Invisible Infrastructures

I recently presented at the Interaction Designer’s Conference in Dublin, speaking on the topic of ‘Invisible Infrastructures’

The ‘Great Outdoors’ does not exist in isolation, it is commanded and interconnected by paths, pylons, canals and trade. Infrastructure has created a visual language of interventions and icons that make the chaos of the unpredictable world defined and usable.

In the past, the building of these projects went hand and hand with nation building. But the systems that serve us are no longer discrete and bounded, they cross borders, they disappear, they are more entangled and interconnected then ever.

In this new World we find ourselves, what will be the next projects that serve society better? Who should be serving and who should be served? And how will these projects address our fundamental human needs?

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Design Jam Dublin

Twenty five designers, developers, techies and geeks assembled at ‘Furious Tribe’s’ offices in Dublin, on Saturday morning August 31st 2012 to examine how we might use this city in 2042. Unfortunately, there were no crystal balls available so we would have to rely on our imaginations and psychological understanding of what people might need in the future.


The scenario was set, Dublin in thirty years time where Wi-Fi is pervasive and data is open, freely generated and accessible by everyone. We were asked to design a service to help visitors to Dublin ‘become local’, to discover hidden gems and connect with the city over a short time in a meaningful way.

This was a user experience (UX) challenge, so it went without saying that we had to strive to make it useful, usable, intuitive, satisfying, accessible and maybe even enjoyable and delightful. You had to consider all the interaction mediums, including senses, sound, smell, touch and sight.

My team was made up of me, an Architect and Innovation Consultant, Mike McHugh a Developer with Zoo digital, Filip Szymczak a Web, UX and Graphic designer and Finally Gabriela Avram a Lecturer in Digital Media from University of Limerick.  Our work space was a corridor that had been painted with whiteboard paint, so we could draw to our hearts content like children on the walls.

We generally discussed the issues and the delights of traveling experiencing ‘Gems’. We tried to understand the essence of the problem and brief by articulating what a ‘local’ meant and what made Gems so special. We tried to imagine what Dublin would be like thirty years from now, what would be historical? how would people be living their lives? still working in cities? Would society have become more singular with so much personalisation of technology and preferences? And what would be the backlash to these controlled experiences?

We used design-thinking methods to interrogate the problem, which has been defined by Tim Brown from IDEO innovation consulting company as –

‘A discipline that uses the designer’s sensibilities and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity’.

We brainstormed the problem with post-its, individually trying to articulate what the issues were. These ideas were then grouped into similar themes that varied from different themed routes in the city, instant translators, the high tech and low tech solutions, exploring the risk appetite of the user and could our service make people any happier. We then tried to draw insights from this and imagine a concept that would move this mystery down the knowledge funnel to something that we could begin to shape and sculpt.

We felt that for a visitor to feel like a local in a short period of time, they had to have a meaningful conversation with the city. This type of intimate interaction got us thinking about social bon fires and the sparks that are catalysts for conversation. We drew an empathy map of user, ‘Johnny’ from China, who was thirty two years old, a tax consultant, single in Ireland on business and would like to have meaningful conversations.

Coming Together

All the teams reconvened after two hours to share the direction in which they were heading. This was a good opportunity to get feedback and test out the validity of the ideas. I found it interesting that many teams choose similar approaches with a high expectation on technology to do the research and make the decisions for you. There is also a challenge with this premise for the future, when do we switch off the technology to make free decisions and craft out our own routes to create our own stories? because so often in life, you deserve to find ‘Gems’ as you’ve made the effort to search them out and that’s part of the reward for the effort.

Team One – Visituoso

Team one started with the idea of creating a heat map of Dublin with their interests highlighted, their would also be locked areas with ‘Gems’ and a user would gain access only if they passed the test of matching the criteria to deserve to get in.

They developed it further and called it Visituoso and imagined as a visitor was approaching Ireland on a plane, they would be able to watch a collection of videos through the airline Wi-Fi tailored around what he might be interested in.

We would have a print out of an events book, with heat maps and to go places and their device would ‘chirp’ to announce there was a ‘Gem’ three minutes from their location. The user would then have to answer a question to gain access, and if answered incorrectly would tell you ‘this Gem is not for you’. The service is a sort of game and if the visitor can get twenty gems in total on his visit, they win the prize and can officially call themselves ‘a local’! – Many visits may be required to gain that status.

Team Two – Jaunt

Team two started with the Landmark of Spire which they called the ‘Jaunt’ point, which is the main meeting point for many nervous travellers. Their idea was that this inanimate object would dispense information about specific literary ‘Jaunts’ around the city. The user would receive a map with holes punched showing the location of their route, they would also be able to find out if there were other people on the literary route who fancied meeting up for chat about their shared interest. They also used the post card to share their route with friends at home as the humble piece of technology may illicit the same response as the polaroid camera does today.

Team Three – Hidden Dublin

Team three set out with the aim to create a multi-sensory device that would access how you hear, taste and smell the city, and learn from you as you explore.

A User would be given a map of Dublin red spots indicating their personal interests, blue dots with general interest items.  As you experienced each place you would access how you liked it in terms of the noise, smell, taste and it’s aesthetics.  If you had a bad experience the map would recalibrate and learn from this with it’s next suggestion, each venue would have its own personality.

They also considered how this would be used by groups or families. The team imagined there would be a parent, slave device that would gather Information from all the devices and come up with a solution that would work for everyone. But there is also could be danger with so much compromise that the system will come back with the response of ‘no match or result found!’

Team Four

Team four started with the premise that they would have a stalker profile from Google, Facebook, LinkedIn or from whatever service will be available in the future. They demonstrated a novel prototype by having a video of someone leaving their hotel, wandering up the street and deciding where to go. Their Google type glasses brought up options of ‘What do you feel like?’ – music, culture, sport, shopping etc. Using your hand to swipe music, you’re then told where a gig is happening, your played a sample of the music and you decide if that’s where you want to go, Google’s red arrows then lead you to the venue.

Team Five  – Conversations with the City

Our Team presented our Conversation with the City called ‘Sparks’. We wanted to plug into the randomness and serendipity that people love in life but also create a mechanism to start up those random conversations. Everyone would have a spark, you could opt in or out, depending on your mood. Your personal assistant would direct you to social bonfires where you would be welcome, you could also bring your spark to an individual who was open to conversation and tell some stories about the cities. We were interested in stories that stick and the movement of fire and sparks around the city.

Stepping back from the benefits that these technologies could bring to us in the future, it will be interesting to see who is stalking us in thirty years time and tracking our movements? How will we behave? What will we value? And what will we idealise?

After our flurry of ideas and imaginative wanderings, we disbanded to the nearest pub without an app in sight to access if we were happy with the choice. What’s extraordinary is that we have a built in code that helps us get along with relative strangers and start conversations by finding common ground and building on it from there. I wonder if a sophisticated database and service will transcend the need and desire for us to have these conversations and provide us with the same humour, changing expressions, clinking of glasses and pleasure of enjoying shared experiences…          We will have to see.

