Career directions…

Over the Christmas break I’ve been thinking a lot about my career direction. This past year (2011) has been on the rough side, with some significant cashflow challenges which have kept me up at night and impacted my personal relationships. While things are looking more positive coming into the new year, I have been seriously questioning whether the direction of the business is taking is the right one — is the outcome worth having another year like last year?

I remember reading (or hearing at one of the many social innovation events) last year that if you’re interested in pursuing social innovation you should seek out a societal problem that you would like to see fixed and start to innovate around it. I wondered what social need my business — a professional services company that ostensibly is focusing on the corporate sector — was really addressing?

I soon came to the conclusion that the social need is that the corporate sector is the cause (directly or indirectly) of many of the environmental, and in some cases social, issues we face as a community. And that, by and large, the business community is not moving quickly enough to address these challenges — especially when we consider carbon emissions and environmental over-consumption.

I see a lot of great ideas in the social innovation community (and more widely) that are starved for funds and support. Where tens of thousands of dollars are all that’s needed to get something off the ground and test a new, innovative concept. Conversely, in my professional experience I have also seen significant sums of money wasted on ill-thought-through campaigns, products and services. What if some of that poorly invested money (which is small fry in the context of the kinds of projects I’ve witnessed go awry) was instead directed towards these projects that create social good?

So, there are two parts to the challenge — one is how can we innovate to bring a meaningful number of the business community to a new perspective? The second is how we can effectively direct capital to projects (and the people behind them) to create social good? And, more powerfully, how could we do both at once?

One approach is to consult to business to assist them in the transition to what I’ve previously called the “Economy of Meaning”. Leveraging the interest and commercial promise of things like social media to start a dialogue about creating more meaningful innovation. Framing a message around innovation, or reduction of risk etc. that is resonant with the broader social goals. I can’t help but think, though, that this is trying to sell something to a group that are, by-and-large, not really all that interested. That the drive for profit and financial reward is the wrong lever to be pulling to get meaningful and lasting change.

This is also a challenge for me as it requires me to explicitly outline and communicate what is an intuitive sense for the most part, that the concepts, models, methods and approaches that I have in mind, based on my professional and personal experience, are the way of the future. Unfortunately, there are very few hard-nosed case studies that demonstrate this at present.

Another approach, then, which I’ve started down the path of in the past, is to create an exemplar business that embodies these principles and practices — to become the case study. This requires a very different way of looking at the problem space, and instead identify business opportunities that are more public-facing (rather than business-to-business). Such opportunities also require a significant degree of capital, especially during the early stages of development where cashflow is unlikely to cover the investment of time and $$ to get a concept off the ground. And it requires a tonne of energy (which I must admit, I don’t really have right now…)

Even just finding the time to build the business case and prototype some ideas without adequate capital to cover the cashflow hit is a challenge. And to do this would require a strong commitment to the concept to get over what Seth Godin calls the dip. I’m yet to come across an idea that I feel so strongly about that I can unequivocally commit to it. And the few ideas I have in mind would require some time to develop initial prototypes, concepts and business plans to get to that point (or at least determine that they’re not viable/something that I’m willing to commit to).

I’m not sure that a professional services company is the right vehicle for achieving these goals. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s not (at least not in the traditional model). But in the short-term it seems the most appropriate option, until I can find that concept that really resonates, that I believe in strongly enough to grow.

Hopefully in clarifying the purpose and aims (as outlined above) I can start to think more creatively about what form that business might take and begin to work towards that bigger vision…

Reflections on Flavour Crusader at Social Innovation Sydney

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I’ve just gotten back after running a very short workshop session to test the Flavour Crusader application at today’s Social Innovation Sydney meetup and I wanted to take a short moment to “braindump” (more than reflect) about the session while it’s still fresh in my mind. (See my previous post for more background on the project.)

First up, thanks to everyone who participated in the workshop — we really appreciate the feedack. And I’d like to especially thank the volunteers that helped Sharon and I facilitate the session — Angela, Miream, Penny and Tony especially. And also thanks to Michelle and Kate for creating the space in which the session could occur.

While we (obviously) haven’t had a chance to really dig into the more detailed reflections, even the top-level feedback that came out of the session has been really helpful.

About the prototype

For those that weren’t able to attend, if you have an iPhone, feel free to preview the web application. Please bear in mind that this is a very early prototype outlining only some of the core features that have been discussed/considered. In the vein of the “lean startup” the aim is to deliver a “minimum shipping product” to get early feedback and verify/validate design directions before progressing further. It is not fully accessible (we are rapid prototyping using HTML/CSS and JavaScript, but have not tested widely) and today we identified some issues running on Android devices, so your mileage may vary. Adding the app to your home screen on the iPhone and launching from there will give you the best experience.

