Aug 282016

Last week Chilean power distributors signed a contract for solar generated power at the lowest rate ever, half the price of energy from coal powered generators.

As  the cost of solar panels continues to fall, the need for coal and gas powered facilities continues to dwindle but given solar panels don’t need to be located in a central location, the nature of distribution networks is changing.

With power generation becoming more localised, communities don’t need expensive connections to power grids. In disadvantaged regions and developing nations, villages that would have to wait decades to be connected, if at all, now have a pathway to dramatically improving their standards of living.

Distribution companies that exploited their monopoly positions in providing power across wide networks are now having to reconsider the value of their expensive assets and lucrative business models.

Those countries and companies who thought high coal prices would bolster their standard of living, such as Australia, must be rueing their focus on fossil fuels. The massive investments made by mining companies and compliant governments are now increasingly looking like stranded assets.

Jul 112016

For a moment Yiying Lu seems a bit sheepish about her title of ‘Unicorn Whisperer’ at 500 startups. “It was Dave’s idea,” she smiles referring to the tech accelerator’s founder, Dave McClure.

Yiying – whose more conventional title at 500 Startups is Creative Director and says her name translates to ‘happy creative’ in English – doesn’t do bashful very well, particularly when discussing the importance of design.

“If content is king, engagement is queen.” Yiving says when we interviewed her at 500 Startup’s San Francisco office in May, “if you look at the Bay Area community they look at the content rather than the design.”

Getting magic

“When you put them together that’s when you get magic,” says the designer who’s best known for creating Twitter’s Fail Whale and now counts companies ranging from Disney and Microsoft through to Mashable and a range of startups as clients for her design practice.

Captivating people with good design is the key to successful business, Yiying believes. “At the end of the day, it’s the engagement,” she says. “If you remember Google Wave, it was a great concept but it failed and look today – it’s Slack! Google Wave failed because there was no engagement. They didn’t really look at what the user wants.”

As someone who now spends most of her time in the Bay Area having shifted from her Sydney base several years ago, Yiying laughs while describing her belief that the entire region has been gripped by a mania. “98 percent of startups won’t survive, but everyone in the Bay Area wants to do it. They’re collectively insane,” she says. “Everybody is giving it their best shot.”

Seizing the collective insanity

When she arrived in the city, Yiying embraced that collective madness, “When I first came to San Francisco, I immediately thought I was home” and cites the city’s small size but dense community of talented, committed people as the main reason for the region’s success.

For areas wanting to copy the Bay Area’s success the key lies in getting all of the industry’s players improving their game. “If you want an awesome ecosystem then anyone should work. It shouldn’t be just one part of the ecosystem working,” she states. “Investors should get better as well.”

One of the many things Yiying is passionate about is not focusing on money and her advice to those intending to make the move is to look beyond the cash, “A dollar exchange is a narrow view,” she states. “We have a lot of real smart people coming here to TechCrunch Disrupt and South by South West thinking about finding investors. That’s not the way to to it.”

Looking beyond money

“Don’t think about finding investors, that’s a fear based model.” Is Yiying’s advice, “look at putting things into the community. You can only become really successful if you’re prepared to let other people be successful.”

For Yiying herself her priorities are a long way from cash. “When I make people happy, that’s more important than money,” she explains. “You can only become really successful if you’re willing to let others be happy and successful.”

Having made the jump to the Bay Area, she’s philosophical about where home is, having been born in Shanghai and spending much of her life in Sydney, Australia. “Home is where your heart is, but if your heart is big enough you can live anywhere.”

Seize the opportunity is Yiying’s advice to those looking at making the move, “a lot of things are in your head and things are more difficult if you let them worry you so it’s best to just do it,” she says. “Make it happen. Do stuff. There is no time to hesitate.”

For the creative worker, it seems ignoring the money and not hesitating is the way to stay happy. For tech business, getting engagement in a noisy world is everything.

Apr 212016

A while back we speculated on what the autonomous vehicle would look like, given that having a dashboard, steering wheel and even forward facing seats were no longer necessary if a car no longer has a driver.

It seems almost certain that the future driverless cars will take a very different form the vehicles we travel in today.

Now the Singaporean mass transit agency has unveiled its trial autonomous ‘pod’ that’s designed to carry 32 passengers.

How the pod integrates with other transport modes and interacts with general road users will be interesting to watch, but illustrates why thinking about the future of public transit has to look beyond apps.

