Today our special guest Carrie Bishop shares her unique perspective into how public services and cities are being transformed digitally in her role as Chief Digital Services Officer for the City and County of San Francisco.
San Francsico, the metropolitan jewel of the Bay Area, birthplace of high tech and hippie cultures, and itself right on top of the fault line criss-crossing the globe dividing those with high income and those with no income. And if that wasn’t a poignant enough backdrop for this work, for this progressive agenda, Carrie and her team have been re-designing and upgrading those public services surrounded by wild fires, in a pandemic, as unrelenting structural racism exploded into the Black Lives Matter movement and counter-protests, and with the Presidential election looming…
Whatever the circumstances, day in and day out, our public services underpin so much of the fabric of our lives - schools, streetlights, sewers, permits, parking, policing. Cities do a lot. In San Francisco, the city provides more than 900 different lines of business.
But as you know yourself, around the world, and even in SF, these critical services are often delivered by paper, by PDF and spreadsheet, through processes and systems made for a different time. So how would you think about transforming those for modern, mobile, digitally morphed times? Where would you prioritize? And what should be the guiding principles?
the impact of public health crises, the impact of climate change, the impact of economic inequalities, impact of structural racism, like all of those things are kind of products in part of poor public service design
From our conversation I hope you’ll gain a deeper perspective on the gritty realities of ‘digital transformation’ in public services, since it affects us all. You’ll bounce between an exhilarating aerial view of what can be possible, back down to an unfussy account from the frontline of just how creaky legacy systems that power our world can be and how hard-won the victories are. And you’ll hear an amusing takedown on the shiny ‘smart cities’ agenda too…
Get involved and please rate, share, talk to me on Twitter with your feedback :)
Carrie Bishop on Twitter
‘Digital Services and the Apocalypse’ - by Carrie on Medium
San Francisco Digital Services
Lee Rosevere for music
Will McInnes 00:00
Okay, I've hit record. Hello, Carrie.
carrie bishop 00:04
Will McInnes 00:06
So I can see you're in sunny California right now.
I am. Yeah, I'm actually in Napa, California, which is a famous wine growing region.
Will McInnes 00:15
You're in Napa? Yes. Yes. Those already jealous before this, this conversation started and now you just casually dropping in world famous wine country.
Yeah, it's It is beautiful here for sure.
Will McInnes 00:32
That's wonderful. How long have you been there in Napa?
Well, actually, literally since March when I already had this house up here, but living in the city. And the idea was, we're just going to rent it out. And then the whole world change setting in San Francisco went into a long period of shelter in place, as we called it locked down, I guess it's called a DK. And at that point, you know, in this been living in San Francisco didn't have the space really or like the means to be able to work from home, I just thought, you know, I have this place in episode, I came up here, and I've been living up here full time. And that person's March, basically, which I feel so fortunate to have this space, because I know so many people who choose to grapple with this completely different life we're living and don't have that kind of privilege. But yeah, it's it's definitely been interesting.
Will McInnes 01:23
That's cool. We'll definitely be getting into that. And I just wanted to say like, thank you so much for joining me today on the podcast, I'm really excited to talk to you about the work that you do. Tell us your story. You know, today you're the Chief Digital Services Officer of the city and county of San Francisco, which is such a cool job title. And I think people would love to know like, what was the path? How did you wind your way to be doing that kind of work as you are today?
