Category Archives: Digital reflections

The foundation and future of Sophia Antipolis

This week, I am hosting a seminar on “Digitalization for Growth and Innovation” for the Norwegian Business School, at Skema Business School and the Accenture Interactive Innovation Center and Technology Lab in Sophia Antipolis. We asked Skema if someone could talk to the participants (managers from Norwegian companies) about the founding and evolution of the Science and Technology Park in itself. We got a very interesting discussion by Philippe Mariani, responsible for Strategy and Development of the Sophia Antipolis Foundation – and (drum roll) a visit by the founder of Sophia Antipolis himself, Senator Pierre Laffitte.

laffitte-mariani

Sophia Antipolis (sophia = wisdom, antipolis=not a city, actually an old term for Antibes) was founded in 1969, by Pierre Lafitte, who now is 91 and still involved in the development of the area. Back then, his idea was seen as a utopia, with plans for 20000 researchers in 20 years, but it garnered lots of attention. Now it pretty much is reality, genuinely a dream come through. There are 1400 companies with 30000 employees, 60000 people if you count supporting services. The whole place is laid out as a park, no straight roads, lots of threes – and it can actually be difficult to think of it as a city if you look at it from the air:

sophia

Sophia Antipolis works as an ecosystem, and attracts more revenues than the tourism industry in the south of France. SKEMA, the business school, is an important part of the ecosystem. In the beginning, it was very difficult to convince somebody to come and start here, one strategy was to utilize the strength of the network, arrange a concert in the middle of the forest, using the newspapers to attract attention, running specialized conferences on biotech, nanotechnology, etc., inviting 15-20 high-level people, do proceedings, these people then became ambassadors for the area.

Pierre Laffitte instituted some principles for the area:
1) that there should be no skyscrapers, no building higher than the hills. As a result the area feels like a park, and also feels quite small, even though it is large.
2) There should be no fences around companies, in order to facilitate cross-fertilization (a concept which is very important to the people building the area. In the beginning this even extended to asking companies not to have closed lunch areas, but invite others in.
3) As much as possible, a company settling in SF would have to have someone on the board with a different background – a writer, teacher, artist – in order to be critical, a devil’s advocate, and to foster innovation.

Sophia Antipolis is now a brand name, people here identify with the place, call themselves sophiepolitans – there is a sense of belonging, employees want to stay in the area. It is relatively easy to put up your own company, you will find a market, so the place is growing. There are strong anchor tenants, such as Amadeus, but also many small technology companies who sometimes start as vendors to the anchor tenants and then expand. It is not really a French place, but international to a very large degree.

There have been many attempts at building technology parks, and Sophia is one of the places that work. Much of it has to do with establishing a culture – many other areas are currently trying to invest a lot of money, but it is not working because there is not a culture of sharing, communicating and starting projects and companies.

One difference from Silicon Valley is that there are fewer venture capitalists and angel investors, which is indicative of Europe in general.

Question to Pierre Laffitte and Philippe Mariani: What is the role of government in the creation of technology parks and new companies?

Governments give money to big companies, in the US they have the small business act. We need something like that in Europe – bottom up, now top down. There is much good will from governments in Europe, but they have not found a good way to help small companies. Also, Europe has more interest in fundamental research, not the research between the industrial and the fundamental. We need to put together the managers with the people with ideas and research.

Q: Other differences between the US and Europe — what can we learn?
In the US, if your company fails, you are not considered a failure. In Europe, the banks will not finance you if you have had a company failure, which is why Europe has fewer serial entrepreneurs. We also have fewer business angels, and most of them are not so rich.

Q: Challenges for the future of Sophia Antipolis?

Two challenges in particular: One is developing ethics for a numerical (digital) society. There has been a transition from family capitalism to most short-termism. Now you have to make money in the face of short-termism, should be more open to other types of people than the shareholders only. We need to have another type of capitalism more about stakeholders than shareholders.

