The Big Tech Trends For 2016 (and why you shouldn’t believe them)



In late 2010 my personal assistant Sarah-Jane conducted an experiment on me – without my permission or knowledge.

Unknown to me at the time she took my effusive notes from a couple of “Future Service” conferences and sealed them as a private entry in my diary to be opened in 5 years time.

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I was pretty surprised to see “READ ME. Has it come true?” pop up in outlook.

Sarah-Jane no longer works for me but she was a bit of an oddity (in a nice way). A millennial who had a deep mistrust of creeping technology and the digitisation of our culture. She’d closed her Facebook account and challenged me about my burgeoning cheerleading for tech and social business.

“Do you honestly believe any of this stuff will actually happen?” she said of my conference notes. “You should keep this – and check if any of it does”.

Let’s look at the main predictions and whether they have come true.  (A copy of my report is here. The original was on Microsoft word. We had no work access to Google Docs in 2010)

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Not a very good strike rate overall. In fact this is a great illustration of the fallibility of futurology. It has become known as Amara’s Law , that we tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.

All these things are available , just not evenly distributed. I can buy a robot assistant from Japan but I still can’t get decent wifi at Manchester Airport.

It seems the futurologists may have been more successful in predicting the changing relationship between organisations and their customers.

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Although the concept of social business is a slow burn in many organisations I think we’ve largely underestimated the way our work behaviours have changed.

Sarah-Jane has made me realise how far the world of work has progressed in five years.

  • I sit next to a 3D printer.
  • Except I don’t sit I stand – as I don’t have a desk.
  • I don’t use a single work owned device – it’s all my own.
  • I don’t use Word anymore. Or Excel. Or Powerpoint. (Yes, I’m still stuck with Outlook)
  • We publish everything we are working on online , accessible for anyone.
  • We have an Xbox and Wii U in the office.
  • We don’t measure what the team do in hours. They work when they want.
  • I work on solving problems with people in different time zones.
  • I chat with customers in real time, unrestricted by office hours.
  • I get fewer emails everyday.
  • I hardly ever go to meetings.
  • Yesterday I took part in a Google Hangout with people from all over the world.

In our rush to celebrate technology as an end in itself we risk forgetting how simple tools are allowing us to reshape relationships and extend our networks. Five years ago Bromford were still some months away from sending their first tweet. I would have been laughed out of the building for suggesting we need an innovation lab. Our collective network today is light years away from where we were.

When I read my secret message I whatsapped Sarah-Jane to tell her I’d read it (we don’t text anymore). She’d forgotten she posted it and agreed more had come true than had not. I told her I read her return message on my Apple Watch. She said “I knew you’d fall for buying one of those. What a geek. Some things never change”.

Perhaps we all need a little more cynicism when it comes to the big tech trends. It’s the small changes that are going on around us unnoticed that can make the biggest difference to people’s lives.


Holiday in Cambodia: 13 Innovations in Pictures


In 1975 Cambodia attempted the most radical reinvention of society and community in history.

This was ‘Year Zero’ – a beginning of a new era where people would return to a mythic past. Self sufficiency and collectivism were promoted, technology and creativity mistrusted. City dwellers, professionals and intellectuals returned to toil the land alongside peasants.

About 1.7 million people , 20% of the population, died in the ensuing madness.

Proof – if it were needed – that not all social innovations are good ones.

Cambodia truly has been to hell and back. Today economic growth is robust, poverty is still high (but falling) and there is a burgeoning startup movement. Siem Reap has been named the top tourist destination in Asia and number 2 in the whole world.

Here’s my pictorial guide to 13 things I found creative, quirky or were simply great experiences.


Making Flights Less Boring: I’m always interested to see how airlines are making the experience of spending 15 hours in a cramped metal tube less traumatic. In flight wifi is gradually rolling out and although far from perfect enables you to squeeze out an occasional instagram shot. I loved the Qatar Airways boxsets collecting themed films. Marvel cinematic universe and free drinks – perfect!!



Tuk Tuk Customer Care: It’s hard to describe the traffic carnage of Phnom Penh. I asked a driver what the road rules were – he just shook his head sadly. But the proliferation of cheap transport encourages all sort of entrepreneurs determined to standout from the crowd.  This driver pulled over and bought us a couple of face masks to protect us from the fumes. Another gave us a couple of bottles of water. It’s like Uber – just without someone in Silicon Valley taking all the cash.

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Connected Travel: This driver has taken his Tuk Tuk to the ultimate bling level and installed free wifi. There are large parts of the UK with poor public transport and no connectivity – is it far fetched to imagine this as a solution? Note: I did see this Tuk Tuk but failed to get a picture. My instabuddy Miss Mel Travel kindly donated her pic – check out her instagram it’s awesome.



