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…

Mazda’s approach to sustainability

Reading “Mazda SkyActiv is a novel approach to fuel efficiency; will it work?” over at Autoblog Green got me thinking. The article outlines how Mazda is eschewing hybrid and EV technologies (in the short term) to instead focus on light-weighting and efficiency.

It’s an interesting approach. I’ve written before about the “hyper car” concept outlined in Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins. Whereas the Lotus vehicle I was responding to in that post was just a concept, it’s interesting to see a mainstream brand like Mazda (which seems to be a bit more prominent in the Australian market than the US based on the Autoblog Green article) taking this approach to market. (It’s interesting to note that Audi have also announced a carbon-fibre project using an Australian partner.)

Autoblog Green ask if it will work — indeed, will it sell more cars. I think it’s actually a reasonably smart approach. The jury is still out on EVs and hybrids and the specific technologies that might “win” the race (including hydrogen fuel cells). With EVs taking a little while to gain traction in the market, there is a strong argument to holding off significant R&D expenditure in this area until the market is more mature.

(That said, I still think that electric vehicles will end up being the technology of choice, regardless of power source. And it is definitely important that some manufacturers lead the way, as Tesla and Nissan, among others, are doing.)

Regardless of which technology gets up, the measures that Mazda is exploring will all be relevant. And in the short term, with consumer uncertainty (and the high relative up-front cost of hybrid and EV vehicles), focusing efforts in this area can only provide benefits to the Mazda brand. That is to say, for those customers that aren’t ready to make the switch to EV/hybrid, the fuel efficiency benefits would likely be of appeal (and therefore to have an impact on sales). But it won’t be long before Mazda will need to start investing more heavily in alternative fuel/power train technologies. I’m sure, however, that they are keeping a close eye on developments and will be ready once a dominant approach appears. Definitely one worth watching…

The cost of the Iraq war

This isn’t going to be a long post, just a short observation.

Just before Christmas I read with great interest this piece in Time Last U.S. Troops Leave Iraq as War Ends about the final withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.

I’ve been a long time opponent of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, which I believe was launched on false pretences. One of these was that Iraq was somehow involved in the Sept 11 attacks (it clearly wasn’t).

But even if we take that at face value (which I don’t), the final casualty rate from Sept 11 was just under 3,000.

The Time article notes:

The mission cost nearly 4,500 American and well more than 100,000 Iraqi lives and $800 billion from the U.S. Treasury.

So the Iraq invasion, the retaliation of sorts, cost 1,000 more lives than the initial attacks, and cost more than the $700 billion bail-out of the US banks during the GFC.

Iraq Body Count estimates that civilian — i.e. non-combatant — casualties alone are greater than 100,000. A 22:1 ratio of Iraqi to American casualties. (I feel it important to note that estimates of civilian deaths while Saddam was in power are higher than this figure.)

As Time notes, “The question of whether it was worth it all is yet unanswered.” Indeed.

Where did Subaru’s design go?

Ang and I have been tossing around the idea of getting a new car soon. We’re not actively in the market, but enough so that I started to look around at what’s available at the moment.

I have a couple of friends that have (second hand) Subarus, so I thought I’d check out the current range, only to be very disappointed. There are a number of great looking Subaru’s out there, but the current range look terrible. They seem to have lost their way some time around 2006/2007.

The New XV holds a little bit of promise (provided you like orange — which I do), but apart from that, I have trouble telling the Forester, Outback and Tribeca apart, and they all look very ordinary — I’m not sure which market segment they were targeting exactly, but they seem to have missed the mark terribly. This is from the company that developed the WRX and Impreza, which are now just shadows of their former glory.

Contrast this with Mazda’s appealing KODO design language across the range. This is a wonderful example of how to translate a design and brand concept across a wide variety of products, to great effect I think. Most directly look at the Tribeca compared to the CX-7. Yes, they are probably very different cars, but I think are compatible in intent/market (certainly they come across that way to a lay-person like myself). The CX-7 is not the most attractive vehicle in the fleet, and given the form factor was probably very difficult to translate the KODO design to. But the CX-7 has so much more character than the Subaru.

So, if we do go ahead and get a new (for us) car, I think we’ll be skipping the Subarus and looking elsewhere. At best, we’ll keep our search to pre-2007 models. Much as I would love to go on those fab recommendations from friends, the lack of good design is just too much to skip over…

Where is my robotic companion?