Secondly, there is an acceleration, the lifecycles are shorter and shorter. Our form of cross fertilization has worked for 40 years, but that won’t last, we have to reinvent a way to exist as an ecosystem. We are launching initiatives on ethics and “numeration”, cybersecurity, cyberhacking. want to become a think tank for exploring the digitalization, allowing it to continue to evolve – for one thing, the the government does not understand and the only thing they do is forbid it.

Q: What was the most important getting Sophia Antipolis started?

Having lots of friends in good positions who did not think it as stupid as many people thought! Innovation is always connected with difficulty to change, you have to convince people that it is positive. We wanted to develop something that did not create pollution, to create something connected with the future and the brain and to balance, not only to raw materials.

Q: How do you get get people together, so it is not just a park with businesses?

There are many ways to get people to come together. We asked companies not to have closed cafeterias, people having lunch together from different companies. We have the veteran companies meet with the new companies when they come in. We have common breakfasts, like small conferences. We also have clubs set up for various subjects and interest groups – there is even one called the Nordic Link for wealthy individuals from the Nordic countries who settle in the region and want to get involved in technology companies.

It doesn’t happen by itself, many cites think that it is just the structure is the enabler, The Foundation is here to do what the companies cannot do because they have no time. You have to push to make this happen, not easy because the benefit of the activity is hard to quantify. One thing that has not worked as we hoped is to have have cultural activities, tried to be the Florence of the 21st century, but because art was seen as an add-on, something separate, that did not take off as we had hoped.

And with that – a group picture:

group-with-laffitte

Elon Musk biography

Elon Musk: Inventing the FutureElon Musk: Inventing the Future by Ashlee Vance
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is an interesting biography because Elon Musk is an interesting person. Very capable description of the various business ventures (including a very succinct analysis of why and how Tesla is disruptive to the regular car industry, and, even more so, SpaceX to the space industry. But much of Musk as a person remains an enigma, partly because Musk keeps his cards close to his chest. This is an attempt to create a balanced account of Musk as a businessman and person, and it is worth reading to get the background of what Musk has done and how he has done it. But I doubt if I will reread it…

View all my reviews

The Facebook method of dealing with complexity

Computer systems used to be weak, so we had to make their world simple and standardized. They now can handle almost endless complexity—but we still need to understand how to make the world simple, so we don’t risk burdening the majority of users with the needless complexity of the few. One way of doing this is to adopt Facebook’s approach of “Yes, No and It’s Complicated.”

Read the rest of the essay at ACM Ubiquity’s blog.

The Double from toy to tool

There is a lot of writing about how computers (in this case, referred to as “robots”) will take over the role of the teacher (as well as many other jobs) these days. I have my own robot, from Double Robotics, and it is gradually becoming a tool rather than a toy – and it allows me to extend my reach, rather than automate my job. Granted, so far it has mainly been used for experiments and demonstrations (below, a picture from a meeting of an ICT industry organisation in Norway) but better access and a few technology upgrades have made it much more reliable and gradually into something that is useful rather than just fun.

The practical issues with the Double have been numerous, but have largely been solved. Here they are:

