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Interview: David Rowan, Editor, Wired UK (includes video)

David Rowan, the award winning editor of Wired UK magazine, is the keynote speaker at the upcoming Nimbus Ninety Converge event. He talks to Mark Young about the way that businesses must embrace disruption in the digital economy, 3D printing, big data, computer algorithms that write books and more.




David Rowan will be speaking at the Nimbus Ninety converge event on the evening of February 13 at the Science Museum, London. To reserve your free place at the event, please contact Zeenat Motegheria on or 0207 630 1220. 

The video accompaniment to this article can be found at the bottom of the page. 


n 2009, David Rowan launched Wired UK. It was the third country launch of the Wired magazine brand, following Wired Italia earlier that year and the original US Wired some two decades before. Initially there were doubts as to whether launching the UK version was a savvy business move or not – some commentators questioned whether a technology, science and innovation themed-title could emulate its American cousin without having the same start-up culture and surrounding landscape that the latter possessed.

In the four years since, the decision has been more than vindicated. The entrepreneurial culture in the UK and throughout Europe has transformed in recent years. The ‘Tech City’ start-up hub in east London is now home to more than a thousand companies – global leaders in their specific fields among them – and there is an ever expanding network of venture capital firms, innovation hubs, technical infrastructure and government support alongside it.  

As with the US title, Rowan describes Wired UK’s chief raison d’être as finding “the people that are reinventing the rules – the disrupters – whether they are designers, technologists, scientists, artists; we look for the people who are using tools to solve big problems”.

But the brand has also had to innovate itself. As a publisher, Wired, and its parent company – Condé Nast – operate within an industry that has witnessed major upheaval at the hands of the digital revolution. Wired UK has responded by expanding its portfolio of products and services to include pop-up technology retail stores, a consultancy arm, conferences and digital editions on multiple platforms and devices, alongside its print edition magazine.

Wired was, in fact, the first magazine to launch an iPad edition and the UK arm won Technology & Gadget Magazine of the Year at last year’s Digital Magazine Awards, with Rowan also taking the prize of Editor of the Year across all titles. The company also recently led a consortium of automotive companies on a trip to China to see the innovations that are emerging there first-hand. 

Value driven disruption

As we’ve seen in recent weeks, though, not all companies have responded to the threats that face their industries in the digital era quite so well.

HMV and Blockbuster both entered into administration in January, having failed to find a way to successfully deliver digital products in their traditional retail environments.

“Those businesses should have pivoted and changed their model long ago,” says Rowan. “You could have seen this coming five years back. But people tend to think relatively short term.”

He points to Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, as an example to follow in this regard. Polman recently outlined to shareholders that the business will be making longer term decisions about its values as a company, instead of running ‘hand to mouth’, quarter to quarter.

Above: The Google founders and their autonomously driven car

Below: Serial entrpreneur and self-disrupter Elon Musk talks over the finer points of space exploration with President Obama

“Values driven businesses have greater chance of succeeding in the longer term,” says Rowan. “If you have values – if you know what your purpose is – then you can adapt to fast changing circumstances. Having a vision and executing on it clarifies your credibility to your customers and shareholders and also motivates your staff – people want a sense of purpose.”

Short termism isn’t the only psychological issue business face in a disruptive landscape either. “Initially, incumbents tend to dismiss challengers, and if they feel threatened they tend to play down the threat, it is human nature,” Rowan adds. “Kodak invented the digital camera but it tried to suppress it because it made tens of billions each year selling film. But you can’t suppress innovation; others picked up the technology while Kodak failed to adapt.

Thus, he says the ethos that start-ups run their businesses by should now be adopted by all companies, large and small.

“That involves iterating all of the time, listening and responding to your market and not thinking you know best, being constantly aware that what you are producing now is out-dated, and thinking about how you add value to the Internet. You have to constantly disrupt yourself.”

Google is a prime example of this, as an advertising company that is currently investing in, among other things, a self-driving car and its glasses which will help users navigate the world with visual tools. Rowan also points to Elon Musk, the South African entrepreneur behind SpaceX (space exploration technology and programmes), Tesla (electric cars), SolarCity (the largest provider of solar power technology in the US) and also had a pretty large hand in the development of PayPal.

“There are people like these that are not settling for what they do, they are rethinking what their businesses are. These are the people that inspire us.”

The future of technology

So which of the current emerging technologies does Rowan think will reinvent the world?

One certainly is 3D printing. This is an area that will change “not just the process but our expectations” of manufacturing, he says. “We will expect to be able to customise furniture, desk lamps, toys or pretty much anything else to our own specifications using these low cost technologies. It will change the rules of intellectual property because when you can scan an item and then print it, it’s hard for the designer to protect it.”

When the cost of the technology inevitably reduces as it matures, 3D printing will enable the cost effective production of an infinite range of one-off, single items, on a local basis. It therefore threatens the entire manufacturing supply chain, from materials suppliers to assembly plants, to logistics, retail, after service and beyond.

