An Active Tech Startup Scene — 6,500 Miles From Silicon Valley

Even though the Internet can connect people around the world, it’s surprising how little news in the tech community gets exchanged across national borders. I’m not referring to things like computer languages and algorithms, which the engineers exchange with each other – although mostly in the direction of north to south. Rather, it’s particularly knowledge of the business of tech and potential partners that doesn’t cross borders well.

Silicon Valley and North America is frequently covered in other parts of the world. And Americans will periodically get tech and entrepreneurial news from Europe and Japan and now China.

But there’s a big world out there that most people are unaware of who live in the northern hemisphere that includes North America or Europe or East Asia. Among the places where you might not expect a thriving tech scene is 6,500 miles from Silicon Valley, even further away than Beijing or Shanghai. That city is Buenos Aires, which I visited last month.

In Buenos Aires and throughout Latin America, there is almost a parallel universe of tech activity – except it is conducted mostly in Spanish which may be part of the reason it is less well known outside of Latin America (and perhaps tech centers like Barcelona, Spain).

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There is so much entrepreneurial and tech activity going on in Buenos Aires that I was only able to sample a part of it. A good example is Startup Buenos Aires (SUBA).  By providing “community, education and resources”, SUBA aims to

“connect members locally and globally, while providing resources to grow a strong and sustainable startup ecosystem in Buenos Aires and around the world.”

Their calendar shows two or three events of interest to the tech and startup community every day.

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Along with ten thousand other tech folks, I attended ExpoInternetLA, which declares that it is

“the biggest Business & Technology Event in Latin America, focused on B2B and M2M and many other technologies that are applied in every day and especially in business, virtually and/or physical. It is the first event of its kind in LATAM, where it promotes and stimulates the sector, businesses and investments that will influence the IoT & IoE in the region. During the 3 days of it, you can see innovation, new developments and releases as well as attend the conference program with top experts in the field, live different experiences offered by exhibitors and sponsors, make the business round and do networking at its best.”

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Three days of presentations, that could have easily taken place in North America, covered a wide range of topic like Digital Transformation, IOT, biometrics and Bitcoin. And the exhibition area looked very similar to tech trade shows in the US, with the range of products and services you’d expect to see, except that the vendors were unfamiliar names, almost all from Latin America.

While ExpoInternet was conducted in Spanish, some of the presentations were in English and there were a large number of English speakers on the floor. Thus, they know what’s happening in English-speaking tech, although English-speaking tech may not know what’s happening here.

I also saw the two locations of AreaTres which calls itself “the meeting space of the Buenos Aires entrepreneurial ecosystem. Together with our partners, in the year 2015 we hosted 120 events focused on technology, innovation, design and entrepreneurship in which more than 100,000 people participated.”

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Of the many events and meetups, one especially interesting to me was the local Digital Innovation Group with about a hundred in attendance (obviously including an out-of-towner, me). The presentation was on “Conversational UX: The Interface Dialog”, a topic you’d expect to have in Silicon Valley or New York. And the presentation was very much up to the current state of the art. It even ended with a demo of Albert The Bot as an interface to devices like Alexa Echo.

This particular meeting was hosted by at Solstice Consulting, a tech company that was started in Chicago, but set up an office in Buenos Aires to take advantage of the tech talent pool there and the time zone (only two hours difference at this time of year, compared to the 10-12 hour time differences with Asia).  

By the way, they’re not alone and it’s not just tech, but also a strong design community. R/GA, the award-winning digital ad/film/product firm headquartered in New York that describes itself as “combining creativity with the power of disruptive technology”, also has an office in the same district of Buenos Aires.  And near one of the two AreaTres locations, there is also a Design Center.

And the city government itself is quite sophisticated with excellent and innovative citizen-facing technology and support for all this private sector activity. Just one illustration when I was in town, on June 27th, the City government’s department for innovation ran InnovatiBA 2017, the fifth annual, all-day event for residents to “experience the future, today.”

Argentina’s economy has had its ups and downs recently.
Unfortunately, over the last hundred years or so, it has also fallen far
from its perch as one of the richest nations in the world.

Yet there is still considerable wealth here among some and there are professional and educational traditions that are still strong. That legacy, along with the entrepreneurship, hard work, innovation and tech skills that I witnessed, are all positive signs for the future here

 —  as the welcome mat to one of the tech offices
declares. 

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© 2017 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved @NormanJacknis

Beyond The Craze About Coding

In last week’s post on the Coding Craze, I referred to the continuing
reduction in the need for low level coding – even as what is defined as
low level continues to rise and be more abstract, more separated from
the machines that the software controls.  I even noted the work in
artificial intelligence to create programs that can program.

All
of this is a reflection of the fact that pure coding itself is only a
small part of what makes software successful – something that many
coding courses don’t discuss.