The Future of Alternative Protein: Insects should become a staple of people’s diets around the world as an environmentally friendly alternative to meat. That’s not me saying that – but the UK government’s waste agency. Cambodians are a step ahead in that they’ve overcome the yuck factor. Seriously, this is healthy stuff and tastes a lot better than McDonald’s. Insect banks rather than food banks anyone? (I did do a shaky vine of me eating a deep fried tarantula but I wasn’t a fan. That abdomen was a bit mushy and funky)


Weirdness: I asked a local guy the significance of this statue and he replied “everyone likes big dragon”. You can’t argue with that.

Wifi in the Sea: Our desire for connectivity knows no bounds. Hotels and bars are competing with each other to offer ever better wifi connections. This place on Otres Beach nailed it with connectivity that worked a good 100 metres into the ocean. My first experience of vining, instagramming and downloading music (the new Bowie album) from the water.


RIP Dave: 48 hours later and Blackstar sounded a very different record. I didn’t get into Bowie until my mid twenties largely due to my good friend Kirsty Nicholls. (I spent most of my teenage years listening to Prince and Public Enemy and generally wishing I was black.) To anyone working in innovation Bowie will always be an inspiration for his constant experimentation – and total fearlessness when it came to failure. I’m not sure what it would look like if he’d designed public services – but they sure as hell wouldn’t be so boring. Salute.


The Rise of the Selfie: So you get up at 4:30am to watch the sunrise over Angkor Wat. Problem is, so has every other tourist – all looking for the perfect photo. A load of semi-pro photographers stood around with the tripods getting annoyed whilst 14 year old girls with iphones and sticks got in their way. Photography just got democratised. Buyer’s tip: You need to rise above the crowds, size really does matter when it comes to a decent selfie stick…

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Business Doing Good: I visited some amazing non-profits in Cambodia but one thing struck me – they didn’t look like non-profits. I’m generalising terribly here but a lot of the social sector in the UK has an image problem and I think many could look and learn from examples in the developing world. The wonderful Sandan Restaurant  is part of an alliance of training restaurants working with youth in need. The students serve you aided by a teacher, giving them vital skills in the world of work. It’s busy – we had to wait for a table. But people aren’t there to be kind to kids – they are there for the awesome food.



Frugal Innovation: A wallet made from trash and old noodle packets. This is an initiative of M’Lop Tapang a local non profit who help street kids and parents who might be tempted to send them out begging.  The profits go to supporting at risk families and keeping kids in school. Cambodia has a huge trash problem – so this helps in a small way to keep the streets cleaner too.  

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Keep It Simple Stupid: This was brilliant – a hotel that gives you an old Nokia with just three numbers in it. Dial 1 for reception. Dial 2 for your personal driver and if you ever get lost or are a bit drunk Dial 3 and we’ll come and bring you home. No other tech needed. I’ll be devoting a whole post to the radical retake of the traditional hotel concept from De Saraan Villa.


Street Level Entrepreneurs: Loved this pop up bar. Literally a bar grafted onto the side of a motorbike. The guy drives around to where the crowds are. It would never work in the UK, we’d think of 50 health and safety reasons to prevent him from kickstarting his business.


Mobile Child Care: OK.. so we do need some some rules…



A country bouncing back from the brink with fresh thinking , drive and determination. Loved my trip and hope some of the ideas inspire you as much as they did me.


Innovation, the Death of Email and Star Wars. My top posts of 2015


It’s slightly self indulgent to do an end of year review of your own posts , but I do find it useful to reflect what’s gone down well and what’s not over the past 12 months.

This has been a strange year for this blog as I started off posting quite prolifically before becoming far less regular. Partly this is due to also posting on other sites , partly a lack of discipline. I’m not a big one for resolutions but I do hope to establish a more regular pattern in 2016.

That’s if individually hosted blogs continue to have importance. The rise of platforms like Medium threaten to disrupt blogging itself – making the creation of smart looking posts accessible to anyone. The way the Medium recommendation system works means you can gather a following much more quickly than working solo.

Four of the six most popular posts this year owe their success to Medium and Slideshare. Maybe we are seeing the death of single purpose sites and a move to a more distributed network of content.

Here are the top six in reverse order (links attached):

6 – The future of work community and social housing
I’m pleased this post (originally written for inside housing) was successful as it proved there is a wider audience interested in social housing. If the sector would only stop talking to itself and balance worthiness with populism – we might finally see people sit up and take notice.
5 – Six ways to kill email 
For the blogger , email is the gift that keeps on giving. Everyone hates it but hardly anyone is doing anything about it. I broke up before Christmas with six mails in my inbox. There will be six on my return. There are some great ideas in the comments section on this one.
4 – How business planning and reporting can kill innovation
Despite the cheerleading for it , few companies demonstrate a strategic understanding of innovation. In fact it is treated the same way as everything else — whether it’s forecasting pension costs or estimating annual sick day. The necessity of accepting failure as part of innovation efforts is the main point of this post.

