Charles Handy on the way we work

Catching up on podcasts the other day, I found Peter Day had one of his World of Business programmes where he interviews one person for the whole show. This time it was Charles Handy who is one of my favourite management thinkers.
Charles has seen more change in business than most. He started work at Shell back in the 1950s and has watched organisations change ever since, writing 17 books about it. One of the points he makes in the programme is that while we still organise everything (especially policy) around the idea that most people work in full-time jobs in large solid organisations, it’s no longer the reality for the majority of people, and where it is – people don’t like it much either.
I was lucky enough to spend some time with Charles when we were writing Disorganisation at Demos, ten years ago now. He had a very profound impact on me and, looking back, influenced what I do now which is to help people set up new types of organisation that fill the gap that is being left behind by the decline of ‘bureaucratic capitalism’.
His new book The Second Curve is out now. I’ll certainly have a read.

Train times

We spent a lot of time on trains while we were away, so coming back to news about the lack of progress investing in UK railways was a bit depressing. Lots of people have said this before but the model for all countries should be Japan (despite the horrible news today). The peak being the Shinkansen which we used to travel between Tokyo and Osaka. I’d never been on a Nozomi Superexpress before, which is the fastest of the lot. It’s not just the speed (max 320 km/hr), it’s the pride and level of service – the trains are always clean, the staff know their stuff and want to help and the stations are full of great food.
A good railway system will be one of the most important pieces of infrastructure for mid-sized competitive countries in the 21st century. You just can’s shift enough people or goods by air or road as efficiently as you can by rail over hundreds of kilometres. At peak times the Shinkansen runs up to thirteen trains per hour with sixteen cars (a train has a 1,323-seat capacity) in each direction between Tokyo and Osaka (just over 500km). Even with six Airbus A320 planes an hour you can only shift just over a thousand people so trains can carry an order of magnitude more people for this kind of distance in a great deal more comfort. Apparently the Japanese experience is that if the Shinkansen connects two cities in less than three hours, most passengers choose the Shinkansen, but if it takes more than four hours by Shinkansen, the majority choose air.
I know railways are difficult to build – I read Christian Wolmar’s excellent book ‘To the Edge of the World‘ about the building of the Trans Siberian while we were on it – but with the interest rates that government is able to borrow at at the moment so low, it seems like the perfect time to spend on infrastructure. It’s also going to be an expanding market in developing countries so building an industry able to sell it abroad would be a good idea too.

Formula-e revs up

I went along to my first Formala-e race at the weekend, spending Saturday afternoon in a very different looking Battersea Park which had been kitted out with concrete barriers and steel fences to turn it into a leafy street circuit with narrow twisty turns and a couple of long (fairly bumpy) straights.

It was great fun and there was a pretty big crowd but it did feel like very early days for the organisers. The e-Village was a bit sparse (only BMW seem to have grasped the opportunity to show off their road cars) and the food was a bit meh. They also could have done with some support races as their was not a lot going on between qualifying and the race. I watched the Sunday race on the TV and it’s tricky to say that I got a lot more from actually being there on the Saturday.

Richard Branson is right to say that it’s going to be bigger than Formula One, especially as manufacturers can build their own cars from next year. Competition is hotting up in the electric car world and hopefully the benefits will soon trickle down to road cars and all of us through reduced emissions. Congrats to Nelson Piquet jr on becoming the first electric world champion!


Back and at ’em


Just back from the longest break I’ve had in ten years I think. Anna and I got married in May (yay!) and we’ve spent the last two and a half weeks on a honeymoon adventure taking the very slow way to a very relaxing time in Japan via Russia, Mongolia, China on the Trans Siberian railway. We had an amazing time and learned quite a bit about what’s going on in those countries.
I’ve come back determined to do a bit more blogging so this is just a marker for that. I’ll share a few of the highlights from our travels and a lot more about what’s going on at BGV. You might have noticed that we announced our brilliant new teams whilst I was away!