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Pharma, Pitching and Particles at EuroScience Open Forum

Talk 12 – 14.07.12 – Can Europe Save the Pharma Industry? 

 Luke O’Neill (Academic Director of the Trinity Biomedical Sciences institute) opened this debate proposing the question, if the Pharma industry is broken and if it’s best to just manage its decline. He highlighted the job losses that are occurring in the industry across europe and the recent scandals from a drug companies.

The model of IP protection has failed, with the proliferation of generic drugs. Developing and discovering new drugs is a high risk strategy, with the cost of $2 billion to bring a new product to market. Big pharma has started to outsource discovery part of the supply chain. There is a massive opportunity for academia to respond to this need, but will it be a partnership and will academia be able to meet the demands and pace of the fast moving industry.

The testing phases can be highly irregular and if phase three of testing fails; the patients are wrong, as not everyone responds the same way. In these situations better patient profiling is required. In this environment of personalised diagnostics, every disease will be an orphan disease. But diagnostics and therapeutics combination is currently really expensive and the chance of misinterpretation is quite high.

Biology is next grand challenge for science, there is a general human template to analyze with massive variation. Due to improved medication, Aids is no longer a deadly disease but a chronic one, if the medication is readily available. I wondered if there is motivation to develop preventative vaccines, as the long-term use of drugs makes will create more revenue than a once off vaccine?

It was questioned from the audience if R&D of Pharma companies are focusing on providing solutions beyond drugs that relate to well being and health of patients. I believe there will always be a resistance to alternative therapies, as the business model does not favor watering down the dependencies that are created.

Can europe save Big Pharma? is it their duty too? is this a natural transition and would any intervention create an artificial stabilizing on an industry that can no longer grow at its previous rates.


Talk 13 – 14.07.12 What does Art bring to Science? 

This event was organised Michael John Gorman of the Science Gallery, Dublin. Creativity brings provocation, dialogue and critique; artists pose questions, like – What if?

The Science Gallery have run a number of exhibitions since their inception that bring together the intrigue of art and the pursuit of knowledge that drives science. Some of these have been, Victimless leader, What If?, Infectios, Happy?, They explore immediate themes that bring these questions closer to people’s lives.

Michael John Gorman noted that the term scientist is a nineteenth century invention, scientists used to be amateurs and do it for the love of it. The world is creating new roles in society that are neither art nor science, so how will our education system adapt to this demand?

Science Gallery

Clare Matterson spoke from the  ‘Welcome Collection London’, their role is to fund art science collaborations. Many are playful, creating games to understand international trading to provoke intrigue in the fourteen year old plus bracket. It was questioned if there is a greater benefit to arts than science in these collaborations? Clare insisted that it’s not about dumbing down Science, it’s about leading us into exiting new places of understanding. Art working with science can accelerate challenge and curiosity driven enquires by asking the awkward questions of What If and Why Not?


Welcome Collection

Talk 14 – 14.07.12 – The search for a deeper understanding of our universe at the large hadron collider: The world’s largest particle accelerator

Rolf-Dieter Heuter is the Director General of CERN

Rolf-Dieter Heuter is the Director General of CERN who was recently involved in discovering what is probably the ‘Higgs Boson’, the smallest particles that are known to man. In 1989, CERN unintentionally invented the  World Wide Web for researchers to share information more easily with one another.

The Hadron Collider is the largest instrument ever built, creating temperatures that are hotter than the centre of the sun, and the coldest place on earth to replicate the conditions at the first moment of the big bang. The Higgs Particle is a self-interacting particle, the collider has helped them identify this property by analyzing matter behavior and anti-matter behavior. They hope that this discovering will understand what 96% of the universe is made off. The applications of this research are not yet understood.

They first had to claim to see old stuff before recognizing new stuff and this was like ‘identifying snowflakes in a big snowfall in front of a snowfield’.

Section of collider showing a collision

Cern have employed Artists in residence at the research facility and they reckon that they will be “Inspired for ten years at least.” One thing is certain that our understanding of the universe is about to change.

Cern Website

Talk 15 – 14.07.12 – What do investors look for in Business Propositions?

Dublin Business Innovation Centre

This talk was organised by John Phelan of the Dublin Business Innovation Centre, the  purpose of it was to bring entrepreneurs in contact with investors to give them an opportunity to make a pitch and gain some insights in what they might look for in an investment. I attended this conference as I thought I might be in a position to make a pitch in the future and I wanted to understand how it could be done.

Brigette Baumann, an angel investor and founder of Go Beyond Ltd. broke down her criteria into three parts:

  1. Individuals
  2. The Business
  3. Deal structure, who else is involved.

The team was considered very important, as they don’t change but the business model can be modified. She will then  identify the problem they are trying to solve and how are they solving this problem. Is it project financing or equity? What is the life cycle till it runs on it’s own. Relationships were considered very important, ‘we need to be able to work together and understand the different vision of the investors’. Thierry Baujard of Pan Europena investment network put his criteria as, ‘What is the IP creation? and what will be the exit strategy?’.

At the outset of the talk, the chairman of Dublin innovation centre introduced the esteemed panel the presenters. He then made a request to the audience to see if there was a women entrepreneur who would be willing to make an elevator pitch to panel. My heart fluttered wondering should I take the leap, but I never thought I would be able to do it. Some men’s hands went up, but the Chairman said that they prefer to have a women. With a nod of encouragement from my Fiancé, I volunteered, to applause and encouragement from the audience for my bravery at stepping up to the mark.  The fact that I’m looking for work and opportunities made me bite the bullet without realising and considering what might go wrong.

I took the microphone, introduced myself to eighty delegates and told them what I would talk about. My turn was last, so I had forty-five minutes to think and jot a few notes down before I would do my pitch. Unfortunately, my mind was so busy constructing what I would say, I barely took in what the other entrepreneurs were pitching. Within ten minutes I had jotted down all the points I wanted to talk about and felt confident that I could get across my idea.

Taking the floor to make elevator pitch

Without a chance to worry, my time came to take the floor, without visual cues or a prepared script. I gave the audience and the investors an overview of the team, the problem and business opportunity, how it worked, the business model, what was required for next stage, and what difference it would make to have it. The presentation flowed, sometimes in those moments of pressure, the words come, but this cannot be always guaranteed if no preparation is done.

It was great to get feedback from the investors and questions from the audience, who made great points that could be incorporated into the product. The risk of opening up an idea at an early stage of development is that someone might ‘steal’ it. But there is also so much to be gained form sharing and building on those ideas. Sometimes, working on your own in a small team of two can be quite isolating. Bringing the ideas out into the public, tests their validity and the receptivity to them. I’m glad I got up and spoke, but that was the easy bit! The challenge now is to bring the disparate information together to make a workable prototype that can tested and improved upon.

Sometimes you get luck at the beginning of a hard journey to encourage you to continue on the challenging path.

