Thinking Digital Manchester 2016

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Thinking Digital is about bringing the brightest minds in tech together and nothing could be more appealing to the huddled and Online Ventures Group crowd. With an afternoon of workshops followed by a day of talks at HOME, Thinking Digital covered many aspects of the tech industry: from how to run an efficient workplace to the impact of virtual reality on the way we communicate ideas.

Herb Kim, the founder of TDCMCR, hosted the day of talks at HOME, providing introductions and asking questions at the end of each talk. His style was relaxed and friendly but he also asked the questions that would further conversation during the breaks – which of course, is the whole point of the event: to talk more.

Our Workshops

There were 7 workshops to choose from but as there were only four of us, we could not attend them all. Having spoken to attendees of iPhone Videography, Design Sprints at the BBC and Startups Journeys – the role of investors and advisors, though, all the workshops were really informative and fun to participate in.

Here are the four workshops we attended:

Tom went to Through the Looking Glass – An Exploration of VR

“I really, really enjoyed my day at clicks and links on Monday. I was already interested in VR prior to the workshop, what gamer isn’t? But I never realised how it could be applied commercially. It was great to hear how VR could change user interfaces in a way that would make things like meetings and reports such an immersive experience. The way it could change how we read information was inspiring as well. I don’t think people realise how much information we take in when it’s in 3D and the idea that we could essentially read a report or even a textbook in school in three dimensions is quite mind-boggling.

Obviously, my favourite part of the day was experiencing virtual reality first hand for the first time. We were introduced to the Vive headset which we were advised was the best on offer at the moment. We all had a go at drawing with light in 3D on Tilt Brush. Surprisingly the weirdest part of it was that even though these drawings weren’t real, you were hesitant to walk around so you didn’t walk into your creation. We then had a try of the Oculus Rift on a game where you fly spaceships. Even though your movement was more restricted, it was still a great experience because it really felt like this was the next step in gaming and it was quite exciting.”

I went to Get Your Head Around Code

“I went to this workshop because as I have developed my blogging skills, I would like to be able to create more interesting content. At first, it was difficult to get my head around the rules, but about 30 minutes before the end of the session it all suddenly clicked into place and I got it. There’s so much that code can do and really no end of things that you can create with it. Just doing these simple exercises showed that.

The main thing I learned in the afternoon was that code is all about following patterns and embedding instructions within instructions. And, once you have a line of code, it is much easier to copy and paste it and change internal elements than to try and write it out again! Alex, from Liverpool Girl Geeks, was a really patient teacher and gave me enough information to start solving problems myself. I can’t wait to carry on learning soon.”

Coding Workshop

Suze went to The Value Of Paid Social Marketing

“I decided to attend the Value of Paid Social Marketing workshop at Thinking Digital, as it’s an area of digital marketing I was keen to learn more about. The workshop was held at Revolucion de Cuba which really added to the relaxed and intimate atmosphere, and upon arrival we were offered tea, coffee and cold refreshments.

It was hosted by Simon Watson from Republic of Media who began by showing us an ad campaign for Tennants Lager. The campaign was comical, engaging and certainly made me want to learn more about the brand, so this was a great start!

Following on from this, Simon spoke to the group about how a lot of brands were eager to shed the ‘social’ label. For example, Twitter now appears under the ‘news’ section on the App Store. I found this interesting as it shows how brands are trying to diversify into something other than social media.

In the last hour of the session we were put into groups of four and were given a mock brief for a client. As a team we had to use the objectives written on our brief and come up with campaign strategies to successfully advertise the brand online. I really enjoyed working with my team members and it was brilliant to be able to collectively come up with a range of ideas.

I particularly liked learning a lot of interesting statistics such as Twitter being for sale for $18 billion and how Disney and Google have both pulled out of buying the social media platform. Also I learnt about targeting an audience on Facebook and using video content to do so. All in all, I would say this workshop was a real eye opener into the importance of paid social marketing for your business.”

Leah went to A Lean and Agile Workplace

“I took part in the Lean and Agile workshop ran by @FredPernet where he discussed the main problem many people face at work: delivering more value for less, or the same amount.

The workshop began with us being asked to introduce the person beside us, their name, position in their company while also explaining what they believed would make their lives better. Most people said the same: consistency, more ideas, communication and bigger teams.

Fred described work as an elephant. He asked us how we would eat an elephant, and where we would begin. After much deliberation, he explained that the liver is the most nutritional part of any animal, and that when faced with a large workload we should tackle the most value with the least effort first – “deliver early and often”.

We discussed the differences between waterfall method and the agile method and played a game which gave us the opportunity to distinguish the problem areas in production. We also talked about the importance of valuing a task for every stage of its delivery not just when it is given to the consumer. So rather than trying to solve all problems at once, it is better to solve problems in stages and take on board any criticism from the client before returning to the drawing board and repeating the process.

I learned so much I could go on but I will finish here with Fred’s words of advice:

Smooth is fast, fast is slow. Stop starting, start finishing.”