3 – Why change fails: four ways to hack your culture 

Org Structure
This year has seen an explosion in organisational change activists. But is focussing on change as an end in itself helpful? This post tackles the main culprit: toxic cultures.

2 – How to build an innovation lab

A post that became a big slideshare success , mainly due to the brilliant illustrations of Tom Hartland. You’ll see more of them in the forthcoming Bromford Lab ebook – which we are releasing in June 2016.
1 – 20 signs you’re probably not working for a social business

This post is actually from 2014 , but I (rather cynically) gave it a lick of fresh paint to coincide with the release of The Force Awakens. It was already popular before some Asian telecoms companies picked it up – sending the Slideshare views through the roof.

The deck shows a) everyone loves Star Wars b) we all have a heck of a long way to go before we can truly call ourselves social. And c) it’s always better to get your posts shared by others than to self-promote. Also a big shout out to the providers of the wonderful images.

Thanks to everyone who has viewed, supported, challenged and shared my posts this year.
I wish you all a very happy, healthy, prosperous and social 2016.


We Need Less Talk of Innovation and More Evidence of Impact


In my last post I looked at why change fails and how most corporate programmes are destined for failure. Year on year, huge resources are invested in them. Yet we somehow hope for a different outcome. 

The biggest reason change fails is employee resistance. Indeed – it’s the downfall of nearly 40% of programmes.

However, this isn’t employees trying to block change – rather they never thought it necessary in the first place. It’s a solution to a problem that they don’t recognise.

One of the big lessons I’ve learned from working in innovation is pretty much everyone thinks their idea needs attention. In reality almost always there’s a need for a more detailed problem definition before we run off changing things.

Lack of clarity about the problem we are trying to fix can lead to the Unholy Trinity:

  • Corporate Initiative-itis: The condition of equating innovation with being busy – whilst forgetting about scrutiny and evaluation.
  • Vanity Projects: Things that only got pushed through because of seniority, overly generous funding or organisational arrogance.
  • Walking Dead: Projects that look good on paper but don’t actually solve anyone’s problem – whilst costing a lot of (usually someone else’s) money.

All three are the result of ill defined objectives or poor impact evaluation.

To learn more we need to look at how successful change adoption really happens.

What the invention of the tea bag teaches us about change

The tea bag was originally intended as a non-consumer item. It was a way to provide restaurants with small samples of leaves before they placed orders. Tea leaves were packed and sown into small silk bags with instructions to slit open the bag with a knife, pour the leaves out, and put them into a sieve and brew.

But instead of opening the bags, potential customers found that it was faster to just throw the bag into a cup and pour boiling water directly over it.

This unintended innovation solved three problems:

  • No more messy leaves going all over the place.
  • The elimination of a complex brewing process.
  • A form of easy disposal – just throw the bag in the bin.

The fact it solved multiple problems made it relatively easy to market teabags. Customers recommended to other customers as it made their lives easier. The change went viral.  

But most corporate initiatives aren’t tea bags. They often don’t solve ANY problem, never mind three at once. And rarely is the change introduced anywhere other than from the top. 

Change for change’s sake doesn’t always result in progress.

Start with the problem

A good starting point is this:Change.001

Just being new isn’t good enough anymore.

We don’t have the luxury of unlimited resources. Public trust in innovation is no longer implicit.  We know from the Edelman Trust Barometer that innovation on its own is not perceived as an inherent demonstration of forward progress, despite the near reverence for the term.

51% of people think the pace of change is too great , with many ‘innovations’ appearing untested and unproven.

All across the social sector we are in for a tough decade. With the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills facing cuts between 25 to 40%, the good times are well and truly over for innovation types.

Show Me The Data

It’s time innovation and change demonstrates impactImpact is the less sexy , geekier twin of Innovation – but they need each other to survive.

Today – it’s the execution and impact of innovation and change that really matters. Not the relentless cheerleading.

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It’s a micro sample admittedly. But a quick Twitter poll shows over 80% of people feel there’s room for improvement in how we evidence impact.

Storytelling is great , but now is the time for evidence.

Every change programme. Every organisation, lab, hub, funder and think tank must show:

  • How we solve problems for people.
  • How we realise savings.
  • How we make the world a better place.

We have a unique opportunity to demonstrate a new model of achieving change. We just need to prove it.

[Footnote: We’ve got a long way to go at Bromford – but here’s our latest social value report. Current tests and pilots are listed on the Bromford Lab Trello Board where evaluations will appear in due course. Please note we are currently updating the site so if information is hard to find – let me know.) 

Why Change Fails: Four Ways To Hack Your Culture

Org Structure

All over the the world our organisations are experiencing profound change. The most common way to react to that is the corporate change programme.

