Chapter Ten: It was the Worst of Times … and the Best of Times

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On 26th June, 2007 the Real Time Club celebrated its 40th anniversary with a special black tie dinner at the National Liberal Club, with a near-record attendance of 112 members and partners. It was a balmy evening, and founding members could be seen mingling with new faces over drinks on the terrace looking down towards the Thames.

It had been a busy day, with an earlier luncheon for founding members at which Charles Ross gave an address. He spoke about how the three themes that had driven the Real Time Club for the previous forty years – education, venture capital for entrepreneurs, and funding for scientific research – would remain relevant into the future. All members attending the events of the day were presented with their own personal copy of the official Real Time Club history, newly published and loaded onto a special commemorative memory stick.

The anniversary celebrations were a huge success and everyone went home to contemplate a relaxing summer break, confident in the knowledge that the world was steaming ahead into unendingly prosperous times driven by the power of technology. Sure enough, in October the Dow Jones Industrial Average index reached an all-time high of 14,000 points. Life, especially for ebullient members of the new information age, was good.

Economic fallout

Despite lone voices expressing concern over the unsustainable US housing market bubble and the banking practice of bundling toxic loans into tradable securities, the first inkling many people had that there might be trouble in the financial sector was when previously solid organisations like the Northern Rock Building Society in the UK and Lehman Brothers in New York had to apply for bankruptcy protection in 2008. Suddenly, the whole banking industry was found to be undercapitalised, and what followed was the most painful global financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Credit, which until the crash had been cheap and easy to come by, suddenly dried up. Banks were frightened to lend to each other, let alone to a small or growing business, so many worthwhile projects were simply starved of cash. Over the ensuing five years, governments, financial institutions, entrepreneurs and the few people who still had money to invest had to redefine their rules and the mechanisms for releasing capital to stimulate business growth. It is an on-going process.

While the banks continued hoarding funds to strengthen their capital reserves, savers were suffering the lowest interest rates ever paid on bank deposits. Several internet-based ventures began to spring up, by-passing the banks altogether by putting people with money in direct contact with those needing investment capital. Some offer a peer-to-peer lending service while others provide a web-based facility that enables entrepreneurs to raise capital by selling shares in their business to private investors who may opt to invest as little as £10.

By reaching millions of potential investors, these funding services spread the risk for the individual investor while at the same time vastly expanding the pool of capital available to the entrepreneur. Rates of return for investors can be several times what they could achieve on basic savings instruments. Most services provide credit checking and risk assessment of each venture, and have strict requirements on the submission of business plans and financial data.

Both of these funding models are built on technologies that members of the Real Time Club developed, and rely on the clause governing the self-certification of private investors that was written by the Real Time Club.

Meanwhile, the new Coalition government, looking for cost savings in the overblown national budget it inherited, finally admitted that its predecessor’s massive project to digitise the National Health Service records had to be written off as not fit for purpose. The project, begun in 2002, had cost over £12 billion by 2011 and still not delivered the national records database as specified. In announcing the cancellation of further work on the project, the Coalition government said it would be returning to a process of localising NHS IT.

The collapse of the NHS project had once again raised questions about the ability of government and its contractors to deliver a large-scale IT project to specification, on time and within budget, a major concern that Real Timers had been expressing throughout the Club’s history.

Surviving the storm

The first two years of financial crisis in the global economy saw an unsurprising slowdown in activity within the Real Time Club, as members devoted themselves to the urgent task of survival in their respective businesses. Attendance at regular dinner meetings was slightly down and there was little, if any, time available to pursue special caucus activities.

Gradually, however, business constraints began to ease, and a succession of energetic Chairmen drew larger crowds with some interesting, timely and controversial guest speakers. There was also a concerted effort to increase visibility and attendance at RTC dinners. During Mark Holford’s chairmanship, the club once again tried using different venues, including Singapura Restaurant and the upstairs dining room at the National Liberal Club. Both events drew good attendance, as did Mark’s signature evening with Vernon Ellis, formerly International Chairman of Accenture and contemporary Chairman of the English National Opera, talking about why the ICT industry should care about the arts. Mark’s final evening as Chairman, when he brought along wines from his own impressive cellar as a special treat for the evening’s diners, was particularly popular!

When Michael Mainelli took over as organiser, he continued to introduce new themes and ideas to the evenings as a way of stimulating greater participation. During his year, Club diners were treated to Nerd Night, with several researchers from UCL each discussing their current research projects; Spooks Night, which featured real examples of readily available surveillance equipment; Green Tech Night, during which members played an investment game based on green energy projects; and an evening titled, Dude, Where is My Identity?, when a group of students from Eton and the Oratory demonstrated just how ubiquitous social networking sites have become for young people.

