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Lessons in Innovation from Raspberry Pi's Jack Lang

The serial entrepreneur speaks about open source, data privacy and the power of technological transformations at Paris' Connected Conference

by Isabelle Doal
on 24 June 2014
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At this year's Connected Conference—a Parisian event dedicated to connected hardware and the internet of things—we had the chance to hear Jack Lang, the co-founder of Raspberry Pi, speak. The conference focused on the complexities of open-sourcing and sharing freely within communities (with one of the biggest issues being the need for a standard language), and Lang's distinct vision and strong support of an open world exemplifies its many advantages.

In addition to his role as a lecturer at Cambridge University, Lang is considered a "serial entrepreneur and business angel" with dozens of successful business projects in his portfolio. This pioneering figure is known as the founder of the Electronic Share Information Ltd, one of the first online stock-market brokers (eventually acquired by e-Trade), as well as his early interactive TV channel Netchannel.

The Raspberry Pi project was started in 2006 after he and his fellows at Cambridge realized that fewer and fewer students were neither interested in nor skilled at computing and programming—and that schools had stopped teaching these subjects. Lang analyzed the phenomenon as a consequence of the fact that gaming consoles, smartphones and computer systems like Apple are locked, and allow users to remain only as passive consumers.

Lang and his team decided to try and see if a inexpensive computer (around $35) would change the situation. They created the Rasberry Pi, a revolutionary credit card-sized machine that could be plugged into a computer monitor or TV. This programmable and affordable computer is designed for education and is powerful enough to make 3D animations. The success was immediate and within two years it had sold three million units.

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Serving as a tech device, learning material and a community for education, the Rasberry Pi kit means small kids and the elderly alike can learn computing all around the world. School groups, coding academies, clubs, competitions and Raspberry Jams complete their strategic plan. Teachers can also receive training through the Picademy. Lang's aim to push creativity, overcome the consumer passivity and increase the number of stakeholders—while empowering a tech-capable generation—was successful. The Raspberry Pi Foundation, now a registered charity in the UK, is supported and founded by a separate trading company which sells computer devices and chips to professionals.

When asked if this whole architecture of Raspberry Pi and the way the project has turned was faithful to its initial plan, Lang told us that on the contrary, it's a reflection of the way people took part in using it. This was one of his first lessons in innovation: a project has to be adaptable, open to redirection, able to change and sensible to the market.

When asked if innovation is always the response to a problem (in Raspberry Pi's case, the problem was the declining number of people able to program code), Lang explained that innovation comes as a solution to solve a problem. During the Connected Conference, there were many examples of how innovation had a huge potential to help with problems of food, water and energy shortages in the future, as well as the challenge of an aging population.

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But the main characteristic of innovation is that it is disruptive. As such, a revolutionary breakthrough needs time in order to achieve major success—people have to become acquainted with its novelty, and adopt it. The more disruptive an innovation is, the more difficult it is to adapt to it. One way to create a seamless integration is to connect the idea to something familiar. Innovation works best when seen as a form of better service, or a cheaper way of doing something, but in all cases, it has to be connected to the past. From a company's perspective, processes have to be put in place that impact a wholly connected ecosystem. This takes time, but Lang explains the value that comes with that. Systems such as those created by Apple, which keep us constantly connected, show how time makes us captive users.

One of the conference's major topics and one of Lang's favorites is the issue of data privacy. In the internet of things, open-source and data sharing are prerequisites, while data becomes the valuable unit in the whole process. For example, data is needed to provide "context services" based on the knowledge of users habits, but it is also the elementary particle on which all of the hidden costs of developing hardware can be transformed into money. With the growing importance of data comes the question of their property and the agreement of the users-owners.

In Lang's opinion, users should be greatly concerned about the use of their personal information, but when it comes to managing a user's parameters on any application or software, he's indifferent. He explains that it depends on the use and utility. For him, this question of privacy is related to the eternal pendulum moving between central control and local control. The internet deals with local harbors and clouds. But the increase of social media and the growing communities around free and open platforms contribute to the increasing value of these platforms—since the more popular they are, the more data they attract.

Images courtesy of The Connected Conference

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