  • The Double required a lot of manual intervention before I could use it – specifically, it was in my office, and the department administrator would have to unlock my office and unplug it to let it out. This was solved by acquiring a docking station and positioning the Double out in the public area of my department (next to the mailboxes, as it happens.) I was worried that someone would make away with it (or steal the iPad) but both are password protected and besides, the department requires an ID card to get in. This has also meant that other department members can use the Double – one colleague has severe allergies and has to go to his mountain cabin for several weeks in the spring every year, he used the Double to attend seminars.
  • The speaker and microphone did not work well. Out of the box, the Double uses the speaker and mike from the iPad. The speaker was too weak, and the iPad microphone picks up too much noise as well as conversations all around rather than what is in front of you. Initially, I solved the speaker problem by using a Bluetooth speaker, but it was on a separate charger and did not work very well. Double Robotics came up with an Audio Kit upgrade which largely has solved the problem – I can now generate enough clear sound that I can use the Double for lecturing, and the directional mike filters out some of the noise and ambient conversations to make communication much more natural.
  • Thirdly, the iPad will sometimes go offline because of interruptions, chiefly because of software updates. This means it will not be able to set up a connection, and needs a manual restart. This was fixed by running the Double app in a Guided Access mode (found under Settings>General>Accessibility>Guided Access), a way of setting the iPad to only run one app only, uninterrupted by software upgrades, messages and other distractions.
  • Fourth, the sound sometimes disappears on the iPad altogether. This may actually be a physical problem (it has been banged about a bit, and the metal part behind the sound buttons is a weak spot), but was fixed by allowing the physical sound controls to be run in Guided Access mode, and then asking whoever I was talking to to turn up the sound if necessary.
  • Fifth and last, the wi-fi connection drops for about 30 seconds every time I go from one wireless router to the next, which happens all the time in our large office building. I solved this by using the cell connection instead. It still has dead spots some places in the building (despite our telecom vendor, NetCom, being headquartered very close to us) but I am beginning to know where they are. It is also solvable by setting up a VLAN, something that requires cooperation from the IT department and which I haven’t gotten around to quite yet.

All in all, I am beginning to find the Double a useful tool. Next time I am invited to speak on TV, I’ll consider sending it down to the studio in a taxi, just to see the reaction. Like many digital solutions, true productivity does not come until everything is digital – for instance, i wanted to use the Double for an early meeting with students last week, but found I couldn’t do it because the door to the department would be locked and there was no way I could unlock it remotely. So I ended up going in for the FTF meeting anyway, even if it was the only thing I needed to be in the office for that day.

A second observation is that the Double elicits all kinds of thoughtful (and less thoughtful) comments from grown-ups, mainly along the lines of how surprisingly natural this is but how traditional face to face is better, alienation etc. etc. The younger element takes to it naturally – my cousin’s eight year old daughter, seeing her Dad in the Double, responded with a “Hi Dad” as the most natural thing in the world.

And thirdly – one obvious use of the Double would be to ship it to wherever I am supposed to be, so I can give a talk remotely. I gave a talk in Bordeaux two days ago. Bordeaux is complicated to get to from Oslo, and the trip ended up taking three days. I could have sent the Double, but a) I think my physical presence helped the talk, and b) the Double has a large lithium-ion battery, and you can’t ship those on airplanes. Consequently, the Double is a tool for making me stay in place while moving about, rather than the other way around.

Being rational in the publishing debate

Book publishing is moving towards subscription models, and the tempers are (predictably) flaring, especially since writers cannot change their business model to giving performances rather than selling their works for self-consumption, as musicians can (and do).

malletJohn Scalzi, sci-fi writer and blogger par excellence (he works his comment field using what he terms his Mallet of Loving Correction, which is also the title of his blog-generated book) has a reasoned response to the current subscription-or-not discussion, which I encourage everyone to read. Key phrase:

[…] every new distribution model offers opportunities tuned to that particular model of distribution — the question is whether one is smart enough to figure out what the strengths of any distribution model are, and then saavy (and lucky) enough to capitalize on them.

And there you are. Easier ways to publish will lead to more writing – it already does. It will also create new ways of making a living from writing – and, I suspect, new forms of writing (as it already has.) In the process, some will prosper that previously didn’t, others won’t. Digging oneself into a trench certainly won’t help.

Elon, I want my data!

Last week I got a parking ticket. I stopped outside BI Norwegian Business School where I work, to run in and deliver some papers and pick up some computer equipment. There is a spot outside the school where you can stop for 10 minutes for deliveries. When I came out, I had a ticket, the attendant was nowhere in sight – and I am pretty sure I had not been there for 10 minutes. But how to prove that?