Every year businesses will embark on a series of reports , meetings, visioning sessions , training events and communication strategies. In almost every case the goal will be the same: to make fundamental changes to how business is conducted in order to cope with a new, more challenging market environment.

70% of these programmes will fail. And it will largely be down to your culture.

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Generally organisations don’t change. They don’t like it and don’t see why they should.

They adopt a culture – a unique blend of practices , beliefs and customs – that takes a long time to form and an age to break down.

Think how hard is to is to make a significant change to your personal life: quitting smoking , losing weight , ending a relationship. Multiply that difficulty by the number of employees you have and the hundreds and thousands of inter-relationships.

Just as your body is designed to fight a common cold, most of our cultures protect the organisational DNA from any irritant antibodies. Add something new and it’s likely to get rejected.

The challenge then is not to embark upon another change programme , but to disrupt your culture. To deliberately set out to mutate your organisational DNA.

But this isn’t easy and will be resisted. As David Burkus points out, research suggests that there is often a cognitive bias against new introductions – a “hierarchy of no”.

It’s going to be difficult for any of us to abandon our organisational structures – but there are ways you can create a “hierarchy of yes.”

Here are four ways to begin hacking your culture and challenging the status quo:

1 – Hack your Hierarchy

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As Tony Hsieh has said – one of the biggest organisational barriers to change can be managers themselves. Hierarchies simply aren’t built to accommodate change. If change is going to happen, it often has to be project managed a year in advance!

We don’t necessarily need to go the ‘No Manager’ extremes that Zappos are doing, but we do need a more democratic work environment. One where employees’ input is sought into areas once reserved for a select few. Social networks are wonderful opportunities to do this but, even in 2015, are still underused.

It’s more than seeking inputs, though. If we are serious about hacking hierarchy it means employees co-creating solutions with managers, not just feeding into meetings.

2 – Innovate from the edges

One of the mistakes change programmes often make is starting with managers. It’s almost impossible to innovate from the centre of the business. It’s easier to start at the outer edge and work your way in towards decision makers.

At Bromford Lab we’ve had to distinguish between wicked problems which might require widespread organisational change – and the smaller changes and innovations we can introduce from the edges of the organisation.

It’s why Jeff DeGraff argues for the creation of a “20/80 rule” to innovation: “It’s easier to change 20 percent of your organization 80 percent than it is to change 80 percent of your firm 20 percent,” he notes. Work your innovations from the outside in.

3 – Create an innovation dispersal system 

Keeping innovation locked up into a Lab or Hub type arrangement will only get you so far. You are going to need to infect emergent leaders if you want to bring about widespread change.

Leadership development programmes are a great way to make creativity part of everyone’s role. However they can often instill too much adherence to past organisational behaviour rather than a more disruptive future model.

As part of our own Lab work we helped formulate ‘squads’ as a way of cultivating problems and getting things to test quickly. This is also a way of seeding innovation throughout the organisation and beginning wider cultural transformation.

4 – Make everyone a disruptor 

Philippa Jones has recently called for people to use common sense rather than policies. For Bromford colleagues to bin the rulebook and think on their feet. For leaders to praise those who bend rules as long as it gets the right results for customers.

The organisation of the future will be one that differentiates their customer experience from the competition. Those who rip the rulebook apart, rather than slavishly follow the herd,  will be rewarded.

Giving people permission to create new rules is the quickest way to eliminate fear , the biggest enemy of innovation

These are all big, bold ways to hack your culture – but there are lots of mini-hacks you can do that will make a huge difference. Most colleagues are annoyed with a limited number of things which breed mediocrity.

The endless emails, the one to ones and appraisals, the meetings, the reports they have to write and the reports they have to read.

Most of us have the power to change these things. The power to test ideas and run experiments on doing these differently.

Our track record of introducing incremental change programmes is abysmal. And yet we now need to rewire our organisations for disruption. For sustaining as much rapid change as possible without falling apart.

The challenge is to develop a DNA that embraces those new and foreign ideas and quickly assimilates them.

  • A culture where change is led by everyone – not initiated by leaders and consultants.
  • Where everyone is actively questioning the status quo.
  • A culture that constantly asks: “How can we do this better?” or “What would we do if we started again?”.

If we all get to that, we’ll never need change programmes again.

[ Lead image rights: Integration Training

Nine Things On Customer Experience And Innovation From Indonesia


I have a thing for travel.

For me it’s as much about productivity as pleasure. I operate best in the four weeks before I go on leave and the four weeks on returning. In an ideal world I’d have a break every 10 weeks or so – but we don’t yet live in the world of unlimited annual leave offered by the likes of Netflix.

Travel places me in a more creative state. New sounds, smells, language, tastes, sensations, and sights spark different synapses in the brain.

There’s some science in it too: people have studied the phenomenon of why great ideas occur while in the shower or while engaged in some other relaxing or enjoyable activity.