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I bought this t-shirt from Threadless some time ago — it was a tongue-in-cheek reflection on all the fanciful things that we saw in movies and cartoons as a child growing up that hadn’t quite come to fruition yet. It seems, though, that the second item on the list — that of the robotic companion — may be pretty close at hand.

I’m not one to make predictions, typically (even if it is new year’s day) but a couple of things that have recently come across my radar have got me thinking that the age of the robotic companion is coming — probably in about 5 years time we’ll see the first commercial versions.

What are the developments? Apple’s Siri is probably the most mainstream. This is natural language recognition and response in a consumer-grade mobile phone. Yes, internet assisted (much of the processing is done by much more powerful computing hardware than the phone). Yes, it’s early days yet (anyone that’s used Siri will be well aware of it’s limitations).

But what’s so special about Siri? Haven’t we had voice recognition on phones for some time? Siri is more than just recognition of pre-defined commands — it incorporates natural language processing, which is a real leap forward in my view.

In 5 years’ time, talking to our phone will be as natural as touch gestures are today, I suspect. This will in part be aided by the continuation of Moore’s Law, as Mark Pesce recently reminded us:

By 2020, some of us will be walking around with a teraflop in our pocket, interpreting our speech, watching our gestures, and effortlessly handling sophisticated social transactions – invisibly, continuously and tirelessly.

The second is Boston Dynamics’ “PETMAN” project:

According to Gizmodo, Boston Dynamics expects to deliver PETMAN to the US Military as early as this year (2012). Given that, I suspect that the video that has been released is probably of an older variation of the technology, so is probably even further advanced in the lab.

The third is the advancement of facial expressions in robotics. See, for example, Actroid-F:

While the latter two examples are still in the research and development phase, and are clearly going to be extremely expensive, as is often the case with these things, these early developments will no doubt trickle down into consumer-level products shortly after. I’m putting a stake in the ground and saying 5 years (though it might end up being 10).

But in either case, at least one of those “damned scientist” wishes is just around the corner…

HSM — final thoughts

This is a cross-post from my Hello Sunday Morning blog.

Well, I’ve reached the end of my Hello Sunday Morning stint at the start of this week.

I have a confession to make: I ‘slipped’ in the final month. At a family event, my uncle and aunty brought along a bottle of wine, unexpectedly, to a family dinner. I had found myself in the preceding days hankering for a drink — a glass of wine, or a beer, or something. I’d attended two drinks-centric events at a conference id attended, plus a few nights at a dear friend’s place, and a night with family in Queensland. It was the end of a long week, and with a desire not to have to explain myself (yet again), I simply accepted their offer of a glass of wine with dinner.

So, in essence, I failed to make it through the HSM.

I have to admit, I’m glad to be free of having to think so hard about my alcohol consumption. I’ve probably thought more about alcohol in the past 3 months than I have in the previous 12. What used to be something that commanded very little attention became something that I had to ‘deal with’ every time an event or situation came up in which alcohol was involved. Now, this wasn’t a terrible impost, but still, it was noticeable.

This past 3 months hasn’t been all that easy, and certainly (at least by my friends’ and family’s definition) been a tough time to have given up on the “release” I associate with alcohol consumption. Some of it has been celebratory (my birthday, the sale of our apartment, significant events related to my business, family dinners, time away with my wife, university submissions and results). Some emotionally challenging (a relative passing away, significant business challenges). Some just plain stressful (moving house, business and uni again). Sometimes I just wanted to unwind, with friends and family, but felt limited in my ability to do so when alcohol wasn’t part of the activity.

During my HSM I’ve put on a lot of weight — in dealing with these stresses I’ve turned to ‘comfort food’ as a means of dealing with stress. Which begs the question: have I actually just replaced one vice with another? I asked the same question when I one night I resorted to buying non-alcoholic wine as a ‘placeholder’ so I could enjoy an evening with friends. I really questioned the whole exercise — whats the difference (if youre not getting blind drunk, which i wasnt) — isn’t that just the same thing?

Over on my personal blog a commenter remarked that my comments suggested that my quality of life had diminished as a result of not having alcohol. While that’s perhaps stronger language than I would use, there is a degree of truth to the statement.

