Creating an innovative product? Turns out it is nothing like working in more familiar territory. Don't make the mistake I made trying to leverage the same people, process and attitudes to create and launch brand new initiatives as more proven projects. The trick is to acknowledge and be prepared for the inevitable uncertainties that can kill your idea and your team.

Here's my talk for Thomson Reuter's speaker series explaining how to navigate the uncertainty inherent in new product development. You can also download the ebook that inspired the presentation.

Highlight reel (3:37):

At the SXSW festivities this year, I moderated a panel on Innovation for NPR's Digital Day on March 8th. Panel included John Keefe - Senior editor at WNYC, Nico Leone - General Manager at KCUR, and Shazna Nessa - Deputy managing editor at Associated Press. I am grateful to the amazing panelists, who at my consistent urging shared stories of taking risk and bringing about change at their respective organizations. As you can imagine, change is not always easy at these sorts of places, and I'm enamored with the stories that smart people who can bring about change always seem to have.

The new ideas and experiences these three made real are quite different from one another, yet there are patterns to be found here; for example, in leveraging small victories, having big dreams and believing in your people.


At PopTech last week, I was fortunate to hear author Anthony Doerr reading his essay Butterflies on a wheel. Below is the recording. If you enjoy this, I encourage you to check out his website, read this piece and learn more about his writings.

At the VRM West Coast Workshop on May 15, I briefly presented The Six Key Traits of the proposed VRM ListenLog project. Each trait distinguishes the technology from a straightforward, local log file. Each differentiator is critical in highlighting what makes the ListenLog concept so powerful.

Listen to the bad audio while you click through the two slides. What could be a more informative way to spend six minutes?

I enjoy the Podcasts from SXSW, but on the current 2009 SXSW website, you can't actually subscribe to a podcast feed and have them automatically download in iTunes.

In order to fix this problem, I created a Yahoo! Pipe that finds the mp3 file under each item and then reconstructs a feed that includes the audio file as a podcast enclosure.

You can subscribe to the feed using the options below.

 Subscribe to SXSW Podcasts in a reader

...or subscribe via iTunes.

I have written about the VRM ListenLog before, so I won't recount the basics.

One of the panels I sat on for the 2009 Public Media Conference was the mobile tech day panel along with folks from APM, PRX, NPR, and the Berkman Center. Here's the audio overview of my brief ListenLog presentation:

Check out the Public Radio Tuner project I talk about in the audio.

WBUR Tweetup

On the evening of Thursday, February 5th, WBUR in Boston will be hosing their sixth (seventh?) monthly informal gathering at the station. WBUR regularly convenes the Boston social media community for the purpose of facilitating discussion around social technology and its growing role and impact on local community, news, and public media. All are invited to attend this free and open event. Details here.

At this event, WBUR has agreed to let me lead a discussion on hyperlocal news - in part due to the good discussion that's stemmed from this hyperlocal blog post and my interest in doing a follow-up on hyperlocal's future potential. Won't you join us?

Keep an eye on this blog for a follow-up from the event.

Keith HopperLast month I had the opportunity to play expert on a conference discussion panel along with the likes of Henry Jenkins (well, at least virtually).

Providing comic relief, I jammed a 1/2 hour presentation into 6 minutes. The thrust of my presentation was to ask that people first consider building online traffic and enagement before trying to implement monetization (is it OK to base a presentation on a pet peeve?). Oh, I snuck in some edge comments later that were a little less snarky. It was fun, and a big thanks to the Center for Social Media for giving me the opportunity to speak. Below is a writeup they did up on my contribution.

  • Download the audio of the entire panel discussion
  • Check out the complelte conference rundown

Keith Hopper, Product Manager at Public Interactive, advised media makers to focus on getting more online users and building user interaction—such as product downloads, references in blogs and social networks, and participation in online discussions. "User interaction is the new currency," he said, noting that Google and Yahoo give away most of their content for free in order to build users. "This buys you significant leverage with partners and underwriters," he said, adding that currently, "Most public media doesn’t have enough user interaction to monetize."

Ned Gulley and Karim R. Lakhani presented The Dynamics of Collaborative Innovation (description, audio/video) last week at the Berkman Luncheon series. I had previously recorded and blogged Karim's similar, less detailed Open Innovation presentation back in May for the Berkman@10 Conference. Karim and Ned have been measuring various aspects of collaborative innovation around a programming contest that seems ideally suited for this purpose. I suspect that few real-world environments have such a good built-in mechanism for objectively measuring the strength of innovative contributions.
I found their insights into the differences between novel, game-changing submissions and incremental improvements particularly interesting. Within this programming contest, each individual user submission is objectively measured for performance against a desired outcome (e.g. algorithmic best fit), and the current best performing code submission is highlighted for all to see. This structure may create a problem in that innovative new approaches often do not immediately yield the best result as compared to an incremental code improvement. The social reward of being highlighted as the current best may encourage incremental improvements over novel approaches, potentially having the overall innovation outcome stuck in a local max.
Assuming that introducing novel ideas increases the chance of an eventual best outcome, then innovation environments like this might benefit from better incentives to reward novelty. Additionally, this contest environment has no inherent mechanism for identifying novel and potentially useful knowledge. Ned and Karim highlighted a specific example where a novel, under-performing programmatic approach introduced early was eventually adopted later in a programming contest and provided the conceptual foundation for the winning and final submission. Had this novel approach been overlooked, it is unlikely that the winning code would have performed as well.
I would argue that incentives designed to encourage the introduction and eventual sharing of novel information would prove useful, especially considering our human tendency towards only exchanging shared knowledge and withholding unique (and potentially important) knowledge in many social circumstances. Cass Sunstein explores this hidden profiles phenomenon at length in his book Infotopia.

