“Too good to be true”

Gavin Starks
10 min readJul 15, 2023

We are in the midst of two exponential changes: our environmental crises (e.g. climate change) and the web of data. I created Icebreaker One to try and catalyse ‘green swan’ moments: to help break through the complete stalemate of private-public-sector interactions that we are stuck in.

“Too good to be true”

This comment has been made to me many times throughout my career. Leading mission-driven organisations, it seems, sometimes is beyond the realms of believability with people who don’t, can’t or won’t believe that there might be a set of incentives beyond financial and/or power.

And, I’ve never felt the need to justify why or convince anyone who has such doubts. Aside from being time-consuming, it is also defensive and can even undermine the point. Ultimately it’s better to show by doing.

However, it’s not unwarranted, given the rapacious nature of business and the desire of certain organisations and/or individuals to ‘win’ (sometimes at almost any cost).

It is, therefore, also to clearly set out the vision, mission and values of why an organisation is doing something and to make clear its culture, principles and purpose.

This post is for three audiences:

  • those who are trying to build open systems and ‘fight’ against the underlying capitalist system we’re all in;
  • for those who are suspicious of the motives of non-commercial actors; and,
  • for those who believe that ‘the market will fix it’.

I’m going to apply three lenses to these opinions.

In the first section, I touch on ‘commercial thinking’ and why it must be embraced (e.g. the entire web).

In the second section, I reflect on lessons from the ‘free’ communities, some of the benefits (e.g. the entire web) and some of the challenges.

In the third section, I try and narrate some of the experiences I’ve had in trying to bring things together, in particular how government can enable or kill deep innovation, and the impossible challenges of the policymaker.

I then close with why I created Icebreaker One, based on some of the lessons learned over the last 25+ years, and what this means for the next 25+ years.

1. Commercial-first

I’ve spent many years [cough, decades] helping create commercial companies, some bootstrapped, some venture-backed, across many sectors from media (e.g. Virgin Media) to finance (e.g. Asset TV) to environment (e.g. AMEE) to venture funds (e.g. Two Magnolias).

Starting with the obvious, we are in a financial economy-based culture. That means that our metrics of growth, the interactions between money, the private sector and public goods have a complex dance. Companies, and their directors, are legally bound to increase value to shareholders. We might not always like it, but it is a fact — and one that enables us all to satisfy our basic needs.

And, because of those facts, they are — by definition — not mandated to look after the public good. The incentives of the system drive behaviours (even if they come with positive intent) towards bad outcomes. And at the same time, the economic engine at the heart of this drives incredible progress and innovation.

The purpose of government is to ensure that the citizens who elected them to run our societies, and the economies upon which they are based, create the right balances. They are designed (however well or poorly they are implemented) to seek the best outcome for all of us.

And, the third sector (NGOs, charities, non-profits) are there to fill the gaps: to hold both government and industry accountable when they, inevitably, don’t get it right. I say inevitably here because all of this is run by humans, and humans are always messy.

When things go well, we put people on the moon, create global vaccines and educate billions. When they don’t we end up with all manner of bad, from monopolies to mass surveillance to wars.

2. Free-first

I’ve spent many years [cough, decades] working with ‘open’ communities: ranging from technical (free and open source software) and data (open data) to structural interventions (open banking, open energy), to co-creating non-profits, and sitting as a trustee on charities.

One, very human observation, and one of the reasons I love working with young (in spirit, not just age!) people is that we either don’t know something isn’t meant to be possible, or ignore that it might not be, and just get on with trying to build the future we want to be in.

In early free software communities (e.g. early web) there was a highly utopian (and highly energising) vision that we could make something that was for everyone, that would be free, that would be radically transparent, and vastly inclusive. I often view the web as a social response to globalisation: as communities and family units were being dismantled by mobility, the web helped us stay connected. And, as a foundation for maintaining social connections with friends and family, there was/is — of course — an imperative that such communication should be open, free and inclusive.

Many communities felt strongly that even talking about money would undermine efforts, and actively shunned, or struggled with, ideas about how to fund such developments, assuming that there were enough people to maintain things without needing money to keep things pure. And, in some cases, this works. However, in many, I watched a repeat pattern of such communities reaching a ‘certain life stage’ and wanting to settle down and have a family. Such priority shifts can destroy free approaches if there are no new people who can pick up the pieces.

This is important because it underpins a deep-rooted culture that can shun commercialisation or even the idea of commercialisation.

One of my lessons learned from being (briefly) on the board of the Open Knowledge Foundation was how negatively that can play out. Not long after joining the OKF board, I was appointed as the founding CEO of the Open Data Institute. With that role, which included a commitment of £10M of government funding over five years, we suddenly had a commercial remit for the Open Data community. Part of the rationale for the ODI was to stimulate demand, incubate startups and engage directly with the private sector to unlock the value of open data. And this was wholly correct: you don’t create markets by priming only one side. The creation of open data wasn’t enough to produce users that would make open data work at scale. Supply and demand make markets.

However, the OKF board at the time felt that having me on their board would be a conflict of interest: that the ODI would be immediately competing with them on the small pots of money that existed at the time. While I could appreciate that, for me the point was to raise the tide to float many boats. That having a tight cohesion and strategic approach together, with as many of the other small organisations out there as we could join with, would create something investable by government and industry alike. That with more funding, we could scale resources to develop and deliver the mission.

After many conversations, however, we couldn’t reach alignment on that, and I stepped down.

