and brightest data science nerds and architects and designers to help you get a real insight into what will be involved, what outcomes you can realistically expect and ensure you treat it as an experiment rather than a sure thing. Like anything the more you put into it the more you will get out. AI will not absolve you of defining the problem you are trying to solve.

The people and companies that succeed in using AI well will no doubt be similar ones that designed mobile interfaces well, have simple and clear services elsewhere, get real data from their own data today. It just comes down to the old classic of spend more time than is reasonable defining the problem/making something simple. Spend less time than is reasonable hoping the robots will fix it for you is a recipe for disaster.

The Adjacent Possible In Large Multinational Corporations (Part 3 of 3)

This is the third and final part in a series of posts on the adjacent possible.  I recommend starting with the first and second posts to get more context on the ideas and the adjacent possible


6. The adjacent possible on the inside versus what is available on the outside

As someone whose job it is to look outside the organisation for new and interesting technologies and trends it can be very challenging to try and bring those things back into an organisation that might be a few generational steps behind, like trying to sell Maglev rail tracks to George Stephenson. Sometimes the harsh and frustrating reality is that you need to understand how many steps behind an organisation is, to know where the line of adjacency is.

This in itself can grow to be a major problem. The less an organisation looks outside and studies the evolution of technology over time the greater the technical debt can become and what is adjacent and possible falls further and further behind.

There are also the internal attitudes to innovation in general. Most organisations would say they are innovative and want to be leading fields but inside there might be a more cautious attitude or even admittance that they are a fast follower. Now I hate that term but I realise sometimes it is a good way to be, the first out of the gates is not always the winner but that attitude spreads like a weed and strangles people’s attitude to risk and may prevent them ever trying something new no matter how adjacent to organisational reality it is.

There is also an education and a publishing issue, as outlined in the previous section. Most people do not know what the capabilities of a large organisation are and they also don’t know how an idea goes from their head to getting made.  It seems far from possible for most, me included.


7. Team building exercise

“It was probably one of the greatest research teams ever pulled together on a problem,” Walter Brattain would later say. When he first reviewed the list of who would be working with silicon and germanium in the new solid-state group with Shockley at Murray Hill—roughly every month, the Labs’ staff received typed organizational charts of their department’s personnel—Brattain read it over twice. There isn’t an S.O.B. in the group, he thought to himself, pleased with the prospect of joining in. Then after a minute he had a second thought: Maybe I’m the S.O.B. in the group.  Jon Gertner – The Idea Factory

Can you increase the chance of discovery, invention and evolution by mixing together different elements? Diverse and cross skilled expert teams should be able to create and unlock greater numbers of ideas faster, although variety is certainly more desirable than speed. It is not as easy to try and force these things but experimenting with different groups of people is certainly worth trying. At the previously mentioned Bell Labs they handpicked teams to work on specific problems and challenges. They had a mix of theorists and experimenters, ideas men and makers working together. Personality types also played a big part as outlined in the quote.

This form of team design maybe considered for short term projects and challenges but not so much on longer term investigations or research. Build an interesting team of people and give them a set of challenges and some freedom to simply ask ‘what if’?


8. Freedom to experiment

“The point of this kind of experimentation was to provide a free environment for “the operation of genius.” His point was that genius would undoubtedly improve the company’s operations just as ordinary engineering could. But genius was not predictable. You had to give it room to assert itself.” Jon Gertner – The Idea Factory

Conversations will lead to other opportunities, they will progress ideas but only so far. Jumping from words spoken or on a screen to a tangible prototype, product or service for most can be a very difficult leap to make. The large organisation will have ‘siloed’ and gated most processes to prevent people just going off and making new things and rightly so in most cases. The enterprise is a huge machine full of cogs. It has fixed outputs and they must run like clockwork. Slack must be built into the machine though, spaces to converse, build and play outside or adjacent to the main machinery. The closer the play and experimentation can be to the main machine the better for making these experiments as realistic as possible and also increasing the speed with which they can be put in front of customers. Ideally the experiments themselves should be with customers.

Our internal microblogging platform, uBlog, is a small experimental system that has more than proved the concept of this simple way of increasing adjacency. We were lucky enough to find some equipment we could build and host it on. Most people don’t have that luxury let alone the knowledge of what they would need or even how to ask for it. Making it simpler for people to experiment is an imperative.

Part of that simplification is making tools and ingredients available for people to use and build with. The Application Programming Interface is becoming the default means of building digital things quickly in the real world but most organisations do not have a rich set of these just yet. That should be the aim though, exposing services in a smart enough way internally, with a view to moving it externally, can give those with the ability and desire to make a huge increase in adjacency. Those developers who have worked on a single system their whole life may have always harboured a ‘what if we could do that with system X’? A system they had never touched before. APIs allow them to scratch ‘the what if’ itch.

Most large complex organisations will be good at doing large complex things. The processes and checks built up over time will account for these types of projects. Experiments however need to be quick, easy, dirty and cheap. If you wanted to test a new idea or barely working service with a handful of customers how long would it take? Do the processes designed for the large and complex make it impossible to try out the small and simple? These are key things to fix to give people the freedom to experiment.