Here are some thoughts I've put together in preparation for a Beyond Broadcast panel discussion that I'll be participating on entitled "Mapping the Money."

Briefly share some observations and suggestions on funding streams/structures for public media. [The idea here is that traditional public media is trying to find its place on the Internet, and in so doing, needs to find a sustainable funding model.]

I probably approach this from a different perspective than those who are actively allocating funds towards this problem or are trying to generate revenue for broadcasters (I help generate community for public broadcasters through our community engagement platform, Public Action). They are seeking a sustainable monetization scheme first and foremost. While I think there are some untested funding models based on Public Media's existing online presence that have promise, I have a slightly different approach to building sustainability online.

In the online world, community and user participation is, in and of itself an asset to be cultivated and social production and interaction are, in a sense, the new online currency. There's a reason that Google and Yahoo! give away their content and applications for free. They are trying to attract people. 

This is not a new idea for "Web 2.0" companies who often don't initially try to monetize. They concentrate first on building up a base of users. For these new web applications and services, there is real value - sometimes in the millions or even billions of dollars - in merely getting users to interact with your product or media in some way. The objective here is to connect and relate to more people in a positive way, whether this means more downloads, more registered users, more redistribution of content, more comments about your product on Twitter, etc.

One of the reasons for focusing on users is the network effect that results from attracting a critical mass of individuals. If your product benefits from more users, which most do at least on the word-of-mouth sharing level, then more users means a better chance of attracting even MORE users. In essence, there is a cascade effect. With this increased number of participants, you ultimately have more choices in how you might eventually choose to monetize things. You certainly have more leverage in working with other organizations and potential partners.

Additionally, individuals have an increasing amount of control over your products, your visibility, your brand perception, and ultimately even how you make money. Traditionally, you made money only by being a centralized business entity - you invested in a means of production and then controlled the revenue stream. This is changing. Distributed individuals now can dictate not only if you succeed, but even how and why - in fact, the public media monetization scheme of the future may be entirely created and controlled by the public. Ultimately, the organizational entities that we know and love today may play little to no role in how public media is funded. An argument for attracting participation might be if only to position ourselves better and be more literate in this for this future.

It is important that public media institutions try to build their online user base before aggressively monetizing their media and services. The best chance of generating meaningful dollars is through increasing our visibility, reach, interactions and relationships. We must figure out how to relate positively to more people online - something that we're notoriously bad at doing. Success will increasingly be dictated by the number of users on the Internet, their opinions, their participation, their goodwill, their willingness to share – none of which are in our control, and the more we try to control, the worse off we'll be.

The problem with an initial focus on monetization is that issues arise when users are seen as something to be mined for cash. This is where you get into trouble. If monetization is an initial goal, it will create an unwelcome environment for engagement and deter the participation that is needed in the first place.

We need to be extremely cautious about monetizing public media – the competition here might just be free and open production, whether organized in a structured gift economy in places like Wikipedia, or truly distributed across blogs and bittorrent. If, like the New York Times, we try to enclose our assets to make money, we will be effectively losing out to those providers who chose to be open and free.

Eric Von Hippel and Karim Lakhani spoke on "Democratized and Distributed Innovation" at the Berkman@10 conference last week and You can listen to the session here:

Von Hippel and Lakhani focused on internet-driven collaboration in user-led innovation communities. They point to some specific research examples including kite surfing, PostgreSQL, and the MATLAB collaborative programming contest

Over the last several years, these two (amongst others) have radically challenged the conventional thinking on who innovates and how it's done. Our understanding of the innovation process is at an interesting juncture, where open sharing and online collaboration has helped highlight the growth of user-led, community-driven solution design. This notion first gained popularity in 2005 when Von Hippel published a book on his research, inspiring me to first blog about democratizing innovation.

Description from Berkman:
Internet and the widespread availability of sophisticated digital design tools are radically changing best practice in product and service development. What was until recently a process concentrated within producer firms is now becoming democratized and widely distributed. This fundamental change has widespread consequences. What is the impact of these developments on innovation processes, business models, and government policies?

Sweet mention on Make Magazine's blog from yesterday for the Arduino workshop I held with the Boston Dorkbots today.

It was great fun introducing Physical Computing to so many software developers. There was tons of interest with standing room only in our room. Even helped 4-5 people to stick around and build blinkys on their own Arduinos.