Under this principle of localised small volume production, Rowan advocates a search on Amazon for a company called Icon International Group. He promises some ‘extraordinary’ book titles as a reward. The exercise does not disappoint, with search results including ‘The World Market for Caviar and Fish Egg Substitutes: A 2013 Global Trade Perspective’ and ‘The 2009-2014 Outlook for Silver Oxide Button and Coin Primary Battery Cells in Japan’ among hundreds more.

These books certainly sound niche. That, coupled with costs of between £500 and a £1,000 per copy, means it isn’t likely many people will be buying them. But for Icon, that’s the point; instead of employing humans to write, it has created algorithms that scan terabytes of data over the Internet and pulls its research together to create an entire book autonomously. When one order is made via Amazon, that single copy is produced. As Rowan states, “It’s the very long tail of the long tail theory.”

3D printing is an example of what Rowan calls an ‘exponential technology’ – one that follows an exponential growth curve like Moore’s Law, where processing speeds double every two years. It’s these ‘exponential technologies’ that he is most excited by, and mobile also falls within the heading.

“We’re still at the early stages with mobile,” he says. “There are five billion people in the world with mobile phones but only a million of those are smartphones. In the next couple of years there will be billions of people connected to the internet for the first time and that creates massive opportunities for any business.”

According to Rowan, the height of innovation over the next couple of years will occur from a combination of both mobile and these robotic and algorithm-based technologies that enable autonomous completion of jobs – up until now – done by humans. Included within this latter category alongside Icon's computerised author is a new technology Rowan mentions that automatically translates spoken English to Chinese and other inflection-critical languages. One example he describes where autonomy is being further enhanced by mobile is in drones that deliver medical supplies to remote places. The drones are able to carry packages for ten kilometres or so before passing them on to the next ‘team member’, with all of the journeys mapped and completed by GPS guide.

All of this relies, to differing extents, on big data. And though he rightly labels the term a buzzword, Rowan says it’s now the task of every business to work out how they can use high performance analytics to give themselves an edge. Running through examples of how that can and has occurred in a range of different industries – covering transport, politics, retail, healthcare and beyond – it is clear he agrees that the breadth of opportunity is huge.  

In the interim, however, while the technology area matures, he feels there’s “a chance people will be disappointed” by failed big data projects, possibly because they will purchase non-applicable technologies that have ridden the wave of the big data buzz. He also highlights the skills gap that forms the focal point of much of the current discussion around big data. While this is being rectified by the university courses that are now hastily being created, Rowan warns there will be time delay before enough graduates are produced to meet demand. More likely, we’ll have to wait until the current generation of school aged students reach the workplace, and even then the future development is uncertain. “For any 16 year old today, there is a good chance that the job they will be doing when they reach working age has not been invented yet,” he contends. “Our own tablet designers are evidence of that – their skills did not exist two years ago.”

But overall there is no question of the constituents of big data falling away like some of the other technology buzzwords of recent years. “Data is power,” Rowan says. “And that’s not going to go away.”

Adopting a design ethos

3D TV, on the other hand, is one technology he feels will not stand the test of time, as won’t ‘gimmicks’ like augmented reality – “at least not as it is being demonstrated now – companies breathlessly talking about an immersive experience where it’s clearly not.” 

The primary reason he believes they will fail is that they go against the grain of the public’s demand – technologies that simplify their lives. 

He says: “Technology in general is becoming less complicated and more accessible. The trend in software design is for simplicity and lack of specialism in order to operate it. If you are producing graphing or database software you should also make sure your nine year old kid can use it. It’s now so easy to create user interfaces that are attractive and intuitive – any company that produces something too complicated is going to be at a disadvantage. Especially in the context of open source, a competitor product can go global extremely quickly.”

Similarly, the rapid uptake of tablets and smart devices means all companies have an opportunity to provide the aesthetic excellence and immersive experience that consumers have begun to demand. But, as with the simplicity aspect of software, ‘opportunity’ should also translate to ‘necessity’ in this context; if your company does not take that opportunity, you should expect to lose market share to those that do. Rowan offers the example of a ski resort or hotel: by offering a real-time vision of the condition of the slopes, along with virtual tours of the chalets, the viewer is much more likely to become engaged with the product. “But,” he stresses, “it has to be quick, it has to be quality and it has to be easy.”

And with this in mind, Rowan goes on to issue his final piece of advice: That every business must adopt a design ethos, whether or not they make a physical product.

“It’s all about using design and technology to create ever-enhanced user experiences,” he says. “The hardware is commoditised now, and you add value by endowing something with a greater sense of purpose. Automotive companies like Jaguar or Audi, as an example, make their cars about art rather than driving. With the best smart devices, it’s the ease of use, one click; with Amazon it’s the ability to find what you want and touch to buy it. 

“Essentially every business today must concentrate on getting rid of the clutter, simplifying people’s lives and bringing out the emotion in what they do. Those that do that successfully should find themselves in a relatively strong position.”

Register for Converge to join us at the Science Museum on the evening of February 13 and hear David Rowan’s keynote speech. Email to reserve your free place.

Video interview: