Thinking Digital 2013: all the news and best talking points

ITProPortal is spreading its wings up on Tyneside at the moment, taking in all the goings on at Thinking Digital 2013 - one of the UK's leading ideas and innovation conferences - which is being held at the rather snazzy Sage Gateshead (pictured, top).

Things kicked off yesterday with a series of pre-conference events, including a startup pitch competition that saw hometown heroes BubblePix and London's own YPlan advance to the finals. The winner will be decided this afternoon, so watch this space to see who is crowned Thinking Digital's startup champion.

You can also follow the conference via the #TDC13 Twitter hashtag, and there's a dedicated Thinking Digital 2013 app for Android and iOS, designed by Gospelware, should you happen to be up at the event with us right now. If you fancy shelling out £50, you can even follow all the action live via the Thinking Digital 2013 webcast. Or keep the dosh in the kitty and stick with us - we understand.

This morning, the event's jampacked schedule got underway in earnest, with Thinking Digital's Herb Kim assuming the role of emcee and giving us a broad overview of the conference, its evolution, and its aims.

"In our six years of producing Thinking Digital we have come to realise that our approach isn't for everyone. For us, it's more than just a conference; it is an experience. Our focus on the total experience lies at the heart of our success," he said in his opening remarks.

Kim gave way to the first round of speakers, handing the stage over to Professor Eddie Obeng, founder and learning director of Pentacle Virtual Business School.

Professor Obeng set the tone for the morning session, talking about the ongoing transition between the traditional business world and the new, technology-driven enterprise space. It's always going to be cringe-inducing to label a speaker charismatic, which is a real problem here - because Obeng exuded the stuff.

Old rituals like going to the office and having physical meetings with colleagues, he said, were like an exercise in "time travel" as they immediately transport us back to the 20th century.

"There are two worlds running in parallel. Once upon a time, these things made sense. Have we learnt and changed?" Obeng asked, adding: "The world we live in means you have to re-format yourself."

Obeng was always going to be a tough act to follow, but Mike Bracken gave it a real go. To simplify his somewhat exhaustive offical job title - Executive Director of Digital for the UK Cabinet Office - let's just say he's the guy in charge of ensuring government services and departments are brought into the 21st century.

As such, Bracken is the one responsible - at least in part - for the recently created GOV.UK platform, one of many efforts being undertaken by the UK government as it looks to shift to a model of "digital by default." That process, we were told, stands to save the UK between £50 million and £70 million every year, as well as improving the lives of everyday citizens as things that used to entail piles of paperwork - like applying for agricultural grants - are able to be completed in a more timely manner online.

"We're focused around users – people who use the machinery of the state," Bracken said.

He continued: "A couple of weeks ago, we finished moving every department on to GOV.UK – 24 departments. I would say that the size of this task, in five months, that is quite audacious speed."

That's Bracken on the left, standing next to Thinking Digital's Herb Kim, by the way. There's a great caption in there somewhere - to me, they look like a couple of blokes exchanging tips down the bookies!

Next up: you had me at 'Boston,' but roboticist Alexander Reben is up to some really cool stuff. It feels like identifying him solely as a tech-head would be doing him a bit of a disservice - he's an artist, really, and his latest project is BlabDroid, a robot buddy-cum-documentarian that provides a fascinating insight into how humans relate with droids and proves that "technology is human."

He played us a short clip of BlabDroid's exploits, and it's incredible what people were confiding in the little cutsie: from not liking children to cheating on partners by way of an audacious desire to stop time, it was all there. Could robots ultimately replace psychiatrists and the like as the confidants of humanity? That was one possibility brought up in the brief Q&A we had with Alex - if you like the sound of his exploits, you can support his work via Kickstarter.

As per usual at a major tech event it seems, there are some connectivity congestion issues up here – and the rash of top ideas being shared means we're a little bit behind schedule as well. To try and bring you up to speed - rounding out the morning session was "king of Apple analysts" Horace Dediu.

Horace gave us a really insightful overview of the evolution of the personal computer. By connection, he said, it was also a short history of the "phenomenon of disruption." He harked back to some of the fallen giants of the device world, including the Commodore 64 and the Palm Pilot, taking us on a journey from the birth of the PC in the 1970s to the "incubation period of mobile" and "device-based computing" in the late-1990s, and on to the present day.

"What happened in the early era is very similar to what is happening [now], but on a different scale. We have this huge, huge clustering of platforms. A lot of these platforms are owned by newcomers, entrants to this space," Dediu commented.

He added: "The question I have is - is there a limit? How many computers can be sold? Is there a limit? In the billions? What is the upper bound of this? [And] how can we possibly absorb [the] change if our brains and psychology don't change?"

