Episode One Hundred and Ninety: Translation; Drift; The Thing About Things

by danhon

0.0 Sitrep

8:03pm on my flight back to Portland after having spent the week at work in San Francisco. It may well be that my newsletters essentially become things that I do on planes at this point. BUT! Still thoughts in the back of my head about *that* New York Times Farhad Manjoo piece about the new work economy[1] (namely: I bloody hope not, that’s not the world I want my son to grow up into).

Anyway. On with the show.

[1] Uber’s Business Model Could Change Your Work

1.0 Translation

We’ve been struggling with how to take the GDS concept of “multi-disciplinary team” and translate it, rotate it, smush it, into something that makes sense in the context of American local government. Perhaps the valuable thing here is that to the extent that GDS have talked about what a multi-disciplinary team is, they’ve meant in the specific context *of* what GDS is doing both itself, and is trying to get the UK’s government departments and agencies to do. “Multi-disciplinary team” in the GDS context means a certain configuration of 1 or more user researchers, service managers, designers, content designers, developers, delivery managers and so on. This makes sense in the specific context of digital delivery of services. Or, rather it makes sense in terms of *what GDS is trying to do*.

The thing is, of course, that what GDS is trying to do isn’t what Code for America is trying to do and isn’t what your organisation is trying to do either. GDS has a narrow remit compared to Code for America – and it also has authority deriving from a different source than the organisation that I work for. GDS might speak softly (at times) and carry the big stick of Sir Francis Maude, Code for America must work through persuasion, but is uniquely able to use its position as being a non-governmental, apolitical third party.

No, what we’re trying to do at CfA is, more or less, *transform government*. That’s a pretty big goal. We explicitly include in our mission citizen participation and rebuilding trust in government. America has – in a very distinct way that the UK does not – a history of community organising that is very much a part of CfA’s mission.

And, crucially: because we’ve decided to work with *all* local governments, all cities and so on, we’re dealing with a large range of potential partners. Some of those cities may well be able to deploy significant internal development resource. Some less so. And some others even less so again.

But when we’re able to pull back and say: hang on, we’re about organisational transformation against a backdrop of a digital world, then there’s a way we *can* be specific, but also have a big enough umbrella to cover what we need to cover.

To attempt to un-bury the lede, we think that our sticky equivalent of multi-disciplinary team is the end-to-end service delivery team. It doesn’t say anything about “digital”. But it does – importantly, to my mind – make explicit that we’re concerned with *everyone* who is involved in the delivery of a particular service, no matter where they may fall on an org chart or which silo they might be in. And the people in an end:end delivery team probably already work with each other, but at least on an informal basis.

In a way, this is a re-working or re-derivation of Russell’s “the unit of delivery is the team”. But also a way to define *what* that team is. We can say: “it’s anyone who’s involved in the delivery of this service”. It raises super interesting questions like what you do when there is an abstract sharp organisational delineation (ie: where the organisation of city government ends) that is ignored in practice by the delivery team, like what happens when cities partner with food banks for delivery. Or what might happen in the future when cities proactively work with entities like Bridj or Uber in the design and provision of transit facilities for residents.

Or, to put it another way: the unit of delivery is the team that delivers.

2.0 Drift

First, I want to acknowledge the smart Kim Plowright and this tweet[1] as a response to the BBC’s announcement of a raft of new programming for iPlayer, their online video-on-demand service[2].

BBC iPlayer presents a huge creative opportunity to push the boundaries of storytelling” (by making more telly) – Kim Plowright

And a segue straight into another Russell thing: his piece that is yet another nail in the undead coffin of What To Do About The BBC[3].

Part of the frustration that many people have with the BBC is that it really can’t make up its mind and behaves like the kind of person who’s telling you that they really want to change without, um, ever really changing. This is because there are some people at the BBC who are excited about new kinds of media and some who just want to make television and have wanted to make television all their lives.

So if I may paraphrase, the Reithian vision to satisfy the user needs to be informed, educated and entertained is a very compelling one.

(I have to admit, there’s a part of me that wants to go full on about Russell’s aside about Wieden’s thinking that they’ve solved brand advertising by cutting it up and putting videos on the web (to which: nigh), and I’m going to do my best to try and ignore it.)

Davies’ comparison of what the BBC *does* and what it says it is *supposed to do* is the idea of drift. If you’re the kind of organization that does have a medium-agnostic/delivery-agnostic charter or vision, then you really do need to try and remember exactly what it is you *say* you’re supposed to be doing against what you’re actually delivering. One would be forgiven for thinking that the BBC’s charter is *actually* to deliver some of the best television and radio programming in the world. If it turns out that that’s what the BBC *actually* wants to do, then no big deal. But, amongst friends’ discussion of this point, one only needs to ask the question: what garners more traffic to the BBC – News, or all of iPlayer?

