Thursday, 16 January 2014

Thinking big or thinking small

I lost my favourite ball-point pen yesterday, a fat Parker, worn down to the brass over the years, with the donor's name MORRISON UTILITIES barely visible on the barrel. Did it fall out of my shirt pocket when I pulled out my smartphone? Did I leave it in a meeting room in Poleczki Business Park? Or at lunch at the Saffron Indian & Thai on Pl. Konstytucji?

Does it matter in the scheme of things? OK, it's been with me for a good few years now, every day, I liked its weight and reliability and that worn look... but losing a favourite pen (especially one I got as a corporate gift) is no big deal in the overall scheme of things. It's a small thing, I shouldn't cry over spilt milk. Besides, on my desk I have a lovely green lacquered ballpoint pen with Parker insert, a corporate gift from law firm K&L GATES, the 'Gates' here being Microsoft Bill's dad.

Bill Gates was meant to follow in his father's footsteps, but dropped out of Harvard law school to do something bigger - pursuing the dream that every household should have its own computer. That was in 1975. Today, when many households have several, one can see what an amazingly big dream it was.

But Microsoft today is a dinosaur that's outlived its usefulness - I use OpenOffice (free) rather than Microsoft Office (several hundred zlotys and lots of silly icons replacing the File Edit Window Tools Help style menu). I'm happy with MS Windows 7, and Windows XP (still on my desktop computer). But Microsoft Fista was a disaster and Windows 8 is appy-clappy and not all popular.

The company that replaced Microsoft's IT supremacy of course is Google. These guys (Larry Page and Sergei Brin) think big. Their mathematical understanding of how the Internet (big 'I' in those days) worked - and would go on working into the future - was the basis of a business whose shares have risen from $85 at IPO in August 2004 to $1,156 today. Google today is not just a search engine; it is Google Earth; Blogger (through which you are reading this blog), Android - the operating system on my smartphone; YouTube, which has replaced watching TV for many including me; there's Google Glass around the corner plus cars that can drive themselves.

All products of Thinking Big. America is home to Thinking Big. Somehow Europe, the Old Continent, is not so good at getting its citizens to think big and then to turn that dream into reality. Thinking Big is about Changing the Game; bringing about revolutionary change. Getting jet engines to replace propeller-power on aircraft is one thing - using them to build a plane that can carry 450 passengers and thus revolutionise accessibility to long-haul air travel - is another. Next month, the Boeing 747 will be celebrating 45 years since its first flight - 9 February 1969. Another 36 years would have to pass before the European Airbus A380 took to the skies.

But my, the British were good at thinking big back in the 19th Century. Look at all those magnificent engineering projects that are still holding strong to this day. Consider, for instance, Manchester's Ardwick Viaduct - all 108 arches of it. Who are the big thinking nations of today? America? China? Anyone else? What's stopping Poland (for instance) from thinking big?

And in our lives - are we thinking Big - or Small? Too bogged down with the minutiae of life and all the petty slights it can throw our way; merely content with how things are; or looking for that big leap that will make a huge difference? Big leaps are often big gambles. Migration. Setting up a business. Quitting a job to go back to college in the hope of a better job. Risks taken can sometimes end up in failure.

If we look at the IT industry, the companies that dictate the game are not those bringing incremental change to market - they are those that think at the meta-level and can change the game. Scale up, scale up, scale up. Don't just invent an app for a smart meter than meters gas for one company. Do it for gas, electricity and water. That will work for every utility company around the world.

Will 3D printers change the game? Some seem to think so. A 3D printer in every household? Most have a 2D printer... Right now, I don't think 3D printers will extend beyond the hobbyist market, people making action figures and costume jewellery - unless there's a 'killer app' for it like word processing was for the home computer. That will require someone to think very big indeed.

Linked to the idea of Thinking Big is the Can Do Attitude. The growth of information technology as an industry was accompanied by a new optimism that you can change things for the better by applying brain-power at them. No, we've not cured cancer yet, but look at the vast amount of things that have improved thanks to the application of zeros and ones through silicon chips.

Something to ponder on. How can individuals, firms, political parties and indeed countries, think the big thoughts - and realise them effectively for growth, realising potential for the benefit of all?

This time last year:
Inequality in an age of economic slowdown

This time two years ago:
The Palace of Culture: Tear it down?

This time four years ago:
Conquering Warsaw's highest snow mounds

This time five years ago:
Flashback on way to Zielona Góra

This time six years ago:
Ursynów, winter, before sunrise

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