Apr 252015
 
wellington-new-zealand-city-view

It bills itself as ‘the coolest little capital in the world’ however something is going on in Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city, as its technology sector takes off.

Last week I was in Wellington, partly to attend the Open Source, Open Society conference and also to have a look at how the city is doing so well as one of the leading startup cities.

While I’ll have a number of posts about the city, startup scene and conference over the next couple of weeks, it’s worthwhile noting some basic impressions that came from the visit.

The size of the city, Wellington is a small town with a population of 200,000, brings both advantages and negatives for the business and startup communities.

Small is sweet

One of the advantages of being so small is the business community is relatively accessible, a number of entrepreneurs told me how easy it is for them to find the specialists they need given there’s usually two degrees or less separation between everyone.

Normally having a small business community means it gets insular, particularly in a capital city where the business of government can create a bubble effect. What’s notable about Wellington is most of the businesses are looking outward towards the US, Australia and East Asia.

The city’s intimate business environment also improves trust within the community as one Aussie expat told me, “if you rip off anyone in this town pretty well everyone knows about it by the end of the weekend. It keeps everyone honest.”

Being small, the city makes it easy to walk around which compounds the business networking opportunities. A businesswoman, who is also a lifelong Wellingtonian, observed how she allows an extra 15 minutes to walk anywhere as she finds herself stopping for conversations.

Three dominant businesses

Having three successful businesses in the city – TradeMe, Xero and Weta – has both its upsides and disadvantages with the bigger players tending to dominate the employment market and funding opportunities.

Of the three businesses, TradeMe is the most domestically focused while Xero is growing in the tech sector and Weta is the most diverse with its range of special effects and movie production services.

With Weta, the business is exposed to the vagaries of the global film industry as Statistic New Zealand survey of movie production shows.

The film industry is one of Wellington’s important employers with the sector supporting around two thousand businesses in the city, although I didn’t get time to explore how much of an overlap there is between the tech and film industries.

TradeMe is largely a domestic focused business that provides a steady work and skills base for the local workforce. While it’s the least internationally exposed business of the three, it’s probably also the most consistent.

Xero, like Weta, is a globally expanding business and its success is attracting investors and expats from North America and Australia. While its the smallest of the three it’s probably the business that has done the most raise Wellington’s profile in the tech industry.

Community spaces

What’s particularly notable are the number of coworking spaces in Wellington ranging from the straightforward Bizdojo startup space and Creative HQ through to the quirky Enspiral coworking space.

The availability of shared spaces makes the city attractive to startups and adds to the vibrancy of the local tech community which links into hipster pursuits such as craft beer.

Communities like Enspiral also add another dimension to the local startup and creative industries environment by connecting entrepreneurs with their peers and service providers.

Partnerships with government

One aspect I didn’t get to explore while in Wellington was the relationship between the city’s business community and educational institutions, particularly Victoria University.

Similarly I didn’t get the opportunity to discover how much of a role local and national governments have had in the development of Wellington’s tech scene. It seems to be relatively hands off although some government agencies have supported Weta with co-investment funds.

What I did meet though were plenty of immigrants; from Croatia, Denmark, Holland, the US and, most of all, Australia.

Talking to some of the US and Australian expats it was clear that lifestyle combined with opportunity with lifestyle, as one Aussie emigre told me “I couldn’t get the water views, access to the city and be able to walk to work back home like I can here.”

While these are superficial thoughts that I’ll expand on over the next week as I decipher notes and listen to interviews, there’s no doubt that Wellington is carving a position as one of the global centres of the new economy. How big it becomes will depend on how many other businesses grow to the size of Xero or Weta.

Mar 262015
 
building sydney as a smart city

“It’s amazing what can be achieved when government is committed and prepared to partner with industry,” was the AIIA Internet of Things summit MC’s reaction to a presentation from Steve Leonard on Singapore’s quest to become a connected city today.

Leonard, the head of Singapore’s IDA, had laid how the nation had embarked on a smartcity project due to the pressures of increased population and an ageing society. The government sees technology as a way to deliver health services more effectively and use scarce resources more efficiently.

One of the areas Leonard cited was in traffic management where the city’s bureaucrats asked “how can we double the traffic on our roads without building anything new?”

The answer lies in smartcars and autonomous vehicles, Singapore has partnered with MIT to run a driverless car pilot on some of the city’s roads. Leonard points out that cars can travel closer together when run by computers rather than being driven by humans.

