Big Fun v. Big Data (Seoul Digital Forum 2012 - Day I)

Over the past quarter of a century, I've survived countless seminars and conferences on innovation, most often as an attendee, sometimes in a different role (organizer, speaker, moderator...), but never with a "Press" badge hanging from my neck. I did just that yesterday. Just for a change, and for fun. What I didn't expect was a trip down memory lane.

First of all, let's set things straight:

0) (to those who knew me in my previous lives) I'm not missing the old times, simply enjoying it, as I've always done ever since I was a teenager. When you're into innovation, you always learn from such fora. And as usual I'm not as much interested in new gizmos (SDF is not the kind of vehicle for that anyway) as in the evolution of the ecosystem, and particularly how it is perceived by its key players, by newcomers, by outsiders.
1) I didn't steal that badge. This is the 9th Annual Seoul Digital Forum, and I happen to blog about Seoul (SeoulVillage.com) as well/poorly as about innovation (mot-bile)*. Besides, ever the caring city for its own diverse ecosystem, Seoul Metropolitan Government recently appointed me as a friendly neighborhood media. For good measure I even brought my old camera (I spared you the press-card-in-the-fedora-hat-band part).
2) I'm an author and a conceptor, not a journalist. I'm not covering an event, just feeding my poor brain with stimulating bits that, at the other end of the system, usually come out as junk as silly and useless as K-pop, only less entertaining, and with more traces of biased opinions in it. If you happen to read it, that's your problem. And if you like it, that's a problem for your shrink to solve.
3) As it turns out, when you have a "Press" badge, your body is also fed with stimulating bits in a cosy Press Room. But you quickly burn the said bits between levels B1 (Vista Hall, Keynotes) and 4F (Art Hall, Press Conferences). And perks are balanced by the fact that if you want to get a good spot, you apparently have to wake up in the middle of the night. My initial spot was really really bad: believe me, you don't want to have Steve Ballmer so close to you.

Seoul Digital Forum 2012 delivered the goods, kicking off with an impressive roster**. Day I started with a guest star who, for a reason that still baffles me, was dubbed a "visionary". Of course, Steve Ballmer is by no means a visionary: this hulk of a boasting salesman is more into products, functionalities and business management than into human beings and vision. Not even convincing as an industry (ex)leader. But life is unfair: nowadays, targeting 450 million devices doesn't sound that sexy when 900 million people are already familiar with the Facebook interface.

Steve B. left to a certain Brad McCabe the Steve J. part of his sales pitch for Windows 8. Tough Jobs, even if Android and Google are the main competitor, not Apple. Brad sounded very happy when he mentioned brand new apps "right out of the box"... but that's precisely a vocabulary Microsoft should ban in places like this. You're not supposed to be shipping boxes anymore, and you don't want people to visualize Skydrive as a UPS truck navigating the cloud (with Google Sky or Google MistView?). That said, Windows n does propose interesting features that Windows n-1 didn't have, starting with the 'blue screen' part of the demo (now a classy grey signals the usual glitch). That was my first stop down memory lane.

I certainly didn't expect disruptive points of view from Warren EAST (ARM) or Mike HARRIS (Gartner) either, only a fair and balanced appreciation of a very wide array of sectors where both maintain a now exoticly limited role in the chain. Both specialists confirmed the obvious market trends (did I mention the cloud?), except of course their own shrinking businesses. For this second station along memory lane, I thought about all those players who managed to survive in such an evolutive environment without really evolving themselves.

Bell Labs also lost some of their luster over the past decade, narrowing their scope to remain competitive in key areas in spite of a struggling mother company (Alcatel-Lucent). But Bell Labs remain a very special player in RD, with a focus on vision and values. And here, at a time when pure research is sacrificed on the altar of short term profits, talent is still measured by surprise more than results. This may sound like happy hypey talk from a Silicon Valley youngster, but Jeong KIM is a bashful, soft spoken leader, truly willing to promote well being at all levels (physical, mental, societal). Yes, technology does save lives, but it's also becoming ever more pervasive (and even intrusive, for instance with somatic network implants), and generating an ever increasing volume of information. All this means a bigger impact zone, higher stakes, higher risks of privacy breaches at the micro level, or massive destruction at the macro level. As an echo to the Big Data promise of managing the unfathomable, KIM quoted Asimov: 'science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom'. In that context more than ever, a sound education proves crucial. Memory lane station 3: in the eyes of Mr KIM, I saw the wisdom I met in so many researchers who really care.