There is a feedback mechanism inside the application, so please feel free to send us your thoughts and suggestions if you do use the application.

As mentioned previously, the session today aimed to evaluate how well the application, in it’s current form, supported people in the following scenarios:

  • You are on your way home from work and thinking about cooking a dinner with fresh, local produce
  • You are planning a dinner party on the weekend and you want to base it on fresh, local produce
  • You are in a store choosing your fruit and veggies for the week and you want to find out if something is in season

This approach is broadly aligned with the “Can do” phase of Les Robinson’s Enabling Change model. (We’re also giving some consideration to some early social features for the application, especially to create the sense of “Satisfaction” to support sustained adoption. And of course days like today are in part about building “Buzz”, “Invitation” and “Trial”.)

Workshop scenarios

To do this we set up three different “stations” in the room to provide a mock context for each of the scenarios outlined above:

  1. A “bus” where participants were encouraged to consider “on your way home”
  2. A “kitchen table” with recipe books and shopping lists to plan the weekend dinner party
  3. A “store” with a combination of local and imported produce

(I’m hoping that Tony’s photos will provide a visual illustration of the session — I’ll post some links here once they’re online.)

Each participant was given a sheet with areas to reflect on the process they undertook around each scenario, and participants that didn’t have an iDevice (or Android phone) were provided with one, or buddied up with someone who did. The aim was to get participants put themselves into these particular contexts and use the application to support them.

Today was a sort of prototype for the workshop format itself. I’ll be running it again in a few weeks’ time with my uni cohort (and potentially at other foodie events in the future), incorporating a lot of the learnings from today as well. The first lesson about the session format was “more time”: we elected to run a 30 min session, which is clearly not enough given the level of engagement participants gave us today. Next time we will allow for more time at each station.

Another was that with a (somewhat unexpected) large turn-out — we had over 20 participants in the room — we needed a way to allow for group discussion within each station. And thirdly, we found that when participants focused on the “reflection questions” we provided, they were less active thinking about the context of use — e.g. actually using the application. All great learnings to apply in future.

(If anyone who attended wanted to provide further feedback I’d love to hear from you in the comments to this post…)

Early reflections/next steps

One thing that seems reasonably clear, even from early “debriefing” of the session, is that Flavour Crusader’s tight focus on efficacy — that is, providing assistance in how to prepare and fresh produce, including deeper integration between produce items and recipes — is definitely the right path. The challenge with so many great ideas will be to keep that tight focus, and not try to implement everything!

That said, I’m really looking forward to digging in further to participant’s reflections — I’m certain that there’s some great nuggets in that feedback as well. Given the great level of participation, that may take us a little longer than anticipated! But I can’t think of a better problem to have 😉

FlavourCrusader at Social Innovation Camp

A little while back I put a call out for folks that were social media savvy and interested in food to do some interviews for a uni assignment.  The interviews went really well (thanks to everyone involved!) and I’ve been remiss in not reporting back on progress since then.

For my uni assessment I produced two reports and a set of design personas to support the development of the FlavourCrusader project:

  1. Local food production and cosmopolitan localism (PDF 99 KB)
    This paper examines some of the drivers behind the emerging trend towards local and organic produce and the related growth of farmers markets: sustainability, health and safety, quality and taste, and food as experience. It then explores local food production as a form of social innovation, considering its potential for expansion using social technologies.
  2. Report on design research with urban local food customers (PDF 157 KB)
    Reports on the findings of interviews with 5 social media savvy food lovers who purchase locally-produced food.
  3. Personas (PDF 1.7 MB)
    Design personas reflecting the user research and learnings from the initial report looking at local trends etc.

Since that work was completed, myself and the team at Zumio have been working with Sharon Lee, the project lead for FlavourCrusader, on a prototype of the core functionality of the application. The core focus of the prototype is a seasonal food guide and recipes, as these were the core elements identified through the interviews as being useful in a mobile application.

Next Saturday (26 Feb 2011) we’ll be running a session at the Social Innovation Sydney (SI Syd) event in Paddington to get feedback on this prototype. Sharon has done a guest post over at the SI Syd blog about the FlavourCrusader session.

As Sharon’s post points out it’s still very early days — we’re really just trying to provide the bare bones functionality to start getting feedback about what the issues/barriers are and where we should go with it next. Specifically, we’re trying to provide support for the following scenarios:

  • You are on your way home from work and thinking about dinner. How would you use the application to help you choose your dinner?
  • You are planning a dinner on the weekend, how would you use the application to help you plan?
  • You are in a store choosing your fruit and veg for the week and you want to find out if something is in season. How would you use the application to determine this?

