A Meeting of Minds

I’ve just attended the IT as a Utility (ITaaU) conference in the Solent University Conference Centre, Southampton, as a guest of the co-ordinator, Steve Brewer (@SteveITaaU). It is a community of researchers, practitioners and policymakers from a range of disciplines who investigate ways in which IT can help services, businesses and communities thrive.

Steve Brewer opening ITaaU conference (photo via  Clare Hooper)

Steve Brewer opening ITaaU conference (photo via Clare Hooper)

As a publishing consultant, I’m not an obvious delegate for this, but I’ve been to enough conferences to know that the real value is in meeting outside your usual network. I was piqued by sessions on interactive storytelling and the future of libraries so I decided to go. And hey – spending two days in Southampton isn’t half bad.

As somewhat of a lay-person when it comes to IT the themes and trends I picked up were fairly broad brush, but I did think there were some ideas and threads that were common to people working in any medium, which I’ll share here.

The Rush to Digitise

Something that resounded with me in publishing was the rush to digitise existing content, without any thought to how it may be used in the future. It’s something that’s hamstrung the NHS and they are busy looking at ways to unpick the mass PDF-ing of documentation. I thought of how we all rushed to convert our backlists into ebooks back in the day, and how a few voices were heard crying out, ‘wait, wait, what if we need to apply digital thinking to all our processes?’ and their voices dying in the wind. It’s only now that I’m hearing people in publishing say that digital is part of their everyday thinking and is no longer thought of as a separate department.

ITaaU programme day 1 (Photo via John Rooksby)

ITaaU programme day 1 (Photo via John Rooksby)

Fail Early and Fail Fast

From the presenters from ustwo and The Bakery to a surgeon at the University Hospital Southampton breast-cancer unit, all were united in their ‘fail early, fail fast’ thinking to projects. It made me think about how that is anathema to the long-winded publishing industry in many ways, and how real innovation has come from outside the corporate world in companies like Nosy Crow and Made in Me.

In publishing, one often finds books set on immovable tracks, set on a timescale to launch that doesn’t take in any sort of agility or ability to stop and think, ‘are we doing the right thing here?’ The thought of scrapping a book package and starting again because it’s not working – how many of us would be prepared to work through the night with a bunch of hacks to get it right? We’d be worried that the jacket was ‘already out there’ in sales kits and we’d confuse retailers and consumers with our switching.

Agility is something that we’ve weeded out of our thinking because of our need to hit Nielsen deadlines 7-9 months before publication. We have to wait until the paperback to get a second bite of the cherry, but then, our sales may have been damaged by the hardback package. Anyway…

Hackathons 

In publishing, we’ve had two very successful hackathons that I know of – one in the US in 2013 and the last in the UK in June 2014 (Futurebook Hack). I was struck at ITaaU by the way that the hack is at the very heart of most of the organisations that presented. Coming from a holacratic way of working, everyone is invited to the table to innovate, and I was particularly struck by the way in which people innovated on things that were already in front of them (Periscope was developed from porn-video technology).

One speaker used the overhead projector right in front of him to present, placing his iPhone on it and touching the screen to show his app. I thought, ‘that’s innovation, right there’. (He’d also hastily scribbled his name and job title in biro on a bit of paper which he shoved under the projector – brilliant). It made me think of how I’d used a secret Pinterest board to tell my career-in-publishing story at an SYP event because I couldn’t get Prezi to work. I innovated! A hackathon has to be at the heart of everyday life for it to really have an effect, not just once a year at a big publishing conference…

Makerspaces – the new libraries?

I discovered that a makerspace is the new library. Libraries in the US, and to a certain extent in the UK are now not only places where books are housed, but where information is exchanged and the tools for innovation are housed for communities to use, including 3D printers and laser cutters. Of course I’m behind the #saveourlibraries campaign, but I do believe that they need to adapt and expand their brief (even change their brand name) to be more relevant to today’s community needs. (They’ve never been just about books – we know that.)

I met the inspiring Ross Dalziel who has been working on Cloudmaker, which explores the gap between online Minecraft gaming and the real world, with communities of kids seeing their constructions printed out in 3D, and the mindblowing ‘Minecraft of Things’ in which messages are passed to and from objects in the real world and the Minecraft game. Astonishing levels of creativity and ‘beyond the brick’ thinking.

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Ross Dalziel’s scribblings from our libraries break-out session

Social Machines

I learned about the power of humans as social machines from Elena Simperl, professor of Web and Internet Science at University of Southampton. I hadn’t heard about Project Gutenberg, which aims to digitise public domain texts using projects such as Distributed Proofreaders, which divides out-of-copyright ebooks into individual pages to be proofread and copy-edited by the a volunteer ‘crowd’. Or the Streetbump app that collects data on potholes in Boston by collecting GPS/smartphone data from volunteer users in order to improve the community’s roads. The idea that real people do the creative work whilst computers do the administration is at the heart of good crowdsourcing activity.

Interactive storytelling

Blending storytelling, wearable tech and interactive theatre, Zoe Philpott brings the story of Ada Lovelace to life as a mathematician, Babbage collaborator and author of the world’s first computer programme. Determined that this incredible woman will not be written out of history, as she nearly was, Philpott is bringing her one-woman show to non-theatre venues, wearing a dress made of 500 LED lights and conductive thread, which is controlled with a glove. I started to think of the ways she could collaborate with museum people I know and made the connections on Twitter immediately. People shouted out names of potential venues from the audience, inspired by this single innovative idea.

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Zoe Philpott telling us about Ada Ada Ada (photo via Alana Wood)

As I walked to the station with a clutch of business cards, new friends and ideas swimming around in my head, I recalled Zoe’s words: “we didn’t know what we needed to know until we came here.”