Goals, progress and optimism

Reading the news I find it quite difficult to work out whether we’re making progress as a species or not. Instinctively, I’m an optimist but sometimes that can be hard.

The UN Millennium Development Goals were an attempt to set goals and measurable targets around human development and then a programme of activities and funding to try and achieve them. I was involved in Jubilee 2000 at the time and I remember thinking that they were pretty ambitious for just 15 years in the future. Although the target date is actually later this year, we’ve actually achieved quite a few of them.

According to the Economist this week, the follow up process to set goals at the UN for 2030 is a complete mess. However that hasn’t stopped some people being optimistic about the future. Bill and Melinda Gates set up their Foundation in 2000, the same year as the MDGs were written. Looking ahead in their annual letter last week they outline their ‘big bet’ for the future:

The lives of people in poor countries will improve faster in the next 15 years than at any other time in history. And their lives will improve more than anyone else’s.

I know there are many terrible things about the way the world works but I wouldn’t bet against them on that one.


The niggly list

There are many niggly things I hate doing. These range from things that are just a bit awkward (needing to move a meeting) through to things that have a few steps (arranging a trip) or things that involve bureacracy (tax return!). It turns out there are even more if I don’t do them.

The way I’ve developed of dealing with these is to create a little list on the notes app of my phone each morning (actually I often start it on my way home the day before). It just has the name of the day and then three niggly things that I could do that day. It’s not urgent or particularly prioritised – it’s just things that I know I need to do at some point and I don’t like doing.

Then I try to get them done before I have a coffee at 11am. Turns out if you do a few each day, niggly things are less niggly.

Building the future of democracy is a big opportunity

Yesterday was ‘Democracy Day‘ on the BBC in commemoration of the 750th anniversary of the first parliament of elected representatives at Westminster – the de Montfort Parliament. I dipped in and out of programmes and the online discussion but it struck me that the debate was all really within the framework of representative democracy and our current institutions. Even the stuff about technology felt a bit constrained.

My guess is that reinventing democracy is actually a huge opportunity. The current system is so unfit for purpose and misaligned with 21st century values that when change starts to happen, it could happen pretty quickly and unleash a lot of social energy and value. ‘Democracy’ hasn’t traditionally been an area associated with startups or investment (with a few notable exceptions) but I think the scale of change we’ll see over the next decade probably warrants it becoming one. If you’ve got ideas for tech that could enable a new type of democracy, we’d certainly like to hear from you at BGV.

Our internet history


“The Wayback Machine is humongous, and getting humongouser”

Amazing piece in the New Yorker (they’re on fire at the moment) about the Internet Archive/Wayback Machine and the nature of ‘history’ on the web. The Archive is now based in a former Greek church in the Presidio near San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge full of computers that crawl and snapshot as much of the web as they can, keeping a permanent record that some would rather be forgetten.

The problem of archiving the web dates back to 1991 when Tim Berners-Lee decided on the the protocols for the web – he considered a time axis but decided against it:

“One reason it was never developed was the preference for the most up-to-date information: a bias against obsolescence. But the chief reason was the premium placed on ease of use. “We were so young then, and the Web was so young,” Berners-Lee told me. “I was trying to get it to go. Preservation was not a priority. But we’re getting older now.””

The Internet Archive is now trying to compensate for that weakness but it’s certainly not straightforward. There are plenty of examples of events that have been manipulated after the effect – some deliberately some by mistake. It’s also just interesting to search the internet with another variable. Here’s my personal blog just over ten years ago for example – as soon as you start clicking on links it takes you to a whole different web that doesn’t exist any more.

As Alexis Madrigal pointed out in a discussion on twitter about the New Yorker piece “what about apps?”. At the moment there’s nobody keeping a history of a lot of things that we use on the internet – and certainly not independently. If Facebook or any other huge company disappears – which isn’t impossible let’s face it – there may well be no archive of moments that are very precious to people. We’re just at the start of working out how to deal with that.


Image by Todd some rights reserved.


Nudge nudge

We had a pretty amazing turnout for the Tech for Good meetup this evening – well over 200 people. Well done to Kieron who made this one happen and thank you to Campus for hosting and Nominet Trust for sponsoring the drinks.

It was on behaviour change which seems to be a hot topic these days. We’ve seen more applications around behaviour change (particularly for health) in the past couple of cohorts of BGV than in previous rounds. I think there are huge amounts that behavioural economics and psychology can offer to the social venture world. There’s so much interesting work and evidence on types of intervention available – this UCL project was mentioning this evening that catalogues 93 Behaviour Change Techniques.

For me there’s always the question of whether people know they’re being nudged. I’m not really comfortable with these kind of tricks unless people have opted into getting some help in improving their behaviour.

Just say no (nicely)

Tim Harford has a neat piece in the Weekend FT about how important it is to say no.