There is an interesting quote from a talk by Stuart Kauffman, a theoretical biologist and I believe the first person to use the term adjacent possible

“There is a chance that there are general laws. I’ve thought about four of them. […] And the fourth concerns the idea of the adjacent possible. It just may be the case that biospheres on average keep expanding into the adjacent possible. By doing so they increase the diversity of what can happen next. It may be that biospheres, as a secular trend, maximize the rate of exploration of the adjacent possible. If they did it too fast, they would destroy their own internal organization, so there may be internal gating mechanisms. This is why I call this an average secular trend, since they explore the adjacent possible as fast as they can get away with it.” Stuart Kauffman

And this is what it is all about. Making it so people can explore the adjacent possible as quickly as is possible, keep within the rules to stop them from going too far and too fast but all the while the aim is to find out the what if. Learn from the experiment, publish it widely, discuss it deeply, and move onto the next one. See what is possible tomorrow.



These eight theories over three posts are just the starting point of my ideas on this topic. It is clearly a huge subject and there are many angles I have surely not covered. Hopefully people will be willing to share and publish their own ideas and feedback to help build upon the work I have done.

For me the key to the adjacent possible is networks. Allowing easy connections to be made between people, problems, information, answers, ideas etc., is a must. Simplifying the steps required for a person to ask a question, find an answer/person, propose solutions, make a thing and most importantly do this in public will bring a greater level of adjacent possibility to an organisation.

There are many variables to improving the chances of great ideas getting out of people’s heads and getting closer to reality. There are many more than I have listed above. The two things to solve that will bring the greatest benefit in the shortest time are make it easier for conversations and connections to be made and build things that will give people freedom to experiment.

You can’t necessarily force all these elements together and expect magic. You just need to create a fertile environment and nurture people and see what they create. Feed the curious mind, enable the skilled maker and let the theorists test out those long held theories. These are my ideas on how to encourage the adjacent possible.


I highly recommend the following books which I have quoted throughout

Where Good Ideas Come From by Stephen B. Johnson

The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the great age of American innovation by Jon Gertner


And here are a few related articles on the subject.

The adjacent possible in large mutlinational corporations (Part 2 of 3)

This is the second part in a series of posts on the adjacent possible. I recommend starting with part one to get more context on my thinking about the adjacent possible as well as the first two ideas on this subject.


3. The culture is the air people, and therefore ideas, breathe

The rules for the use of collaboration tools mentioned above will be endemic to certain types of corporate culture. The surrounding atmosphere that people live and breathe in their office will have the largest impact on any attempts to encourage people to investigate and test the adjacent possible. Some people will wait for permission to be given or even ordered but for real experimentation to flourish it must become just an accepted part of the working day. It does not have to be something fully formed like Google’s mythical 20% time but just an acceptance that people can feed their curiosity and have the freedom to experiment at the boundaries.

Initiatives like 20% time i.e. a day a week to work on whatever you want as long as it benefits the company and is something new or innovative, is of course worthwhile but single initiatives however varied can become a burden over time as they grow into complex processes that are open to a few capable and perseverant folk. Like most things in large complex organisations they also grow large and complex. It is important to try these kinds of processes but they cannot be the sole measure of whether a company is innovative. They do of course contribute to the overall culture of the organisation showing that innovation will be rewarded.

The question I ask is how is easy would it be for two people from different departments to decide to spend a day or two working on something non-standard and then share or publish what they had done to the rest of the organisation. Rigid objectives, budget lines, timesheets all these important resource recording and directing mechanisms are required for the machine to run but they can certainly get in the way of anything outside the norm making the previous scenario feel almost impossible. ‘Sorry mate can’t help you unless you have a budget line I can record my time against’ ‘We can’t show this anyone as <insert stereotypical perceived innovation blocking department here> will kill us’ and conversations of this type make it feel like making anything new and different is almost impossible. People are often so overloaded with work because the resource allocation for an individual developer will probably be 110-120%. Having an environment and atmosphere that provides time and freedom for these ad hoc collaborations and provides a vehicle to share them with the organisation will be as conducive to the overall culture as any best idea competition.


4. Spaces designed for collision and cultivation

And what of the physical spaces we work in? Are they designed for collaboration as well? There are many studies and design articles on the changing workplace and building to ensure peoples paths cross often ensuring potential for cross pollination of ideas. I am currently reading a brilliant book about Bell Labs, the legendary research facilities of AT&T that created all manner of things including the solid state resistor that changed the face of electronics. Their labs were built to ensure people would bump into one another.