Studies have shown that when increased dopamine levels (the “feel good” transmitter released during pleasurable activities) combine with distraction our brains are in the best position to come up with inventive ideas.

I’ve just returned from Lombok in Indonesia and thought I’d capture some of the things that made me think differently.

Board a Plane with your Watch:


This trip was the first ever in which I was entirely paperless – despite the fact I had six flights and six hotels to negotiate. Everything was stored in Apple Passbook or in Tripit , an app that organises an itinerary for you.

Emirates are absolutely rocking their online customer experience at the moment. On this trip they did two things that really made my life easier.

Firstly – my boarding pass was sent directly to my watch – how cool is that?

Secondly – they used bluetooth to automatically alert me when flights were boarding. No more craning your neck to look at 34 gates on a departure screen.

And although the in-flight wifi wasn’t free – it was good quality and affordable at just 66 pence.



So you’re stuck in transit at an airport for 8 hours. Too much time to spend shopping – but not enough to justify a hotel.

The solution?

SnoozeCube – a bookable by the hour bed for one or two people. It’s no frills – with just enough room to squeeze in your hand luggage. What about SnoozeCube in the office for that quick energiser nap?

School Kid Entrepreneurs:


It took about two minutes of us having a drink in the shacks of Kuta, Lombok before our pasty white skin sent the local kid sellers into overdrive.

What I love about these guys is the way they use commercial thinking and excellent mastery of english to compete with each other to drive the best deal.

One of the older boys (9 or 10 I reckon) followed me to a local restaurant and told me about the YouTube business he started advertising his other goods.

Excellent english + street smarts + technology is a powerful combination. Southeast Asia is “Mobile-First” —  and this could be the breeding ground of future business models.

Karaoke Taxi Drivers:


I was intrigued during the first couple of rides I had in Lombok at the musical tastes of the cab drivers. There seemed to be a predilection for MOR soft rock – The Eagles, Eric Clapton, Cranberries etc.

To me this seemed out of kilter with their age range (late 20s-  early 30’s). It wasn’t until a driver asked us if we minded him putting his “learning music” on that it clicked into place.

They were using karaoke CDs – that displayed the lyrics on screen – to learn better english.

This generation had slightly missed the internet , which came later to Asia , so were having to catch up on english lessons whilst they worked. Brilliant!

Open Living Spaces:


If you don’t have the same problems in a community you can design very different homes.  On the idyllic island of Gili Meno I stayed in a place with a completely open living room and bathroom.

No windows, doors or locks downstairs. Only the bedroom was defensible. Anybody could walk in , take the flat screen away , empty your mini bar or steal your toiletries.

This was jarring at first and challenged western expectations – I even heard some people complain.

But you don’t need to design out crime when crime doesn’t exist.

With a local population of just 400, zero crime and no police force – you can think very differently about space.

Tourism will , inevitably, bring crime to Gili Meno – but it’s not happened yet.

Wifi in the Middle of Nowhere:


The first place I stayed was down an unlit dirt track – off a road that didn’t even exist two years ago. It was full of dogs , chickens and in complete darkness at night.

But it had fibre optic broadband delivering 30meg consistently. Unlike in the UK – if people want to make it happen , they seem to make it happen.

We’d have just done a report about it.

House Building Combined with Community Building:


House building seemed to be going on everywhere. Not big developer led sites – this was local housing by local people for local people.

I was told it was common for skills to be shared in the community to identify the people best able to help others build new homes for their family – or improve shared spaces.

Repairs were carried out by a member of the family being trained up to a sufficient standard by an elder.

I’m not necessarily endorsing this – but it seems a world away from the paternalistic model delivered by the social housing sector.

How Clear is your Pee?

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This is a great health nudge. Ladies , you’ll have to forgive me for this.

You’re standing at a public urinal doing a pee. Men will not, under any circumstances, make eye contact with each other in this scenario. You’ve only one place to look: straight ahead at the space usually reserved for gambling advertisements.

But at Bali airport they’ve gone with this nudge – which leaves you with no option other than to check the colour of your pee. Being a social sort of guy I tweeted mine was a four and quickly bought a bottle of water.

(Please note I’d zipped up and washed my hands when I took the photo. Got a few funny looks though.)

Pop-Up Everything:


I’ve featured this kind of thing before – but I love the pop-up nature of life in parts of Asia.

Need a book? Here’s a pop up library.

Need a beer on the beach? I’ll bring my crate to you and a stool for you to sit on.

Got some fruit to sell? Here’s a roadside cabin for you to use as premises until you’ve sold it.

Some of this – but not all – is symptomatic of cultures without developed welfare systems – where community has to support community and constantly think of new ways to create value. It brings a wonderful vibrancy that I think many of our high streets have lost.

  • Unencumbered by bureaucracy.
  • Emboldened by technology.
  • Routed in strongly resilient communities.
  • A growing and highly motivated workforce.