Leah and Suze Thinking Digital Snapchat filter

The Talks

Tuesday was entirely dedicated to talks in the theatre at HOME, Manchester. There were 12 speakers over four sessions, each with a 20 minute slot in which to speak about their experience or expertise. Herb introduced each speaker and then asked a few questions at the end of their section.

Matt Lucas – IBM

@mqmatt

As a blockchain builder, Matt talked about the ways that online ledgers are revolutionising the way that businesses agree deals and contracts. A blockchain is essentially a shared online ledger that all businesses in the network can access and see. This means that reconciliation is not required as only one version of events has been recorded (as opposed to duplicate ledgers that may not agree).

With this technology, business may become more transparent without revealing too much about companies. This is because while the single ledger will show all transactions, they will only be shown to the relevant businesses and, furthermore, will be organised so appear logically to the business looking at the ledger.

Sarah Drinkwater – Campus at Google

@sarahdrinkwater

Sarah’s passion is bringing people together to learn, share and create. Campus may not make Google any money but it does do something more important in providing the community with a place to come together. Sarah and her team have been managing the building for four years and have, in her words, made many mistakes along the way. The important thing, though, is that they learned from these mistakes and instead of shying away from projects, embrace the idea that it might not work out perfectly the first time.

In her wise words: ‘tech is not always useful as a separate word – it influences everything we do.” And so for all that tech can aid us, it is still important to have a physical space in which to congregate and develop ideas. This means everything from classes for Mums to the tech cafe where you are encouraged to talk to other people working around you.

 

Amber Case – Cybernetic Anthropologist

@caseorganic

We are surrounded by technology that beeps, buzzes and rings. While this might appear to be a helpful feature, in reality, having so many devices demanding our attention can be stressful and intrusive. She argues that technology should be better integrated into our lives so that instead of distracting us, it helps us – this is calm technology.

Her example was a friend who had an insulin pump fitted but every time the insulin was injected the device made a beeping noise that he could not control. While this beep might be a benefit to a carer who needs to know that the machine is working properly, for him the noise was not just irritating but embarrassing too. With the calm technology ethos, it would make much more sense for the device to buzz to let him know the insulin had been delivered without letting everyone know and causing a distraction.

Amber also made the point that when we update or upgrade our technology, there are likely to be flaws in systems. An example might be the idea of a smart fridge. While the fridge might be able to count the number of calories you consume, if you have friends over for lunch will it let you access enough food for everyone? And what if you’re just having a bad day? Keeping what might seem to be redundant technology is important so that “when something fails, it decays gracefully to the previous level.”

Clara Gaggero Westaway – Digital Design Innovator

@claragaggero

The fundamental elements of design for Clara are context, magic and empathy. With this in mind, her designs are deceptively simple and elegant – from a phone that is presented in a book of instructions to make it easier to put together to a calendar made of lego that translates to individual digital calendars.

While her methods for creating such wonders might seem childish – the phone banana for example – what she demonstrates is that natural curiosity is the main driver of creativity. So when she asked a group of pensioners to draw their ideal phone onto a banana, she discovered that they weren’t looking for a mere 4 contact and an emergency button “to remind them how close to death they might be”, but just needed simpler instructions to help them use the features most phones have like sat nav or cameras.

Ian Forrester – BBC Firestarter

@cubicgarden

The BBC’s R&D North Lab is particularly interested in innovation in media. Storytelling may be 1000s of years old, but the way we tell stories has radically shifted in the last century. As we move into an era of virtual and augmented reality, it is a natural progression to experiment with our most basic instinct to tell stories in this way.

The BBC have found that people living outside London tend to be more interested in stories that make direct reference to their location (it doesn’t work in London because there is already a bias). With this in mind, Ian and his team have been experimenting with responsive radio that can subtly change details in the show such as the location but also the length of the show. This means that if you prefer to listen to shorter radio shows, responsive radio could cater for that by strategically cutting sections so that the programme still flows but doesn’t take as long.

As the internet of things becomes a more prevalent topic of discussion, Ian also suggested that our viewing experience could be further manipulated by changing our natural environment. So for example, if you are watching a horror film, all the lights in the room might suddenly go off and a door could slam, or a romantic film might cause the lights to dim.

There may not be the scope for this kind of immersive media consumption yet, but Ian’s team are pushing the boundaries of what the BBC means for its consumer.

Sam Aaron – Rhythmic Coder

@samaaron

As the creator of Sonic Pi, Sam believes in accessible technology. This means that it must be affordable (Sonic Pi is actually free) and easy to use. His opinion is that if a technology is not easy to use then that is the fault of the creator not the user so he has made Sonic Pi as intuitive as possible.

The aim of the program is to teach young people how to code by giving them the building block to make music. By manipulating a few lines of code, different sounds, beats and variations can be overlapped to create live music. To demonstrate, Sam, used the last few minutes of his segment to show the skill involved in his style of performance by manipulating the code as he went and by making mistakes too.

While his technology will not replace traditional music (I hope at least) it is certainly a zeitgeist for our generation’s fascination with technology and passionate exploration of its potential.