On a lighter note, Phil LIBIN announced that he'd just signed the lease for Evernote's Seoul office, and that new talents were welcome. His 4 year old start-up keeps gaining new fundings and new users (32 millions as we speak), and the founder himself seems to have gained a few kilos in the process. Can LIBIN's "second brain" (that's how he describes Evernote) keep growing at a faster pace than his body? I was almost wondering when I heard him disregard competition as something he should not worry about - a diplodocus kind of reasoning if I ever heard one (and boy did I hear some as a former strategic intelligence nerd - memo lane station 4). But Evernote's CEO seems to be developping new synapses and neurons (or, as he puts it, A.I. as in "Augmented Intelligence") all right, and particularly in Korea, where a local cellco could soon follow NTT DoCoMo, and where a partnership with a major manufacturer covering a wide array of devices could help him develop an even sexier and more seamless user experience. When I asked him up to where he wanted his second brain to grow, LIBIN answered that Evernote would help users think smarter, that soon suggestions would come to them. And as I pointed out the risk of giving in to Big Data, he said, in substance, that it was not compatible with Evernote's DNA. Let's see how Evernote evolves, evolution being a process relying most heavily on genetic mutations.

Speaking of a major Korean manufacturer covering a wide array of devices, Samsung was represented yesterday by CHANG Donghoon: the head of the design team that delivered the Haptic or Galaxy series is confirming the user-centric approach of a company willing to make the most of foldable displays (remember flexible AMOLED?), sensors, context awareness, invisible and transparent technologies, seamless transitions, natural interactions... That brought me further down memory lane: we'll always be staring at exciting stuff, like what Pranav Mistry does at the MIT Media Lab with his Sixth Sense prototype, and for the magic to work and the engine to rock and roll, there must always be some level of reality we've not quite reached yet.

Reality hit home a long time ago for mobile operators, so I was surprised to hear SK Telecom CTO BYUN Jae-woan mention as something new the fact that cellcos were not at the center anymore, and that they had to abandon their telco mindsets, to reconsider their environment, the way they defined themselves. Memory lane, continued: I really enjoyed working on it in the late 90s for a major player, and was saddened to see SKT waste their considerable advance in the middle of the noughties when they forgot to adapt to a more open environment.

Yesterday, the moment I really felt home was when Ben CERVENY (frog design) pleaded guilty: yes, plays and games are major drivers for innovation. Yes, tech design IS game design, and yes, futility can lead to utility (and yes, to achieve that it takes a lot of work and energy). Memory lane: the first start-up I survived (back in 1993-94) was the French leader in online gaming, and the ultimate lab that got me ready for everything that came after. As it turned out, the same company popped up a few stations later: our marketing used to rely on both Big Data and anthropology, and here was Intel's Genevieve BELL, an enthusiastic anthropologist, showing pictures of both the idealized and the actual home environment of TV viewers. One one side, an impossibly neatly sitted Ingals family smiling from their sofa, on the other a pot-bellied couch potato staring from a jungle of a room. Genevieve commented on the way electronic devices were treated very much the same way our anthropologist pointed out the location of the Minitel in a customer's messy living room.

A good forum on innovation must be spectacular and entertaining, and we had the right people for that:
- Hiroshi ISHIGURO and his more or less humanoids (Geminoid, Telenoid, Elfoid, and, as the ultimate alien, Ishiguroid himself),
- Aaron KOBLIN (Google Creative Lab) and his worldwide web of artworks,
- Marc ABRAHAMS (Ig Nobel Prize) and his Miss Sweetie Poo. Note that all forum organizers should use this major innovation: have a 8 year old girl come to the speakers each time she thinks they talk too much, repeating "please stop, I'm bored" until they give up. Low tech, but kawaiily efficient.

Even more spectacular?
- Josh NESBIT's low tech smart(and caring)phones,
- Mikel MARON's grassroot initiatives to put marginalized communities not only on the map*** but behind and all around it (Groundtruth Initiative, Open StreetMap...). Note how, on this photo, Mikel's body language speaks volumes the above mentioned Steve will never read.