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Policy, Futurists and Fracking at EuroScience Open Forum, Dublin

Talk 7 – 13. 07.12 – The Future of Innovation Policy 

Whenever the word Innovation is mentioned, it seems Steve Jobs is always used as a reference, in this case Martin Shanahan, Chief Executive Forfás, Ireland quoted him for saying that innovation was ‘New ways of doing things that improve our lives.’

Innovation was noted as the instrument on entrepreneurship, so how do we create an environment conducive to this. There are several initiatives in the action plan for jobs in Ireland. One is science and technology research in universities and another is policy to improve the innovation capability of of firms. There are an increasing no. of PhD’s in Ireland ranking 8th in the world in citation impact, but is this a measure of innovation prosperity? Fourteen priority areas have been identified in the plan that focus on smart specialisation. This sounds extremely economic and lean, but can these policies lead to serendipitous discoveries?

  • Priority Area A – Future Networks & Communications
  • Priority Area B – Data Analytics, Management, Security & Privacy
  • Priority Area C – Digital Platforms, Content & Application
  • Priority Area D – Connected Health and Independent Living
  • Priority Area E – Medical Devices
  • Priority Area F – Diagnostics
  • Priority Area G – Therapeutics: Synthesis, Formulation, Processing and Drug Delivery
  • Priority Area H – Food for Health
  • Priority Area I – Sustainable Food Production and Processing
  • Priority Area J – Marine Renewable Energy
  • Priority Area K – Smart Grids & Smart Cities
  • Priority Area L – Manufacturing Competitiveness
  • Priority Area M – Processing Technologies and Novel Materials
  • Priority Area N – Innovation in Services and Business Processes

 John Bell (Chef de Cabinet, Commissioner Geoghegan-Quinn)

 John Bell (Chef de Cabinet, Commissioner Geoghegan-Quinn)

John Bell of the EU Commission spoke of us building the ship while we’re sailing it. This is an economic reformation that we are experiencing. The commission are examining the economy in a connected way using smart fiscal consolidation. Ideas to a country now are what oil has been before. He spoke of Horizon 2020 and the funding that is been secured for this. They are in the process of investigating how we get financial instruments that will work. Systemic and structural reform is required within the smart specialisation strategy.

Ken Guy (Head of Science and Technology Policy division OECD)

Ken spoke of the history of innovation policy in Ireland, a country review was done of Ireland in 1966 and multiple more over the years with each giving the same message of an economy being under pressure in key areas, with very little impact with each ensuing report. Focus changed ten to twelve years ago with the setting up of Science Foundation Ireland with the help of a philanthropist.

Implementation of the fourteen specialist areas concerned him and if they can translate to economic benefits and societal challenges. There needs to one driver – excellence. In the past international competitiveness has created this urgency – ‘The Russians are coming’ or more recently the ‘The Chinese are coming.’ He noted that it’s much easier to operate in plenary systems rather than resolving societal challenges. Getting the criteria right to select the specialisations is the challenge and often time commitment to these strategies falters in times of crisis.

A question from the floor queried if we they were designing failure into the system as they were still going to use the same academia to implement this, but there has also been a failure on the private sector to restart the economy rather than serving itself. Yet the world isn’t either/or, its imperative to align the organisation objective with the government objectives.

Talk 8 – 13.07.12 – Collaboration, Competition, Connection – Evidence of Intelligent Design in European Science Policy

Máire Geoghann-Quinn, European Commissioner for Research, Innovation & Science

Máire Geoghann-Quinn opened this debate by underlining the value of the scientific method and that intellectual inquiry was a worthwhile pursuit in itself. The desire to understand the universe is resonant and universal. Curiosity driven research can bring break-through results not anticipated originally. It is battle to keep science at a central part of society and she envisages Europe as a single market of idea’s. Knowing when nations should compete and collaborate will be the challenge. Europe is at the heart of the of world science, she made a call of action to put science at the heart of Europe. This decade will be seen as a cardinal point in European History. Ideas are the only resource that cannot be depleted.

The issue of collaboration was opened to the floor, with the main issues raised were those of trust. Faraday’s response to Gladstone were he cited as an application of discovers, ‘Electricity is worthwhile because one day you will be able to tax it.

The interest in science and innovation is seen as a safer bet in a world of depleting resources and energy security. With so many people in charge, there is a vested interest that science will deliver eventually if enough is invested in it. Yet the scientist is expected not to be interested in any financial gain, only the pursuit of the truth and deeper understanding of the world. Surely in this environment, human weakness will create applications that do not benefit society. Investment in excellence is the key, but having the right people to access that excellence is even more important.

Talk 9 – 13.07.12 – Shale Gas Fracking: Global Problem or Global Solution

Crowded room for this topical discussion on Fracking

Amazingly this ‘Hot Science’ talk was located in one of the smallest venues but had full capacity with people sitting on the floor, including myself. Delegates from across Europe were represented from a mix of industries and different mindsets on this controversial energy source.The overall message was that the risks were very low if installed correctly with careful continuous monitoring.

Prof Zoe Shipton, from the University of Strathclyde presented her findings and analysis of the technology. Ivan Pearson, a scientific officer in the European Commission, noted that Shale gas an option in the future with concerns over energy security. Currently, 40% of electricity generated in UK comes from gas. Shortages of gas from Libya to Italy were highlighted as an example of energy uncertainty. As Shale gas exploration is more developed in the US, their costs of fuel is as cheap as the Middle East. CO2 levels have also fallen to ’91 levels because of it’s use there.

Analysis of the contexts was noted as extremely important to access if there is any seismic activity, as the fracking process has the potential of activating any underlying faults. Although it is a more complex and scientific process than the traditional mining of gas or oil, many of the environmental impact assessments are similar. For more information of this, the economist has produced a very good special report in it’s July issue.


Talk 10 – 13.07.12 – The State of Sting theory, Brian Green

Illustration of what the String Theory might look like

Brian Green entertained his captive audience explaining ‘String Theory’ that has the ambition of being the theory of everything and a follow up to the unanswered questions in Einsteins relativity and quantum mechanics. It’s aim is to explain the universe as a mathematical construct.

“Instead of thinking of little tiny dots or particles that come together to make bigger things, the dots are replaced by string-like filaments that can vibrate in different ways, and the different vibrations correspond to difference kinds of particles. Everything is basically built from the music of these vibrating strings.”

Talk 11 – 13.07.12 – Designing a Future for Real People – Brian David Johnson (Intel) 

Brian David Johnson – Intel’s Futurist

Brian David Johnson works as a Futurist with Intel, his role to predict and envisage how we might be living and working by 2020. They envisage that the computer will move to zero, where it will be seamlessly incorporated into our lives. What we build in the future will be limited by the constraints of our imagination. But personal touches of intimate photos and coziness will be the slowest to change.

Brian David Johnson cited many examples of our interaction with robots throughout time and the magical qualities and revery that they have brought with them. From Shelly’s Frankenstein in 1816 where the morality of creating life was examined, to a Japanese Geisa robot that perfectly serves tea. Some of the greatest concerns with interacting with robots come from if they look human like, remember the apocalypse in the movie ‘The Terminator’. Robots are closer and more incideous then we realise. The new personal assistant called Suri on the iPhone  will try and assist you in every why possible with comical prerecorded responses to questions like “I Love you Suri”, he’ll say “I bet you say that to all you apple products or let’s just be friends”, My twelve year old cousin even discovered that Suri will read you a story if you ask him nicely. The greatest challenge will be for robots to communicate with robots, as amusingly illustrated in the video below of Suri trying to talk to the robot Furby.