The big question is how will these technologies change the economics of public transit and the behaviour of users. It seems we’re about to find out.

Apr 172016

“Making rich people richer is not disruption, it’s the same old bullshit” says design guru Mike Monteiro in a speech given last June at the USI Conference in Paris.

Monteiro’s point is telling at a time when much of the tech industry’s business model is based upon solving the problems of rich white men, attracting investments from funds run by rich white men and then selling the venture to a corporation run by rich white men — what this blog calls the Silicon Valley Greater Fool model.

“How Designers Destroyed the World”, is Monteiro’s call to arms for the design industry. In it, he lays out four fundamental responsibilties that should guide how designers work; a responsibility for the world we live in, a responsiblity to the craft of design, a responsiblity to clients and, the most important of all, a responsibility to yourself.

“The work you do defines you,” says Monteiro about that responsibility to yourself. “I found when I started saying ‘no’, the clients listened. When I lost a bad job, a good job appeared.”

Monteiro’s view is designers are in a position of power. In truth though, we may all have a small degree of power in what we choose to do and choose not what to do.

“Responsibility is not a burden for you to carry, it’s a privilege.” Monteiro states. The presentation is well worth watching not just for designers, but for everyone.

Jan 142016

Ten years ago a joke going around was “what if Microsoft built cars?” The answer summed up the frustrations users had with personal computers and the differences in engineering standards between traditional industries and that of the IT sector.

As we enter the Internet of Things era, that tension between consumer devices and good engineering continues as shown by a software bug that rendered Nest thermostats useless.

That poor software would drain the battery without warning the user, illustrates how poorly designed many of these devices are.

Ironically Nest’s owners, Google, held a conference earlier this week where the company’s leaders flagged the importance of standards, security and privacy.

In a call to action for the IoT industry, Google’s lead advocate Vint Cerf, also known as one of the “fathers of the Internet,” warned that compatibility, security, and privacy could be obstacles to the IoT’s success.

Reliability is also important, particularly when talking about safety and security – Nest also make carbon monoxide detectors – where a device crashing or failing can have terrible consequences.

At present most of the Internet of Things is about the gimmick of connecting devices to the cloud and controlling them from your mobile phone. Consumers are not going to embrace IoT products if they add cost, complexity and risk to their lives.

Keeping it simple and safe are probably the most important things designers of IoT devices can do.

Dec 032015

The second day of Autodesk University 2015 in Las Vegas continued the focus on innovation and changing industries, the afternoon innovation session was particularly focused on some of the opportunities being realised in drones, pre-fabricated buildings and lampshades made out of fungus.

Brooklyn based designer Danielle Trofe gave a great demonstration of how she’s using fungus to create a range of sustainable light shades. Interestingly in a conversation earlier in the day with Autodesk CTO Jeff Kowalski the topic of growing products out of Mycelium, the vegetative part of a fungus that Trofe uses, was discussed in terms of smart packaging and biodegradable products.

Growing products out of organic material is one of the themes explored in Mercedes Benz’s Biome concept car which proposes to grow the chassis out of seeds. While realising that concept is some way off, Trofe’s Mush-Lume idea shows some products are already at that stage.

Rethinking prefab buildings

Following Trofe was Jos Mulkens, the CEO of Dutch building company Voorbij Prefab, who described how by using sophisticated design tools and 3D printing to make prefabricated building panels they had reduced to the time to fabricate elements from days to hours.

Mulkens gave a good insight into how design and production workflows are being accelerated with modern technology, particularly in replacing manual form makers to make the moulds for the precast panels. Voobij Prefab are flagging a lot of disruption heading for the building industry.

At one the media breakout sessions a group of senior Autodesk managers discussed the trends in design and materials engineering. This turned out to be an interesting session on the limits of current technologies.

Composite technologies

Max Moruzzi, Autodesk’s Principal Research Scientist, is a passionate believer in composite materials and the benefits they promise. However he conceded when challenged by his colleague Steve Hobbs, who joined Autodesk last year with the acquisition of  UK based Computer Aided Manufacturing company Delcam, about the structural properties of composites that we still have a lot to understand about how they behave and fail.

Bringing a touch of English scepticism to the panel, Hobbs pointed out almost all metallic components made by 3D printing require some sort of mechanical, subtractive finishing such as milling or polishing.

