Wednesday, 6 June 2007

PSFK Conference - Niku Banaie

Niku Banaie, Managing Partner of Naked Communications did a heartwarming presentation that explored some of the more pressing humanist dimensions of digital life today. Niku's grandfather was one of the early entrepreneurs of arcade and pinball games in the UK and the lesson learned by him that a fundamental human characteristic of playfulness is a key driver of all activity was not lost. Niku outlined a guideline of five universal needs for successful understanding on interaction that apply not just to life but cascade down into winning people over in general social intercourse.
  • Need for love
  • Need to learn
  • Need to give back
  • Need for simplicity
  • Need for play
Niku talked about the sense of loneliness on the net and how face to face interplay is still a hard wired necessity. He talked about how The Guardian, the worlds leading liberal voice, makes most of its revenue from Guardian soulmates by putting like minded individuals together. The irony of this massively connected world is the absence of love and how so many people are facing increasing levels of loneliness. Its remarkable how important it is for science to put a tactile face on its output and yet so often the results are engineered for efficacy rather than satisfaction. On learning Niku discussed the availability of MIT open course ware, a revolutionary sharing approach to putting the best lectures and learning materials in the world on the net. Self education with the aid of an internet connection really does open up the potential for people to explore and fulfill our learning instinct. When quality content and flat distribution are coupled, the potential for unlikely people to enable themselves is nothing short of magic.

The need to give back was best exemplified by an example of the Patagonia company I talked about in an earlier post and which if you listen to the podcast gives a number of heart lifting examples on how giving back supports a virtuous circle other than just profit. Niku talked about how the founder allows all his staff to get involved with environmental activism with the company paying for a get out of jail free card that will honour any amount of bail that is set for for related civil disobedience. Yep, Patagonia encourage their employees to break the law and put their money where their mouth is. Yvon Chouinard also discusses in that podcast how the company provides day care facilities for mothers and has a retention rate for his employees that exceeds anywhere else, thus limiting the expense of having to replace valuable human resources that other companies factor-in massive amounts of dollars to keep. Patagonia's problem he jests is letting people go even after they hit retirement age. Stability is a wonderful foundation block if companies begin the process by giving back to their employees.

Kiva was the next great example of giving back. They are a web interface that allows people to sponsor entrepreneurs in developing companies with loans that save lives. By putting people in touch with specific entrepreneurs a direct connection is made, cutting through the bureaucratic and less rewarding transaction of just giving to charity. If you take a look at the link you can see how Meas Sokheang of Phnom Penh is only $150 dollars short of raising the $1000 dollars needed to buy a motorbike and pigs to take to the market. We can chip in with a minimum of 25 bucks but its a loan and not just a donation. Its repaid back with interest but the satisfaction of knowing that a real vetted loan candidate is going to be given a fishing rod with which to fish and not just the food to see her through the day. When I first went to Cambodia many years ago nobody can be unshaken by the genocide that took place there and the barbaric torture that took place in Tuol Sleng. But one thing that lifts the soul each time I return is the kids who increasingly look less grubby and frankly don't have any recollection of the Khmer Rouge years that wiped out a generation and left a stain on a par with Nazism or the Hutu Tutsi conflict of Rwanda. Here's a chance to change and observe the process by giving back and you can also meet a bunch of other people (all from the U.S.) who are putting Meas Sokheang back on her feet with a loan that she will pay back over 21 months. This site is awesome and puts facebook social networking to shame. The world really is flat in this instance. As I write this post I see that Meas has raised the money needed but that Victoria Terko from Ghana is just 25 Bucks short of her crafts business she dreams of.

On simplicity Niku Banaie highlighted how massively successful interfaces such as Google and Craigslist have become by streamlining the information we are exposed to and the number of linked options they can provide. He talked about the Sugar graphical user interface for the 100 dollar laptop that is set to launch in developing economies and how it is built around real life groups and communities, around the projects they work on the interaction between those groups. An intuitive dramatisation of first life communications on a screen if you like. The uncomfortable truth is as Asi has pointed out that our lives have become unmanageably full and we have too much to deal with. Niku talked about John Maeda's laws of simplicity: Shrink, Hide and Embody. A great example was the Wi Fi connected umbrella that alerts us to potential rain before leaving the house although the umbrella that can wail out when I've left it again would suit me. My record for losing one is five minutes after buying it. I hadn't even used it.

Niku finished up with the human need for play and gave us a bunch of examples that highlighted this important ability for positive reciprocity that all humans have and can leverage. Examples given were the climbing centre in Japan that 'reframed' the idea of simulacra rock environments and used old household objects such as picture frames and bric-a-brac to enable climbers to scale walls and a Danish school environment that had been designed around the understanding that different modes of learning included play, activity, reflection and collaboration but crucially in a manner conducive to knowledge absorption unlike that from didactic monologue.

I need also at this point, to highlight that while looking for some photos for these posts on the PSFK conference I came into contact with Lynette Webb who is also a user of Google docs & spreadsheets which allows us to share and edit in an open source manner on the PSFK conference for example. You can find the link to her notes here and I hope to be doing a post about online collaborative working with Lynette using the tools that are available to everyone. Check out Lynettes blog interesting snippets in the mean time.

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