This was a pity. Two years later I was on stage with the President of the World Bank announcing the Data Revolution. Afterwards, a number of organisations sat down to work out how to unlock a $300M fund for open data globally ($70M had already been secured). If we had had such a strong coalition at that point, I believe we would have had sufficient political support to make that happen, and unlock more investment into the open data landscape in one go than in its lifetime combined. I don’t say this lightly: I was tasked by the Prime Minister at the time to try and land it, the President of the ODI invented the web, it’s hard to imagine a more ‘open goal’. And yet, we’d not done the groundwork to build a broad-enough church.

Change. Takes. Time. Tenacity. Connections. Luck.

To go far, we need to go together.

3. The balance

I co-created a place many years [cough, over a decade ago] in which I live, where we mix the models: co-operatively owned infrastructure where there is a blend of private (homes) and community (common infrastructure) ownership. Individuals can do what they want in their homes, buy and sell them, but the common infrastructure has common governance and is actively managed and enforced. Even in a small community (of ~50 people) this can be challenging: I often find it is a microcosm of the broader challenges we all face at larger scales.

One of the core challenges in governance is fear. For policymakers, charities, or even small communities, the idea of changing something is worrying. “What if” gets in the way of progress. This can translate into infinite consultations, groupthink, or even just a lot of meetings and circular conversations that can eventually destroy any enthusiasm to do anything.

Startups are, in the Valley model, told to move fast and break things. To worry about what the rules are later (if they have enough money to be sued). I’m quoting from a board meeting in one of my own companies.

For a policymaker, at national levels, this is incredibly hard work. How to make a decision that, if taken, could negatively impact millions, or create accidental monopolies? And if not taken…well, the same consequences are entirely possible.

The balance is then between the reckless, the foolhardy and the cautious, decision paralysis and continuous debate about the what-ifs and the buts and the maybes.

And we never know until we try. We learn by making. And trying includes making mistakes.

One difference between policymaker and business is that a business has to act now. There is no ‘later’ because payroll needs to be met, competition needs to be kept at bay and investors are hungry. Snooze and businesses lose.

That doesn’t mean policymakers don’t act, but it’s harder. Investors often want to see a perfectly investable (aka derisked) business before investing (product complete, market established, team in place, profit showing) which makes you wonder why it even needs any investment, then a policymaker has a much harder time. An investor might ‘just’ lose their money. A policymaker might create deeper trouble and, while businesses can ‘ignore’ other people’s opinions, policymakers are the recipients of everyone’s opinion, all the time. By design.

So the challenge is how to strike the right balance between ‘now’ vs ’later’.

We are lucky in the UK to have the most remarkable public innovation funding. Billions are spent on research, pilots, and demonstrators, to help move ideas forward from concept to reality. Notwithstanding its challenges (there are vast funding gaps in the ‘scale up’ zone) these can bring together stakeholders in very meaningful ways.

Our experience in developing Open Energy (under the non-profit, Icebreaker One) has seen just that. We convened literally hundreds of organisations, small and large, national companies, government and regulators. Its Steering Group has convened over three years to discuss how to best take it forward. Commercial organisations have lent in as paying members. And ‘government’ has lent in, and away again, and back, depending on who was in power (‘challenging times’) and what the risk appetite was at the time.

So, to keep this very anonymous and not ‘pointy’, here are some quotes I’ve had from government(s) over the last 15+ years:

“We absolutely see the value in this and will add it to the budget next year”

(in some cases they did, in others, they did not)

“Government can’t fund private sector companies”

(this is simply untrue, the ODI, all the Catapults and many other initiatives have been. Other examples are left as an exercise for the reader)

“We forgot [to put the funding in the budget]”

(note that in both the public and private sectors, teams often change every nine months. I feel sometimes that I’ve briefed a new set of civil servants every nine months for over ten years)

“The private sector should fund it”

(both from people in government and the private sector)

“Government should fund it”

(both from people in government and the private sector)

“He’ll move on in 9–14 months, this is just a stepping stone”

(said to one of the board of the ODI when I joined, somewhat missing the point that being mission-driven is, for some people, more important than money, status and/or power)

“That sounds too good to be true”

(that I’d set up a non-profit company for the benefit of both the public good and could unlock billions for the private sector without wanting to become a billionaire in the process. Someone also followed up with, “why don’t you pivot to a VC-backed company”, which misses the point — by about a lightyear)

So what?

All this is a long preamble to the fact that I think we are at a particular moment, in an Overton Window, that could change the future of our economy and our liveable environment.

We’re out of time. We need to act, now.

We have as many of the pieces as I think can reasonably exist to give confidence to what needs to happen next.

There is a ‘raise the tide’ moment that, done well, could unlock tens of billions in value, for everyone. If we can go far, together.

So, to recap: I created Icebreaker One to try and catalyse ‘green swan’ moments. To help break through the complete stalemate of private-public-sector interactions that we are stuck in: there are two exponential changes we are right in the midst of: the web of data and our environmental crises (e.g. climate change).

As such it is a disruptor. But it acts as a convener, a bridge, a community, and — crucially — an implementor. Its role is incredibly thin to ensure it minimises the potential that it might compete with the things it’s trying to accelerate.

Its vision is to raise the pre-competitive access to data (at the scale of the web) to help everyone address the crises that are upon us.

It is based on the fact that we need to do everything, everywhere, all at once. It assumes that the best shot we have to enable that is using the tools we already have.

It is anchored on the most successful mechanism humans have ever created to share information and connect: the web. This time it’s the age of the web of data.

And, this time, it needs to be for everyone, while including the protections we missed the first time around.

We aim to do one thing well and to go far, together.

We are a constellation of innovators, influencers, doers, makers, explorers and navigators. Join us at http://ib1.org/join!

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