Michael also used his year to take another look at Club administration. A team redesigned the RTC website and captured up-to-date contact details, while the bookings procedure was automated through the use of an online booking system. In another effort to streamline administration and make the Club more universally accessible, Michael convinced Council to abandon the annual membership fee and return to the earlier system of new members being proposed by two existing members and formally recognised by Council.

Around the same time, an Online Community coordinator was appointed to try to develop the network of people included in RTC event invitations. As a professional head-hunter in the IT space, Dominic Connor had amassed a huge database of people across a wide spectrum of the industry. Using the meeting on financial markets as a pilot, he searched his database for people who would find the talk relevant and sent out hundreds of personal invitations to attend. The pilot was hugely successful and has been repeated for many subsequent meetings, drawing many new young members to secure the future of the Club.

Maury Shenk, Chairman from 2010 to 2011, was instrumental in formalising the legal structure of the Club. He also organised one of the most successful events of the decade, when Professor Robert Dijkgraaf, Distinguished Professor of Mathematical Physics at the University of Amsterdam spoke to a joint event with Gresham College on the proposition that “recent discoveries in physics, from Verlinde’s new theory of gravity to neutrinos that may move faster than light, show that the end of space and time is far from over”.

Has nothing changed?

Bill Freyenfeld, RTC Convenor for 15 years and tireless champion of improving the quality of IT education in UK schools, passed away on 11th April, 2011, aged 83. The September 2011 meeting was dedicated to his memory with a presentation by Professor Simon Peyton Jones, whose talk on ‘Tackling the ICT Education Crisis in UK Schools’ reminded members of how much work still has to be done to achieve Bill’s vision.

And it certainly is a crisis. As the world was coming to grips with the economic fallout from the banking crisis, it became clear very quickly that information and communication technologies must play a major role in rebuilding economic growth, yet developed countries are failing to produce enough IT skills to meet growing demand. Moreover, emerging and developing economies are soaking up increasing numbers of skilled IT workers to fuel their own growth and in many cases their schools are already better prepared to teach science and technology to their young people. For members of the Real Time Club this was yet another wake-up call for the UK government to tackle the issue of IT education at school level.

In 2006 the BCS issued a warning showing that demand for IT and computer graduates in the UK had doubled in the previous four years, but the number of students studying the subjects in tertiary education had declined by one third. Part of the reason given was that primary and secondary schools were not teaching ICT in a way that inspired students to pursue the subject at university.

Despite this warning, and all the work the Real Time Club had put into its JAPONITE programme and the SCALE 21 research project, the trend continued. A report from the Royal Society published in 2010/11 claimed that there was a fall of 33% over three years in students taking ICT courses at GCSE level, and 57% over eight years in A-level students taking Computing courses. These were disappointing figures to members of the RTC who had invested so much time and energy into the Club’s Education Caucus.

New initiatives

With renewed vigour, the Club began to pursue a new multi-pronged approach, supporting several different initiatives targeted towards the twin objectives of developing computer skills in young people and promoting new research projects. For example, the Fortieth Anniversary Dinner was attended by two professors from Cambridge University and two international RTC members from Kansas City in the US. As a result of their meeting, arrangements were made for a promising young American physics student to do a summer internship at the Department of Advanced Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at Cambridge University, working on various aspects of Quantum Physics.

As a quid pro quo, the American members arranged a summer internship for two sixth formers from Highgate School in London to work on a project measuring the curvature of light at the Fermi Laboratory near Chicago. Both students subsequently went on to study physics at Cambridge University. The Club considered trying to make this exchange an annual event by sponsoring one or two sixth form students, but was eventually defeated in its ambition by a combination of apathy on the part of the Institute of Physics, the bureaucratic machinations of Health and Safety regulations and the US Immigration Authorities.

Another opportunity was kicked off when an RTC member gave a lecture to the sixth form at Highgate School on the future of quantum computing. While there he learned of a school project organised by David Smith, the Head of Physics, to enable students to observe the sky through the Mount Palomar telescope via an Internet link. Smith was duly invited to bring along one of his students, Sam Michaels, to give a presentation on this project at a Real Time Club dinner when the government’s Chief Scientist, Bob (now Lord) May was a guest.

Yet another whole evening was used to highlight challenges in contemporary research, when a team of five scientists from UCL came along with Anthony Finkelstein, Head of the Computer Science Department to talk about what they were currently working on and the challenges that lie beyond the bleeding edge.

Financial support

As the Real Time Club continued to attract members new and old to its dining events, its finances once again strengthened enough to enable it to support more external projects. In 2011 under the leadership of Geoff McMullen, Council took the decision to support a project run by Emma Mulqueeny, founder of Wired State, whose work on transformational digital initiatives across the British Government, and as a serial entrepreneur, earned her the Wired UK title of Transparency Activist.