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Equity, Economics and Entrepreneurship at Euro Science Open Forum, Dublin

 Talk 1 – 12.07.12 – Equity and Climate Science

 Mary Robinson (President of Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice)

I always enjoy listening to Mary Robinson, her wisdom is inspiring and compelling and on this occasion, it was no different. As an advocate of Climate Justice and member of the ‘Elders’, she made a call to action to scientist, to focus research and applications on ethical problem solving. She expressed her recent frustration at the Rio de Janeiro climate conference where no definite agreement or commitments were made. She urged that common and differentiated policies were required to drive it forward. In analyzing the roles of the developed and developing nations to make commitments, she saw developed countries more responsible historically for putting the greenhouse gases in the air, so the main responsibility lies with them, as they have more resources to invest in the challenges of over coming it.

She urged for effective policies that were informed by science and our finite resources. In 2050, her grandchildren will be forty-two, emphasizing that these cardinal points of change are closer then we think. She suggested that policy world required a high-level representative or ombudsman to access the effectiveness of scientific policy. As part of her Climate Justice Trust, one of her projects involves giving women’s leadership in nutrition and the inclusion of a global footprint on all packaging.

Talk 2 – 12.07.12 – Digital Innovation and Entrepreneurship: What Next?

An entrepreneur –

“One who organizes, manages and assumes the risks of a business or enterprise.”

A. Neil Leyden (International digital services centre)

“The total size of the global digital economy is currently estimated at $20.4 trillion. In the the next five years the web will impact the worldwide creation of 25.3 million new jobs.. SME’s is where 90% of digital transformation is expected to occur.” – IDC

Neil Leyden kicked this session off after a failed Skype connection to Kieran O’Hea in Brisbane (The former Digital officer to the government) and original organiser of this talk. After watching this failed effort at communication, I realised the importance of real-time communication, the basis of what the Silicon Valley is built upon.

Neil described his purpose as an an entrepreneur as someone who goes against the grain, undertaking a journey of self-realisation. He highlighted the importance of the kick-starter programme and the opportunity for a kid in San Diego to launch his penny arcade. He stated that the US had market led innovation, while the EU had a quasi-socialist approach, which consists of governments, stakeholders, consultants leading to mediocrity. He thought their role was to mitigate risk and failures, allowing mediocrity come to the fore. He doesn’t believe in failure of entrepreneurs, just honest feedback.

He challenged the deficiencies of the current education system built around the industrial model. Which is geared towards certain subjects with less focus on interdisciplinary groups. He noted that Japan has had success with the industrial model, but cannot innovate fast enough now. Surprising facts were that the average age of a NASA engineers was twenty-seven. He underlined that the focus on children to become doctors, lawyers and barristers does not create an economy; they merely serve it, these professions do not create businesses and jobs that create an economy.

B.  Gráinne Millar (Temple Bar Cultural Trust) “Unlocking the potential of cultural and Creative entrepreneurs”

Gráinne highlighted some interesting statistics stating that 2.6% of Europe’s GDP came from the cultural sector, larger than the food and beverage and created five million jobs. Eighty thousand are employed  in the cultural and creative industries in Ireland. In temple bar she spoke of using culture as a catalyst, the role of the digital hub to incubate business and the initiative in Merrion Square to create an innovation cluster.

She highlighted a project the Dublin Cultural trail which gave a tour of sixteen cultural venues in the cities, also highlighting the challenges of tourism with very few repeat visits to Dublin. She noted that there needed to be a single voice in the creative and cultural industries and integration of these industries in applying for EU funding programmes.

C. Vinny O’Brien (e-commerce manager in Arnotts)

Vinny is the E-Commerce manager of Arnotts, 300,000 sq. ft. store with a million products located in the centre of Dublin. There is a backlog of tradition spanning 169 years, yet online selling does not require reinvention of the wheel. The e-commerce business represents only 1% of the company’s turnover.

He outlined the challenges of measuring clean data. But does this help the customer find what they’re looking for? I had the experience recently in Arnotts looking for an accessory, instead of these items been grouped together for the convenience of the customer, I had to search through each of the outlets with the assistants only able to help me with their particular ‘concession’. I wondered would it help the ‘sales assistant’s she had a hand held device with the location  of the stock in the store. This would give them the ability to point the real time customer in the right direction.

Instead of the company focusing on how many search terms they should buy from Google so that their merchandise comes to the top of the searches, enhancing the existing customer’s experience would seem like a better base to build from, but using the tools that data mining and e-commerce provides.

In conclusion, it was thought that the word ‘Digital’ might be the problem, rather than focusing on the issues of creating good strategies for communication. At the moment there are too many agencies representing the same ideas and concepts of working with Digital. Human behaviour hasn’t changed and this is what we should be focusing on rather than sticking to digital for digital sake. If we forgot about the word, we might be able to get on with the service.

Talk 3 – 12.07.12 Science and the Future of Cuisine

(Albert H. Teich, Eva Dowling – ESOF 2012)

The Head Chef becomes the Head Scientist

Food has become an intellectual exercise with different parts of the brain been activated by different flavours. In the future of cuisine, food has become the main ingredient in the laboratory used to explain scientific principles, with the Head Chef becoming the Head Scientist. At this talk the presenters took the novel approach of preparing there experiments in real time, with blue smoke rising from desserts and using liquid nitrogen to make crunchy pop-corn.

Interestingly, I learned that food tastes different if it is cut with really sharp knifes. Japanese chefs use ceramic ones, as the food simply tastes different depending how the flesh is cut and bruised. The speaker spoke of this new intellectual pursuit and the names that were been created for these dishes, one being – ‘The idea of an Oyster’.

This new type of cuisine juxtaposes reality, with food that looks like an egg but tastes like acid, or an experiment of cooking foie gras in a dishwasher. Leading us to believe that we need more chemistry than ever in food.

Is this really the future of food? Should this ‘new’ food have an old appearance, should these new paintings rely on an old story? Should food delight or nourish? And will these esoteric pursuits really help us solve the problem of what nine billion people will eat in the future?

Talk 4 – 12.07.12 – Water Challenges for a Changing World

Damien Bacelo (Catalan Institute for Water Research), Durk Krol (Water Supply and Sanitation Technology Platform)

Children drinking from ‘nano-straws’ in the developing world

China has 7% of the world’s drinking water, yet it has 20% of the world’s population. It was noted flippantly, that ‘the Chinese want to eat steak now as well’. Provision of safe drinking water is now a security issue with biodiversity problems and the threat of pharmaceuticals in the water. There are also many human hormone pollutants dissolved – thyroid, oestrogen and cortisol to name a few. As one of the scientists noted, all the stuff that we’re pooping and peeing into the water is returning  requiring even greater purification treatment.