Actually, my kind of first proper job out of university was working for a charity that supported single parents. So I would be on a phone line all day, people would call up and say, you know, I'm on my own. And I've got these kids. And am I entitled to any benefits? Is there anything in any support out there? For me, some people would call up and say I'm thinking of leaving my partner like, what are the implications of that. And so I would kind of talk them through the law and listen to them more often than not. So that was my first job. And that was a very kind of front lining kind of job, I was really getting an insight into people's lives from from all that the full spectrum of of income and background. And then I found this opportunity for this local government graduate programme. Basically, I kind of like, you know, the big consulting firms do these kind of graduate programmes, they hire people in, you know, on mass in a cohort and the first year and then send them off around the journey. And so local government was trying this thing out, and it was still fairly new at that point. It's much more established now. So I applied and started working in local government for the London Borough of Barnet. And I was there for four years, maybe five years did all kinds of stuff. But mostly my focus was on like organisational change within the borough and trying to work with colleagues across the borough to implement big IT systems and kind of modernise across the board. And it was really hard. And really, at that time, like the web, as we know, it just wasn't as much of a thing. And like, I remember, like, anytime you met somebody else who was on Twitter, you immediately followed each other, because you're like, oh, you're on Twitter, too. There was a, there was a new thing. And it was exciting. Like, obviously, you're on Twitter, so he must be like me, because I'm on Twitter. And no one else I know is like, so it was like, you know, Twitter was just kind of like, like minded people, you know, how naive we were. At the time, I was working with Dominic Campbell, who became my business partner, but we were good friends and colleagues at the time that we would stay late and talk about, you know, this new internet thing that was happening and that social media was happening. And we could, I mean, we both saw that it was this huge opportunity for change within the public sector. It wasn't just about, you know, social contact, but also the way people are engaging with their public institutions with democracy was shifting at that time, and people would tweet something about at the Council about, you know, the rubbish left in the back alley or something with a photo. And you know, this was like a customer service channel that councils just have no idea even existed. And so, Domino's spent some time, sort of exposing that wealth to the council and I do remember a boss of mine at the time saying it's just a phase Twitter is like CB radio. It's just geeks chatting to each other, you know, it'll die out. Definitely have used the opportunity to kind of remind him that he said that, so twice, but anyway, long story short, dumb left before I did, he left the council and said up a future Gov. And then I left and I joined Capita consulting for like five months was terrible.
And when I eventually left and joined domande, future gov and then from there, we just built this company, working with the public sector in the UK and further afield in Australia and parts of Europe, and just trying to bring not just social media, but like modern web technology to the public sector and thinking, you know, like, when, when I was implementing these big, big systems in councils overseas, they're telling social workers like, Oh, no, you have to change the way you do your job to fit this technology, like, no, this field in this database doesn't work with the way you practice social work. So you're gonna have to change the way you practice social work. And I was just like, this is some messed up stuff, you know, like, this doesn't feel like the right way to do technology. And then here, we have this web technology, and it's light. And it's, it does one thing well, and it's kind of API driven. And it's easy, you know, you don't need a three day training session to learn how to use it. It just, it's intuitive. It's designed around users. And in a dot, I think Domino both came from a place of like, what would it be like if public sector technology was as easy to use as the social tools that was the beginning of future Go for it, and then over a period of time, built that company, and then for various reasons, the time just felt right for me to try and fulfil this lifelong dream that I'd always had of moving to America. I remember when I was like, 11 years old. I'm gonna live in America someday. I always carried that with me. And I never knew like, I had no idea like how I was going to do that, or like, what was I going to do when I got there? Like, no idea. But I just had this like, Yeah, and I guess, to explore that. Anyway, for various reasons, the timing to start, right. And so I started to put some feelers out. And through someone who knew someone this job in San Francisco came up, and I was like, you know, they said, should I put your CV in the pile? And I was like, sure, you know, I'm never going to get that job though, right? Like this kind of strange local government geek from London is not going to end up competing with, you know, the Silicon Valley giants who might or presumably all clamouring for this job. Anyway, that's just proof that imposter syndrome is a thing, because here I am. Yeah. And so I've been doing this job for about three and a half years now
Will McInnes 07:29
play so cool. I love the story. Thank you. It's really enjoyable. And lots lots of echoes and hints and little joins, I can see in my own path. It's such a cool role. What How would you describe it to you know, a non technical friend or a lay person? Like, what what is the job about right
now the job is about making public services easy to access for all San Franciscans. And people don't, I think realise how much cities in particular do like what falls under a city's jurisdiction. But we recently counted actually, and there are like 967 different lines of business that a city does. And it's everything from like, collecting the rubbish to, someone will come to your home and check for asthma risks in your home, or like adopting an animal or applying for a permit to do literally anything. paying your taxes, paying parking permits, like doing all of the kind of streets sort of street care and attention, long term financial planning for an entire region, like just so it's just so much and honestly, like, most of that still can't be done online. Most of that stuff is like a call, if you're lucky, maybe or download a PDF and email it to somebody. And then, of course, there's somebody in the back office who's like, typing what you wrote in that PDF into some kind of creaky old system. And I think people think of San Francisco's as very as a tech forward place, and in many ways it is. But just like every other public sector organisation, certainly in the US, and, and but also across Europe, it technology is woefully bad. You know, it's like, there are many systems that are 20 plus years old, creaky, old Oracle databases that are somehow you know, that so much of the public sector has just run on Excel spreadsheets, like you would be terrified if everybody really knew. So my role is to try and try and modernise all of that, right? So not just take a PDF form, and put it on the internet and make it a web form. But to actually say, well, when someone hits submit on that webform, where's that data going? And like, what databases are going into, and then who's accessing that and what is the workflow that sits behind that to get the thing done and then It's like, incredibly complicated and really like it boils down to like organisational change, and winning arguments about why modernization is like, unnecessary, which Not, not everybody shares that opinion, especially people who've been doing their work in the same way for many years, I don't feel obliged to modernise at this point. So So, so I think at some level, every job becomes kind of stakeholder management essentially, like relationship management, let's put it that way. Up and down the organisation. And so that's, that's what I spend most of my time focused on. But I have a team have a team of about 40, people, designers, engineers, product managers, we, we try and run it as much like a tech company or startup as we can in Agile ways of working, much more kind of flexible approaches, modern technology stack kind of thing. And it sounds like a big team, but actually like Brelade, there's 30,000 employees in the City County of San Francisco, and there's like, 967 lines of business site. relative to that it's quite small.