Her project, called Young Rewired State, was aimed at encouraging teenagers to write their own computer code, producing programs to make use of the mass of information in the public domain. Funds provided by the Club helped sponsor a week-long ‘program fest’ at the Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park, culminating in a competition at the end of the summer. So many young people (over five hundred) booked to attend the event that the venue had to be changed and RTC plans for a picnic were scrapped. The Club has plans to continue supporting this project, and will be donating proceeds from its 45th anniversary dinner to Young Rewired State.

When the Raspberry pi programmable computer, designed in the Cambridge computing labs, was introduced early in 2012 at a price of £25, there was a frisson of excitement in the Real Time Club. Here, finally, was a device that young people could play around with and use to explore the challenges and excitement of programming for themselves. The Club fell in love with the product and was about to fund a project to place some devices in pilot schools when they discovered that orders for one million units were received on the first day of the product’s launch! It was decided that RTC input was not needed to get this particular project into the public domain.

Another RTC initiative followed a talk by Dr Siavash Mahdavi, founder of Within Technologies Ltd and Digital Forming Ltd, two companies that specialise in the emerging process of 3Dimensional printing. Mahdavi talked about the high end applications for this alternative to traditional machining and manufacturing, where it is used to print lightweight parts for aerospace engines or custom-design bone implants and prosthetics for injured patients. He stressed, however, that the real opportunities for this technology to disrupt life as we know it are in the mass customisation of high street consumer products.

The evening’s discussions stimulated a group of members including Dr John Collins, lately a member of the Department of Business Innovation and Science’s Technology Strategy Board and Dr Michael Brooks of the New Scientist to set up the 3Dimensional Printing Caucus. Determined to avoid the mistakes of the national curriculum which, in the words of Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, made IT “so dull and boring it put a whole generation of young people off careers in IT”, the 3D Printing Caucus bought a Denford UP 3D printer and installed it in the Priory School in Lewes, West Sussex where youngsters are encouraged to use and ‘play’ with it. Similar installations are being discussed with other schools.

The objective of these pilot installations is to obtain direct understanding of how best to help students appreciate the potential of a career in this field of design, and to enable those students with other ambitions to be confident in a world where the pace of technological innovation will become ever faster. At the time of writing, the Caucus is setting up We Invent Ltd to develop a programme of best practice that can be rolled out to schools nationwide.

The technological rush into new processes that will turn the founding principles of the industrial revolution upside down further highlights the need to review the country’s ability to produce the right skill sets for the future. These are the same skills identified by the Real Time Club’s JAPONITE initiatives in the 1980’s, and in its SCALE 21 project in the late 1990s; namely, design, innovation, computing, research, engineering and, most importantly, entrepreneurship.

But despite decades of lobbying by the Club, IT education in the UK is still failing young people who should be the talent and hope of the future. Within the broad guidelines of the national curriculum, many schools do not teach computer science and most use their IT classes to teach young people how to use popular office software programs. As the skills crisis deepens, many businesses and non-governmental organisations are being forced to set up their own initiatives to teach children how computers work rather than just how to work with computers. The economic future of the country depends on how successful they are, and the Club continues to push for improvements in education as a matter of urgency.

It’s all in the mind

Members of the Club have always been particularly interested in the links between human brain functioning and computing. When Baroness Greenfield gave her talk on Sentient Computing in 2003 she touched on something that many members had often wondered: can computers help us understand consciousness? In 2008, founder member, Charles Ross brought out his thoughts in a book, co-written with Shirley Redpath, entitled Biological Systems of the Brain. One of the central themes of the book is how important it is, when designing teaching modules, to understand how the brain learns new information.

Several members of the Club were inspired to take this work further. During his term as Chairman, Maury Shenk organised a special luncheon in May 2010, addressed by Professor John Stein, Emeritus Professor of Physiology and Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, to launch the RTC Brain, Mind & Computing Forum. The Forum went on to establish links with the Society of Organisational Learning (SOL) and the Daedalus Trust to explore ways of supporting research projects into how the brain/mind makes decisions, particularly in critical business situations. At the time of writing, there is one project underway with a group of underwriters in the City of London to explore where, when and how the brain processes information and comes to a decision.

In May 2012 Professor Guy Claxton. Professor of Learning Science and Director of Real World Learning at the University of Winchester addressed a joint dinner of the RTC and the Brain Mind Forum (as it came to be known). He gave a very lucid and impassioned presentation on the crucial importance of equipping our young people to be able to cope with, and thrive in, the ever faster changing world of the 21st Century. His work has shown that where schools are able to depart from a single-minded focus on Ken Baker’s national curriculum enough to enable children to explore, experiment and build their own self-confidence in learning, the exam results improve dramatically.