The effect of climate change was discussed with flooding of industrial areas a major problem, washing toxins and chemicals back into the ground water. The scientist noted that the health damage from water was thoroughly under estimated. A novel product of a Nano straw was presented, allowing people drink directly from contaminated waters with the Nano straw containing a filtration system to remove impurities. This is also a high-risk solution, as who is responsible for diseases if the Nano straws stop working. It was pointed out that living beside the cost was healthier but it is also the most dangerous place considering climate change.

Luisa Prista (European Commission)

Luica Prista from the EU commission spoke about the Water Horizon 2020 programme, which would be led by policy and public public partnership. The vision document is ‘ Achieving sustainable water systems for a sustainable environment in Europe and abroad. Next year the EU presidency will be in Ireland, taking with it the challenges of continuing this joint programming initiative.

Talk 5 – 12.07.12 – The Secret Mathematician, Marcus du Sautoy

Marcus du Sautoy explores the world of the secret mathematician

There is a false dichotomy in education that a student should choose either the pursuit of art or science. As an architect, I made the choice to go right down the middle, as for me both sides of the brain explored the mysteries of the universe and architecture was the main option to pursue this renaissance type education.

The premise for du Santoy’s talk was based on that through out time artists have been influenced by the structures of mathematics. His first example to support this was the composer Olivier Messiaen who used the prime numbers 17 and 29 to give a sense of unease in his piece – ‘ The end of time’. There are also species in nature that use this structure reproducing in cycles of 13 and 17 years to avoid their predators. Artists also use the Fibonacci series to mimic the growth patterns in nature.

Architects reflect the proportions of nature using the golden ratio to give a natural sense of growth in a building. This ratio also gives a sense of beauty, with Palladio’s villas using whole number ratios in symmetry and le Corbusier using asymmetrical proportions.

Left: Palladio’s symmetrical villas    Right: Le Corbusier’s modular man

Salvador Dali was interested in new spaces, shapes and fractals with Jackson Pollack also containing this fractal character. At the same time scientists were exploring the fourth dimension transcending a 3d universe. The writer Luis Jorge Borges explored the ideas of the infinite, paradoxes and the shapes of the universe. His library of Babel was shaped like a beehive.The Chorographer Rudolf Laban shapes in motion with dance movements travelling along an invisible network of paths.

I was left wondering what students should be pursuing if interested in both the arts and sciences? Are there new courses and careers evolving as our society and methods of communication are changing. Are career councillors best positioned to advise on the trends in the future or will we continue to produce industrial age professionals?

Talk 6 – 12.07.12 – What are the important Criteria for successful Open Innovation?

Rick Wielens (NineSigma Europe)

Rick Wielans opened up the discussion by saying that you need to train to perform open innovation; you can’t just pick up the trombone and start playing.Interesting statistics in relation to nation innovation, China has had 203,000 patent application last year with the most patents been applied for by Huawei, a telecommunications company.

Wielans recommended a book ‘the mesh’ by Lisa Garsley that explores meshing new business models together for open innovation. Some example were the ‘Zip’ car rental system for convenient pick up and drop off and the latest innovation, the ‘Whip’ which is a car sharing system using existing cars. Organisations are not designed for innovation. It threatens the predictability and certainty of cash flows by changing the business model formula.

Michael Evan Goodsite (Nord Star)

Nord-star presented a project, which is collaboration with insurance companies to model the unstable weather conditions, flooding and erosion. An online tool is being developed which homeowners, companies and municipalities can make use of in order to secure homes and plan for future building sites.

In conclusion, it was debated if open innovation was just R&D on the cheap, often companies see universities as suppliers of information and research rather than partners, with the smiling crocodile of American companies noted. Leaving it unclear if open innovation and competition can work together.  The speakers agreed that communication was only ‘open’ at a certain point of the development process and companies needed to construct their competitive advantage and value chain around around this sequence.

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What can we learn from Science?

ESOF European Science Open Forum, Dublin, Ireland 11-15 July 2012

My interest in attending this conference was purely based on curiosity. As an architect, I would consider my self a sort of art-scientist, interested in the fundamental questions of the universe, but also the practical and provocative applications of those insights. This four day conference allowed me to immerse myself in the diverse topics of quantum physics, digital innovation, molecular cuisine, secret mathematicians, innovation policy, fracking, string theory of the universe, Higgs particles, water challenges, the pharmaceutical industry and the role of art in science. These were just a selection from hundreds of talks given by five Nobel Laureates, thirty key note speakers and multiple experts in their fields.

Rolf – Dieter Heuer, Director General of Cern, Switzerland talking about ‘a deeper understanding of our universe at the large hadron collider: The world’s largest particle accelerator.

Although we work and operate as individuals within our contained minds, the challenge for scientists and innovators is to use collective and systematic thought processes to make the connections between the worlds urgent problems and the challenge driven goals of science.  Through out the conference, speakers discussed the focus of curiosity and challenge driven research. By imaging an inconceivable goal, like ‘putting a man on the men’, this can drive research and discoveries into unknown territories.

Given the economic challenges that Europe is experiencing, science is perceived as critical to releasing new capital from scarce resources. It is no longer considered science for discovery sack, but science for society. In pursing this knowledge, there is an ethical obligation that results of the research will have positive implications. These types of conflict were discussed at the fracking, human genomics, challenges of food supply and nuclear technology debates.

Correlating the appropriate technology with the policy agenda for a nation is critical to achieving sustainability objectives. Although Mary Robinson highlighted, that there are no consequences for those that chose not to comply. It was extremely significant that Ireland hosted this event, for a nation of limited resources, but who pride themselves on resourcefulness.

The welcome address was mc’ed by the diplomatic comedian Dara O’Brian, lifting the seriousness of the conference, suggesting all in attendance would have to produce a piece of poetry following the renditions from our President– Stardust and the Chief Scientific advisor to government – Patrick Cunningham penning his own interpretation of events. The interval entertainment was evocative and resonant, juxtaposing the traditional sounds of Irish Music with futuristic undertones.

President Michael D. Higgins emphasized as he always does, the interconnectedness of science, society, creativity and business, suggesting that the current systems need to be re-invented and re-invigorated. He spoke of the serendipity in science and poetry, inspiring the analytical audience to look beyond their constraints to the stardust that we are all formed from to provide inspiration for our pivoting world.

President Michael D. Higgins welcoming 4,000 delegates and speakers to Euro Science open forum





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Welcome to India – possibly the ‘friendliest place on earth’

Welcome to India – Possibly the ‘Friendliest place on earth’

The airplane was sprayed with a disinfecting air-freshener before we landed in New Delhi. Sitting in front of us during the five-hour flight were a young scruffy New Zealand couple arriving from Thailand – stinking with unwashed hair and neglected long toenails. I wondered who was going to benefit from our superficial cleansing, thinking our travelling couple were the least of India’s worries.