“By intention, everyone would be in one another’s way. Members of the technical staff would often have both laboratories and small offices—but these might be in different corridors, therefore making it necessary to walk between the two, and all but assuring a chance encounter or two with a colleague during the commute. By the same token, the long corridor for the wing that would house many of the physics researchers was intentionally made to be seven hundred feet in length. It was so long that to look down it from one end was to see the other end disappear at a vanishing point. Traveling its length without encountering a number of acquaintances, problems, diversions, and ideas would be almost impossible. Then again, that was the point.” Jon Gertner – The Idea Factory

Other companies have designed offices for these kinds of interactions and collaborations. Steve Jobs made sure Pixar had a huge atrium that every department had to pass through. Zappos also went with a similar approach when they redesigned an existing office building, closing off several previous routes into the office to force people through central areas. In addition they also built in flexible office walls and non-fixed desks, complete with ceiling level cabling so it is easier to unplug, enabling individuals and teams to move and morph into new spaces and configurations. Do offices in great big vertical towers only go to highlight rigid vertical structures and hierarchies that are not designed to mix? Hot desking as a concept is ok but do teams still sit with each other as a matter of course and is moving around the organisation really encouraged?

Another element of office design and usage that I think certainly helps is using the walls. The walls in most offices are either covered in wretched wallpaper, beige paint or the occasional wall decal or worse still motivational posters. These walls could and should be used to display work, to show progress, to highlight problems so that people who are passing can take a look. Well implemented agile development processes will get users to create physical representations of tasks and jobs using pen and paper and some means of fixing them to the wall. Publishing activity, showing progress, making the ‘working out’ visible to those physically near or just passing is a great form of advertising what a team actually does.

In an old post about cultivating hunches I suggested putting whiteboards on the back of toilet doors. It is about thinking more of how we use the spaces we occupy and work in over and above just somewhere to sit in front of a screen and a keyboard.


5. Publish by default – no more secrets

No more secrets, make things public by default, creating a culture of sharing can only increase adjacency; the importance of this sharing cannot be underestimated. Build basic description and communications into plans and working practices of the projects being undertaken around the world. Not just the dry status reports but well written descriptions of the trials and tribulations of a project/product as it ebbs and flows through its natural lifecycle. The publishing and therefore sharing of this information is the key to having a healthy flow of knowledge and potential adjacencies to be investigated by others.

I have stated before that I am a big fan of the UK’s Government Digital Service Team and they have built into their service delivery manual the concept of blogging progress frequently and freely. This recent example talking about the work involved to improve search is an excellent example of sharing, writing and publishing.  Project teams sharing their progress, failures, processes, changes and successes in a pace accessible by all (maybe even outside the organisation) would be a very valuable source of information.

The default setting of most teams in organisations seems to be private. Our team often get asked if we can build other teams their own microblog and we usually say no. Use the same one everyone else does. They invariably decline. There needs to be a move away from this unwillingness to work in public. Without the act of publishing the organisation does not maximise the value of what it already, knows and tries and achieve.


This is the end of part two. The final part is available here.

The adjacent possible in large multinational corporations (Part 1 of 3)

Soup. Primordial soup. The chemical and biological mixture and its environmental surroundings that gave us the planet we know and love/destroy today. The monomers turned into polymers which turned into life through a series of reactions and transformations made possible by the surrounding atmosphere and components. Life as we know it became possible because of what was around to interact and react with. The initial molecules that are formed then have a new set of reactions and collisions available to them and on it goes. This is known as ‘the adjacent possible’.

It was brought to my attention by the author Stephen B. Johnson in his book ‘Where Good Ideas Come From’ and it has stuck with me. I have been wondering for quite some time about the adjacent possible inside a large multinational corporation.


This post is my attempt to unpack and write down some thoughts on this subject. I think there are a few key areas for consideration in improving the organisational environment for the adjacent possible. I have considered the following eight ideas.

  1. Make conversations and connections easier – Can enterprise collaboration tools solve geographic location problems and make it easier to share ideas and solutions.
  2. The rules are only as good as the tools – don’t strangle attempts to collaborate by restricting people so much that they are afraid to get involved.
  3. The culture is the air people breathe – The air an organisation breathes contributes greatly to its health. If it is oppressive then experimentation will not flourish
  4. Spaces designed for collision and cultivation – The adjacent possible must be cultivated in the real world not just on screen, how working environment design affects this.
  5. Publish by default – No more secrets. Hiding away the success, progress, and failures of every team in an organisation restricts knowledge and collaboration opportunities.
  6. The adjacent possible on the inside versus what is available outside – it is so easy to look outside and see lots of shiny new technologies and wish they were available but what is available today inside and are they adjacent to the outside?
  7. Team building exercise – A small team of A grade people should beat a bigger team of B grade people. Experiment with the mixture of teams on certain types of projects and challenges.
  8. Freedom to experiment – How easy is it to take an idea beyond a few words or a scribbled diagram? The easier it is to move ideas forward the more time people will be willing to invest.

These eight ideas will be covered in three post which will be published over the next seven days.


What is the adjacent possible and why is it so important?

In the context used in Stephen B. Johnson’s book the adjacent possible refers to the ideas and inventions that are possible at a set period in time. You can’t go from the steam engines to electric trains in a single leap. A series of events, skills, tools and materials need to have occurred/been invented/existed for progress and innovation to occur. Examples given in the book include the invention of the newborn child incubator being created by an obstetrician who had seen hatchlings at the Paris Zoo warmed under a lamp. Conversely, the complexity involved in modern day incubators meant that donating them to 3rd world countries was a waste of time as they would invariably break and are not easily repairable leading to the design of incubators made of abundant resources i.e. car parts, made so simply that if you can change a headlight you can fix them.