Berkman at 10Last night's "Food for Thought" dinner at the Berkman@10 conference was a real treat. It also could easily have become a game of who-coined-that-famous-term. Our group of 13 or so included Tim Wu (coined 'net neutrality'), Dave Weinberger ('small pieces loosely joined') and Doc Searls ('markets are conversations'). We tried to discuss the small, humble problem of 'how to save the Internet'. Considering the dinner immediately followed a 2-hour open bar and we were dining on a rowdy roof deck, it's a miracle we got through introductions. The big takeaway for me was learning of some great initiatives from JP Rangaswami, who is innovating British Telecom from the inside-out and Joshua Kauffman from REGIONAL, redesigning the tools of democracy around the world from the bottom-up. Finally, props to Cole Camplese from Penn State, who, aside from manging the digital download chaos of 100,000 students, clued me into how to how to tunnel out of university firewalls in order to get access to my SMTP services. Thanks, man.

Derek Hoffend, sound artist and teacher at Boston's School of the Museum of Fine Arts presented tonight at Boston's monthly Dorkbot get-together. He showcased video of four very cool art installations he created that can be found in his online portfolio.

Listen to his full presentation below. If you're following along at home, you might want to walk through his portfolio videos on his website.

Derek presented the following projects, in this order:

  • Untitled Arrangement for Steel and Feedback II
  • Vis(c)area
  • Haptigenic
  • ...and an outdoor project in Union Square that I can't find on his site.

Derek's projects allow participants to interact directly with his physical installations to produce and control manufactured, complex soundscapes. To create and manipulate sound, he uses a combination of transducers, mics, analog and digital circuits, and Max/MSP software (depending on the project). Above is a picture of his Haptigenic sound circuit, using pressure sensors connected to manipulatable latex sculptures to control a rich audio experience.

Along with other Dorkbot members, I am presenting an introduction to physical computing with Arduino at this year's Barcamp Boston, May 17-18. An initial session that we're proposing for Saturday will cover the basics of the open source hardware/software platform Arduino. We'll also be demoing some projects to help demonstrate what's possible on this platform. My (not so secret) goal is to help software geeks build outside the PC and distribute creative new applications for open hardware platforms.

What is Physical Computing?
For hobbyists, physical computing refers to DIY projects that use sensors and microcontrollers (low-cost computer-on-a-chip) to translate input to a software system, and/or control electro-mechanical devices such as motors, lights, audio or other hardware. The Arduino is an open source hardware/software platform that greatly simplifies connecting a microcontroller to a PC, interfacing with analog and digital inputs and outputs, and loading your own code onto the device. Endless possibilities exist for projects that sense the environment and react/respond, collect data, or interact directly with other physical objects within range.

We're also hoping to do a follow-up hands-on workshop that would allow anyone to build their own projects with help from others. No prior experience necessary. We're trying to gauge interest in the workshop component, so let me know if you're interested.

Had a chat with Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of rapidly rising reddit yesterday at ROFLcon. Their buy-out by Conde Nast appears to be Y-Combinator's first big payoff. He said the Y-combinator experience was great and he would do it the same way again if given the chance (yeah, sign me up while you're at it - especially that buy-out bit at the end). He revealed that YC turned down their initial idea - ordering take out through txt messages. A call from Paul the next day encouraged them to come up something else. Think fast! He and Steve came up with the Reddit idea in a few hours on the train ride home.

In unrelatd news, Alexis gave up on trying to use his XO laptop and instead asked presenters at ROFLcon to sign it in order to raffle it off to, as he put it, "buy porn... I mean, give the proceeds to OLPC." I suppose OLPC could use the help.

Wikipedia eat your heart out... what a few hundred people can do in the audience backchannel at ROFLcon.

As projected up on the conference presentation screen:

On Thursday, the MIT Center for Future Civic Media as part of the MIT Communications Forum and Civic Media Series hosted a talk between Yochai Benkler and Cass Sunstein, moderated by Henry Jenkins and entitled "Our World Digitized: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly."

The premise, of which I was skeptical, was to get Cass and Yochai to duke it out over whether internet participation was headed anywhere good. I was dubious of MIT staging a scholarly drama, but Benkler, Sunstein, and Jenkins have written three of the (arguably) most important recent works on the participatory internet, and for that fact alone, attendance was mandatory.

Many great arguments were articulated, all of which can be heard here.

Presented on Emerging Trends in Social Media and its Potential Impact on News Production and Distribution at WGBH today.

PRI's The World is up to some cool projects, including reporter Alex Gallafent's planned multimedia trip to the Amazon next month. Keep an eye on his blog.

Full disclosure: They use my community engagement software.

Can the motivations that drive individual behavior towards online collaborative production be explained entirely by enlightened self-interest? More generally, in this new culture around collaboration and online participation, what motivates people to share? This was (essentially) the question posed by a research associate of Yochai Benkler at Clay Shirky's talk at Harvard last week. Enlightened self-interest can be defined as individual motivations that are neither purely selfish nor altruistic, but are ultimately based in the knowledge that helping the group might ultimately help oneself. This is exemplified in the shopkeeper who is only generous to customers so that they might ultimately profit in the long run through future business. Can this alone explain why people cooperate online?

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