The airport was like any other international airport, although it seemed quite acceptable for some locals to skip the passport cue, if the appropriate nod was given. Outside the terminal, we were so lucky to be greeted by our wonderful friend Amneet, who offered to pick us up at 11:00pm and host us in her family home. We will  be indebted to her for the kindness, warmth and generosity she showed to us, during our nervous transition to India.

In this greeting zone, there was a hustle and heave of taxi drivers requesting us to prepay the taxi fare at a concealed hut. Our taxi joined the sea of other drivers at midnight scrambling for some road position. I tried not to feel unnerved by the tight positions our driver was squeezing in to. The roads went bumpy and dark after we left the main rivers of traffic, the outdoor fires along the road seemed strange, but were later explained by the ritual before Holi day (pronounced ‘holy’, this is a national festival where people sprinkle coloured powder on each other to break down barriers and rejoice the arrival of spring).

When we arrived at Amneet’s home in Old Delhi, her father and mother gave us a warm welcome, offering us chai(tea) and biscuits at 12:30am, we chatted enthusiastically for another hour, our host in no hurry to retire, graciously giving us her bed. When we finally did lie down in India at 2:00am for the first time, It felt pretty amazing to have arrived, after all the time imaging and thinking about this journey – I couldn’t believe we had actually got there. As I struggled to sleep with  the excitement, I heard in the distance the chug of trains, dogs parking, but overall it was unnervingly quiet.

 The streets were full of activities for Holi- drumming, dancing, laughing and cruising on motorbikes

Laughter, drums and music vibrated from the street the next morning, opening the shutter doors of the house, revealed India in the light. This was the Holi day Festival in all it’s joviality. Families stood on balconies, while children tried to aim at unsuspecting targets. They even managed to get a water balloon within a metre of my feet. The neighbours dusted me with some Holi paint and welcomed me to India, a lovely gesture of universal fun.

India being revealed for the first time

We received such warm welcome from the Kaur family

Our first Indian breakfast was wonderful paratas (flat potatoe cake) yogurt and masala Chai (tea). After being sick for three days in Bangkok and nervous about this journey, it was fantastic for my appetite to return and enjoy the taste of food, especially home cooked.

Typical scene in old Delhi, the sacred cows mingling with people

We set off on our first adventure nervously and with trepidation to the Metro to begin our explorations of Delhi. On the short car trip to the station, our heads hit the ceiling, as we bounced over potholes on the road. We saw cows wandering along the road, skips full of rubbish, bicycles, rickshaws, public urinals, markets, all these new sights but my senses on edge. As it was Holi day, there were very few people moving about, making Delhi and the metro stations feel exceptionally quiet. We expected the metro to be jammed with people, what awaited us was a vacuous tunnel of empty seats and poles. After a few stations, families surrounded us, all curiously looking at us because we were celebrating Holi with coloured marks streaked across our faces.

The unusual scene of an empty carriage in Delhi

The typical scene in the crowded ladies carriage

A round middle-aged boxing coach wished us Happy Holi and asked where we had come from, we had a brief conversation about boxing in Ireland before the train got to the next stop. This type of impromptu conversation would never have happened in China. We exited to an almost empty train station – this was not what we expected from Delhi. As we emerged from the underworld, three men covered in iridescent coloured powder greeted us. They wanted us to join them in the celebration and marked us with yellow and pink powder and gave us another warm welcome to India. Meeting these people and feeling the warmth of their spirit really put me at ease for our journey through this magical country.

Fun-loving Indians enjoying Holi day under ‘India Gate’
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Stepping into North Korea


 South Korean guard standing on the 38th parallel, that divides North Korea from the South

On the 26th of October 2011, I had the opportunity to cross into North Korea, under the supervision of the South Korean and US military. I passed over the disputed 38th parallel in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that has been the divider for the past sixty-seven years and is governed by the United Nations. This opening in the boundary is located in an elaborate shed with rectangular divisive tables used for supposed negotiations. As I observed this diplomatic battle ground, I thought it might be more advantageous to share a round table, making it more difficult to decipher the contested imaginary latitude line.

After the end of World War two and the collapse of Japanese occupation in Asia, a vacuum of power was left in Korea. It was decided to divide the country along this contested latitude line, the North temporally controlled by communist Russia and the South democratic America resulting in ten million citizens separated from their families after the split.  North Korea now has a population of twenty four million with an unknown GDP per capita, while South Korea has a forty nine million citizens earning an average income of $30,000.

Map of Korea divided along the demarcation line

The Conflict

The opportunity to see the border was on an organised demilitarized zone tour that has become a tourist attraction with bus loads making the 64km journey from Seoul everyday. Ironically, natives of South Korea need to wait at least three months to make this trip, that’s if they pass the security background check, as many in the past have tried to flee to the north to reunite with family members. All that was required of us was to send an email and we were transported to a war zone – literally. The tour is divided into several stops, beginning with the penultimate train station before the North Korean border, where it’s possible to buy fictitious train tickets to the North. Next is the itinerary is the ‘look out point’, one can view through binoculars the propaganda town of the North and it’s domineering national flag. After lunch and souvenir shopping, the tour moves onto the actual demilitarised zone where security is tight and tourists are required to dress smartly and conservatively for fear that North Korea take photos of you and make propaganda posters if you were a slovenly dressed westerner.

Tourists get a glimpse into North Korea

On the actual border, where we got the closest experience of North Korea, South Korean soldiers stood half way behind the buildings with one eye on the enemy, so that they could duck easily if an attack was made. I worried about the sanity of these young men, with one eye on the north and the challenge it must be to stay hopeful about the outcome of this tortuous war.

South Korean solders keep eye on North Korea

We travelled underground in a miner’s funicular into the tunnels that the North Koreans had secretly dug. I was saddened by the thought of those that had skirmished in this hellish hole, blasting through the granite, not fully understanding the purpose of the war. All hoping to achieve some sort of happiness, love and reward at the end of their sacrifice. It’s what we all dream about, right? But these ideals often gets forgotten in the confusion of conflict.

Tunnels dug out by North Korean Soldiers

Observing this DMZ, I wondered what was this the best solution for reconciliation of a conflict? It seems sometimes it’s easier to build up fortified barriers than explore imaginative alternatives that get people talking and overcoming the divergence history, status and superiority.  I thought when do people feel most equal? And had a frivolous idea, inspired by the Finnish tradition, to place a sauna building in the DMZ along side the plethora of other conflict related pavilions. Wouldn’t it be fun for the opposing sides to share a sauna, removing uniforms, dark glasses and weapons and possibly share a bottle of whiskey to the loosen the lips and get people laughing and talking again.


After a bitterly fought Korean war between 1950-53 with two million killed overall, the South created a society of opportunities, individualism and a place to laugh smile and fall in love. Every country creates propaganda in order to maintain cohesiveness, making people believe that they are living the best possible life. Both North and South Korea are guilty of using propaganda, yet the North’s approach is considered more dangerous. In 1998 the Hyundai founder in the South sent one thousand cows into North Korea as gift for the poverty stricken citizens, simultaneously North Korea built a fake ‘perfect village’ with actors to be viewed from the South Korean platform.