For governments traffic management is one of the easiest ways to introduce the internet of things into smart cities says Lutz Heuser, Chief Technology Officer of Germany’s Urban Software Institute.

Heuser worries that many cities are “sitting on the fence” when it comes to rolling out IoT and smartcity initiatives and sees “the humble lightpost” as being one of the ways technology can be rolled out into urban environment.

Smart censors in the street lights

Smart censors in the street lights

This echoes the Geek’s tour of Barcelona where street light poles are a key part of the city’s digital infrastructure, providing a base for sensors and the Wi-Fi connectivity needed for devices like intelligent rubbish bins and digital services.

One of the advantages of using intelligent, or at least half smart, lightpoles is that local governments are replacing them on a regular basis – around three quarters of Europe’s poles are more than twenty-five years old – which means they can be rolled out as part of a planned maintenance programs.

Having rolled out connected city initiatives like Barcelona’s smartbins or Singapore’s ‘fibre hydrants’ – fibre nodes around the city that government and emergency services can tap into when needed – local businesses can then leverage off that infrastructure to further improve the well being of citizens.

For governments, the rolling out of smartcity technologies is to deliver better services more efficiently. As Singapore and Barcelona have showing, by working with local businesses it becomes far easy for agencies to deliver real improvements in their communities.

 

Mar 152015
 
640px-Fresno_CA_Van_Ness_portal

Does the real opportunity for tech entrepreneurs lie in the agriculture sector? An article by James Fallows looking at Fresno’s startup community for the Atlantic Magazine suggests that might be the case.

Fresno, in California’s agricultural Central Valley, doesn’t have the glamor of the global startup centres but offers a focus on neglected sectors as Fallows quotes Jake Soberal of Bitwise Industries.

“My guess is that 5 to 10 percent of the tech need of the farming industry is now being met,” Fallows quotes Soberal as saying. “You could build a technology industry in Fresno based on that alone, not to mention the worldwide need in agriculture.”

While there isn’t a great need for another coffee app, pizza delivery service or online store, there are far more opportunities in other sectors to address unmet needs.

This is probably where the opportunity lies for cities like Fresno that are trying to create their own mini Silicon Valley – build a technology sector to address the needs of your existing industrial base.

In agriculture there’s a plethora of Internet of Things, Big Data, analytics and other technological applications that addresses issues in the industry. Farming is not the only sector which presents these opportunities.

Fresno’s ambitions aren’t unique but as Fallows points out this is not a zero sum game and there’s no reason why dozens of cities shouldn’t be able to build their own niches with new technologies.

Picture of Fresno from David Jordan via WikiPedia

Mar 142015
 
Singapore view

“What if we were to wire up every corner of Singapore?” Asked Steve Leonard, the Executive Deputy Chairman of Singapore’s Infocomm Development Authority, at the CommunicAsia 2013 Summit.

Two years later that question has been answered as the island state has covered the entire island with a fibre network, putting the country on course to create what Leonard describes as a ‘sensor fabric network.’

Speaking to Leonard ahead of his visit to Australia for the AIIA Internet of Things conference in Canberra later this month, it’s impressive what the IDA looks to do in building Singapore as a connected nation.

“We think we have an opportunity to use some of the natural advantages Singapore has,” Leonard says. “In this case being relatively small and an island. The idea that constraints mean creativity.”

One of the areas Leonard sees as an opportunity with the IoT is in the health care industry where chronic care care can be moved back into the community while hospitals and clinics can be used for acute patients.

One of the challenges for every city rolling out an IoT infrastructure is the plethora of standards, “we’re trying to think about IEEE standards and we’re trying to think about interoperable as possible with technology as it evolves.”

“Whether it’s East or West, Singapore wants to be a place where business can be done and people can be healthy,” says Leonard. “What we don’t want to do is develop a standard that might work for us but exclude us from something that originates in another part of the world. We want to be open to things that evolve.”

Becoming a connected city is key to being a leader in a connected world, “we’re always making sure we seek to have more wireless access points.” Leonard says, “we also have one gig ninety-five percent fibre coverage across the island. We also want to enhance our capabilities through 4G and Wi-Fi.”

“All of those things together in some sort of concert create that fabric that we’re working on.”

