Free Bristol

Andrew McConnochie, 30 March 2008

Andrew McConnochie, 30 March 2008

To a packed (and hot) Rosalind Franklin room in At-Bristol, Chris Anderson (Editor of Wire, Author of Long Tail & now Free) gave a really good overview of the premise of the “Free” economy, Fremium, marginal costs and the impact of Moore’s Law on abundance & scarcity.  That was for around 25mins, he then did a Q&A session for 30 min before retiring to sign copies of his (not free) book.

I was lucky enough to ask a question which went loosely around, in this new economy of free, what is the value of geography (Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Beijing, Bristol)? Chris answered partly by describing two companies he’s just launched. For one the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) came from MIT, for the other the CTO was online and after 6 months Chris discovered that he was a High School drop out with a self-taught knowledge of Arduino in Tijuana. Chris also talked a bit about choosing to live in a place and then finding the best talent for solving a problem, which probably isn’t in your company, City or probably even country.

On stage and in the couple minutes he spent outlining his answer, this made a degree of sense but something wasn’t quite right, and it was only on the walk home that I worked through some thoughts; hence this post (it goes on a bit, sorry).

Whilst the human brain is an undoubted marvel of flexibility and adaptability, in evolutionary terms its design is around 5,800 years old. The last major version change was about 1.5 million years ago when it tripled in size, and the last genetic upgrades were around 37,000 years ago and 5,800 years ago. However, given that the internet isn’t 50 years old yet (and probably under 30), it’s a wonder that our heads don’t just explode trying to cope.

As an aside, I’ve worked for the last few years with a company in Toronto and for a while helping them build a partnership with an organisation in Vancouver; headshifting across 8 time zones is disproportionately harder than just working a 20-hour day. Even funnier is what happens when you try to physically do what the internet allows virtually and travel around the world in 23 hours, as Jeremy Clarkson found out (with a slight cheat on the international dateline – YouTube from 8:05 onwards in particular).

The point is that we’ve evolved to be local, social creatures (see the Dunbar number) and it’s only by a design fluke that we can even begin to cope with the internet. Which brings me back to geography by way of Seth Godin, we like to be in a tribe of similar people. Of course tribes can be online but fundamentally we like to meet people in real life. Its no coincidence that most digital start-ups are around the Silicon Valley area; that’s where all the other digital start-ups are. If you want to be in movies you go to Hollywood; if you want to be in finance you go to London, etc. Of course there are thriving start-up, film and finance industries outside those locations <plug>not least Bristol which has been recognised as one of the most innovative cities globally by McKinsey & the World Economic Forum, over a quarter of the global wildlife film making originate out of Bristol and the finance sector is the largest in the UK outside London</plug>.

And perhaps that’s the value of local. You can build trusted relationships with all the key partners to build a successful business and still compete globally on the ideas & products that are generated.

In my new part-time role as Manager of Science City Bristol, I was talking this morning with Martin Coulthard about the developments of the Bristol Enterprise Network over the next few months. He was making the valid point that Science City Bristol doesn’t have a ‘neat’ strapline or twitter pitch. But I’m not sure it needs one. To get back to Chris again, in the world of free and virtually frictionless transactions, we need to find the added value of being in the Bristol / Bath city region and being into science. That might be (probably is) different for each of the many tribes in and around the area.

For a bit of fun I tried “what is a science city” as a search term; WolframAlpha was completely stumped, Google found most of the UK Science Cities but didn’t really provide an answer, and Bing didn’t really do much better. I can’t promise to develop a complete answer myself, but I do think there is some great added value to be delivered.

Thanks to Andrew Kelly for running this as part of the ongoing Festival of Ideas.

[Clarification: I booked and paid for this Festival of Ideas’s talk as Managing Partner of jbsh LLP, before discussions about being the Manager of Science City Bristol; I just happened to ask a question about geography in the new economy. These are my thoughts on Chris’ response.]

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