Tim Berners-Lee

7 February 2013 – On “vague but exciting” ideas, time for play and a city in the re-making

There was almost a standing ovation for Tim Berners-Lee on Tuesday night at the Sydney City Talks before he had uttered a word. But then, Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web and it was obvious from the audience of self confessed nerds, content creators, entrepreneurs and hangers on of the digital revolution that this man could do no wrong.

Tickets had sold out in two hours.

The calibre of the discussion panel was testament to his regard:

  • Hael Kobayashi, executive director, Creative Intelligence, University of Technology, Sydney
  • Glen Boreham, chairman, Screen Australia, former managing director of IBM Australia and New Zealand, and chair of the Australian Government’s Convergence Review
  • Alan Noble, director of engineering, Google Australia & New Zealand
  • Paul McCarthy, director of strategy and innovation, SIRCA Ltd
  • Wendy Simpson, chairman, Springboard Enterprises
  • Rachel Botsman, author and social innovator

Burners-Lee’s words in the paltry six minutes he was given to speak about the past (another six minutes for each of the present and the future) gave much pause for thought. They also pointed to the contrast between the fast paced world the WWW has given us and the conditions that enabled it to be invented.

At the time, said Berners-Lee, 20 years after the invention of the Internet, he was frustrated at the crude and cumbersome way the Internet worked.

He wrote a brief to be allowed by his boss, Mike Sendall, to pursue his inkling that something much better could be built by creating a common language for all computers. His boss agreed

Ten years after the death of his former boss, he rediscovered the brief. Written in a corner of the paper was the note, “Vague but exciting.”

Those words should be carved in diamonds (or DNA?) for all nerds and their minders to ponder. Within them rests the genesis of …well, genesis.

To create something totally special, to be inventive and creative you need time to play, Berners-Lee said. And a certain indulgence, if that’s the right word, from those who contribute the resources.

So why do we too care about the WWW, beyond the digital format of this publication?

Well it’s pretty clear that people are increasingly starting to grasp the enormous power of collaborative thinking and collaborative sentiment.

Pull all that potential  together, and yes, we could save the planet. Berners-Lee didn’t mention climate change, which is a shame. Perhaps he didn’t have to. What he and his panel did make clear is that the future is unimaginable from today. That could be a relief.

The other thing that’s clear is that if the people in the thick of the digital revolution are themselves amazed and awed, then there’s probably good reason for the rest of us non-nerds to feel optimistic. What’s important is to steer this powerhouse of potential the way we want it to.

Which is what Berners-Lee did say loudly and clearly.

The City of Sydney gets it

In her introduction Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore showed she was on the case.

Since her early days in Parliament when fax machines were a breakthrough, Moore outlined a profile for the city that is rapidly changing.

There are digital platforms for citizen to pay their bills, make inquiries or comment on proposed developments.

And the city is being influenced by the “do anything” “think anything” agenda to re-create many of its services and even buildings.

Libraries for instance are now a hub for students and other people who like the WWW connections. Late at night they host shows.

There are apps for your phone to work out where the mobile food vans will be.

On Oxford Street, underutilised properties were being turned over to start up companies and the program is so successful it’s being expanded to a new building on William Street.

One digital company had gone from three sales reps to 11 in just eight months, and was about to hire an additional 30, Moore said.

“We’re asking, how we can make them more useful to the community. We are opening up kitchens after hours…the result will be cheaper prices at the end for locally produced food.”

Moore says the statistics are in – the city and its inner surrounds are hubs for the digital economy.

“Part of the challenge is to know when to collaborate when to go it alone and when to get out of the way.”

At the reception afterwards, were many of the people who are helping Moore with the vision. None more so than chief executive officer Monica Barone who you suspect plays the role that Berners-Lee’s boss might have, accommodating some of these proposals that in their early days might have seemed “vague but exciting.”

Leanne Rossler, Matthew Levinson

Another of the assembled talents, Lianne Rossler, a co-founder of Dinosaur Designs, must be a case in point. Rossler is an avid motivator for exciting ideas – a dedicated tweeter, frequent collaborator on exhibitions and projects such as the Supercyclers recycling program at Milan Design Week, supporter of 1 Million Women, The Garage Sale Trail, The Voiceless Council, Centre for Sustainable Leadership and self-confessed lover of doing “lovely things with lovely people to make the world a lovely place” (as her TedX  profile puts it).

Her official role? Member of the city’s retail advisory panel. Makes sense.

Another supporter who makes sense is Matthew Levinson who Rossler introduced as brilliant, who immediately demurred the compliment, and who works closely with Moore in her office, on most of the new programs.

Levinson’s background? Journalist with the ABC, communications manager with CSIRO,  freelance writer with The Canberra Times, The City News and so on. Self described in Linked In simply as “communicator”.

Hmmm…Berners-Lee would approve of this crowd

Now if China stops burning coal…

So China’s new guard has tipped peak coal. Since China burns roughly 50 per cent of the world’s coal, this is big news.

The do-nothing advocates, the Alice in Wonderlanders, have just lost their most important prop. It could well mean the big thing still missing from the plan to save the planet, the “decision”, (we have the technology) is getting much closer to a yes vote the world over.

Can you feel that tipping point, inching a little closer?

Poor old business journalists. Right now they are wringing their hands in anguish at the news.

Someone needs to tell the business press we have alternatives. We can find new juice for the economic motor. What about retrofitting all those old buildings just for starters?