The inspiration of an idea, the ability through skills and materials available to experiment and make are key to innovative breakthroughs. Johnson says;

“Good ideas […] are, inevitably, constrained by the parts and skills that surround them. We have a natural tendency to romanticize breakthrough innovations, imagining momentous ideas transcending their surroundings, a gifted mind somehow seeing over the detritus of old ideas and ossified tradition. But ideas are works of bricolage; they’re built out of that detritus. We take the ideas we’ve inherited or that we’ve stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape.”

The organisation must design for stumbling, make it easier for people to come across these ideas and the people that care about them, and then make it simpler to jigger them into something more tangible and defined.

Johnson gives the example of coral reefs displaying such rich diversity in a very small area in terms of the vast empty oceans. What set of ecosystem components causes this to happen and can they be designed or at the very least enhanced or experimented with?

In a large multinational organisation it becomes ever more difficult for the right minds to know one another exist let alone converse or meet in person. In organisations over a certain size the chances that someone somewhere in the world is coming up with similar ideas to someone else are high. How do you connect those ideas? How do you connect those experiments?  The technical problems, progressions or failures in one team, in one building, in one country, in one region could be as much a secret to someone six desks away let alone six time zones.

‘The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore those boundaries. Each new combination ushers new combinations into the adjacent possible’

The following sections are my thoughts on how to enhance large organisations to allow maximum adjacent possibilities.


1. Making conversations and connections easier – enterprise collaboration tools

The problems associated with this distance between people and knowledge is the challenge being addressed by the enterprise 2.0/social business/collaboration technology vendors today and it is a worthy challenge. The technical element of this problem is fairly well understood. Let me search for colleagues in my organisation who have ’hot new technology’ in their job title, or have blogged about a topic you are interested in etc. etc. this is the techno utopian dream to enabling ’collaboration’ and I can’t wait for it to arrive but the technology is only part of the battle. I worry that these enterprise class collaboration platforms are too unwieldy, trying to do too much. Would a smaller suite of simpler tools be more effective? Can the two worlds coexist with user identity to bring them together?

Our team, in conjunction with others, run a small microblog. It is a proof of concept system designed just to do one thing well. It does not try to do everything just a simple yet powerful stream of 500 character text messages. It is a platform for public conversation at its heart and that is where the greatest value is derived. It simply allows asynchronous adjacency across time zones.

The users of the system have come up with a small call for help in the form of the #uBlogHelpMe hashtag. Replies will come in from all over the globe with ideas, suggestions and solutions and it is always a great thing to see. Studies have shown that microblogging, externally in the form of Twitter, has reduced the six degrees of separation to much nearer four.  Microblogging is not for everyone, it is not the solution to all of an enterprises collaboration problems but it is a damn good start.  It is a single place for public discourse and connection and reduces the distance between people and ideas and so few large organisations have that capability. The tools outside are often much more fully formed and I personally have made connections with other staff members from my organisation that I would never met via any other means.

I assume most large organisations have some sort of idea suggestion scheme, whether they involve writing an idea on a piece of paper and posting it in a fake letter box or some nice collaborative idea gathering/voting platform. We use IdeaJam as a platform for gathering, voting and commenting on and linking ideas. One recent example showed a colleague in Mexico reaching out to someone in China who had a similar idea and to explore working together. The more out in the public the ideas the better for all, the ability to have conversations around these ideas even better still.

I wonder how many companies also use the platforms to capture problems and questions. There are hundreds of ideas out there but we sometimes ignore the actual capturing of problems. If you could fix one thing is a powerful question…the normal worry is that you would be inundated with questions about pay rises. The fact is most people just want a place to ask a question, to get help with a problem. Therein lays a great source of innovation potential, both the problems requested but also the network of people that build up around those problems and communities.


2. The tools are only as good as the rules

“When people believe in boundaries, they become part of them.”
Don Cherry

The tools are only as good as the users though. They are also only as useful as the rules/culture allow. For some managers collaboration tools like this are seen as play and not work yet if someone sat in front of an email client all day they would be seen as busy.

This set of unwritten rules damages the collaboration culture execs say they want. Posting on chat forums/blogs etc. just like speaking up in public, is challenging for most due to fears about their ideas being mocked, have they said the right thing, are they wasting people’s time etc. This culture makes it difficult. There are some good studies on why people lurk rather than post in communities such as this one by Ridings, Gefen and Arinze

Of course there must be some rules, to avoid the rise of undesirable behaviours and to keep people within the law but they must not prevent the use of the tool entirely through fear. Those that do not understand the tools are usually the ones most afraid of them and it has been the same for many technological advances designed to improve communication within large companies.  Telephones, email, instant messaging and internet access have all been greeted with howls of derision by certain parties claiming all work will cease. Some will misuse the tools they have in any working environment. Some will use rope to help them scale the heights; another may use it to hang themselves. The outside world created these technologies for a multitude of reason and while there may be negatives they are usually far outweighed by the positives of connecting people more easily.