South East Asia is rising – and could be on the way to disrupt us. It’s not just the likes of Uber we should watching..

Blog 6

How Connected Citizens Are Mobilising Social Movements

This post is long overdue and has been sitting in my “must edit” file for a couple of months. The prompt to finish it has come from events in the past few days where online campaigns and watershed moments in the media (traditional and social) have again found our politicians wanting. 


In June I was on holiday in Greece, my first time back there in about seven years. The country was on the edge of a precipice – calling a referendum on the bailout deal proposed by its creditors, and recommending its rejection.

You wouldn’t know it of course – unless you read the news. Yes – tourism was down slightly as people panicked at the idea of cashpoints running dry (they didn’t) – but the locals were as hospitable and hardworking as ever.

In a tiny harbour in the picturesque town of Molyvos there was a new concern  – a steady trickle (not yet a swarm, horde or influx) – of Syrian and Afghan refugees arriving on shore in rubber dinghies or being rescued by the coastguard as they sank.


Contrary to the images that I’d seen in the mainstream media – there was no begging, no ‘harassment’ of tourists, no sitting around in doorways looking forlorn. They were simply looking for a bit of respite before the next leg of their journey.

I never photographed them – as it felt too intrusive. I now regret that as the past few days has shown the power of imagery to change public opinion.

Most mornings I said “Hi” as I walked around the harbour snapping stuff. It was my phone that initiated most conversations as most of them hadn’t seen an iPhone 6 Plus before. Some of the young people had rigged a temporary charging station for phones onto the side of a street lamp which , though probably illegal, I found pretty cool. I gave them a couple of safer power adaptors for their onward journey!

Smartphones are a lifeline for the refugee. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has given out 33,000 SIM cards to Syrian refugees and 85,000 solar lanterns for charging.

Far from being a luxury these keep friends and family back home up to date. WhatsApp is used to allow easy and instant communication. GPS helps people cross dangerous territory. Facebook groups help facilitate border crossings and keeps people in touch through a vital information exchange. And never has the power of citizen journalism been more powerful than as demonstrated by people such as Maziad Aloush, a former school teacher fleeing the Syrian war, who led his band of refugees through five countries using his Instagram to document the journey.

In Molyvos – as the EU abjectly failed to deal with situation, social media was being used on the other side – by the local Greek community to provide emergency assistance. A Facebook group and crowdfunder was in place to help facilitate support.

One resident had turned a bit of land behind her restaurant into a temporary campsite. Every day her kitchen team at The Captain’s Table went to work preparing food for the refugees, using supplies donated by tourists and locals.

In our civic life we are beginning to see a new kind of bottom up social movement. Connected citizens are using digital media to mobilise people into action in a way Government and authority simply cannot fathom.

It seems future solutions are less likely to come from national policies and more from communities finding their own way to solve issues through local innovation.

The devolution of public spending to the third sectors and private sectors seems inevitable, and it’s vital we enable community connectors and influencers to ultimately decide what that this looks like.

Examples like these local Facebook crowdfunders are in themselves grassroots alternatives to welfare – and we’ll see more emerging. The rise of food banks arguably demonstrates this trend towards self-organisation. 

At the moment these local social entrepreneurs are largely disconnected from the political establishment – which is fuelling the disillusionment with mainstream politics. (By the way if you’ve never done it , try explaining to a 15 year old why you can’t vote by SMS and why you can’t switch that vote at will if they don’t keep their promises.)

On our last night in Molyvos there was a huge thunderstorm. The owner of The Captain’s Table did something very special. She asked us if we minded moving our table and bunching together so that the refugees could seek shelter with us.


The one photo I did take: refugees shelter from storm at The Captain’s Table

The locals sang them Greek songs of good fortune and they reciprocated with a song of their own. As the (crowdfunded) bus arrived to take them to the capital and their ownward journey to Athens and beyond, they drew a round of applause to wish them luck.

I don’t know where their journey ended or even if it has.

But I hope they and others like them continue to share their stories , connect with like-minded communities, and help us build a very different type of democracy.

Our Next Innovation Challenge: Stop Talking To Ourselves

“Wicked problems”—ranging from malaria to dwindling water supplies—are being reframed as “wicked opportunities” and tackled by networks of non-governmental organisations, social entrepreneurs, governments, and big businesses.

The challenge is connecting the players and closing the gaps.

William Eggars Global Public Sector Research Director at Deloitte, speaking at Lab Works 2015

I had one huge takeaway from Lab Works – an annual event that brings together the growing international network of innovation labs, units, offices and teams working inside and alongside Government on society’s biggest challenges.

It’s this:

So many of us , right around the world , are working on solving exactly the same problems.

From Singapore to Malaysia to Denmark to Mexico to India to the UK- we are all working on the same things.