“… every time we say “yes” to a request, we are also saying “no” to anything else we might accomplish with the time. It pays to take a moment to that about what those things might be.”

It’s much easier to say yes because nobody gets offended but also because you underestimate the future commitment that saying yes might entail. A psychological trick you can play on yourself is to ask yourself whether you would say yes to something if you had to do it immediately. I actually try to do this if I get invited to do a talk – I ask myself would I drop other things and do it tomorrow?

The thing that Tim doesn’t cover is how to say no nicely which I think is a real art. I’ve had a lot of people say no to me and some do it in a way that leaves you feeling good about the experience and others are just quite rude. Maybe how to do that is a post for another day.

A Basic Income Guarantee

I worry a lot about inequality and the positions of the main UK political parties when it comes to addressing it. Under current policies, I think it’s only going to get worse and big global trends such as technological automation of many jobs and demographic change could exacerbate it further.

One of the few ideas I’ve come across that has enough radical zeal to make it interesting is the idea of a Basic Income Guarantee. Put simply, everyone would get enough money from government to live on, independent of whether they worked or not. Everybody would get the same amount (replacing all existing benefits) and it would be funded through general taxation.

This interesting talk by investor Albert Wenger outlines why he thinks it’s a good idea. There are obviously huge issues with implementing such a scheme and I haven’t made my mind up fully, but I think it’s worth exploring. In the UK, The Green Party are the only party even considering it as an option as far as I can see.

Getting RACI

Managing a small team can be very hard, especially in a startup where job descriptions are fuzzy and what you work on can change from day to day. When Melanie joined the BGV team she introduced us to the RACI framework and I think it’s pretty useful.

Basically you work out everything you have to do as a team and then allocate (usually different) people to be:

  • Responsible: the person who does the work to achieve the task.
  • Accountable: the person ultimately answerable for the completion of the task.
  • Consulted: the people whose opinions are sought during the task through ongoing communication.
  • Informed: the people who are kept up-to-date on progress, but often only on completion of the task – there is just one-way communication.

We do it slightly differently to the way it’s often described in guides (including the Wikipedia article linked to above). Rather than having job titles across the top we have the RACI headings. We also don’t do it for tasks, we just do it for what we call our work streams (I have no idea how we came up with that word but it’s stuck) which are our ‘projects’ in Basecamp. What we end up with is a one-page matrix of all of areas of work with four columns that tell us who is responsible and accountable and who should be consulted and informed.

You can also then flip it on its head and you have a set of job descriptions by creating bullet points for individuals’ responsibilities and things they are accountable for.

So far we’ve reviewed the two documents about every six months which seems about right for us although you might need to do it a bit more frequently in the very early days.





Your phone knows how you feel

There’s a fantastic feature article in the New Yorker this week about the quest for software that can recognise human emotion. I like it for two reasons. Firstly, because I’m genuinely interested in different forms of ‘input’ to technology, whether that’s gestures, voice recognition or facial expressions. But secondly because it’s a great story of a startup struggling with the issues surrounding the potential social impact of the technology they’re developing.

The story is hooked on the two researchers turned founders who initially see the potential of the technology to help people with autism understand the emotions of people they’re talking to. But when they provided their software for trial by the MIT Media Lab’s corporate partners, it became obvious that they had other ideas – generally about how to sell more stuff through advertising.

With a new CEO brought in one of the founders was ‘forced out’ and the company is now essentially a market research tool, and a very lucrative one. As the article says of the remaining founder:

“Kaliouby doesn’t see herself returning to autism work, but she has not relinquished the idea of a dual bottom line. “I do believe that if we have information about your emotional experiences we can help you be in a more positive mood and influence your wellness,” she said.”

That sounds like a bit of a fudge to me – although I do hope they return to the medical possibilities. We do a lot of work with BGV teams helping them understand these dilemmas ahead of time, especially before they choose  potential investors who I think are one of the biggest influences on this kind of future ethical choices.

The window seat

One of my favourite things is flying over big cities – I always choose window over aisle. Landing in Heathrow from the east usually means a couple of loops in a stack, then over the Olympic Park, turn right at the O2 and then slowly descending along the river, past our office, the Houses of Parliament, Fulham FC and Kew Gardens. The photo on the homepage for this site was taken a year or so ago on a flight back from California. Taking off from San Francisco, the plane heads out towards the Pacific ocean as if you’re leaving the city behind but then turns right, straight over the Golden Gate bridge with a view of the city and the Bay Area below.

Vincent Laforest hit the front page of HN yesterday with a series of amazing night time high altitude shots of New York (incidentally this set me off down a rabbit hole of wondering how New York came to also be known as Gotham – it’s not straightforward!) and Jason Hawkes photos got a lot of coverage a couple of years back for his aerial shots of London.

I know it’s probably not great for the people who live on these routes, but where are the best airport approaches in the world? I’d love to see more.