A while ago I took part in the BIMA Tech Innovation Tour – an enjoyable day spent visiting a variety of technology-focused organisations, mainly based in former factory and warehouse buildings in East London. Here are a few observations I gleaned about the world of tech innovation today:
1) Digital is collaborative
If your image of a coder is someone sitting alone in a darkened room in front of a computer for hours on end, think again. On our visit to Maker’s Academy, we saw a room full of students engaged in ‘pair programming’, which is exactly what it sounds like – two people writing code together, learning from each other. Maker’s Academy describes itself as an ‘intensive web developer bootcamp’, taking in people with no experience of coding and sending them out into the world 12 weeks later as fully-fledged web developers. There’s clearly a great stress on creativity as well as hard work, and I got the strong impression that these students (not all of them young, incidentally – Academy graduates have included people in their 40s and 50s) are setting themselves up to succeed in the digital future.
2) Analytics are powerful
Our next stop was Unruly, an advertising tech company that distributes and promotes online advertising. Now we know that video is growing fast as a vehicle for content marketing, being a perfect medium to create engagement – here at Wardour, we’re now producing at least one video a week on average. Unruly’s USP is their use of data. They have data on 2 trillion video views, a proprietary analytics package and algorithms that evaluate content shareability and ensure that videos are targeted at the right audience. In a short visit, we only got a glimpse of the potential, but it was confirmation (not that any was needed) that data is key in the digital age.
3) It’s about talent spotting
After lunch it was off to the Barclays Accelerator. We’ve just written about accelerators in the BVCA Journal, so it was interesting to see one at first hand. Barclays has teamed up with a venture capital firm, Techstars, to run the accelerator programme, which gives fintech start-ups a chance to finesse their businesses, as well as access to industry experts and potential clients. Those potential clients, inevitably, include Barclays, but we were assured that the bank has no interest in absorbing any start-ups; instead, it will license promising technologies. It was curious to think that, somewhere in that space, someone could be sitting on a concept that will transform the way we handle payments in the years to come.
4) But it’s not all about start-ups
After visiting so many funky offices, all bright colours and exposed brickwork (not to mention the obligatory ping pong table), it was a culture shock to end up at IBM’s concrete and glass 1980s HQ on the South Bank. We were there to learn about Watson, the 104-year-old company’s pioneering artificial intelligence project. Reassuringly, this doesn’t appear to be about creating machines capable of independent thought, and thus the first step on the road that leads inevitably to a Terminator scenario. The idea behind Watson is to create applications that use natural language processing and machine learning to generate insights from vast amounts of data. In a US hospital, Watson (primed with every medical textbook and academic journal ever published) helps cancer specialists locate the right treatments for patients. More prosaically, a hotel chain is using it to develop a ‘robot concierge’ that can answer any question guests are likely to ask. So is Watson, backed by IBM’s millions, more likely to succeed than a fintech start-up in the Barclays Accelerator programme? The answer would appear to be, “not necessarily”, which is what makes the tech world so endlessly fascinating. No one knows where the next big thing is coming from.
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