This is the end of part one. Part two is here, the final part is here.

My problem with future branches

I only have a mild interest in the future branch type stuff but some sort of tipping point was reached and I felt I had to write about it like a grumpy sod.  From my point of view it seems the prototype future branches fall into two basic categories. The shiny ultra sleek technology stuffed, self-service focused branch and the ‘come in relax, we have free wi-fi, would you like a skinny mocha latte with that financial review’ faux coffee shop full of lovely people not really selling you stuff, honest. There is also actually a third one and that is closing them but that is a whole other thing.

The first type is an obvious example of using technology to streamline processes and make the brand seem shiny and innovative. Some of the technologies are undoubtedly very clever and powerful but they are also a bit soulless and they are seemingly still incapable of escaping paper. This example from Audi Bank just screams don’t touch anything. So clean, so unwelcoming yet they expect people to stand there and browse dream cars such as a Kia. There are many more videos like this I just picked on this one as I saw it recently. Maybe it is future concept videos that actually annoy me.


The roped off branch, making customers feel welcome since 2012


Self service based branches are inevitable but they should cater for those functions that they excel at. Basic transactional banking. Pay in and take out of money, process the antique paper still associated so heavily with banking. If you can make them more developed sales areas with things such as video calling and interactive signatures then go for it…but surely in most places those can also be offered to people at home today? All these advances in technology are needed and the slick future branch does show them off well. The cost of branch banking is getting harder to justify and technology solutions must be investigated but don’t confuse techno utopia with customer happiness.

The second kind, the chillax coffee shop, is the one that irks most. The reason being that it is an admission that banking has gone too far down the self-service, automated robot route and now banks are confused why no one comes to talk to them anymore? Don’t they love us? Just because we built all these automated straight through processing systems that does not mean we don’t want to hear people’s hopes, dreams and desires. The realisation has set in that customers know banks don’t want to talk to them unless they want to sell them something. Banks have gone out of their way to make them less human and accessible by process shaving and penny-pinching. You can’t phone your branch, try booking or amending an appointment online, they are almost off the grid spaces until you walk through the door. Like a much less exciting version of platform 9 3/4 at Kings Cross.


Why madam don’t you look fantastically relaxed and not at all awkwardly staged.


But the main reason for my annoyance is the fact that there is a lot of effort and cash put into these jovial chat shops in the real world yet banks digital platforms remain as conversation free as a library in a monastery. The ability to converse in the scary “new” world of the information superhighway seems lost on most financial organisations. Regulations and rules will be blamed but the reality is banks are not the worlds greatest conversationalists. The unkempt wilds of the web and its 2.0 consumer obsessed walled gardens of inanity represent some sort of alien landscape that a process obsessed industry just can’t codify or fill with cheap coffee and comfy seats.

The solution seems obvious to me. Hire or train capable people who can converse in these new places in the strange tongue they have adopted and make your organisation seem infinitesimally human. Think how you could add nice conversation capabilities to your cold hard Internet banking portals or maybe make it possible to actually reply to those marketing emails you are so fond of. The telephone, and video chatbooths in branch cannot be the only place you can talk with your customers. Of course you may not be able to directly sell loads of products in those digital spaces but there is a lot of mileage in at least making them conversant. Asymmetric digital conversations can be much more flexible and achieved in half the time than waiting on the phone or schlepping to a branch.  It is of course important to be innovative in branches and try new things, they are still very important pieces of banking infrastructure and I do not wish to see them closed. For me it is about making it as easy as possible for your customers to talk to you when and where they want irrespective of the medium.

Friday Reading #1

I would like to think of this as an innovative reimagning of Martin Belam’s Friday Reading posts but as you can see it is a blatant copy. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery etc. Anyway, I am using this as a way to get back into the habit of more regular writing and also a way of focusing on the links I habitually collect but sometimes neglect i.e. never get around to reading.

So here goes Aden’s Friday Reading List #1. A collection of long(ish) form links on technology, innovation, banking and anything else I deem interesting enough to include. These links are also available in a handy readlist that you can send to your favourite digital reading device.


‘How to get startup ideas’

‘Paul Buchheit says that people at the leading edge of a rapidly changing field “live in the future.” Combine that with Pirsig and you get: Live in the future, then build what’s missing.


‘Why Your Company Needs A Full-Time, Idea-Killing Chief Dissent Officer’

‘To paraphrase the scientist Jacob Bronowski, no society or organization died from this kind of dissent, but plenty perish from conformity. Every company could use their own dedicated objectionists–confidently criticizing what others didn’t feel empowered enough to speak up about.’


”How To Disrupt Yourself’

‘Most companies have built up significant barriers to innovation.  Culture, strategy, internal processes and the needs of existing customers all conspire to stave off ideas about doing things differently.  Therefore, the question every organization needs to ask itself is the following: If someone came to you with a breakthrough innovation, how would they sell it?’