There may have other situations where it might be useful, of course — we’d be interested to hear of those if you have any ideas.

Using it “in real life” is obviously the best way to test — so we’re really looking to understand how people go about these things and how, if at all, the app might help. So the session will involve a bit of fun role-playing as well as more straightforward testing.

Our hope is the session will give us an understanding of:

  • How well does the app support this process currently?
  • What frustrations or barriers are there?
  • What needs to be added for people to be able to achieve these goals with it?

In any case, if you’re able to make it down to SI Syd next Saturday — we’re hoping the session will occur just before lunch — I’d love to see you there and get your thoughts.

Project on local markets and social technologies

As part of the core subject of my uni course each semester each student undertakes a self-directed project.  The projects can be of varying shapes and sizes, ranging from more theoretical (such as my report on design thinking and sustainability) to the more practical.

This semester I’m undertaking something in between — part research, part practical — centred around this semester’s “theme” of sustainable food production.

Sharon Lee’s “FlavourCrusader” concept (then called “What’s for dinner”) was selected as one of the projects to be explored at the Australian Social Innovation eXchange (ASIX) Social Innovation Camp held in March 2010.

The long-term vision for the project is to:

  • connect urban food-lovers (“foodies”) with the origins of their food
  • increase consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables (with improved health outcomes)
  • strengthen local economies threatened by supermarket chains

It hopes to achieve this by using social technologies, such as mobile phone applications and Twitter to either promote in-season, fresh, locally-grown, and sometimes organic produce.

In the short-term — and as a first step — the project is seeking to develop a local in-season food guide with a mobile application form-factor.

Such a system has the potential to make purchasing in-season, local produce more convenient, with multiple flow-on benefits:

  • Provide additional marketing/selling opportunities for local producers
  • Reduce food miles
  • Create direct connections between the urban community and local growers, with social, economic and sustainability education benefits

The emphasis of the service, from the end-user perspective, is convenience and good, quality food, rather than the sustainability outcomes.  In this sense it differs from some existing products/services that are out there.

In keeping with my philosophy of human-centred design, I believe the service’s success is dependent on an understanding of motivations, barriers, needs and context of use for producers, local markets and customers.

My project this semester is designed to provide some additional insight into each of these participant groups, including exploration of:

  • What are the key drivers for existing customers (e.g. those that attend farmers markets) taking advantage of farmers markets
  • What are the barriers to existing customers buying local produce (e.g. of those motivated participants, what stops them from buying more regularly)
  • What level of interest exists in such a service among the existing customer base
  • What is the current level of use of social and mobile technologies with customers, producers and markets (e.g. @PrahranMarket on Twitter)
  • Similarly, what drivers/barriers/interest exist for such a service for potential customers — e.g. those that are interested, but for whatever reasons aren’t as active as they would like
  • What are the needs of producers (including local markets)
  • What level of interest/capacity is there to utilise such a service
  • How, if at all, would such a service link with other digital platforms such as FoodConnect

I’m posting all this as I could use some assistance.  Firstly, if you have any resources/pointers/contacts etc. that you think would be useful for the project, I’d love to hear about them.

Secondly, I’m looking for participants for some interviews related to purchasing locally produced food — either people that shop at farmers markets etc. and buy locally, or those that would like to, but for whatever reason aren’t able to do it as regularly as they’d like.  I’m also interested in folks that are using social media (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, blogs etc.) that fit this profile.

The interviews would be about an hour long (at most) and could be done via phone or in person, at a time that suits the participant.  I’m happy to pay for a meal if the interview happens around lunch or dinner 😉

If you are someone, or know someone, that might be interested, please leave a comment or email me on gyoung AT pobox DOT com.

 

EP progress/budget

In a previous post I outlined the costs of recording an independent EP, and hinted that with Fuzu‘s second EP we were trying to significantly reduce our costs.

Some friends who read the post found it useful, and I’ve also participated in some further discussions on a related post over at new music strategies.

As we’ve just completed mixing and mastering (i.e. we’re close to finished the project) I thought it might be worthwhile looking at the costs so far…

Continue reading

The lull

Given how quiet I’ve been around these parts of late, I thought I might post a quick “what’s been happening” post.

