Home How to: Work on Stuff That Matters

How to: Work on Stuff That Matters

Tim O’Reilly spoke tonight at ETech in San Jose, on a theme he has been talking about for the past 6 months or so: working on things that matter in the web world. In this talk though he went into a lot of actual examples, as well as strategies people can deploy to work on meaningful things.

O’Reilly began by saying that we’re in a bubble – but not an investment one, a reality bubble. The financial crisis was top of his list, but he also referred to health, climate and so on. However, he said that working on stuff that matters doesn’t necessarily mean working on non-profits or social ventures. He said that the world’s great challenges are also the world’s greatest opportunities.

As at the Web 2.0 Expo last year, he quoted the Rilke poem The Man Watching for inspiration.

Examples of Stuff That Matters

As examples of ‘big thinking’, he spoke about Shai Aggasi’s better place – a company that is aiming to build an “electric car network”. Another example is 1366 Technologies, which wants to make “Solar at the cost of Coal.” Another company, Makani Power (a company started by his son-in-law) wants to create a low-cost energy alternative from high-altitude wind energy. All of these companies attract people who want to work on “hard problems”, rather than perhaps doing it just to get rich. O’Reilly also pointed at the NASA-Cisco climate project to flash ‘Planetary Skin’.

As for examples outside the environment and energy (which are particular passions of O’Reilly), he pointed to Brewster Kahle’s Internet library and Carl Malamud’s project to put government public data onto the Internet – the Yes We Scan! project. O’Reilly applauded Barack Obama’s choice of a CIO, Vivek Kundra – formerly CTO for the District of Columbia, which created the Digital Public Square. O’Reilly used this opportunity to announce a new conference from O’Reilly Media and Techweb, Gov 2.0 Summit. He said that using the Internet to change the government is one of the biggest opportunities right now.

Choose Your Own Adventure

O’Reilly then spoke about ‘the long now’, which he said has been a big influence in his life and business. He explained that we should look at the long view, not just the ‘right now’.

O’Reilly noted that scenario planning is a very useful method of plotting the future. It encourages you to think of the future not as a linear trend, but as a bunch of things that may cross each other. With scenario planning, you map out the extreme possibilities – then build out “robust strategies” to cover those eventualities.

O’Reilly said that we’ve entered an era of “choose your own adventure”. He himself is big on energy/environment and government, but he said others are passionate about education, health, and so on. Whatever you choose to focus on, he advised to work on something that means more than money – making note again that many Facebook apps being built are meaningless (he had mentioned ‘sheep throwing’ on Facebook earlier in his speech).

Another piece of advice he had was to think about how to “create more value than you capture”. One way to do this is to create a simple system and let it evolve – the WWW itself is a great example, but also more recently Twitter. He also advised to “be friendly to people who extend you” – he noted that Google has done this very well.

This was an inspiring keynote by Tim O’Reilly and there were some very useful examples and strategies in it. Let us know in the comments if you are working on ‘stuff that matters’ and if so, what was/is your primary motivation?

UPDATE: Video of Tim’s presentation is now available via YouTube, as are the slides on Slideshare (both embedded below).

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