Tech & The District » Innovation Tech the way we see it: insights and musings on technology PR, policy and the District, from H&K’s D.C. Tech Team. Thu, 04 Aug 2011 15:06:44 +0000 en hourly 1 Redefining Innovation Tue, 01 Mar 2011 15:00:00 +0000 Ben Breit We tend to correlate innovation with factors that directly impact our economy: products invented, jobs created, money generated, etc. So when the MIT Technology Review released its annual list of the 50 Most Innovative Companies last week, few were surprised at the inclusion of usual suspects such as Google, IBM and Apple.

Still this year’s list is noteworthy in that it challenges us to develop our notion of what is truly innovative. If I were to tell you of a company that has earned no money, created no jobs, and is run mostly by part-time volunteers, you might not rush to put them it in the same breath as those aforementioned behemoths. Yet Ushahidi, an open source platform run out of Kenya, finds itself on MIT’s list while traditional and innovative giants like Verizon and Nintendo find themselves – at least for this year – on the outside looking in.

Ushahidi, which means “testimony” in Swahili, spawned in the wake of the infamous and devastating post-election violence that ravaged Kenya in early 2008. Users could text or tweet to report incidents of violence they had personally witnessed. At Ushahidi headquarters, those communications translated to interactive maps tracking areas of the country where the violence was most prevalent. In turn, perpetrators were brought to justice and lives were saved.

Since then, Ushahidi has served a prominent role in disaster relief, most notably in the wake of the devastating earthquake in Haiti. Survivors in need of immediate assistance utilized the platform to inform first responders where to direct relief. Since then, it’s branched out to other Third World countries to map instances of government oppression, voter fraud and tracking UN Aid effectiveness.

With every decisive international event that prominently features Ushahidi, we’re seeing first-hand that there are metrics other than earnings and jobs that define innovation. For Ushahidi, it’s lives saved. And you can’t put a price on that.

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Technology and the Obama Budget Tue, 15 Feb 2011 16:25:54 +0000 Ben Breit Several defining characteristics separate those that live and work inside the Beltway from the rest. For example, you know you’re from D.C. if:

o   Your trips to the Mall have nothing to do with shopping

o   The Washington Monument is your main tool of navigation

o   You put the Virginia-Maryland rivalry on par with Capulets vs. Montagues, Michigan vs. Ohio State, and Harry Potter vs. Voldemort

Monday reminded me of another annual event that mainly pertains to those of us inside the Beltway: you know you’re from D.C.  if you get genuinely excited about the release of the President’s budget proposal.

Yes, President Obama has released his budget for the upcoming fiscal year. He and his Democratic allies will need to gear up for a battle, as Congressional Republicans have already expressed their strident objections.

While the budget features across the board spending cuts, the technology industry actually emerged relatively unscathed. Indeed, the federal technology budget actually increased 1.3 percent to $80.5 billion. This is partly explained by major internal appropriations for cloud computing solutions, which is expected to eventually result in substantial reductions to the federal government’s IT costs.

Obama put his money where his mouth is, following through on several major initiatives announced at his State of the Union address. The National Institute of Standards and Technology, one of the nation’s most prominent physical science research laboratories, is the eager recipient of an additional $100 million in appropriations pending Congressional approval. And wireless broadband was a big winner, as the Administration is officially proposing $5 billion to bring wireless broadband to rural areas and $10 billion to produce a national wireless network for public safety agencies.

Long a proponent of renewable energy, President Obama is proposing further investment in green technology to the tune of $8 billion. He elaborated on this commitment in his official statement to Congress: “We are eliminating subsidies to fossil fuels and instead making a significant investment in clean energy technology—boosting our investment in this high-growth field by a third—because the country that leads in clean energy will lead in the global economy.” Specifics include implementing three additional Green Energy Innovation Hubs as well as a plan to put one million electric cars on the road by 2015.

In his statement, President Obama was clear on his vision to bring the U.S. out of the depths of the recession: “a serious commitment to research and technology; and access to quality infrastructure like roads and airports, high-speed rail, and high-speed Internet. These are the seeds of economic growth in the 21st century. Where they are planted, the most jobs and businesses will take root.”

It’s easy to recognize the vast potential of the tech industry, but it won’t matter until these investments produce a tangible impact on the American economy  and – perhaps more importantly – begin creating jobs. Is President Obama making the right call by doubling down on wireless broadband and green technology? Post your thoughts below!