That’s huge amounts of global talent seeking to address climate change, income and health inequality, lack of affordable housing, unemployment, ageing, digital exclusion and loneliness. All uncoordinated and fragmented.

In Great Britain – the third most populous island in the world after Java and Honshu – it fragments even further. Health, Housing, Social Care, Education and the rest go about their business largely in isolation. They congregate on an annual basis at conferences (separately), they lobby politicians (separately), they communicate their ‘message’ (separately). Even on borderless platforms like Twitter they self-organise using their own hashtags.

Undoubtedly digital can connect us in ways never before possible – yet whole sectors are still just talking to themselves.

So – who is doing the joining up? Who’s making it their job to prevent duplication on a massive scale – to co-ordinate the research, the tests, the pilots and the learning from failure?

William Eggars made the answer to this very clear:

No-one. No-one is doing this.

So who’s job is it?

And it could be yours?

I reckon this sector silo thinking, this lack of knowledge sharing at national and international level,  is one of the most wicked problems we face. So how can we reframe it as a wicked opportunity?

Let’s take this right down to a practical, organisational level. Here’s four suggestions for how we could at least get started:

Identify the problem

First of all we need to identify our wicked problems. A lot of organisational strategies actually aren’t focused on wicked problems. They are often solutionist (e.g we’ll achieve this by 2020 or we’ll implement these things in the next three years). Wicked problems are different, they can be difficult to get to grips with. Often they won’t have a stopping rule,  the search for solutions never stops. Ageing is a good example, you’ll never “solve” it. It requires a different way of looking at it.

Reframe them as opportunities

Seeing them as opportunities automatically shifts your mindset into a far more expansive and creative state. An organisation that sees problems as opportunities will develop a much more positive relationship with our world of volatile change. We need colleagues as innovators and entrepreneurs rather than adopting deficit based behaviours. A good example is the UK social housing sector – which generally adopts an attitude of “no-one likes us, no-one will fund us”. Rather than being a problem that’s a wonderful opportunity. No-one in that sector has a brand value of an Apple or Amazon. Any one of 1500 players could step forward to claim it. 

Engage your people 

Once we’ve identified our opportunities – let’s open up our organisations and work out loud.  Silos emerged out of efforts to make our organisations more efficient. In 20th Century command and control management it made sense to operate an industrial mentality of division by function and department. But wicked problems are , by their nature, extremely complex . We need to embrace this complexity and form people around them with range of skills. Your organisational structure chart won’t help you here. We need a much more fluid and collaborative model that allows people (employees and citizens) to swarm around the opportunities they are most engaged with.

Embrace the network

People are working on the same things as us across the globe. We won’t solve things on our own. We are desperately inward looking. Our sectors , our organisations , even our teams. There will always be more talented people outside your organisation than within it – so lets seek them out. Collaboration is a central theme to innovation because of speed , connections , energy and the ability to fast track implementation.  Most of us have hundreds , thousands or tens of thousands of connections. Worldwide. Let’s put them to work.

Turning this problem into an opportunity won’t be easy. We face a hugely competitive funding environment and an incredibly crowded social space. Everyone is fighting for attention.

Removing the huge duplication might mean we don’t all need our own website, back office teams, or even chief executive. We might not all need to exist – someone might be better placed than you or I to grasp the opportunity.

But if we are serious about attacking real problems there’s no room for vested interests. To address wicked problems our organisations must be reshaped in the shadow of the network. The wicked opportunities lie at the heart of it.

We need to encourage organisations to seek risk – and forgive failure

“I’ve focused on the idea of failure being the engine for innovation. Not being afraid of failure but seeing it as a learning opportunity, and the value of getting out into the world and testing things earlier rather than later.” – Astro Teller, Captain of Moonshots, Google X

Risk management flow chart on a blackboard

Risk is still a toxic word across much of the public sector.

It’s often still seen as something to avoid at all costs rather than embrace. In less complicated times it was the right thing to do – sweep through organisations and make sure everyone knew the dangers.

Everyone risk assessed each other and every activity. We told people to follow the rules whatever the situation. Customer experience , if such a thing even existed, was standardised rather than personalised.

But we don’t live in those times anymore. We live in momentous times.  Across the public and social sectors problems aren’t slowing down – they’re picking up.

Taking considered risks has to become part of our everyday roles. And with risk inevitably comes failure.

Innovation only thrives in a forgiving organisation. And if failure is the engine for innovation , our challenge is to make our organisations more forgiving.

When I initially pitched Bromford Lab the number one objective was to create an environment where failure was not just accepted , but encouraged. 75% of the things we worked on would fail.

This was not to create a culture that celebrated failure. It was to create a place where people felt it was safe to fail. They wouldn’t get punished for messing up.

It was to detoxify risk.

To promote learning from failure.