Many years ago in the programming
world, there was a relatively popular methodology named after its two
creators – Yourdon and DeMarco.  While it has been mostly been
remembered for its use of data flow diagrams, there was something else that it taught which too many coders don’t realize.

There
is a difference between what is logically or conceptually going on in a
business and the particular way it is implemented.  Yourdon asks
software designers to first figure out what is essential or as he put it:

“The
essential system model is a model of what the system must do in order
to satisfy the user’s requirements, with as little as possible (and
ideally nothing) said about how the system will be implemented. … this
means that our system model assumes that we have perfect technology
available and that it can be readily obtained at zero cost.  [Note: this is a lot closer to reality today than it was when he wrote about zero cost.]

“Specifically,
this means that when the systems analyst talks with the user about the
requirements of the system, the analyst should avoid describing specific
implementations of processes … he or she should not show the system
functions being carried out by humans or an existing computer system. …
these are arbitrary choices of how the system might be implemented; but
this is a decision that should be delayed until the systems design
activity has begun.”

Thinking this way about the world operates
and how you want it to operate is the start of software design.  
Software design really has two, related, meanings – like C++
overloading.  

First, there is the design of the architecture of
the software and overall solution.  Diving into coding without doing
this design is what leads to persistent and embarrassing bugs in
software.  The internal design is also necessary to avoid spaghetti code
that is hard to fix and to improve performance, even in these days of a
supposed abundance of compute resources.

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Second, there is the design of the interface that the user sees –
with all the things to worry about that we associate with the “design
thinking” movement.

(One way of planning software is to imagine
the software designer is a playwright, who is responsible for all the
parts of the play aside from one, the user’s part.  I guess this is more
like improv than a play, but you get the idea 🙂 )

So maybe in
addition to the coding class, the wanna-be software developer should go
to improv or drama school.  That’s a more likely path to knowing how to
generate the WOW! reaction from users that makes for software success.

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© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/141545808566/beyond-the-craze-about-coding
]

Has Apple Design Lost Its Way?

Jony Ive, who is credited with the design of many of Apple’s greatest products, was promoted to the position of Chief Design Officer last week.  The company’s announcement seemed to say that Ive would now be bringing “design thinking” to all of the company, not just its products.  Some pundits said this was a graceful way to ease him out of the picture.  Others said it freed him to spend more time on the “next big thing.”

Maybe he should indeed be refocusing on product design, since for me, his promotion renewed the question as to whether Apple has lost its way in the design of tech products.  

Apple can still create nice feature improvements in its products, but they seem to missing the larger aims of design.  Specifically, think back to Apple’s showing of the iPad 3 in 2012.  Its video introduction of that product began with these words:

“We believe technology is at its very best when it’s invisible. When you’re conscious only of what you’re doing, not the device you’re doing it with.”

This is as good as it gets in describing the role of design in technology products.  Yet over the last couple of years, Apple’s products have gotten mostly bigger and more obvious.

The iPhone 6 grew bigger than the iPhone 5, mostly it would seem to catch up to the competition.  The iPod Nano, a useful and small device, was discontinued and replaced by a larger version.

So now, instead of seeing someone holding an Apple product like this …

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people go around absurdly armed like this.

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The Apple Watch is another example where Apple did anything but hide the technology.  This is all the more perplexing when you look at what they could have designed, something more like the Neptune Hub that is an attempt to create an elegant new product category.

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Given its small size and dependency on crowdfunding, there’s every conventional reason to question how long Neptune can last.  

Given its marketing power and reputation, there’s no reason to think that the Apple Watch will not be at least a conventional, moderate business success.  But, whatever success the Watch has and will have cannot mostly be attributed to design – which Apple used to claim to be among its chief differentiators.

I’m not predicting the demise of Apple, which has been heralded ever since Steve Jobs’ death.  It’s very hard to drive a company, with $150 billion in the bank, to extinction any time soon.  And Apple’s products are not bad at all.  (I suppose that’s faint praise 😉

It may seem churlish to criticize the largest company in the world, one that seems headed toward being the first with a trillion dollar stock market valuation.  But money is not the measure of all things, as the old line goes and Jobs himself inferred.

What Apple perhaps is facing is a kind of typical corporate maturity – with solid products, but a greater emphasis on sales/marketing and management processes, rather than on design and the user’s needs.  It was exactly that kind of shift that Steve Jobs criticized in Robert Cringely’s Lost Interview with him.   Jobs’ target was IBM and HP.  But no company is immune, as he knew.

The observations that Jobs made about what it takes for both small and big companies to make great leaps are even more relevant today than twenty years ago when the video was recorded.  Those of us who consume new technology can only hope that somewhere out there is another Jobs who has learned his lessons– and who will ensure newly designed products that get closer to being invisible, after all.

© 2015 Norman Jacknis

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/120610921392/has-apple-design-lost-its-way]

More Blending Of Physical And Virtual Spaces

One of the great creative opportunities, especially for cities, is the ability in today’s world to blend physical and virtual spaces.  This opens up possibilities for learning, collaboration, entertainment – and making new kinds of destinations that will attract people to a particular physical space.  

