November 22, 2011
Barcamp Liverpool 2011: What is the Point of Liverpool?
At Barcamp Liverpool last Friday I gave a talk entitled "What is the Point of Liverpool?". It was an attempt to look at Liverpool's place in the world and the ways that it might evolve over the coming years. Luckily the guys from PodFactory.org were roaming around with some video cameras and happened to capture the talk. Given that they weren't formally covering the event, I wasn't miked up and so the sound levels aren't as good as they would be normally. Still, if you want to hear what I said, you can watch the video after the jump.
I've included the slides here so you can see them better, and included my notes, which will give you an idea of what I was planning to say - I think it bears some resemblance to what I actually said...
So, what is the point of Liverpool, now that it's no longer the gateway to the new world? Well, it’s a city. And that’s a good start. A city is a small enough entity that it can change how it does things, yet large enough that if it works, it will influence the rest of the country, and maybe the rest of the world. Hell, it wouldn't be the first time this city has done that.
And that's how these things always start. Well, actually, it's not. It's some smaller group within the city, who listen to some crazy guy suggesting that there's a different way of doing things. But that's handy, because we haven't got the whole city here right now, and I'm not sure I know what the better way of doing things is.
But it is something I spend a lot of time thinking about, and I've at least made a start on some of the questions...
There are big problems... The economy...
Rising unemployment – and even in places where the economy is showing some growth, like the US, we’re not always seeing the jobs coming back at the same time.
Coupled with a low skill base provides a challenge to the perceived wisdom that we have to focus on education and "knowledge work". But at the same time, means there's a huge resource of people available, if we can find things that they can do.
It feels like, whereas in the past there was the opportunity to leave work without many qualifications and get an apprenticeship and, if you were good, work your way up - these days the career options look more like parallel tracks, where you either work in retail, or call centres, or the much vaunted "knowledge economy", and it's hard to jump the tracks between them.
So, do I have any answers?... Maybe...
More importantly, do you have any answers?
Because the problem is, if we don't come up with any answers, well, there are other people making suggestions and making plans, and we'll have to live with that.
More and more big chains taking over from the local shops and pulling the profits out of the area sooner.
For the past thirty years or so the grand plan has been to focus on attracting "inward investment". Get some big firm to move in and create loads of jobs and we'll all be saved.
It seems that the latest idea is that it hasn't worked because it wasn't big enough, or in a nice enough position, so of course the next step is to do it on an even grander scale...
The comment from a recent Seven Streets article really depressed me. This is the only option we can envisage?
Or maybe working in shops to service the WAGs and footballers... At least they’re supporting local car firms...
We’re still waiting for it to arrive in all sorts of places, and even when it does come it will be in the shape of call centres and regional sales offices, which is why the much vaunted skyscrapers will be cheap knock-offs pretending to be “landmark” developments.
The only real growth is going to come when we stop waiting for The Powers That Be to save us, and get on with saving ourselves.
So I want to present another vision of the future. And like all visions of the future, this one will be wrong.
I don’t have any flashy fly-through videos, so you’ll have to make do with a couple of photos and your imagination as I describe how it will change...
It’s a warm summers morning, in 2015. I’m sat at a little aluminium cafe table, on the pavement just over here, checking my email. As I finish off, one of the waiters from The Rat Coffee Shop comes to clear my espresso cup and take it back across the street to the cafe. I walk round the corner and into the bottom floor of the DoES Liverpool building.
As I swipe my card to gain access the door reminds me that I need to go and talk to the web designers who are refreshing the MCQN Ltd website. They’re on the first floor, so I don’t venture into the ground floor workshop – which is packed with all sorts of interesting bits of machinery – laser cutters, CNC mills, 3D printers, lathes... But instead head up stairs.
The first floor has fewer of the machines, and it’s split into an assortment of open plan areas with desks and a couple of meeting rooms. There are more people working from laptops here, though there’s some soldering going on over in one corner and one of the meeting rooms is awash with bits of blue prototyping foam.
After checking over the latest designs from the web agency, I head further upstairs to my desk. The top floor-and-a-bit is taken up with MCQN Ltd, and it’s from here that we design, prototype and code the devices that are making peoples lives easier and a bit more fun. Bubblino is still sat doing his thing, but has been joined on the “shelves of things” by a wealth of other items.
As I sit down at my desk, one of the project leads gets a call on her mobile. It’s the factory, to let her know that the run of prototype PCBs she sent them yesterday is ready to be picked up. She grabs her keys, and a minute later is heading out onto Duke Street on the office cargo bike.
Ten minutes later, she’s parked up outside the factory. Most of the work is mechanised these days – there are all sorts of CNC machines, pick-and-place machines building PCBs, and reflow ovens doing the soldering, but robots are as cheap to run in the UK as they are in China, and this means we can see what working conditions are like and provide this sort of more responsive work.
There are still staff here, and there’s nothing to stop the talented and more ambitious ones from working their way up from supervising the machines to designing products.
We’ve also given over a bit of the building to DoES Toxteth, because DoES Liverpool is pretty busy these days, and not everyone wants to head into town to do their hacking...
I’m not a betting man, but I am betting my company that my vision of the future will be closer to reality than Peel’s.
The Internet of Things is becoming one of the “next big things” – and Liverpool has a good chance of riding that wave, but only because there are people here who are passionate about it and working at it. And if we’re successful, we’ll be hiring people from both inside and outside the city, and will attract others who want to work in the field to move here because that’s where the interesting stuff is happening.
But it might not be the Internet of Things that brings the city its big wins – I’ll be disappointed if it’s not – but it could just as easily be something around open data – with ScraperWiki based here, and the new open healthcare group that Ross Jones has co-founded; or maybe something around podcasting, given the success that Dan and Don McAllister are already enjoying.
Or it could be something completely different, that you’re passionate about. But that’s the key point – it’s not going to be something that the council has stuck in a strategy document somewhere. Not because we can make better bets than they can about the future, but because there’s someone already in the city who wants to drive it forward. It’s all about the people.
And interesting things can come out of Barcamps. The first Bubblino was built for the last one, and he became MCQN Ltd’s first Internet of Things product.
And now we’re building all sorts of things. This is from an Internet-connected radio that Russell Davies commissioned, and I’m just stupidly proud that there are things going out into the world with “Made in Liverpool by MCQN Ltd” written on them.
It was also at the last Barcamp that I met Andy Goodwin, and without that connection, Ignite Liverpool wouldn’t have happened. It was where ScraperWiki was announced, and it’s where Thom and I hatched plans for Howduino and to start a regular meetup for Arduino tinkerers. That grew into Maker Night, which then grew into DoES.
What’s going to come out of this one?
All of the photos of old buildings in Liverpool that I've used in this presentation have one thing in common - they're all empty. Waiting for you to fill them with your ideas. Posted by Adrian at November 22, 2011 09:27 PM | TrackBack
This blog post is on the personal blog of Adrian McEwen. If you want to hire my company to help you with the Internet of Things then get in touch. If you want to learn more about the Internet of Things, my book Designing the Internet of Things is available to pre-order (amazon.co.uk amazon.com), or if you just want a beautiful IoT device, I'm CTO of Good Night Lamp.