Will McInnes 11:16
Yeah, I was thinking about scale. And, and thank you for taking it there. Because I did a little bit of research and you know, San Francisco has something like 880,000 citizens, you have the fourth largest output in the USA of GDP, something like 500 and $40 billion, which if a country if it was a country would be, apparently the 21st biggest economy in the world, after Switzerland and just ahead of Taiwan. And so and you mentioned 967 lines of business. This is this is at scale, you know, 880,000 citizens is, is a hell of a lot of users, it's a hell of a lot of stakeholders, it's it's it's a big customer base. So how do you think about the kind of the big rocks or the or the quick wins or whatever, you know, business lingo us like? How do you take such a vast opportunity and challenge and begin to tackle it?
Yeah, yeah, you're right to say those kind of the big rocks, and then like, the quick wins, or win or whatever, whenever we tend to use those kind of like, what are the huge systemic problems that need solving, and then what are the kind of instant value you can create? I find I spend my time constantly pinging in between those two levels, like, you know, just trying to so one of the big things we're working on right now is permitting and how you get a building permit, for example. And just think permitting is like a huge system of getting permission from the government to do something, it's like, it's huge, and many people involve many different departments involved involved. Of course, like larger organisation departments that speak to each other very much, you know, the usual kind of big organisation problems. But you know, we have to spend our time also thinking about well, we can sit here and noodle on that, like, bring some systems thinking and kind of noodle for years, probably in, but also like, there's a backlog. There's like stuff that needs fixing, immediately, people are sending things to each other by email, like we can solve that, like, those are the kinds of things so we spend our time sort of thinking like, what are the sort of incremental steps that we can take that start to iterate our way toward this kind of this more systemic thing. And I think somewhere in between that, we spend time thinking about principles and standards. And so that that's the sort of anchor by which we can kind of it's almost like the making lots of hand gestures, which podcast listeners that like, you know, there's a sort of, there's like a pivot point, I suppose. And those are the standards and principles by which we design systems and services. And so we try to hang things off that so to say, you know, people ought to be able to do this transaction online from beginning to end, it ought to be easy to find, it ought to be accessible to all San Franciscans, not, you know, it's in particular, accessible for people with disabilities. But beyond that, the economically accessible, easy to use, intuitive, etc. And so like that being said, What is the incremental win that we can make here? And then like, how might we design a bigger system approach to this, still using those principles? But it is a kind of, it can be dizzying sometimes to sort of bounce between those two levels at scale.
Will McInnes 14:41
Yeah, it sounds dizzying. But I really like how you described it. Could you give us some examples of zooming out the biggest opportunities over time they might seem from your three and a half years working hard at this, they might seem in some ways less achievable than they did before you started because I know myself one I get into something like that, you know, you start to understand the problem better and better. And it seems bigger and bigger. But But when you zoom out, like what, what big changes can happen in the delivery of public services over time?