While the trend is not something that started this year – look at Times Square over the last few years – it is picking up steam as more of the physical places in the world are connected to the Internet.

So I’ve been tracking some of the more interesting examples as they’ve come along.  Perhaps the biggest announcement was Google’s new “glasses” that let you see an augmented reality.  There are other similar products from smaller companies, likely Oakley and Lummus.

And, to overcome the obviously geeky look of glasses, there has been developed a prototype of contact lenses that provide the same functions.  (I suspect, though, that government approvals will delay the contact lens version for a while.)

There are other examples, though, that might not have caught your notice:

Please let me know of any examples you come across, so I can share them with others.

© 2012 Norman Jacknis

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/23996205060/more-blending-of-physical-and-virtual-spaces]

Gotham Innovation Greenhouse Progress Report

G.I.G. is a group of creative folks from various fields who are trying to establish a 21st century version of the 17th century Royal Society – but with a deeper understanding of how innovation occurs and with the use of today’s collaborative technology.  

A number of people have expressed interest in the progress of G.I.G.  So I’ll be writing periodic updates here, especially after each meeting.

For the next few meetings, at least, people will be presenting various ideas/projects.  Mostly these focus on what is called social innovation.  Partly this is a reflection of the issues that the collaborators are interested in.  Partly this is a reflection of the fact that we have not yet worked out the intellectual property and other economic issues that are part of commercial product innovation.

It was clear from the presentations that there are three types: presentation of an idea for enlightenment or fun (kind of a TED talk); a presentation which asks for feedback, but is pretty much limited to discussion at the meeting; and a presentation which is really an invitation for one or more G.I.G. collaborators to participate in the project being presented.

The second and third categories are much like presentations made by entrepreneurs to panels of venture capitalists or angel investors.  Except in the case of G.I.G., the proposal presenters are seeking the creative ideas and energies of the other G.I.G. collaborators.

So last night, May 22, we had our second meeting, at which the following proposals were presented and discussed:  

  • Leveraging FlexSpace to Power GIG, and vice-versa. This was presented from the beta FlexSpace room in San Jose to the group in New York.  FlexSpace is an evolving set of technologies to enable distributed people to work together.  The solution is designed to facilitate the creative process by enabling virtual post-its, white boarding, co-creation of content and a fascinating blending of physical and virtual space. 
  • A real-time mobile logistics platform: to support on-the-fly coordination of large groups, while mitigating impact on other traffic. While initially focused on a bicycle event, this is potentially generalizable to all kinds of scenarios.
  • Open Line Studio: a collaborative distributed research studio about potential futures of waterfronts in Toronto, New York City, Bremen, Istanbul, and Busan. The project will serve as a proof-of-concept for intensive virtual sharing of physical plans as a way to improve local future-making.

There was also quite a bit of discussion about the process of innovation, how creative people can organize, etc. – all part of giving birth to G.I.G.

Our next meeting is Tuesday, June 19, where we will discuss additional projects/ideas.  

Please let me know (njacknis@cisco.com) if you are interested in attending or participating in G.I.G.

We’ll also be working on enhancing the website and including the PowerPoints from this meeting.

© 2012 Norman Jacknis

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/23640417438/gotham-innovation-greenhouse-progress-report]

BetaVille: Citizen Collaboration For Urban Design and Planning

I have been working with the Carl Skelton, Director of the Experimental Media Center of New York University / Polytechnic Institute, in conjunction with the Municipal Art Society of NY, on their Betaville project for collaborative urban design.  Betaville is also part of an international partnership led by the Technical University of Bremen, Germany. 

In a nutshell:

“Betaville is an open web-based environment for real cities, in which ideas for new works of public art, architecture, urban design, and development can be shared, discussed, tweaked, and brought to maturity in context, and with the kind of broad participation people take for granted in open source software development … If a user-generated TV network is possible (YouTube), why not a user-generated city? How could this not be fundamental to the concept and practice of citizenship?”

Take a look at the video presentation from the recent MAS New York City Summit, entitled “From Science Fiction to Future-Making in Real Communities"  – http://youtu.be/c0vzSJucQto

Although we are used to urban planning being dominated by the professionals, this clearly does not guarantee the best results all the time.  A case in point was the planning and design for what is now called Central Park in New York City.  After an initially disappointing professional design for the new park, the New York City park board ran an open contest in 1860 for a design.  From among thirty proposals, they decided that Vaux and Olmstead’s proposal was by far the best – even though Olmstead was not yet considered to be an experienced professional.

In this century, BetaVille can be the platform for a range of contests to envision critical parts of a city.  It would enable more people to participate and provide a wider range of ideas for the urban amenities of the future that will be as successful as Central Park turned out to be.

© 2011 Norman Jacknis

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