The afternoon session is now under way with Accenture's regional MD, Bob Paton, taking the stage. For those who don't know, Bob and his company have been central to the "on-shoring" of tech jobs back to the UK, a process that itself has been pivotal to the continued growth and regeneration of areas like Newcastle-Gateshead.

(UPDATE 25/05/13: Accenture has taken issue with the above statement regarding its role in advancing jobs and employment in the North East. Exerting its Right of Reply, an Accenture representative issued us with the following statement: "This is incorrect. Accenture has experienced increasing demand for its business services in Newcastle – where we offer technology support to clients around the world. We do offer UK clients the option of keeping work onshore - if that suits their business needs. But we are not leading an 'onshoring' of jobs back to the UK from overseas.")

The tech industry, according to Paton, is now a "major player in the North East" and part of the area's "new economy" as it looks to "replace the industries of the past."

"Back then, I wouldn't have called [IT] an industry. Industries in the North East of England were coal-mining, ship building...We were very much at the forefront of the first Industrial Revolution," Mr Paton said. "We've replaced it with a number of other industries - [and] there's a lot about renewable energy. There's not many people know that we've got 25,000 people working [in IT]. "

Apparently, the North East of England now houses more startups than anywhere in the country bar London, and to fully capitalise on the area's potential, Paton announced the creation of a North East of England IT Forum.

"We need to shout a little bit more about what we're doing in the North East. We're going to grow our industry," Paton added.

Really encouraging rhetoric, biased only slightly by the fact that I have close ties to Geordieland and enjoy hearing enthuse folks about it. If you're interested, Bob likes to grow organic fruit and vegetables in his spare time - a top lad all round, then.

Now here's someone you could take home to mum - Microsoft's head of ecology and environmental research, Drew Purves. He's talking about how big data can be translated into actionable insights, with a specific eye to the natural world. For example, we're looking at how a more proactive, end-to-end data system that combines with cloud leverage could help us quickly probe the potential impact of road building and deforestation in the Amazon.

We'd be doing Thinking Digital and ourselves an injustice if we didn't mention, however belatedly, the marvellous panel discussion that was held yesterday afternoon as part of the startup Masterclass. Focusing on the experience of women in startups, it was chaired by communications expert Katie Moffat and featured a trio of enterprising ladies, plus an odd-one-out in the form of TNW's Martin Bryant.

The heart of the discussion was that the dearth of women in tech - and the startup scene in particular - is rooted in a lack of female industry role models, at both high-power and grassroots levels. It was a point borne out by the Thinking Digital startup pitch competition itself, it has to be said, where all of the participants were male.

"If you're in the minority and you don't see any people like you up there...you don't have the confidence that you can do it," observed Dr Sue Black, a computer scientist and senior research associate at University College London.

Moffat noted that the "white, middle class, male" demo graph was typically well represented in both boardrooms and at major IT events, with the panel's participants saying that they generally encountered three main reactions from men as a result of their ventures in the tech world - surprise, patronisation, and flirtation.

"Things still haven't changed that much, even though its constantly discussed," Moffat commented.

The day's final session is kicking off now, so stayed tuned - the winner of the Thinking Digital 2013 startup competition will be announced shortly! We'd be lying if we said the schedule hadn't dragged on a bit, but we're really excited to see which venture emerges victorious from the BubblePix vs YPlan showdown.

That's Paul Smith, director of startup accelerator ignite100, taking the stage to get things going. He's going to be introducing us to the two finalists - as you already know, I'm sure, that's Tyneside's own BubblePix and London-based YPlan.

First up is Stuart Varrall, head of mobile at BubblePix. If you're just dropping in now, BubblePix makes the BubbleScope, a passive optical handset accessory that immersively captures 360 degree images and videos in conjunction with an eponymous app. It works across platforms and the hardware itself comes available in models that fit the iPhone 4/4S, iPhone 5, and Samsung Galaxy S3.

And now Ross Murray-Jones takes the stage to talk up YPlan, an innovative app and last-minute marketplace that closes the loop between event discovery, booking, and paperless ticketing. He says it currently runs of about 10 per cent of London's iPhones - assuming that's accurate, that's hugely impressive penetration for a startup. Murray-Jones adds that other platforms are on the horizon.

"If you don't have an iPhone, the good news is - Android and iPad are just round the corner," he said.

It looks like voting in the Thinking Digital 2013 startup competition has more or less concluded now - the big announcement is only moments away. Yes, here it is - and the winner is....BubblePix! It gets £15,000 in Rackspace services as well as immortal fame and glory. That's our chum Stuart back on stage to collect the prize off of Sage One's Nick Goode, who clearly moonlights as a Simon Cowell impersonator.

