If you have time for only one item, my conversation with Anton Howes on innovation history, taught me a lot.
The mother of my son’s classmate died from cancer last month. The theatre maker who commissioned one of my first plays ended his life this week. Our son’s teacher has gone home to her terminally ill father. An old family friend died. The pandemic has brought us all closer to death over a long year...
➳Mingle x Sustainability Accelerator meet-up, July 1
➳My conversation with Anton Howes on innovation history.
➳Durian: my favourite Food
➳EV Truck, transport transition catalyst
➳Barack Obama in recent conversation, Ezra Klein
➳Our sci-fi story for the future of Piccadilly Circus
➳Save date for Sustainability Accelerator Unconference
...Writer, Alex Chisholm, reflected on Twitter that No one is only the worst things they have done. No one is only the greatest things they’ve done either. I don't have much to add to that, except the importance of kindness as we all make our way in the world.
Current events caused me to recall some of the last words of play theorist and practitioner Bernie De Koven. I asked him in 2017, when he had a terminal illness, what was a life worth living and I’ve had a look back at his legacy of Play. This is in part because I am going to chat with a games philosopher, C Thi Nguyen, late this month. If you have a question in this area, let me know. Bernie De Koven on play and a life worth living
This week is in the middle of the intense investment conference season. Here CEOs and management present to institutional fund managers - people like me, who manage $ billions on behalf of pensioners, savers, and investors of all kinds. The CEOs update us on current business, future prospects and comments on any factors impacting the business world.
In several respects, these conferences, with a mix of open presentations and “fire-side chats” as well as small group meetings are powerful confluences. There is a touch of a politicians’ press conference about the events but on the whole management teams are an order of magnitude more informative than politicians and mostly more authentic (critics can argue that versus politicians this is not saying much).
In part this is because management want our “vote” to buy shares in the company to eventually make the company and themselves more valuable and perhaps in part because management actually are accountable to us investors, who are the company owners directly or by proxy and we have direct and indirect ways of expressing displeasure. This has some parallels with political voting but the voter and the management are much closer and more involved.
I set this out because it was noticeable to me that sustainability or ESG (environmental social governance) questions were raised in the vast majority of presentations and meetings I observed. And this time - not only asked by me, cf. 20 years ago!
What does this mean? It’s partly unclear to me but I have these reflections. First, these ESG issues have definitely risen to the top and embed them in management agendas. Does this mean all companies are taking them seriously? No, I don’t think so. Like politicians there is a certain amount of posturing. My sense is these issues are being taken more seriously than critics argue based on singular bad apple events. Second, most - and maybe every - business leader understands that some of these ESG issues impact critical aspects of their business and while they might be dismissive of ESG they find irrelevant, they are keenly interested and incentivised on ESG matters that will impact cashflows and share price. A few business may go further in thinking about “purpose” but the average business leader how is typically engaged somewhere in the sustainability debate.
To that extent I can see why some are pushing “businesses for good” over government policy. It can be quicker, and in some areas potentially very influential and more direct. As my conversation with Tom Gosling reflected on the lines of responsibility between governments, corporations, NGOs, and individuals are continually debated.
There is a chance evolving COVID restrictions may have to postpone this but otherwise I’m co-hosting an outdoor mingle, 1 July at the Back of Westfield, Shepherd's Bush. Register: Mingle x Sustainability Accelerator meet-up, July 1. This is partly to introduce the Sustainability Accelerator and to socialise the idea for the 23 July Unconference.
A change to the Roadmap out of lockdown may also result in postponement of the UnConference, itself. I suggest there is currently about 70% chance of re-opening on 21 June - the data/models are unclear. Amongst others, I’m tracking mathematician James Ward on Twitter for this where the base case (but with wide possible spread) would only be for a small 3rd wave which would put us on track for opening. You can register here, UnConference 23 July.
Sustainability Accelerator Unconference on 23 July.
-Do you have ideas to solve climate challenges?
-Are you underwhelmed by traditional conferences?
-Are you seeking a forum for participatory cross-silo ideas discussion?
Come to the Sustainability Accelerator Unconference. We intend to solve the problem of unproductive sustainability conferences by applying participatory techniques (OpenSpace) in an UnConference. What? An innovative conference format bringing cross-silo thinkers and doers together on Sustainability challenges. Where: Chatham House, 23 July. 9.30am - 4.30pm approx.
I found this recent Ezra Klein conversation with Barack Obama insightful on US politics. It highlighted for me, why politics is not for me on several levels. Obama has a pluralist view of the world and he is pragmatic on what it takes to enact laws.
“...A lot of times, one of the ways I would measure it would be: Is it more important for me to tell a basic, historical truth, let’s say about racism in America right now? Or is it more important for me to get a bill passed that provides a lot of people with health care that didn’t have it before?