Empowering people, making a fair democracy possible, filling all kind of gaps... that's what smart networks should be all about.

mot-bile 2012 / SeoulVillage 2012
* among other nonsensical and poorly written blogules (nothing serious, it simply has to come out of my system).

** program of Day I:
Opening Ceremony and Keynote Address: WOO Wongil (Chief Executive Secretary, Seoul Digital Forum / President and CEO, SBS)
Congratulatory Remarks: LEE Kye Cheol (Chairman, Korea Communications Commission)
Keynote Address:
-"A New Era of Opportunity" - Steve BALLMER (CEO, Microsoft)
-"Technology and the Opportunities for a Better Society" - Jeong H KIM (President, Bell Labs / Chief Strategy Officer, Alcatel-Lucent)
-"The Future of IT: Learning from Coexistence Leadership"
- Warren EAST (CEO, ARM Holdings)
-"Enabling Equal Information Access to All Users" - T.V. RAMAN (Research Scientist, Google)
-"Technology, Film, and the Future" - Chris COOKSON (President, Sony Pictures Technologies)
-"Personal Cloud: The 'PC' of Tomorrow" - Mike HARRIS (Group Vice President, Gartner)
-"Shaping New Hopes in the Smart Era" - PYO Hyun-Myung (President, Mobile Business Group, KT Corporation)
-Special Address - PARK Won Soon (Mayor, Seoul Metropolitan Government)
-"Appropriate Technology: Simplicity brings hope to the digital age" - Paul POLAK (CEO, Windhorse International / Founder, International Development Enterprises - IDE), YOO Youngje (Professor, School of Chemical Engineering, Seoul National University / President, Scientists and Engineers Without Borders) - moderator CHANG Soo Y (Professor, Department of Industrial and Management Engineering, POSTECH / Codirector, Sharing and Technologies Incorporated)
-"Smart life enabled by mobile technology: an industry ecosystem will enable user experience" - BYUN Jae-woan (Head of Technology Innovation Center and CTO, SK Telecom)
-"Big Data and our future"
."The key to popular understanding of data is play" - Ben CERVENY (Founder and President, Bloom Studio / Founder, Experience Design Lab, frog design)
."Extending Humanity with technology" - Aaron KOBLIN (Creative Director, Data Arts Team, Google Creative Lab)
."Making one world through Big Data" - LEE Bong-gyou (Professor, Graduate School of Information and Director of the Communications Policy Research Center, Yonsei University)
."Interface: the window that changes the world" - CHANG Donghoon (Senior VP, Head of Design Group of Mobile Communications Division / Head of Design Strategy team at Corporate Design Center, Samsung Electronics)
-"Interface and Humanity":
."Genealogies of anxiety and wonder: our past and future with computing" - Genevieve BELL (Director, Interactions and Experience Research, Intel Labs, Intel)
."Devices, platforms, and a new way of life" - Phil LIBIN (Founder and CEO, Evernote)
.Initially scheduled: "User Interface Designed to Fix Personal Health" (Aza RASKIN)
-"Robots, games, and humor"
."The future life supported by robotic avatars" - Hiroshi ISHIGURO (Director, Intelligent Robotics Laboratory, Osaka University)
."Behavior-change Games and Habit Design" - Michael KIM (Founder and CEO, Kairos Labs)
."Research that makes people laugh, then think" - Marc ABRAHAMS (Founder, Ig Nobel Prize / Editor, Improbable Research / Columnist, The Guardian)
-"Technology, Humanity, and Collaboration":
."Expanding the reach of technology" - Josh NESBIT (CEO, Medic Mobile)
."Mapping the invisible: Open Source Mapping and Visible Communities" - Mikel MARON (President, Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team / Codirector, Ground Truth Initiative)

*** note that yesterday, Seoul Mayor PARK Won-soon also mentioned a collaborative use of the map (on trial before the monsoon season): citizens spot problems, locate and report them on the map to shorten delays and improve accuracy.

UPDATE 20120524 (photos) ---
UPDATE 20120525 (dang, forgot Phil's pix as well)

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