That's all for now, kids. It's been a long day here at the Sage Gateshead and while we're looking forward to kicking things off again tomorrow, it's time for some well-earned R&R - toasties are likely to feature.

Good morning! The second day is in full flow now and we'll be bringing you some of the highlights before we reluctantly make our way back to London this afternoon, but in the meantime, get the skinny on yesterday's announcement by tech tsar Mike Bracken that the government is set to roll out a new Digital Procurement Framework in 2013 - it will be a massive boost for SMEs in particular, we feel.

'Beyond Digital' is the session taking us into the lunch break today, with Boeing Kestrel's Rob Bernard offering us a rare glimpse of how big data is managed in the intelligence world. Yes, the same Boeing that makes planes also produces government-grade big data software.

Specifically, Bernard is giving us an actual demo of the software used by intelligence staff to handle data - a typical CIA analyst would work with some 750,000 documents a day, according to Bernard. For reasons of national security, the data itself being presented here is obviously spoofed, but it's still a fascinating look into how the sexy world inhabited fictionally by the likes of Jason Bourne and Carrie Mathison functions at a grassroots level. That there below is a matrix grid, since you're wondering.

Historically, Bernard says, analysts would have spent around 80 per cent of their searching and sorting through data, and only 20 per cent interpreting it.

"Our goal was to flip this ratio," he said, adding that the "analog hardware" that is the human brain should still be regarded as the most important asset - not one that is subservient to technology, however wonderful a given breakthrough may be. He's essentially warning against the dangers of over-automating processes, it seems.

"Most things that you encounter are not cut-and-dry...We didn't dive right into the technology; instead, we looked at how people actually do their jobs. Digital tools are your friends, analog tools are your family," Bernard commented.

Elsewhere, we were treated to a fairly epic talk by Chris Thorpe, who took us through a brief retrospective of industry in the North East. But his history lesson was, in fact, a call to arms - Thorpe wants the UK to embrace a new industrial revolution based around 3D printing.

To illustrate the increasing sophistication of the technology, he showed us how his new venture, The Flexiscale Company, had created 3D printed models of vintage trains. A successful Kickstarter project, Flexiscale's flagship modelling, if you like, is the Penrhyn Quarry Port Class, aka Winifred, which Thorpe showed off in the flesh, saying that "this is what data feels like to hold."

Somehow, it all made sense - Thorpe managed to tie together his decidedly nerdy enthusiasm for railway memorabilia with the budding 3D printing revolution and Newcastle's historical role as a centre of industry. The bottom line being that the North East can be a thriving centre of manufacturing again, albeit of a very different kind - Newcastle's empty Vickers/Armstrong factory was mooted as a possible location for a new 3D printing facility.

"The 20th century stripped us of our understanding of how things are made - and how things are mended," Thorpe commented, adding: "The 20th century is a massive, massive abboration. It's a slightly rubbish filing in the sandwich. At the top of it is the digital revolution."

Thorpe pointed to the US as a progressive model, noting that President Obama is investing heavily in 3D print manufacturing infrastructure in areas suffering from a decline in heavy industry. He was also passionate about the fact that one of the most popular alternatives to reinvigorating national industry - the off-shoring of manufacturing jobs - came at a very high human price.

"China is not a long term solution....How far are we going to go oppressing people so we can have cheap things? We made amazing things in this country, and we can again. But people are asleep, especially governments," Thorpe continued.

He added that the rediscovery of Britain's industrial past had been stimulated by Danny Boyle's spectacular London 2012 opening ceremony.

Thorpe concluded: "If you didn't want to be part of the next revolution after watching that, there's something wrong with you."

Sadly, it looks like that's about all we've got time for - duty beckons us back to London. We've had an extraordinary time over the last couple of days up in Newcastle-Gateshead and are proud to have been one of Thinking Digital's exclusive supporters this year. There's so much fantastic stuff going on in the North East and TDC13 was a real microcosm of all the energy, ideas and innovation in the region. And, as you can see from Lissted's Twitter-sourced word cloud, we're not the only ones who had a great time. Herb Kim in particular deserves credit by the boatload for his role in putting on the event - someone buy that man a drink.

I suppose all that's left to say is thanks for joining us on this amazing journey and see you at Thinking Digital 2014! Don't forget about us in the meantime, mind - as part of our mission to authoritatively report on the technologies that matter to real businesses, we'll continue to deliver the best events coverage and are always keen to know about the latest and greatest startups and innovation hubs. Get in touch if there's something exciting going on in your area - we'd love to hear from you on Twitter via @ITProPortal!