At 36 years of age, the social structures and norms and personal patterns I’ve formed do include alcohol as a pretty central part of my celebratory and social practices — more than I realised. It is, perhaps, a sad indictment that I do feel that I need alcohol at some level to fully enjoy and appreciate life. That it is deeply enough embedded in my social practice as to be essential. But there it is…

I’m returning to enjoying alcohol in my social practices, starting with a dinner with my wife this weekend. Our plans for dinner with a nice bottle of wine feels like, in some way, a means to “make up” for the fact that we haven’t had the (perceived) opportunity to fully celebrated or acknowledge some of the really significant events of the past 3 months.

I will be doing so, however, with a much more acute awareness of the role alcohol plays in my social world. Has my HSM changed my practices and relationship to alcohol? I certainly feel it has already, and suspect it will continue to do so into the future. Of course, HSM isn’t asking us to do more than self-examine our relationship with alcohol (at least that’s my understanding of the initiative). And that is surely the case for me, and I’m uncomfortable with what I’ve learned.

As an aside, I’m not sure how (HSM founder) Chris Raine came up with 3 months as the length of time for an HSM, but I found it pretty interesting that the first two months were pretty easy, but that the third month was very tough to maintain (and in fact was the period in which I slipped). There’s definitely something to that…

Long time, no post

I’ve been very slack in posting here of late, mostly because I’ve been very busy with a whole bunch of life stuff, like:

Selling our apartment: Ang and I successfully sold our 1 bedroom apartment in Newtown at auction. It was a bit hairy as clearance rates plummeted in the weeks leading up to the auction date, but we had a really great agent in Nick Moraitis at Ray White Inner West and we ended up reaching our target. Needless to say we’re very happy with the result…

Moving: in preparation for the sale, we worked out that we’d be best to move out and rent furniture during the period of open houses etc. It was all very last minute — about 3 weeks between appointing our agent and having to have everything packed and moved! Thanks to the generosity of Ang’s family we’ve got a place to stay in Merrylands until we find our next place. It’s taken a bit to get used to commuting again, but we’re feeling reasonably settled now and back into some semblance of routine…

House hunting: so now we’re looking for a new place to live. We decided to move because we wanted some separate living areas (e.g. an office space, music room etc.) as well as a (small) yard for a dog or two. That means that we’re looking at the lower mountains and Penrith area for our next move. We have to wait until settlement (mid-July) before we can start making offers, but we’ve starting checking out a few places already, and there’s been some good ones on offer, so hopefully we’ll be able to get somewhere that we’re happy with soon.

Uni: This weekend just past I handed in my last essay for my 3rd semester of uni. I’m still really enjoying it, and despite this last semester being the most stressful in terms of juggling everything, I am still very energised to be doing the course. I’m really happy with my progress to date — so far I’ve been able to achieve HDs for my elective subjects (my core subject is a pass/fail subject), and my core subject has been awesome in terms of the structured sessions (which I head down to Melbourne for). I’m also really enjoying working on FlavourCrusader and my other essays too — been very rewarding. I now have 4 weeks off, then back into it to co-authoring a book chapter with my good friend and colleague Penny Hagen reflecting on and extending the work to date on FlavourCrusader (provided timings all work out). I’m also looking forward to attending the Communities and Technology conference in Brisbane next week, in part due to my involvement in the book chapter.

Hello Sunday Morning: during all of this, a friend and I signed up too Hello Sunday Morning (HSM) — we’ve committed to not drinking alcohol for 3 months. We started on 1 May, so will be finishing up at the end of July. Of course, that means I’ve not been able to enjoy a drink to celebrate the apartment sale, the State of Origin, nor will I be celebrating my birthday with a drink. So perhaps not the best timing ;) You can find out more about why I signed up, and my reflections on the experience to date, over at the my blog on the HSM site.

I’m hoping that the second half of this year is a little less eventful!

Follow-up: TripIt confirmed bug

Just a quick update on the whole TripIt debacle.

The TripIt support team were very good in responding to the problem. While I didn’t get any money back, they didn’t throw me any legalese/boilerplate response, and took the issue seriously. Kudos to Ruth, the support rep who was my primary contact, for handling this well.

They responded by offering me an upgrade (worth $49 in $$ terms, but pretty useless to me in the context of what has happened, as the primary issue is the fact I no longer feel like I can trust the application) and looked into the matter.

The first suggestion was this was a daylight savings issue with my phone, (as a few folks have suggested to me personally or via Twitter) but I pointed out this didn’t seem to make sense because:

  1. The earlier flight on the same day is also displayed as AEDT and this is displaying correctly as 6:15am (as per the web-based application).
  2. The support team asserted that “in Australia and on April 3, 2011, Daylight Savings Time ended and I believe because the last flight (Virgin Blue 885) coincided with that date”, which was incorrect. The flight was for April 2 at 7:15pm and flight time was 1 hr and 15 mins, meaning I would have arrived in Sydney before 9pm on April 2. DST didn’t end here in Australia until 2am on April 3, well outside the range of that particular flight.
  3. Even if the flight did cross timezones, the departure time should reflect the timezone of departure, not the destination, so this still should not have happened.
  4. I confirmed the bug in both Melbourne under daylight savings (when the error occurred) and in Sydney (upon arrival the following day) outside of daylight savings — which suggests that it was not an issue with the settings on the phone, as the problem should not have exhibited before or after the timezone change, according to this explanation, but it clearly occurred in both timezones.

After this response, the team looked into it further and found:

It appears that in our system, for Melbourne, Australia, our system had the April 2 date listed as the end of Daylight Savings Time for EST.

I’ve immediately filed a ticket with our engineers to make sure that daylight savings time is properly picked up for Melbourne to fix this issue going forward. I’m also having our engineers double-check all timezones in Australia.

So the issue was confirmed as a daylight savings issue, but not related to my phone or setup.

While I still don’t think that particular finding fully explains the issue (if it clicked over on April 2 instead of 3, why was the first flight time on the same day correct?). But at least I’m glad that identifying the issue may avoid future issues for other TripIt users.

Warning: how TripIt cost me $300

NOTE: an update on TripIt’s confirmation of the bug and response.

A word to the wise — don’t rely on TripIt for your travel details.

Up until yesterday I was a big fan of TripIt. Their sign-up process was awesome, and it’s been a great way to keep track of my flight and accommodation details. It syncs with LinkedIn, which helps me keep in touch with my network. I know a number of people that use this service regularly.

Last night I was due to return from Melbourne (another uni trip). I was all set — I’d checked in prior, selected my seat, and was about to head off from one of my fave cafes when I checked the details of my flight in TripIt on my iPhone and realised that I actually had an hour to spare. So I dropped into Degraves for a lovely dinner and wine before heading out to the airport.

I only had to print my boarding pass and jump on the plane to get home. Or so I thought. Upon arriving I went to the mobile check-in and was informed I had to see the service desk. I’ve had seats reshuffled before, and assumed that there was some small thing like that. Alas, I found out that I was an hour late for my flight.

I rechecked the details and went back to my original itinerary only to find that I had, in fact, missed my flight. The first available flight was first thing this morning, so I had to arrange last minute overnight accommodation as well. Total cost: just over $300.

Thinking that I’d incorrectly entered the details, or that TripIt’s famous auto-entry feature had got the details wrong, I checked into the TripIt website. Going to the main TripIt website, my flight details are shown correctly:

TripIt website displaying correct details for my flight

So then, looking into it further, I rechecked the iPhone app and confirmed the time was incorrectly stated (note that the morning flight displays the correct time):

TripIt iPhone app displaying the incorrect flight tim

I acknowledge that perhaps I missed something to do with timezones and the like, but the only conclusion that I can come to is that it’s a bug there…

In hindsight there are a number of things I could’ve done to avoid this problem. If I’d checked my itinerary when I noticed the discrepancy. If I’d looked into my booking details on the airline website, or checked flight delays, perhaps I would have picked up the problem. But the whole point of using TripIt, and especially the iPhone app, is to have one trusted location for travel information. That trust has well and truly been broken.

I’ve reported this bug to TripIt and have asked them to clarify their position with regards to errors like this. I don’t expect to get much of a response (something along the lines of “our terms and conditions state that you use this at your own risk). But needless to say, I won’t be using TripIt in future.

I just hope this can serve as a warning for anyone else that’s using the app to avoid the same scenario.