‘Frog Creates An Open-Source Guide To Design Thinking’

Brainstorming, whether you believe in it or shun it, is a fantastic neologism. But as Frog Principal Designer David Sherwin has found, it’s also a very American word–one that doesn’t exist in every language. “We were in Bangladesh, trying to translate the idea into Bengali,” says Sherwin, remembering a recent trip his team spent working with teenage girls on community issues. “One of the translators on our team wrote up on the board, brain + storm. It couldn’t be translated.”’


‘5 Levers of Behaviour Change’

‘Any time an innovation is introduced to a group of users, it requires them to change their behavior. After all, innovations are by definition “new.” And with this newness comes change.’


‘Open Data: Is there a business case?’

””If [you open your data] you can change the rules to expose your competitor’s internal contradictions,” Taggart said. “Most big, fat secure companies don’t have the confidence to disrupt themselves.”


‘Data Bartering Is Everywhere’

‘Noam Bardin wanted to expand the reach of his company’s mobile mapping app to South America. It was a bold idea, but an expensive one. So over the past year, Bardin, the chief executive officer of Palo Alto-based Waze, met with resellers of geographical mapping information and asked them for access to their proprietary data. The catch: The Israeli entrepreneur said that he didn’t want to pay a dime to get it.


‘Apple and Twitter’ 

‘My friend and co-worker Tom has a thesis about Apple’s biggest problem: Google is getting better at design faster than Apple is getting better at web services.


‘Twitter, Apple and Scaling’

The atmosphere at Apple was poisonous. It was a very heavy top-down management style. My own personal experience of it was short and painful. Decisions by senior staff (yours truly) were questioned by people higher up who didn’t really have trust in their employees. Twitter is completely different. Employees there are treated like grown-ups. Decisions are owned by whoever decides to make the decision. If someone says “Hey, we should do X,” the response tends to be “go for it!”


‘Alone Together, Again’

I owe my life to technology.

I first realized it in my early twenties. Everything important around me at the time, I’d found on Craigslist: my girlfriend, my job, my apartment. It was a powerful realization: I could sit down with my laptop and, in a matter of hours or days, change my world in both superficial and fundamental ways.’

Burdened by ideas

*SOUND THE NAVEL GAZING ALARM* While writing my last post on PFMs I was struck by how certain ideas and themes recur in my writing and thinking. I am starting to get the feeling I am burdened by these ideas. My brilliance is being hampered by these synapse occupying visions of majesty so much so that my humility has been diminished. Self mockery aside the real reason they are a burden is due to the lack of progress I have made with turning them from ideas stuck in my head to anything resembling reality. I wrote about the problem with ideas stuck in my head last year and one of the ideas I will talk about in this post is one of the ones I refferred to. In that post I said I wanted to protect the idea:

[I] feel a need to evangelise this idea and to ensure it is not crushed by the design by committee types or overlooked as just a feature that can be dropped.

It of course got killed. For this and other reasons I have decided it is time for me to publish these oh so burdensome ideas. Be rid of these foul demons in the vain hope that someone agrees they are good ideas and has some sort of vision of how to make them reality. These ideas are of various ages and I think this list is probably in oldest first order.


Identity Clearly this is a huge topic and I am interested in all facets of identity but the bothersome idea I have harboured for several years is why can’t I logon to my bank website? Yes I can log on to Internet Banking but that is different. For most banks the website is a completely different entity to its online banking portal. If I want to save a quote, view the terms of my insurance policy and potentially view my balances I should not need full strength security and validation. All quite subjective with regards to how secure different types of interaction should be but access to some forms of interactions need to be simpler (it could be argued that it’s the customers choice as to what level of security they desire). Also you have the whole personalisation angle (only show me adverts for relevant products, paint the site black if I am a certain grade of customer etc) to this but I am not so interested in that.

Some banks operate other logons on their websites or external parts of their site such as the logon for HSBC’s Advance offers  or the first direct lab. I suspect interactions here are not well linked to customer profiles or CRM systems because of these logon issues. They also require yet another user ID and password which everyone loves.

What about non-customers visiting a banks site? Why not have a level of registration/identity to allow people to research products, begin applications and then once they take out a product you can upgrade the logon to a level that allows more secure transactions? Don’t make me fully authenticate for everything and don’t leave tracking to cookies and chance for everything else.

Clearly identity is a much bigger thing but I don’t want to get into all that NSTIC / Digital Asset Grid type stuff just yet or even the connection of social network identities or the thought of Klout scores linked to product offerings (shudder). I just want basic federated logons for bank websites and any 3rd party sites the bank operates.


Notification Systems – I have written quite a detailed post on this idea a while back. The bottom line is that in banking today there are many types of events that occur but very few of those events are subject to any form of tailored notification to me as a customer especially if they are not financial transactions. If a specific transaction arrives in my account can I be notified via SMS? If my account balance drops below a certain limit can I get a DM on Twitter? If I miss a call from my RM can I be notified via email? If my mortgage application progresses to the next milestone can I get a message sent to my Internet Fridge? If someone tries to logon from a country or using a device that is not mine can you alert me via every channel available? (why don’t banks have an audit trail that the user can see showing their logon activity ala Gmail?) Today the notifications available to customers are fairly limited. Maybe some basic SMS or some notifications inside a mobile app. The tailoring of them is also limited. No creation of rules or choice of multiple notification channels.