Military Service

While sitting in Starbucks in Seoul I noticed a young man sitting beside me in his suit, typing on his laptop. I guessed he had probably already done his military service, stood on the fortress wall and wondered when he would be able to get on with his life. South Korean men are required to serve twenty-one months for their country, whereas North Korean men will serve ten years, generously reduced from thirteen. When so much of these young lives are wasted on defence, when is there time to be a husband, a father and be educated?

After the DMZ tour, I chatted with one of the US Soldiers called ‘Futch’. He was disappointed that he was serving his time in Korea, he would have preferred to be in Afghanistan and hoped to be stationed there next. He spoke dispassionately about the experience saying “This place feels really safe, you don’t feel like you’ve served your country, unless you’ve been to Iraq or Afghanistan, those guys are having all the fun out there”. He explained to me the benefits and attractiveness of joining the military that once your service is completed and if you survive the experience, you’re college tuition is paid for, you’re given an allowance for books and an allowance of $2000 a month. Futch said he probably won’t go college when he returns, but will get a job with the prison service and will even get a promotion for his military service. At the moment, the army is overrun with applications to ‘serve’ as there is good money to be made, compared to economic holocaust surrounding elsewhere, but the benefits and contribution to society require considerable more debate.

 Unchallenged US army soldiers strategically based in South Korea

South Korea talk confidently about the unification of their country and welcoming back it’s North Korean citizens. But less consideration has been given to how this will affect the economy and current supply chains. A large percentage of manufacturing for South Korean companies is done in North Korea where labour is only $100 a month which has risen from $50 when the companies first started to setting up there. If this trend continues, who would really benefit from the unification? The large corporations would make more profits and there would be fewer jobs for South Koreans.

Prosperous South Korea is booming

South Korea has built a train station on the most northerly point of the country with the hope that when unification happens, movement will move freely across it. One of the main motivations is to connect the railway to industrious China.  Storage sheds have been built on the border with the hope of it becoming a distribution hub, and ending it’s isolation as an effective island. It was a strange experience to stand in this station, with no trains, empty customs rooms, souvenir shops and with soldiers blocking the access to the turn styles. Will the day ever arrive when this space becomes a progressive interchange or will it remain an instrument of South Korea’s propaganda.

Propaganda map connecting South Korea to London and Paris

What now for North Korea?

China has adapted it’s communist ideology out of necessity, but Korea wants to remain loyal to it’s established roots, I wonder if this resistance is down to pride. North Korea has been shown up by it’s more successful brother across the border who has been successfully recognised on the world stage. I wondered if open communication was able to infiltrate North Korea, would anything change? The physical boundary would seem pointless, if people could speak to each other from their separate living rooms in the North and South of the country. If the citizens of North Korea could get an understanding of the world without the propaganda, they could then decide what kind of life they would like to live and create or join a nation around these ideals.

Can North Korean be condoned for their desperate attempts to tunnel under the border, could they really achieve a convincing attack sending young men under ground hungry and without any vehicles? Pride made them cover the granite tunnel with coal dust, yet I don’t believe South Korea should make a  tourist attraction out of another nations desperation.

In the past six months North Korea has been closely watched with it’s ascending new leader Kim Jong-un , it’s continuing disintegrating relationship with the South and more recently launching a shuttle into earths orbit. What could be the prognosis for this deeply divided territory, what is the economically most advantageous solution? and what will make the most sense for the ego’s and minds in control? I believe the conflict will remain as long as there is a propaganda machine to keep the animosity alive and be-little a nations pride.

Propaganda platform to view North Korea from South Korea
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Falling for Vietnam – Introduction

Vietnam has such a visceral mix of diversity, culture, pride, warmth and determination. As we’ve reflected on our journey through the country, we thought the best way to relay the experience, was to tell the story of getting to know ‘Vietnam’- ‘the person’ and how we pealed back the layers to understand her appetite, heart, soul, mind, physicality, experiences and memories. In the process, we also found ourselves falling for this long elegant country, it invited us into the intimacy of her home and revealed a few of it’s secrets, quietly. We also found ourselves infatuated at the beginning of this relationship, wanting to know everything and seeing difference with every unique encounter with her.

Our wonderful Vietnamese friends- Khoi and Anh

Getting to Vietnam

The decision to visit Vietnam was instigated by friendships we had formed with the six Vietnamese classmates during our MBA. Even outside of their home territory, they exuded a warmth and generosity of spirit that we wished to see the source off, as our understanding of Vietnam up to that point was of a war torn impoverished land.

Our journey to Vietnam started on the third day of our New Year 2012, leaving a crowded China on a cold train at 18:45, with just the two of us in our sleeper cabin, suggesting to us that this was not a popular route to enter Vietnam. Passport control to leave China punctuated the journey at 22:00, requiring us all to disembark from the train, scanning our bags with us ceremoniously getting back on the train in neat lines, in the dark. We entered Vietnam at midnight, off the train again, with a humorous role call of our passports when they had finally finished inputting all the required data, very slowly albeit (we began to wonder why this train was operating at night, and cynically thought it was to take advantage of double-time bonuses).  We were then woken four hours later having arrived at Hanoi the capital of Vietnam, in a station that felt like a provincial town on the Dublin to Galway train route. Mysteriously the crowds that piled onto the train in China had evaporated with only the foreigners left to wrestle with the barrage of taxi drivers at 05:00am. They all offered the same service and all equally tried to rip us off and get value from their early morning start. It’s unusual to feel jetlag from a train journey, but this route certainly left us feeling that way.

Key Facts

Map of Vietnam

For those that don’t know Vietnam that well, it has population of 85 million, increasing two-fold since the war, which by the way they call the ‘American War’ rather then the infamous ‘Vietnam’ one. Its GDP per capita is a mere $2,800, compared to the US, which is $46,400. The Country has been experiencing continuous growth since the late 90’s, with a slight speed bump during the financial crisis in 2008. The government’s main challenges are how to dampen the growing inflation of 15% a year. They have also imposed enormous taxes on cars, leaving the majority of people on motorbikes, probably sensible given the traffic jams we experienced. Life expectancy is only 71 years, with the result that parents but enormous pressure on their kids to start their families quickly, so that they can enjoy their grandchildren. There are also no pensions, so it’s necessary for children to look after their parents, with the daughter in law of the eldest son obliged to live and care for the family.

The reported unemployment rate is 4-6% (this could be questionable with the amount of men on street corners offering motorbike taxi service and the proliferation of street sellers making very little). The median age is thirty and is considered the golden age for Vietnam’s development. Private wages are lower than then the public sector, with state employees earning $200-280 a month. There is also increasing resentment to foreign companies, with protests at a Taiwan owned factory that were paying $89 per month. On paper, the Government denies citizens the right to practice religion, but spirituality is strong and ritual practices forming the corner stone of everyday life. Former Saigon, (although the locals continue to call it so) is known as Hoh Chi Minh City since the war ended, it receives 50,00 migrants a year and is congested with motorbikes, yet overflowing with vitality. I wondered if it’s really possible to label Vietnam a communist country in the ideological meaning or is it more a fusion of al a carte capitalist characteristics?