Droning on

I’ve been going on about getting a drone for ages and yesterday bit the bullet and bought one. I walked into Maplin across the road from our office and came out with a Parrot AR 2.0. I certainly got respect from the shop assistants – they had all tried it out and it gets their thumbs up apparently.

Once you’ve opened the box and charged the battery, it doesn’t really come with any instructions so you quickly find yourself on the Parrot website watching tutorial videos which are very good. You download an app onto your phone (it seems to work very well on a Fairphone – yay!) and there’s just a small button on the screen saying “take off”. It does what it says on the tin and very quickly you have a drone hovering in the middle of the room about a metre from the floor and a crowd of coworkers who’ve all stopped doing any work and come over to see what’s going on.

It’s much more sophisticated than I was expecting. I’ve only mastered the basics so far and I’m not yet onto all the things you can do with video or changing the settings to alter its performance. I’m also still a long way from being able to fly it through the screen rather than by sight. Anyway, first impressions very good – lots of things to try out!

GoodGym on the telly

What doesn’t make it into an impact accelerator programme

Luni at Fledge has written a great blog post about what doesn’t make it into their programme over in Seattle. We could have written an almost identical list for Bethnal Green Ventures (applications are open for our Summer cohort by the way!). The only thing I’d add is that you can greatly improve your chances by getting in touch before you apply and having a chat with one of our team either face-to-face or on the phone. Just by talking it through with one of us, you’ll get a feel for what our selectors are looking for and things you definitely should include in your application.


A confused sense of history

There’s an exhibition at Moma at the moment called The Forever Now. It’s hooked on William Gibson’s idea of ‘atemporality’ – or the feeling of being in more than one time at once. It’s the strange sense you get from many of his books and to be honest in life – you’re never quite sure whether you’re in the past, present or future. Bruce Sterling explains the idea more in this talk he gave in 2010.

As this Guardian review says, the show doesn’t really work, mainly because painting is very temporal. It is almost always of the moment which is why nearly all large galleries show work in some sort of chronological order. The contemporary artists in the show are no different – they fit into a lineage and don’t manage (or possibly want) to try and combine or transcend different eras.

It made me realise that it’s a tricky time to be an artist. Representing our time is hard – most artists I come across just focus on the bad but I think you need to hold a sense of optimism and pessimism at the same time to make sense of the 21st century. That’s a really tough ask.

Thiel on Rand

I’d always assumed Peter Thiel would be part of the Silicon Valley Ayn Rand fan club. But I’ve been reading Zero to One (more on this later) and he’s actually pretty damning, albeit with feint praise.

“That we need individual founders in all their peculiarity does not mean that we are called to worship Ayn Randian “prime movers” who claim to be independent of everybody around them. In this respect Rand was a merely half-great writer: her villains were real, but her heroes were fake.”

I don’t think I’d even give her ‘half-great’ to be honest. Still amazes me that people rate the books (or the philosophy) at all.

My economy is bigger than yours. So what?

I know this is probably very naive of me but when I was reading Sam Altman’s piece the other day about the battle for economic supremacy between China and the US, I couldn’t help thinking ‘does it really matter?’. I started wondering why we get so het up about the competitiveness of different countries.

I probably shouldn’t be saying this at the moment as I’m on a ‘trade mission’ as we speak – a trip organised by the UK government to promote social investment in the UK to New York investors. But I don’t think of that as a competitive thing. I’m certainly going to try and increase the links between us and organisations in the US but I’m doing that because I think it’s good for BGV and the ventures we support rather than because I want to ‘beat’ other countries at social investment.

The warlike language of economics between countries is everywhere. Most business or economics books tend to be from the perspective of one country or another (usually that of the author) or they create some sort of false league table of nations. I picked up Monocle on the way over here and it’s full of advice for Japan about how to compete on the global stage.

People moan about the rising power of companies but I think it might actually be the declining importance of countries. It was refreshing to meet a couple of publicly funded organisations (from Finland and the Netherlands) recently who were much more collaborative. That came from them realising that their countries were relatively small and they could have a great deal of positive impact outside their own patch. I think some of the bigger economies could learn a lot from that.