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The Technology Industry: Paving the Way to Recovery Fri, 11 Feb 2011 19:53:09 +0000 Ben Breit This week, I had the pleasure of attending The Atlantic’s digital town hall on “Finding Work, Finding Our Way: Building the Economy & Jobs of the Future” at the Newseum. Those of us in attendance were treated to enlightening interviews and discussions with a “who’s who” of D.C. power brokers and thought leaders. We witnessed a lively debate on America’s place in the global economy – and how to get back to our pre-crisis level of prosperity.

Leading off was the main headliner, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner. Undeniably brilliant and fascinatingly complex, it’s intriguing to see him in person. Perhaps no man or woman in the country (outside of President Obama) is under more pressure than Geithner, and it’s evident when you see him speak. Every word he says is so carefully measured, as if he’s constantly thinking “one careless word could send the markets back into a tailspin.” Geithner acknowledged the uphill climb he’s responsible for leading– after all, eight million jobs were lost at the onset of the recession, only a million of which have returned. He was also realistic about the immediate prospects of struggling industries such as housing and construction, after effects of the “trauma” of the crisis.

But the industry leading the way through the recovery?: hi-tech. Secretary Geithner explained America’s technology companies are innovating at higher rates than ever – a bright spot in an otherwise bleak economy. And he said the industry isn’t outsourcing jobs at nearly the same rate as others. The top engineers in the world still gravitate here, he said – a trend that is helping the U.S. mitigate the effects of the recession. Geithner left us all with a greater understanding of our current economic status and provided a road map to spur further growth.

Reserved. Discreet. Apathetic. None of these words describe FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski. He’s emerged as one of the more high profile members of the Obama Administration. The President’s State of the Union pledge to bring wireless broadband to 98% of the American population has put Genachowski firmly in the spotlight, while his pro-net neutrality stand has earned him equally populated legions of loyal fans – and heated rivals.

The always engaging Genachowski repeatedly stressed the importance of bringing high-speed internet to rural areas normally slow to adopt advanced technology. Genachowski said internet access is critical to farmers who rely on it to sell their produce and follow weather patterns. Businesses are rapidly fleeing small towns where high-speed wireless is unavailable.

Moderator Judy Woodruff of PBS asked how the U.S. stacks up against the world in wireless technology. Genachowski’s answer was to the point: “not well.” He reaffirmed his commitment to pushing 4G throughout the country in support of the “apps economy” – something he sees as a major growth factor. Genachowski was eager to discuss the tablet rise, predicting tablets will soon replace textbooks in high school and college classrooms throughout the country. As someone who not too long ago was lugging 40 lb backpacks from class to class, all I can say is “amen.”

While Geithner and Genachowski were hard acts to top, the ensuing participants offered some interesting insights. Senator Orrin Hatch (likely facing a conservative primary challenge) answered the question “is it possible to insert Tea Party rhetoric into every answer no matter the question?” with a definitive yes. He topped it off by recalling a conversation with “my good friend Jeff Zuckerberg from Facebook.” Maybe they’re not as close as he thought…

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell gave an impressive outline of ways state governments can engage with China. I was also intrigued by the manner in which states are engaging in intense competition for relocating businesses. McDonnell and North Carolina Governor Beverly Purdue in particular appear to be in the swing of a friendly business recruitment rivalry.

For me, the highlight of the event came in one of the panel discussions, courtesy of Safi Bahcall, CEO of Synta Pharmaceuticals – a successful startup focusing on cancer medication. He spoke in reference to Woodruff’s earlier satellite Q&A with students from the University of Miami (Ohio) and University of North Carolina. Literally every student who had secured a job for next year was on his or her way to a financial firm. Bahcall commented, “you know what I want to see some of these kids say? ‘I want to cure cancer.’ I’m pretty sure the world doesn’t need another hedge fund manager.”

And that’s the message I took from Finding Work, Finding Our Way. The current economic picture may be somber at best, but no country has more resources to dig its way out than the United States. It’s a matter of aiming big, not small. Bunt singles are nice, but its home run hitters like Chairman Genachowski and Safi Bahcall who will truly put runs on the board.

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Android’s Take on the Terrible Towel Thu, 03 Feb 2011 16:16:26 +0000 Ben Breit Want a pro-Steelers accessory, but don’t want to go to all the trouble of storing and occasionally washing it? Well look no further – the Terrible Towel Android app is here! Yes, you can now get the sensation of waving a towel this Sunday from your mobile phone while watching this Sunday’s Super Bowl. While Steelers fans like our very own Evan Lapiska might find it difficult to wave their mobile towel while texting fellow Pittsburgh natives during the big game, this reflects a growing trend of sports mobile apps (a topic Andy Cuneo covered in this space in October). Developers have certainly gotten a bit more creative on the sports front – simple score updates are so 2010!

The towel app sets a high standard, but has anybody out there downloaded a similarly unique mobile sports app recently?