Mekong Delta
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Vietnam – Appetite


They say a way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, Vietnam tried to seduce us in every way possible way using this manner. The agricultural tradition and availability of fresh ingredients in Vietnam makes the food exceptionally good and tasty.

The Field

Although Vietnam has experienced enormous economic growth, working the land is still at the heart of daily life. The doubling of the population since the war has also meant further subdivision, requiring these small areas to be hand tended without machines. As we passed through the landscape, we saw jigsaws of fields, with bodies bent over, their hands dipping into the earth, there individuality removed by the trademark conical hat. The water buffalo, the sacred animal, makes this machine less work bearable, and provides companionship for the lonely worker. Our friend’s father told us stories of his childhood, lying on the back of his buffalo working the fields and also sleeping and reading on it. His buffalo was a female with one good and eye and much to the ridicule of the neighbour who was a male and twice the size. Agriculture accounts for 22% of the GDP and 60% of jobs, so this way of life is integral to the communist vision.

New crop of rice emerging in Hoi An

The soul of the market, women start early in both the selling and buying

The Market

The market is the corner stone of most villages and cities, operated by mostly women and open for business at 4.00 am, they sell fresh vegetables, herbs, spices, live animals, bread, fish, knick naks and flowers. Pigs are slaughtered at 1.00am with all their parts displayed artfully for the discerning customer. Buyers, mostly women will start their day in the market at 5.00am to get the best quality, while their men go to the cafes and drink iced coffee and smoke cigarettes.

Typical morning scene with men drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, while the women keep the engine running

During our stay in Hoi An, we had the privilege to experience the amazing cooking classes given by Ms Trinh Diem Vy of the Morning Glory Cooking School. Ms Vy stressed the importance of fresh local ingredients and creating strong relationships with the suppliers. The class began with an insightful tour of the market, tasting a custard apple for the first time felt like a desert in itself. The papaya, banana and mango all come from the central region, grapes and watermelon from the Mekong delta in the south of Vietnam, oranges and grapefruit from Laos and Thailand and absurdly convenient seedless grapes from the USA. Next we sampled the roots that give the hearty flavour to marinades, the bigger ginger had a milder flavour, where as the smaller one was more potent and good for the throat, lemon grass sliced then pounded smelt divine. We were informed that the big chillies were from Saigon and the small potent ones from the central area, they use chillies to preserve food and stay warm in the winter.

We then passed through the slamming meat cleavers, with live chickens and ducks, the fish market sellers with it’s familiar odour, were chopping up huge mackerel. We were informed that the colour and cloudiness of the mackerel’s eyes indicates it’s freshness. There were kitchens (street stalls) in operations, with people sitting closely enjoying the chat. Woman work very hard in Vietnam and seem to maintain the backbone of the country, in the market they were on their mopeds gathering up all the ingredients for the Tet holiday, similar to the preparations that are required for Christmas.

Moving through the market, we arrived at the fresh herbs, with the woman sitting on the side of the road surrounded by them. The woman appeared arranged like something from a stage set. They sell the freshest most perfumed herbs you could ever imagine, lemon basil, coriander, mint, aniseed, fish leave, morning glory. Then back to the restaurant with our utensils and burners at the ready.

Morning Glory Cooking School

Shrimp and Cabbage Soup

First on the menu was Shrimp and Cabbage soup, Ms Vy told is that this was a must for any new wife to prepare for mother in law. Preparing this demonstrates her patience and her ability to maintain her husband. The shrimps are blended with egg white, cooked cabbage leaves are then use it to wrap the shrimp paste and it’s all tied together it with a scallion. Cabbage, carrot, fried shrimp and shallot oil are added to soup and cooked until broth is clear and cabbage is soft. Amazingly, this dish with lowly cabbage as it’s main ingredients, is surprisingly delicious.

Fresh Spring Rolls

There is no real dairy in Vietnam, no milk, calcium is extracted from greens and the shellfish and beef is only eaten on a special occasions. Next on the menu was fresh spring rolls, this is considered treat food and is beautifully wrapped so that it appears as much a delight to the eyes as to the taste buds. Dipping sauce is very important and is made of fish oil garlic, chilli and saffron oil.

Taste explosion of more herbs and flavors than I can remember

Marinated Chicken and Mango Salad

Chicken was marinated with an explosion of flavours – lemon grass, garlic, fish oil, saffron oil, chilli, sugar cane and fresh turmeric.  This was wrapped on a skewer and put between mesh and roasted on hot coals. I had seen the street chefs prepare this and was intrigued by the aromas; I slowly then began to understand the culture and loved it. To wrap up the cooking experience, we made mango salad, using a traditional peeler to create fine slivers of a juicy sweet mango then added pomelo, garlic dressing, sesame seeds and garnished with crispy shallots.

The Business of Eating

Hoi An is a town in central Vietnam that generates 80% of the employment from tourism. Ms Vy, our teacher at the Morning Glory cooking school, is a wonderful and inspiring businesswoman and extremely passionate about what she does. She is a the second generation of a family restaurant and employs 180 staff directly and multiples indirectly in four restaurants, a hotel, a cooking school and now a book. She went abroad and saw how much money westerners were spending on cakes and treats and saw it was a good way to make money and opened a patisserie for the tourists in Hoi An. When Vietnam fist opened their doors in 1992, Ms Vy said it was like North Korea is today. The only foreigners they saw were Soviet Uncles, so they presumed all the foreigners were Russians.

Ms Trinh Diem Vy, extraordinary business women and chef, whose passion for food is inspiring

Spaces to Eat

All the towns and cities contain warrens of small lanes and alleyways that change character throughout the day. During the morning, the breakfast ladies serve noodles, bread, tea and eggs; people sit on little stools under canopies enjoying the cheap and tasty snacks. Mid-morning, ladies sell fruit and gut fish, also providing shoes repairs or offering souvenirs for Tet. In the evening the young people sit in front of charcoal barbecues, roasting pork on a stick served with street beer or tea and pumpkins seeds as appetisers. The ritual of extracting what little the seeds offer is more rewarding than filling feeling of the snack.

The next generation, fun loving, engaged and snacking on the street

The Art of Eating

Eating in Vietnam is about community, sharing and not choosing individually what you want. Most of the base ingredients have a rice origin, but this is innovated and presented in different forms to dress up and make the most of a seemingly plain ingredient. Pho bo, is the loyal servant, made of rice noodle, bone marrow broth, shavings of beef and seasoned with mint coriander, fish oil, liquorice, bean sprouts, lime and chilli. Corn is available almost everywhere, boiling pots at the side of the road, or roasting on hot coals on the back of a bicycle. Desserts have always been considered a luxury and mostly consist of the indigenous coconut milk, jelly, green sweet corn and sugar cane.

The market and food stalls in Dalet -The ‘Paris’ of Vietnam

Ms Vy’s restaurant Cargo- tailoring wonderful Vietnamese food to the tourist’s tastes
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