Myles Dyer – Pioneer YouTuber

@MylesDyer

YouTube feels as if it has always been around and it feels weird to realise that actually, YouTube is only 11 years old. So when Myles says he has been on YouTube for 10 years, the site is suddenly put into perspective as a new catalyst for social change, rather than a thing we have all just grown used to.

YouTube provided a space for people to share their ideas with video (which is incidentally the biggest growing area of media now) and to respond to each other in the comments section.

Myles creates and uploads videos on a range of topics from health and wellbeing to activism and politics. He has around 50,000 subscribers but notes that as Facebook has grown, this is now a better platform for his work as it is easily shared.

Instead of a talk, then, this section was an interview with TDCMCR founder Herb. Perhaps the most poignant answer Myles gave was in response to the question of creating communities, reaffirming and challenging views and how this affects us more generally. Myles said: “when clouds of ideology collide, they cause storms.”

Ed Barton – Curiscope

@ed_barton

Virtual and augmented reality is gaining popularity and with the likes of Pokemon Go is clearly a way of synthesizing the physical world we live in with the online world we have created. For Ed, this translates into a way of learning that it is not just visual but tactile too despite being on a screen.

The Virtuali-tee, shows a picture of a pixelated ribcage, that when viewed through an iPad app shows a digitalised image of is inner organs. Furthermore, the user can click on these organs to find out more and explore the body. We learn best when we are immersed in an activity so this could well be the future of education.

Jennifer Arcuri – Hacking For Good

@Jennifer_Arcuri

The co-founder of Hacker House, Jennifer has a passionate curiosity about cyber security. Beginning with a story about a young relative who found out all the passwords for everyone at his school and then said “it can’t be illegal – it’s too easy!”, Jennifer explained that hacking is something we should all be aware of but doesn’t have to be a bad word.

At Hacker House, they provide ethical hacking as a consultancy business, showing businesses where their weaknesses are by breaking into their systems and then improving them. This also means that they are recruiting young hackers ideally before they ‘go rogue’ to use their skills for good.

As ‘the internet of things’ is a phrase increasingly used to describe our evolving relationship with technology, Jennifer believes that this phrase should be accompanied with her own coinage: the internet of vulnerabilities. The more pieces of tech we have and use, the more entrances we provide through the internet. It could well be that in the future a hacker could access everything in your house through your smart fridge. This bears thinking about before, or at least in tandem with, our progression with tech and ethical hacking could be providing the solutions we need to secure ourselves.

Amy Zima – Tweetdeck Torchbearer

@amyzima

As a product manager, Amy is shaping the future of Tweetdeck by negotiating the intersections of the needs of the consumers, the capabilities of the developers and the direction the managers want to take Tweetdeck in.

Her job is about figuring out short and long term projects in order to bring the best product to consumers at the right time – a dark art that takes skill and patience. The tech industry relies on people like Amy to understand abstract ideas and then make the difficult compromises and decisions that will influence the end product.

Dave Asprey – Bulletproof Coffee

@bulletproofexec

Speaking to us via Skype in an interview with Herb, the inventor of Bulletproof Coffee loomed over us with ideas of heightened attention, IQ and efficiency. His biology ‘hack’ came from the insight that really, we are just forms of living code and if we could hack that code and understand it better, it could be possible to make improvements.

Dave presents himself as the proof of his theory: since he started his regime, he has lost weight and has much better concentration. He also sleeps more efficiently and effectively so that when he wakes up, he actually feels awake. The regime isn’t just about drinking his branded coffee though, Dave also advises against blue light from LEDs and screens in order to sleep better.

Herb did, in his own words “totally geek out” in this interview, almost forgetting that he had an audience, but his enthusiasm translated and it was clear that Bulletproof embodies the idea that code can be applied anywhere to great effect.

James Veitch – Nerdcore Comic

@veitchtweets

Just because James is a comic and clearly intended as a light relief at the end of a long day does not mean that his talk was not as insightful as the others. His set was made up of stories of battles: James Veitch takes on Scammers.

Where we have grown used to ignoring scam emails, James has taken it upon himself to respond to the extent that he had a scammer request that he stopped emailing. If this is not a victory in the mundane modern age, I don’t know what is.

Lessons from TDCMCR

The main aim of the conference was to encourage the curiosity many of us in the tech industry have instinctively by bringing people together to discuss and present new ideas.

Over the last 5 years, there has been an increasing interest in cybernetics and our relationship with technology. It might seem like an academic conceit but as we integrate evermore with technology, it is important to stand back and consider how we interact and work best together.

As an opportunity to listen to new ideas and learn new skills in workshops, TDCMCR exceeded already high expectations. We have all returned to work with a reinvigorated passion for the tech industry and passion for the capabilities we have. With the boundaries of our understanding constantly shifting, analyzing, reassessing and pushing further has become a way of life. It truly is an exciting time to be alive.

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About Hannah Field

Hannah is a passionate fan of modernist literature and can usually be found curled up with a cat and a book, a steaming mug of tea within reach. Though she tolerates living on land, Hannah feels most at home underwater SCUBA diving, hoping to see turtles.

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