Not only does this limit the amount of feedback loops a bank creates it means the banks miss an opportunity to engage with customers. This thing has happened with your product…you should take some action (and hopefully see this advert for new stuff).

Over and above this though is that these notifications and these events that have occurred are fuel for other services both inside and outside the bank. Imagine if your bank had systems that played together nicely in ways you could manage. Imagine if you had the equivalent of If This Then That for your bank(s). The events and notifications are ripe for bringing your bank activities into your digital world rather than keeping them all locked away in an internet banking portal.


Activity Streams – (This is kind of the one referred to earlier that got killed off) Basically these are a well known form of viewing data and capturing specific forms of interaction. The Facebook newsfeed is probably the most well known form of activity stream. A flowing river of events that have occurred in your network. Why isn’t your bank relationship represented like that? Today it is split by account, then drill down into a list of transactions. That view is of course important but it shows little of the actual interactions. Why not have an activity stream of all actions across all products and services? For example why not show entries such as;

    • You called today and we have done the following things
    • You left a comment on the first direct lab
    • You have won a prize for being our bestest customer
    • We have replied to your complaint about your prize (See our response)
    • We tried to cold call you but you ignored our call
    • You have been chosen for a fantastic new marketing promotion
    • etc

These would be interspersed with the far more frequent and familiar account transactions but it shows you everything that happens across your relationship with your bank. This representation may also change the way you present transactions as more data could be added such as geolocation, images of cheques, call recordings, 3rd party offers etc

Activity Streams are also a blossoming open standard.  You can post events in the activity stream format and then build a stream of those events across any service. If all banking relationship notifications/events mentioned in section two were formatted into activity streams it would allow those events to be brought together more simply in a single place, easing front end integration but also should you so desire allow you to share them outside your bank. This presentation by one of the contributors to the Activity Streams standard, Chris Messina of Google, explains them brilliantly. What if banks extended the standard from it’s current social network definition? A bank contributing to open standards? Crazy talk…

Again this idea is about linking things together. Bringing events from a multitude of systems into one stream. Also enabling the linkage of bank events into wider world of web services.


Open Data & Application Programming Interfaces –  This is my current brain occupier. The one thing I would like banks to embrace the most. I have written about these things many times both inside and outside of the organisation I work for but like Robin S said ‘words are so easy to say’.  I wrote about them here, here and here.  Basically what I want to see is banks surface APIs for core functions. An API for my transactions that I could plug into other services ala Freeagent, An API for payments so a developer could code an app to send money to people ala PayPal X Commerce etc. The very smart James Governor said a while back that he believed API creation and management will be a core skill of the successful enterprises of the future. He is right. We are starting to see a bit of a groundswell around financial services APIs, albeit mainly from new entrants. That will change soon hopefully as the banks wake up to the potential of bridging the gap between the bank network and the web.

Open Data is very similar in that instead of publishing services it is about publishing things that have happened. Banks should have some cracking data sets that could be shared for the benefit of others. Not least the hackers and tinkers and visualisers etc. If the World Bank can do it (and do it well) why can’t some of the other banks of the world do it?


Conclusion of sorts – The main themes here are related to some sort of connective tissue of banking and the web. You can tell I am not a TOGAF certified architect with those kinds of descriptions. I am always disappointed when something can’t be connected to something else for what ever crappy reason ‘It was too expensive to build it like that’ ‘IT Security wouldn’t let us’ ‘It was planned for phase 2’ ‘Open standards are a legal minefield so we write better ones’ ‘What the hell are you on about tubby?! Only activity stream you need is to go swimming’ etc

I understand these things are potentially major infrastructural changes and there is also an unhealthy dose of mindset changes required as well. Both these things notoriously complex, challenging and expensive. I have no mind for business models or numbers related to these kinds of things so could not put a price on such a thing.  I suspect they will cost a fortune to build but will they deliver the savings needed to justify them? Will they allow innovation and creativity to flourish in the way my Utopian visions say they will. Who knows? I believe they will but who will believe me without Return On Investment numbers and other dull figures of justification?

My failings (of which there are many) are that I don’t really know how to make things/make things happen (this could be a whole new navel gazing post). I know how to do whiny blog posts and sarcastic presentations and that ain’t working so well for these kinds of ideas (I am being  flippant but I really don’t know how to start these things). Obviously a problem shared is a problem halved so this is my attempt at that.

Be Gone. Maybe it is time to drown the puppy. Arrogantly accept the fact my ideas are clearly far too ahead of their time/not in anyway realistic. Move on. Seek out new ideas in new areas far away from these and rid myself of this (not very heavy) burden. This is the first step towards that…publish away my problems. I will of course be right back to them the moment anyone shows the merest flicker of interest because I suspect the only real way to rid myself of this burden is to see these things, or better solutions, implemented.