To make our organisations more forgiving we need cultures that promote well managed risk and bravery. So what are the things that are preventing more forgiving cultures?

Risk as an inhibitor of innovation

Traditionally we have not being good at focussing risk management on the right areas. Significant amounts of time are spent auditing areas that are highly unlikely to ever cause major reputational damage. This can be a huge inhibitor of potential innovation. Most policies don’t prevent your company’s downfall – they just stop colleagues from doing the right thing for the customer. This graphic from a recent HBR study shows auditors are simply looking in the wrong places.


Policies don’t bring organisations down. Toxic cultures do.

But cultures are rarely audited. It’s easier to tick boxes.

How does your organisation actively seek out risk? Only 20% of strategy officers describe their organisation as risk seeking. We need to transform risk management from being about “stopping doing things” to being about “starting doing different things” within a well managed framework.

Making things ‘work’ that just don’t

Hardly anything ‘fails’ in the social sector.  We are largely taxpayer funded – to admit wasting resources would be foolish, surely?

Plus people genuinely care and want to help the less fortunate. That’s a great thing. But these can also be the undoing of many projects and pilots. We want things to work so badly our emotions get in the way. We often fail to scrutinise well intentioned initiatives and don’t equip colleagues with the nuclear option when it looks like things are going wrong.

At Bromford , we are trying to instill a culture of honesty and openness. If you think our latest initiative is crap and you wouldn’t spend your own money on it – it’s pretty likely the customer will think the same.

Not all ideas are created equal – some things are just not meant to be. Let’s stop doing them and use our resources to make greater impact elsewhere.

Lack of transparency killing trust

In the social era many of our organisations are in the difficult transition of becoming human again. We still get locked into broadcasting rather than meaningful conversations in public. That means starting owning up to mistakes and admitting we sometimes fail to learn from them. We are human. We mess up more often than we care to admit because we fear the consequences. 

So with this new transparency has to come forgiveness from the customer. If organisations are to admit failure there has to be a maturing of public debate. Social media has brought us many wonderful things but it has also introduced public shaming by the mob, trolling , and a serious lack of empathy. Think before you publicly criticise someone’s failed initiative. When you do it you create a little more fear in organisations. And somewhere a bit of innovation dies.

Despite this, organisations must push themselves ever further towards transparency. What have you funded that hasn’t worked? In the new transparency you may as well wash your dirty linen in public – it’ll save a freedom of information request in the future.

  • We need to establish a new relationship with the public where humility and failure is seen as a positive attribute rather than a weakness. 
  • We need to demonstrate that we are getting better at learning from failure, not repeating it.
  • We don’t need to celebrate failure – but we do need to become more comfortable with it. It’s normal. 

To successfully tackle the huge problems we face we need to experiment more. Many of those experiments just won’t work.

If we want to see radical improvement in our services we’ll need to be forgiven by our organisations.

And we’ll need to be more forgiving of each other too. 

12 Months of Failure: Lessons Learned in Year One of Bromford Lab


Guest post by Tom Hartland

One year ago the Bromford Lab was established as a way of accelerating new ideas, driving innovation in the business and building our external networks.

‘Failing fast’ was a founding principle, any idea was a good idea and our 12 week window to complete work was the target to aim for.

It’s good to see that we’ve failed to realise each of these ideals at least once – failing slow, watching good ideas turn bad and blowing our 12 week window to pieces… technically I’m still involved in a concept that went live in October!

These failings have helped us build, test and rebuild the processes that guide us, but only because we’re willing to learn from them. What we’re left with is a better way to frame potential concepts, a robust and flexible process to test new ideas and a separate, more defined pipeline for service pilots.

We’ve helped formulate ‘squads’ as a way of cultivating problems/opportunities from themed areas and getting things to test quickly – particularly the tests that require significant resourcing (i.e. a designated colleague). This is also a way of seeding innovation throughout the organisation and beginning wider cultural transformation.

We use the word ‘test’ more and more nowadays because we’re constructing them as safe environments to fail – typically time-limited, minimal resource and therefore low risk. The impetus is on testing more and piloting less, and where pilots are launched they’re supported by a raft of pre-testing to prove their value.

We’ve recognised that we need to be more ruthless – killing potential zombie projects and burying bad ideas in the innovation graveyard.

Working out loud, sharing everything we do on our website and trello board, we’ve become one of the most transparent teams in Bromford. In the same breath we’ve been reasonably useless at publishing updates on our internal network, yammer, something we’re going to get much better at in the coming year.

It’s hoped that by sharing our progress we can keep building our external networks – cross-pollenating ideas and sharing learning from similar concepts. We’re also working on an offer for potential partners to share our innovation-addled brains, toolkits and processes, negating much of the difficulty establishing a lab from scratch.

For now, have leisurely flick through our slide deck and enjoy our imaginary Bromford Lab birthday cake.

Here’s to year two!



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