There’s a psychic cost to not always just telling the truth. And I think there were times where supporters of mine would get frustrated if I wasn’t being as forthright about certain things as I might otherwise be. Then there are also just institutional constraints that I think every president has to follow on some of these issues….”
The compromise required by the progressive party in the US is partly structural by design and I think the psychic cost of compromising on one’s on views in order to achieved a perceived greater good. Overall insightful to understand US politics.
“....That’s been the history of America, right? There is abolition, and the Civil War, and then there’s backlash, and the rise of the K.K.K., and then Reconstruction ends, and Jim Crow arises, and then you have a civil rights movement, a modern civil rights movement, and desegregation. And that in turn leads to push back and ultimately Nixon’s Southern strategy. What I take comfort from is that in the traditional two steps forward, one step back, as long as you’re getting the two steps, then the one step back, you know, is the price of doing business…”
I wrote a short story with Anoushka as part of my idea of a recording story bench in a future Piccadilly Circus. You can hear me read it as part of this interactive model.
What will Piccadilly Circus look like in 100 years? I wrote a story and contributed an idea of a "story bench". Can you find me in 2035? (Yes, that's me and my avatar above).
From AI-driven buildings to insect markets and canals, Futurescape London, a 3D digital model, allows the public to explore the future of city centres. Explore Futurescape to see what Piccadilly Circus could look like in 2035, 2060, 2090 and 2121. Explore this future model of Piccadilly circus.
Quiz: complete the words?
We founds this mudlarking on the river Thames recently. Anoushka figured it out and it’s from the 1890s. Can you guess what the rest of the words are?
This is one of the major delights of looking for items on the river trying to figure out their history. Answer here on Anoushka's IG.
A look at how Ford’s new EV truck could be a pivot point in electrication in US transport.
The truck can also store 3 days worth of power for a house.
“One in every 16 vehicles on American roads is an F-150, and it is the most used vehicle in 39 states..." A few details on my blog (1 min)
Anton Howes is an innovation historian and policy thinker. He’s written a brilliant history of the RSA - the Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce - arguably Britain’s national improvement agency over the last 260 years - and is the RSA’s Historian in Residence. My podcast and conversation with him was fun to do.
We discuss raising the prestige of innovators today, but consider it easy to say but harder to enact.
Anton argues for the benefits of a “great Exhibition” as a direct mechanism to inspire an “improving” mindset - the type of mindset that leads to innovation.
Anton shares what he has discovered about how invention has happened in history; and whether stagnation has happened or not, recently - that it might be good to send a signal on the importance of innovation in any case. Why incremental innovation might be underrated, and why the process of innovation (ideas, iterations) is not publicised more.
Anton discusses evidence that formal education has not been needed for historic inventors (an improving mindset being potentially more important) and whether there are more than enough innovation prizes currently.
We have a strong section on problems with copyright and how rules around copyright might not be fit for purpose today and how to pronounce “gimcrack” - a useless invention - and why having more gimcracks might be a sign of healthy innovation.
A fascinating walk through innovation history. Self-recommending!
This is my favourite fruit, the durian. The FT looks at how people write about the fruit. Some people don't like the smell. I love it!
In my occasional podcast chat series I talk with birdgirl aka Mya-Rose Craig. We chat about her love of birding touching upon birdsong and the mysteries of migration. We discuss accessibility to nature, activism what in birding terms is a “lifer” and how to “pish”.
Pishing…. “Oh, no, it's a real thing, but I can't even do it very well. So this is going to be very embarrassing, but pishing is basically, birders making a funny sound that makes the birds around you go, what's that funny sound. So they hop out into the open to try and figure out what that funny sound is. And weirdly there are not many sounds that do this, pishing is one of the few that pretty much always works, at least with lots of birds. And this is going to be very embarrassing now, but it's basically like a, pshh,pshh,pshh like over and over louder and quieter. And for some reason that always gets the birds out.” Transcript and video here. And podcast version
I chat with Rebecca Giggs on her new book looking at humanity through the lens of the whale. There is video and a transcript. Self-recommending.
Thanks for reading. Feel free to forward this letter to anyone you think might be interested in signing up.
Archive and repeat words below. Stay well, Stay safe, Ben
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I’ve re-issued my 2006 play, Yellow Gentlemen (4 stars in Time Out and is one of my more personal works about the night immigrant Tommy Lee is dying). Buy it for laughs on Kindle for the price of a coffee. All profits to charity. I’ve only sold a few copies at the price of a coffee - 1.99.
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“...Through a long-term orientation and stewardship, this is the time for active investment managers to show their worth. It starts with asking the right long-term business questions. Some companies are giving us answers, but are we really listening?”
My full opinion article in the FT. (3 mins, behind paywall, but you get a free article or email me and I can send you a copy)
Find out more about my aphorism book and contact me for a copy.
The move to online dating has potentially empowered women as the cost to ghosting is so low.
Notes from a conversation with former Royal Court Lit. Manager.