Guy’s work chimed exactly with RTC views and at the end of the meeting the Chairman asked how the RTC could help him. A joint working party was set up and subsequently introduced Guy and his colleagues to various publishing and business contacts. Recently Rob Wirszycz, one of the Club’s most successful serial entrepreneurs, has joined the Board of Guy’s company, The Learning Organisation Ltd.

Celebrating 45 years

They say life begins at forty, and for the Real Time Club this seems to have been the case. The five years since its fortieth anniversary saw a flurry of activity as the Club embraced changes in its membership, structure, style of meetings, and causes to support. One thing has remained constant, however – the Club’s absolute conviction that something needs to be done to ensure the UK has the necessary skills and support for research to continue to lead the world in computer design and applications.

It is no surprise, therefore, that the person invited to address the Club’s 45th Anniversary Dinner at the House of Lords on 18th April 2013 is a champion of that cause. Professor Stephen Furber, CBE, FRS, FREng, and ICL Professor of Computer Engineering at the School of Computer Science, chaired the Royal Society study into computing in schools, which built on earlier work done by the Real Time Club’s JAPONITE and SCALE 21 projects. In partial response to the Royal Society report, Shut down or restart?, Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education announced in June 2012 that the existing national IT curriculum would be cancelled, saying (finally) that kids need to be taught computer programming and how to design apps. The Club was delighted.

Members attending the 45th Anniversary Gala will hear Professor Furber give a presentation on his €400m ‘SpiNNaker’ project to build a ‘silicon brain’, using over a million ARM chips. Dick Evans, one of the original founder members of the Club will propose the toast to the Club, and the proceeds of the evening will be donated to one of the RTC’s special causes – the Young Rewired Society.

Business as usual

From inauspicious beginnings as an informal dining club, the Real Time Club has enjoyed forty-five years of influence at the highest levels of industry and government. Today it is a legal entity, limited by guarantee and managed by a Council of members who are elected according to a written constitution. The meeting format remains the same, but there are six regular events per year instead of nine. Membership is still by invitation only, and the Club works hard to maintain the eclectic mix of individuals that has created such dynamism over the years.

But despite the changing nature of the IT profession and the organisation’s inevitable move to a more formalised structure and administration, the Club retains the essence of its being – the spirit of challenge and the energy to get things done. Its motto, ‘A dining club with attitude’, is a true reflection of the RTC experience.

Membership has broadened to include a wider range of managerial and support functions, but the original idea of maintaining independence from suppliers and specific industry agendas still drives the Club. Its unique combination of early visionaries, inventors, academics, lawyers, civil servants, IT managers, consultants and journalists, continues to attract an impressive list of presenters from across the IT landscape.

At the same time, the informality of Club meetings, still held within the protection of Chatham House rules, makes them one of the most sought after networking venues in the industry. As one member puts it, “The Real Time Club is a very informal, very creative environment in which things happen.

Reflecting on his year as Chairman, Michael Mainelli recalls that attempts to set up both a wiki and an online networking forum on the website largely went un-noticed, while the dinner meetings in London continue to attract a wide group of enthusiastic diner/debaters from all segments of the information industry. “Perhaps that shows us that the Real Time Club is actually doing what it was supposed to do,” he notes, “which is to draw people together in a convivial atmosphere where they can discuss and debate the issues of real time computing, – and that it will continue for as long as there is a thriving technology sector revolving around the London hub.

There is little question of the need for such an organisation in an industry that remains poorly understood, despite the ubiquity of its tools and its importance to the future of the country. Industry leaders need a venue where they can trade ideas and information in confidence, while politicians and civil servants, many of whom have little or no experience in the industry, need the independent challenge and support they have always been able to find at the Real Time Club.

Perhaps the true value of this unique and enduring organisation is best summed up in this comment, overheard at a Club meeting:

“Whenever I want to find out what’s really happening in the IT industry, I come along to the Real Time Club.”

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the Real Time Club …

… which was and is, first and foremost, a dining club, with its emphasis on networking and camaraderie in the industry.

An evening meeting begins with members drifting in, helping themselves to a drink at the bar, and gathering in groups of two or more to trade accounts of the latest developments in anything from a recent football match to a revolutionary new technology. As the dining hour approaches, you can see heads huddled in corners and hear laughter erupt from the less intense conversations in the middle of the room.

At 7 pm a bell summons members to table, where grace is said and conversations reconvene over the service of an excellent three course meal. New friendships emerge and old ones are revisited, while the wine flows freely. After dinner, over more good wine, the invited speaker takes the floor, and the serious business of challenging the established order of the day begins once more.

“Lord, thank you for these friends so fine

and for a glass of Bordeaux wine.

So before we settle down to grub,

God bless us all at the Real Time Club!”

Charles Hughes

14th June 2001

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