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2011 Congressional Outlook Fri, 19 Nov 2010 22:34:57 +0000 Ben Breit As expected, the mid-term election turned out to be a sweeping and historic victory for Congressional Republicans, as they snatched 6 Senate seats and at least 60 House seats (plus control) from Democratic hands. House Republicans, in eager anticipation of Nancy Pelosi officially passing the gavel to John Boehner, have wasted little time in drafting an aggressive agenda for the 112th Congress.

Naturally, most of the political discourse since November 2 has been enveloped by issues such as healthcare repeal and the national debt. On that note, we thought it appropriate to put on our public affairs hats and address question that tech insiders from D.C. to Silicon Valley are asking: In this heated political environment, does the tech industry have any chance at all to gain traction on its core issues before the divided Congress?

Handicapping the Republicans’ play appears to be easy at first glance. Following Republican criticism that President Obama neglected the economy in lieu of an insular focus on healthcare reform, future Speaker John Boehner’s agenda is likely stock full at this time.  Indeed, nowhere in Republicans’ much publicized Pledge to America does the word “technology” even appear. Seeing many of its top allies getting relegated to ranking status (or in Virginia Congressman Rick Boucher’s case, relegated out of office) could not have been a pleasant sight for Silicon Valley.

Much of the agenda will ride on who takes over as Chair of the important House Energy and Commerce Committee, which regulates many technology issues. As the current ranking member, Joe Barton would appear to have the leg up. However, the broad nature of a committee that regulates both technology and the environment, coupled with Barton’s defense of BP CEO Tony Hayword, might prove a dealbreaker for Republican leadership. The Texas Republican is facing a spirited challenge from Michigan’s Fred Upton. Both Rep. Barton and Rep. Upton have declared net neutrality dead on arrival under their chairmanships. Still, there is a lot of money on both sides of the issue, so it is likely to at least get raised in 2011.

Alternatively, the issue of patent reform is handled by the Judiciary Committees. Here, the conflict is not between Democrats and Republicans as much as it is between the House and Senate. Senate Judiciary Members reached a deal earlier this year that was criticized by many in the technology sector. House Judiciary Members agreed and refused to participate in negotiations until the Senate came back with a bill that was more tech-friendly. The issue has been stalled ever since.

Since patent reform lacks a partisan divide, is there hope for it in 2011? Possibly. However, anyone who thinks any technology issue – whether it patent reform, net neutrality, privacy or any others – has a realistic chance of making the 2011 Congressional agenda is probably being overly optimistic.

But is it fair to exclude this sector from discussions on the economy and jobs? A strong argument could be made for relying more than ever on technology companies during these trying times. According to a report from the Tech America Foundation, the tech industry has begun its climb out of the recession, having added 32,200 jobs from January-June 2010.

“The technology industry now appears to be slowly turning the corner with the rest of the economy,” said Phil Bond, the Foundation’s president and chief executive officer. “We have weathered the storm better than most. From its position embedded in every other industry, technology remains the best hope for driving robust recovery across the economy.”

Both Republicans and Democrats have had a focus on creating jobs – and understandably so. Perhaps Congressional leadership would do well to realize that in these trying times, it might be worth it to address the concerns of one of the few industries that has actually made job creation a reality rather than a theory.

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Innovation and Leadership – Gotta Have Vision Thu, 04 Nov 2010 21:46:02 +0000 duncanburns Sometimes a quote in an article grabs your attention – for its simplicity and clarity of insight.

In a great story on innovation in the FT by Philip Delves Broughton, there’s this quote…

“There are so many opportunities, technologies and ideas, all of which are easily accessible,” says Roberto Verganti, professor of management of innovation at Politecnico di Milano. “So, the key challenge for companies is not having the ideas, but making sense of them and having a vision. The companies that are most successful are the ones that understand the meaning behind the technology.”

Professor Verganti crisply captures something I’ve been thinking about for a while, that it’s not enough in the current (tech and telco) marketplace to have the best ideas – ideas are more accessible (and prevalent) than ever – but how companies and leaders within them spot the trends and make bets on specific ideas and against a specific vision is the competitive advantage.

A succinct and compelling vision for a company acts as a magnet for ideas, helps drive critical mass and business successes that are more than one off hits. Though it’s not always easy to define and stick with a vision it can not only drive corporate focus, but also allow companies to cope and overcome failures. Not sure I can think of a successful tech company that hasn’t had product failures…  (Philip Delves Broughton lists several in his article). But that ability to make sense of this abundance of ideas, and communicate the reason they make sense is going to be increasingly at the centre of business leaders’ jobs and at the heart of their companies’ successes and failures.

I encourage you to read the FT piece!

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