Historically Singapore’s place in the world has revolved around being a trading hub which has led it to being one of the world’s biggest cargo shipping ports.

With broadband internet access available pretty well throughout the island, it should open opportunities for entrepreneurs, businesses and government agencies to explore how ubiquitous internet creates opportunities.

 

As the world becomes moves from physical goods to bytes, Singapore is looking to becoming as much a technological centre as a goods hub. For Steve Leonard and the IDA the task is to make sure the city takes its place in the connected economy.

Mar 102015
 
social media workshops for executives and business owners

At present the global economy is beset with low expectations; trade is at its lowest point in 20 years, many of the worlds economies are teetering on the edge of depression and investment is barely keeping ahead of depreciation.

The world is slowing and The Great Transition report by Colonial First State Global Asset Management looks at the reasons and some of the effects of this change.

Senior economic and market research analyst James White suggests in the report that the current state of affairs is a permanent shift as global productivity rises due to Chinese production and the widespread digitisation of most industries.

Compounding the problem in White’s view is the traditional measures of economic growth understates the size of the service economy as between ten and twenty percent of transactions go through the ‘black economy’ in most countries.

In looking at their own field, the Colonial First State researchers suggest that investment strategies are going to change as ‘capital light’ industries begin to dominate advanced economies.

While White and his co-author Stephen Halmarick are optimistic about what the changes mean and suggest a focus on people and attracting global capital as the key to competing during the Great Transition, the challenge is on policy makers to increase human capital in their economies.

The question though is what can individual countries do to be competitive in this context? While nations like Switzerland and Singapore can quickly develop pro-investment policies, it’s harder for larger and more diverse societies.

Perhaps the services driven economic model is really only one for high wealth, small nations with well trained and skilled workforces? If that’s the case, then the Great Transition might be a tough time for many of the world’s developed economies.

Mar 072015
 
happy guy with lots of money

Staying private sucks if you’re a tech company writes Felix Salmon in Fusion magazine.

If you’re giving away stock in lieu of wages to employees or taking early stage funding for equity, then listing, or selling to a larger business, makes sense as staff and investors need to see a return. It’s the unspoken truth of the Silicon Valley funding model.

The Silicon Valley model though doesn’t come without risks, investor Mark Cuban warns a valuation bubble greater than that of the Dot Com Boom has developed as angel investors and early stage venture capital firms have thrown money at startups after Facebook’s massive buyouts of Instagram and WhatsApp.

While Silicon Valley and the US tech market might have plenty of opportunities for buyouts and IPOs, most other places around the world don’t have the deep financial markets and the cashed up software companies to make similar exits possible for local startup businesses.

Again that difficulty in successfully funding exits shows that simply trying to copy the US tech industry model is probably not going to work for most places tying to building their own Silicon Valleys, although it seems China is about to try.

The other message is that the IPO or buyout route is not necessarily the right path for every business, as Salmon says: “Maybe the best solution is not to take any outside funding at all, and not to try to grow too fast.”

“Some family companies have been around for hundreds of years: if you own your own business, and you don’t get greedy, you can build a very pleasant life for yourself. You just won’t end up on any list of young billionaires.”

Mar 052015
 
crowd

Pebble have achieved the biggest Kickstarter fund raising in the service’s history with a $14 million fundraising for its latest smartwatch.

Over at competing crowdfunding service Indiegogo Flow Hives, a Tasmanian beekeeping invention, has raised nearly five million dollars for its innovative beehives that put honey on tap.

Crowdfunding is fast becoming the way for smaller manufacturers to secure preorders from the market and secure scarce capital for the business.

Pebble and Flow follow the success of Ninja Blocks who have had two successful crowdfunding ventures and their CEO Daniel Friedman spoke to Decoding The New Economy last year about raising money for hardware projects.


Not every hardware crowdfunding project works out well though as Mark Pesce described in relating his experience with the failed Moore’s Cloud fundraising. Mark said he’d “rather eat a bullet” than engage in another crowdsourcing campaign given the pressures upon manufacturers to deliver.


As Moore’s Cloud shows there are risks and complexities in looking to the crowd to raise project capital. Even a successful campaign faces potential problems in completing the project and delivering a product that meets the expectations of those who’ve contributed.

Crowdfunding has opened a new way for artists and entrepreneurs to raise funds for their projects, like all tools though it does have it’s risks and isn’t for everyone.