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.

Please stop calling them dumb pipes

Lots of people recently seem to be warning about banks becoming dumb pipes. They say banks are destined to just become the wires. The hearts and minds of customers will be won by the masters of the web. The Googles and Amazons and Apples and Paypals of the web 2.0 world. I agree they probably will but is it really a problem?

Those web 2.0 darlings are not going to make themselves into bank. The majority of them are just interested in the transaction data they don’t want the hassle of running a bank. Basel 3, MiFID and other impenetrable forms of regulation might not be too appealing.

Some may say (not me of course as I work for one) Banks have proved they don’t really get this web thing and especially not this web 2.0 thing with its rounded corners and nice fonts and helpful intuitive interfaces. Why not let the experts have a go at that bit while banks stick to what they are good at.

The banks operate a huge complex global network that moves trillions of dollars per day, usually without much issue. Complex fraud and anti-tax evasion systems operate silently. Audit requirements, data protection standards and a myriad of regulations make this system the powerful beast it is and also a potentially irreplaceable one.

No one in Silicon Valley or any other entrepreneur saturated dreamland is going to want to recreate the whole bank system (I have visions of mad stock sale billionaires from Facebook sitting in their volcano housed lairs thinking ‘we should do that’). That bank system may be a bit long in the tooth and may need some updates here and there but could we give it a chance to catch up by laying down some of these so called dumb pipes and bringing it closer to that other huge complex global network called the Internet? If we give a few more people access to the system in a web friendly way will it be of benefit to all? Will people realise the power of this network and what it allows us to do today?

Liz Lumley wrote a great post about SXSWi and how all the cool companies trying to disrupt banking are massively reliant on that network. ‘What struck me was the juxtaposition of the bravado coupled with the fairly shocking display of ignorance on how international banking and payments happen.’  These pipes are never going to be simple or dumb.

That being said I am interested in the most simple of these dumb pipes. I want an automated data feed from a current account. Every time a new transaction occurs I want a data feed I can subscribe to, just like RSS, to update. That feels very simple and you could say dumb but to make that happen is going to take some damn smart coding and some bravery.

The big problem is authentication. How do I prove I am who I say am? How do I prove that I am allowed to subscribe to that data feed? How does that authentication model satisfy banks security and fraud departments? How does it satisfy the regulators?  What would happen if someone had access to all the data behind that API? What if the Daily Mail had access?

The most simple implementation of the so called dumb pipe was planted in my head by Dave Birch. He posted the following tweet.

Setup a private twitter account. Plug it into your bank account (this dumb pipe of course has OAuth/XAuth like qualities). Follow it to catch your transactions as they happen. Now a bank would never build this. No revenue at all. It only presents risk but a customer has asked for it (albeit a quite forward thinking one who would be a guinea pig to embed payments chip into his body) but a customer need is a customer need and we know they are always right.

A few examples i have seen during my time at HSBC where customers are trying to circumvent this lack of a subscription data feed. Designer Aral Balkan was none too happy that he could only manually access transaction data from two months in the past. So he built a tool (in under 4 days) to scrape the data and save it in a format for him to upload to Freeagent. Another person, a smart gentleman going by the name Jay Fresh, went a step further. He reverse engineered online banking to produce a command line interface. I spoke with him and asked him why, his reply was that he had simply wanted to build his own iPhone app. I can understand his frustrations. Should customers have to work so hard to do this? Should they have to risk their own logon data and potentially break terms and conditions to try and get to the data? Banks spend pots of cash each year trying to figure out what customers want, why not give them the tools to build what they want. A so called dumb pipe would be a very powerful tool in the right hands.

Mr Bank 2.0 (soon to be 2.1 and available in all good book stores), Brett King, also wrote a great post on this topic (and has been talking about it for years) arguing that if the banks do become merely an infrastructure layer then they will miss out on the value built on top of it and that we may need fewer banks/infrastructure providers. I agree they might and there could be less banks but do we need that infrastructure layer to be created to allow new value chains (ugh) and innovations to truly flourish? Where would we be if we still had a fragmented electricity system? Or you could only call someone on the same telephone network as you? We need to create these commodotised infrastructural layers and allow them to weave into the wider world (web?). The innovation S-Curves of many technologies have shown this pattern. Banks may resist as the wireless telcos are doing now, except for the smart ones such as Telefonica, but I believe there is an inevitability and the banks that embrace this will be the ones that exist…but I digress.

So what would a banks dumb pipe look like? What are the technologies required to keep this mother of all honey pots safe and secure so it does not spring a sticky leak. What would be needed to build the simple sounding dumb pipe detailed above? Yes there is inherent risk on freeing customer transaction data but I think the potential benefits outweigh the risks (I may be alone on this). We are starting to see some things in the French banking market that might answer these questions SDK’s have recently been released by Crédit Agricole and this week has also seen the launch of an API by Banque AXA. The future looks French.

I look forward to the arrival of the dumb pipe. It will bring together the banking system and the web. I have high hopes for this dumb pipe. People need to realise that the pipe is not so dumb.