Then it dawned on me – I have a Tesla Model S, a very innovative car – not just because it is electric, but because it is constantly connected to the Internet and sold more as a service than a product (actually, sold as a very tight, proprietary-architecture product, much like whatever Apple is selling). Given that there is a great app where I can see the where the car is and how fast it is going, I should be able to get the log from Tesla and prove that I parked the car outside BI less than 10 minutes before the ticket was issued…

Well, not so fast. I called Tesla Norway and asked to see the log, and was politely turned down – they cannot give me the data (actually, they will not hand it over unless there is a court order, according to company policy.) A few emails back and forth have revealed that the location and speed data seen by the app is not kept by the internal system. But you can still find out what kind of driving has been done – as Elon Musk himself did when refuting a New York Times journalist’s bad review by showing that the journalist had driven the car harder and in different places than claimed. I could, for instance, use the data to find out precisely when I parked the car, even though I can’t show the location.

And this is where it gets interesting (and where I stop caring about the parking ticket and start caring about principles): Norway has a Personal Data Protection Act, which dictates that if a company is saving data about you, they not only have to tell you what they save, but you also have a “right of inspection” (something I confirmed with a quick call to the Norwegian Data Protection Authority). Furthermore, I am vice chairman of Digitalt Personvern,  an association working to repeal the EU data retention directive and know some of the best data privacy lawyers in Norway.

So I can probably set in motion a campaign to force Tesla Norway to give me access to my data, based on Norwegian law. Tesla’s policies may be American, but their Norwegian subsidiary has to obey Norwegian laws.

But I think I have a better idea: Why not, simply, ask Tesla to give me the data – not because I have a right to data generated by myself according to Norwegian law, but because it is a good business idea and also the Right Thing to do?

So, Elon Musk: Why not give us Tesla-owners direct access to our logs through the web site? We already have password-protected accounts there, storing documents and service information. I am sure some enterprising developer (come to think of it, I know a few myself, some with Teslas) will come up with some really cool and useful stuff to make use of the information, either as independent apps or via some sort of social media data pooling arrangement. While you are at it, how about an API?

Tesla has already shown that they understand business models and network externalities by doing such smart things as opening up their patent portfolio. The company is demonstrably nerdy – the stereo volume literally goes to 11. Now it is time to open up the data side – to make the car even more useful and personable.

PS: While I have your attention, could you please link the GPS to the pneumatic suspension, so I can set the car to automatically increase road clearance when I exit the highway onto the speed-bumpy road to my house? Being able to take snapshots with the reverse camera would be a nice hack as well, come to think of it. Thanks in advance! (And thanks for the Rdio, incidentally!)

Update a few hours later: Now on Boingboing!

Update Sept. 2: The parking company (Europark) dropped the ticket – didn’t give a reason, but probably not because I was parked too long but because I was making a delivery and could park there.

Turning the 77 bus electric

I am currently back in Boston, have visited my friends at MIT and will go to a reunion at HBS tomorrow. The weather has been great and it is just fun to visit old friends again.

But hey, this is product review. I have just purchased a set of Bose QuietComfort 20i Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones (or, rather, earbuds) which are rather impressive. I already have the noise cancelling headphones and love them for air travel, but the earbuds can be used in many more circumstances.

77 busAnd yesterday I had to take the 77 bus (Arlington Heights) from Harvard Square’s underground bus stop, an area seemingly designed to put people off public transportation. The MBTA uses old diesel buses (I think they literally are the same ones I took in the early nineties as a grad student, at least they don’t seem to have upgraded the technology) and the noise level is fantastic.

So, as I was waiting for the bus, I decided to try out my newly acquired earbuds, plugged them into my iPhone, turned on Spotify and selected Steely Dan’s Babylon Sisters. The noise instantly disappeared, and Steely Dan’s perfectly engineered music sounded not unlike it would in a perfect environment.

And here is the catch: When the bus finally arrived, I looked at it driving up and for a fleeting second thought “Hey – they made them electrical now!” Then, of course, better judgement prevailed, but as a testament to the noise cancelling qualities of the earbuds, it says something.

The rest, of course, is silence…