What gets the people who love the BBC and its chartered ideals as opposed to the delivered ones is that there are wonderfully new and exciting and – crucially, *more effective* ways of satisfying the user needs it thinks it’s delivering than the ones it’s currently using.

Perhaps it’s just because we don’t live long enough. But there is a massive blind spot which it still feels like the leadership of the BBC doesn’t understand, which is this: if it relies, as it is doing, upon television and radio, it runs the risk of being unable to satisfy its users’ needs of information, education and entertainment *as effectively as television does right now* in relatively short order. And at that point, no amount of costume drama will be able to justify its price tag.

[1] https://twitter.com/mildlydiverting/status/558926193211482112
[2] BBC iPlayer announces raft of new exclusive programming
[3] Principle Drift – Russell Davies

3.0 The Thing About Things

Matt Webb responded[1] to the last newsletter episode, which is very nice because Matt is a person with a quite intimidating brain, and it’s good to see how his brain works and where it’s at.

The bit that stands out to me is Webb’s calling out of *that line* from The Graduate; “plastics”. The rallying cry here is a sort of thing-that-there-isn’t-a-word-for-yet which in part of my head matters, and in another part of my head doesn’t matter. Webb’s examples of what you get from “plastics” (Pacemakers! Wind Turbines! Happy Meals! and so on) is, I think, the space that we’re grasping at.

So, a few things:

– labelling a space makes it easier to point at it. I think what’s interesting – and difficult – about nailing down the attributes of the Internet of Things space is coming to a general understanding of what those attributes might be.

– this is kind of what we mean when we talk about treating things like materials. Materials have labels – wood – that are nice encapsulations of a whole bunch of other characteristics. But we can relate to these physical materials because, well, we learn about them like sponges from the day we’re born and we are either hardwired with some understanding of them, or we develop them to the extent that they’re innate. It’s why metamaterials are so gosh-darn interesting, for example.

(I fully realise that at this point I am just splurging out what’s in my head. There are those among my readership who are *actually* materials scientists and know what they’re talking about. So take all of what I am writing here as just, I don’t know, wild and probably inaccurate conjecture backed up by nothing as substantial as, I don’t know, *actual knowledge of the field*)

– there is a material, or a space, or whatever metaphor that you want to use that describes the class of “thing” possible that you get where software (which to fully get you have to understand is more-or-less infinitely malleable in the Church of Turing) plus connectivity (and in particular, a certain kind of networked, open/open-ish connectivity), plus physical, instantiated presences in the world.

– two out of these three things (persistent connectivity to a network and software) are fundamentally new things to our sphere of understanding as a species, so it’s kind of exciting to be teetering on the brink. We’ve seen (ish! We’re just at the beginning) what those pieces do *individually* and we’ve just started mixing *both* of them in terms of getting the mobile internet and I think it’s not an understatement to say that *that* combination has been nothing short of, well, disruptive.

– the last thing, the physical thing, the bits that exist in the world, we’re *also* learning about because in terms of being a species that’s been around the block and built up a body of knowledge, you can kind of zoom out and say that we might be at the inflection point of “building stuff”. Sure, it’s super crude in that we don’t have self-assembly or nanotech or any of the other Church of the One True Rapture stuff, but what we do have China, or more accurately, what we do have is one point five billion pairs of hands (roughly) that are (roughly) hand-making and assembling all this *stuff* in a supply chain that is just getting tighter and tighter and more responsive and, well, networked. In fact, just the act of software and connectivity, just applied to the making of *dumb* physical things is super exciting!

I do think Matt’s right about local connectivity being a different thing from backhaul in his post. There’s a case for your house network not necessarily needing to be connected to the superset of networks. I’ll agree with him on that one.

Something else came up in conversation when I was talking with Tom Coates about this which was that – in the branding sense at least – I remembered that I consider myself to be in the descriptivist camp rather than the prescriptivist one. So whilst there may be in my head the *correct* definition of the Internet of Things (such as there is one that competes for taking up space in the most number of brains in the world and thus influences the kinds of things that gets made), the Internet of Things will end up being called whatever it ends up being called. But then I just fall back to the whole concept of having a map and needing to know what to call that space over there…

[1] http://interconnected.org/home/2015/01/27/comment

I have to say, I’m super proud of the team I’ve got at Code for America. I pretty much put them through the wringer this week in terms of stuff they hadn’t done before and what I’m asking them to do over the next year, but it feels like a good sign that when I left they looked both energized *and* exhausted.

Anyway. Notes. I bet there’ll be reckons off the back of this one. Next time I’m on a plane again is in about 10 days’ time, so I won’t necessarily promise anything until then…