Hobbs went onto warn that we risk introducing a “hairball of complexity” into the design and manufacturing industries as people experiment with developing products with materials and techniques they don’t fully understand.

All the panel, which also included Carl White – Autodesk’s senior director of marketing for advanced manufacturing – and Benjamin Schrauwen who leads the company’s Spark 3D printing division, agreed that applying current design and manufacturing methods need to be rethought in the light of new methods being developed.

The limits of 3D printing

It was notable in the panel Q&A around the revelation that 70% of 3D printing projects fail, the panel put this down to the relative immaturity of software and machinery along with the technologies currently being poorly understood. Hobbs observed that for GE to 3D print their jet engine parts they rebuild and reprogram the printers they buy to their own higher specifications.

For the final session CEO Carl Bass and CTO Jeff Kowalski faced a Q&A from analysts and the media, that session was interesting in exploring some of the directions Autodesk sees industry and business heading and I’ll write more about that tomorrow.

Overall, the Autodesk University has been an interesting insight into the future of design and manufacturing along with the effects this has on other industries. With these technologies at an early stage, it’s a field that is going to evolve rapidly.

Paul Wallbank travelled to Autodesk University in Las Vegas as a guest of Autodesk.

Nov 212015

What is the future of design and manufacturing in an age of 3D printing and powerful software? Computer Aided Design company Autodesk gives us some clues at how the world of design is changing.

Sitting in what was once the Southern Pacific Railway’s headquarters at the beginning of San Francisco’s Market Street is design software company Autodesk’s demonstration gallery showcases how design and manufacturing are going to radically change in coming years.

The first exhibit in the exhibition, which is open to the public three days a week with guided tours on Wednesdays, is a scale model of the Shanghai Tower that illustrates the power of simulations and the value computers add to the building and architecture industries.


Currently China’s tallest skyscraper and the second highest in the world, one of the notable features of the Shanghai Tower is how the designers were able to extensively model the shape of the building to reduce the loads on the structure. The cost and weight savings enabled the developers to create a far more lightweight building with a reduced environmental footprint.

For architects, builders and designers the Shanghai tower is an example of how desktop prototyping can be used to experiment with competing schemes to see what designs meet the needs of those using the building or product.

The biggest exhibit in the hall is the Mercedes Biome concept car chassis. First unveiled at the 2010 Los Angeles Car Show, the idea behind the vehicle’s design is an organic form similar to an animal’s skull to create a strong but lightweight structure.


Adding to the Biome’s exotic design is the proposal to ‘grow’ the car’s chassis out of genetically modified seeds. Essentially the vehicle’s structure wouldn’t be manufactured in our current understanding of the word at all.


While the Biome or similar vehicles won’t be seen on the roads in the near future – Mercedes predict the vehicle is at least 60 years away – the idea behind ‘growing’ industrial items is one that may well become commonplace in the near future for smaller items.


The other big exhibit in the gallery is the Lego dinosaur. Made up of 62,000 custom designed pieces, the dinosaur was assembled in at the company’s Czech Republic facility before being shipped to California.

One disappointing aspect of the dinosaur for some of the attendees is that these models aren’t made of solid Lego. Instead an internal brace is made that supports the structure. Again this is a feature of the design software that allows the creators to accurately calculate the weight and build a model that won’t collapse under its own mass.

At the other end of the size range, but no less important, is the display of 3D printed prosthetic limbs. It’s now possible to scan the remaining limb and create a device that closely replicated the lost limb.


Again, using 3D printing allows those limbs to be quickly made to the custom specifications, the design also allows weight saving features to be incorporated into the prosthetic. This exhibit shows just how life changing modern technologies can be.

Finally, one of the most intriguing devices is the The SOCCKET power generating soccer ball designed to promote physical activity and help children in developing nations access light to study by.

Uncharted Play Sokket ball

The SOCCKET charges up as kids play with the ball, in the evening an energy efficient LED lamp can be plugged into the ball. The Soccket retails for 99 US Dollars and for ball sold one is donated to a third world community.

Products like the Soccket, the prosthetic limbs and many of the other displays in the Autodesk Demonstration Gallery show the potential of a world where new ways of manufacturing join with modern design tools. It’s worth a visit to appreciate some of the ways our world is going to change in coming years.

The gallery is open to the public every Monday, Wednesday, Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with a guided tour at 12:30 p.m. every Wednesday. Admission is free.