  • Fuzu have finished recording and mixing our second EP – tentatively titled “The Point”. We’ll be mastering later this month, and hopefully completing the artwork shortly after. I’ll hopefully have a follow-up to my budget post soon reflecting the actual budget.
  • I’ve been working solidly on two big projects (one for Inspire Foundation, another for UNSW. This has taken up a big chunk of my time (as one might expect) – but I hope to be a little less frantic come February.
  • Thanks mostly to Timo Rissanen, further work has been done on refining the pattern’s for Arketype’s first range, which will be launched for Winter 2010 now, instead of Summer 09/10 (I’ve been a bit too busy with the ‘day job’ and have missed some deadlines). We Buy Your Kids are working on the graphic designs for the range – I’m looking forward to seeing what they come up with given the logo treatment Sonny and Biddy, the duo behind WBYK, came up with (more on that front soon).
  • Holidays – I’ve taken 3 weeks off work to visit family in Queensland – which was a wonderful break (that’s not quite over yet…).

Recent reading

I’ve also been doing a lot of reading of more “popular science” accounts of network theory, prompted in part by an ABC doco on the topic, and also economics and the history of money. This was in part prompted when a friend of mine sent me this video on money.

After reading Peter Bernstein’s A Primer on Money, Banking, and Gold it seems that many of the claims in the video are reasonably accurate.

I also recently finished Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody which looks at some of the societal changes being spurred on by networks. Especially interesting to me is the notion of “reduced transaction cost” for organising collective action.

George Soros’ The New Paradigm for Financial Markets was also an interesting read, albeit a bit repetitive. What’s most interesting is that an über-capitalist such as Soros would have such disdain for the models and assumptions underpinning the industry that he profited so well from.

Critical Mass by Philip Ball is a great overview of what he describes as an emerging “physics of society”. The book covers network and game theory, and emphasises the extent to which power laws and “phase transitions” apply to social phenomena. It also weaves into its narrative the ideas of many economic and social thinkers in history – which was fascinating to me as someone who’s not overly familiar with many of their contributions (at least not directly/explicitly).

Continuing the theme I’m currently reading Duncan Watts’ Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age. It delves much deeper into “small world” networks (popularised by the “Kevin Bacon” game) which are covered more lightly in Critical Mass.

Is it any wonder MSM is struggling

Mark Day Blog – The Australian – ranting about how the only model for journalism is:

  1. Private sector business
  2. Advertising supported

"By definition this is a job for private enterprise because governments cannot reliably scrutinise themselves. Journalism that reveals information that some people do not want you to know is time-consuming and costly to sustain. Therefore it can be supported only by a profitable business."

"There is only one model I know, or can see, that can do this, and that is the traditional advertiser-supported model that has sustained newspapers for more than a century."

Well here’s a quick drive-by rant of my own: (And FTR: no, I don’t consider my blog “journalism”)

I supposed I don’t need to point out the conflict of interest here? A professional journalist protecting the status quo (and keeping the bosses happy). And the delicious irony, after a bunch of blog bashing, is that Mark published it on his blog. But even putting those aside…

Seems Mark’s got blinkers on – there are other models, and some bright folks are exploring them. Not all of them will work or survive – but one thing’s sure, advertising supported journalism (esp. in traditional print form) is not one of them. Yes, we need to work out other models. Yes, blogging is not the (only) answer – though it certainly has a valuable role to play.

Has he not been watching/listening to Jeff Jarvis, or Jay Rosen, or Seth Godin? There are a bunch of ideas out there for those willing to listen and try them. The problem is the risk involved – either personally (for journalists stepping out on their own) or organisations (who are gunshy to invest in something that might not work).

As an aside, it strikes me that the more money involved, the less good journalism is performed, because entertainment apparently sells better. That’s why I no longer get most of my news through mainstream sources, relying primarily on my social networks (Twitter, blogs and Delicious) to keep perspective on what’s happening in the world. Every time I watch what passes as news on TV, or even read the headlines on news.com.au (SMH is slightly better), I cringe.

This is not an ideological argument, btw – i.e. not a “left vs. right” argument. Good journalism IMO transcends that. It’s not the sway or bias that’s the issue, it’s the fact the content itself is not up to par. Until that changes, payment for the skill of journalism will continue to suffer.

Treehugger – ads in the RSS feed

Treehugger was recently bought, and today I noticed graphic, animated advertisements in their RSS feed. Not. Happy. Jan! The animation is incredibly annoying, especially because it’s animated, and it’s the same ad in a number of posts.

I hope they come to their senses and give me my clean, ad-free RSS reader back. I post links to Treehugger and visit the site all the time – they can get their eyeballs there, not in my RSS reader.

Update: Seems the ads have disappeared again. Perhaps just a glitch in Feedburner or something?

Update 2:Nup – they’re back. V. annoying… And to make it worse, the same ad appears over and over and over again and are completely irrelevant to the content. Meh…