That's a huge question, I think,
to zoom right out, I think there is an opportunity to think completely differently about how we provide public services, which is more than just, I said, just as if it's an easy task, but it's more than kind of improving the technology and making it so you can access these services. It's about rethinking the services themselves and how they're designed, right. And so that's where the huge opportunities lie. But I don't think many public sector organisations are in a place where they can think about that, especially you're not in 2020, when there are so many kind of immediate problems. But I think when we take several steps back, we see how some of the ways that we've designed our systems for living have contributed to the things that we're experiencing this year. And we'll do from it for many more both, you know, the the impact of public health crises, the impact of climate change, the impact of economic inequalities, impact of structural racism, like all of those things are kind of products in part of poor public service design, if you want to put it that way of poor public policy, and so like to zoom way out, like, just, you know, at some level that becomes overwhelming, like, I don't know, how I from my lonely vantage point, can can sort of even start to think about addressing that other than, you know, again, to like to focus on the immediate needs that are in front of us, and how can we kind of think about it designing things in ways that adjust and in ways that are equitable and fair for for all people and kind of result in sort of equitable outcomes, both, you know, for the planet for individuals for, you know, groups of people. So, so, I mean, I just think there's a huge opportunity to think about public services. And from that angle, I think, you know, there are certainly people in the UK who I know who, you know, featured, have included who are thinking about things in from that perspective, and it's so great to see that thinking happening. But there's also this kind of growing gap between the public institutions that have the headspace in their creativity to think in those ways, and then the public institutions that just, you know, they're still trying to deal with a 20 year old Oracle database. So how are you going to talk to them about the impact of that on climate change? Like, it's just if there's a disconnect there, so. But I do think that those those huge systemic things are where public service design needs to start to move toward?
Will McInnes 18:02
Wow, that was, there was a moment there, where I suddenly felt we were at a different elevation, and it was really, really exciting. And I get the sense of sleeves rolled up. Lots and lots of people working really hard on the front line, and you guys included, and then there is sumed, out at that higher elevation. This kind of goosebumps moment of like, what could we do? If, if we could do it? Like if we had the magic wand or the everlasting? I don't know, but pause button stop the world or endless resources. But but there was a moment when you were describing how public services, in part have contributed to the most profound problems of our time that I saw a really, yeah, really exciting connection there. That's, that's fascinating. How often are you able to connect to that higher purpose given that, you know, there's lots to do?
Yeah, it definitely comes up. And I think San Francisco is especially concerned about equity within different groups of society. And so there, there are often opportunities around addressing structural inequalities that come up through our work. So for example, cannabis is legal in California, and actually, many additional parts of the US are starting to legalise cannabis, although it's still not legal at a federal level. So. So what that means is if you're running a business, a cannabis business in California perfectly legitimately within the state, you have to be very careful about how you report your earnings for tax purposes because federal federal tax is applied. And so there's this kind of real tension there. So there's some really interesting dynamics going on in the US around cannabis in particular and it's kind of legality or status. So, as cannabis became legalised, here in California, San Francisco, you know, decided to, to think differently about how we permit big cannabis businesses, because what we started to see, and this is the thing, this is the curious thing about San Francisco, as well as that. It is the home of so much innovation, like so many of these like, amazingly awesome, cool startups are just like thinking totally differently about the world and bringing this amazing technology. But they will use San Francisco as their testbed, you know, because it's their backyard, essentially. So they're like, we've got this car, we think it drives itself, we'll just go out on the street right here and test it. And many times, that's done without due regard for the impact of that on the residents of San Francisco, the people who who live here and their livelihoods, their neighbourhoods are all here and you that kind of essentially, like this extended pool of guinea pigs, oftentimes for the for tech companies. And so we're always balancing that. And I think with cannabis, it was something where we really, the city really thought about that and realised like, you know, the Uber of cannabis is it's just a it's just a matter of time before the Uber of cannabis, cannabis kind of rolls into town. And basically, if history sort of these businesses that have actually been established in San Francisco for a long time, small businesses that have been kind of operating actually as like quite well functioning businesses that just happen to have been illegal, but now that cannabis has been legalised? How do we support those businesses to kind of be at the front of the queue? For permitting, for licencing to be able to operate as cannabis businesses? And how do we kind of create a programme for those businesses to help them function and kind of make that transition from an illegal, like a profitable but illegal business into a profitable and legal business? And how do we strike that balance of like not overburdening with regulation. But you know, being supportive. And so there are sort of, there are a lot of steps taken to to help those businesses get to the front of the key. So that's an example where, you know, working as we, as we make the cannabis permitting process digital, we're thinking about, you know, our equity applicants or applicants who who are at the front of the queue, and how we help them get permits first, before then opening the doors to those other players that kind of have more capital behind them. So we do get those opportunities as they come up. And with COVID, especially as well, right now, small businesses in the city are really suffering as they are globally. And so we've been helping our Office of Economic Development, give out grants and sort of small business loans to try and preserve some of the independent businesses in the city before you know, this is release takes even more of a toll on them.
Will McInnes 22:49
It's been quite a year. And I want to come on to that in a second. Because the work that you and your team have been doing has been, you've been pointing it very directly to try and help the people of San Francisco as they go through this absolutely insane year that we're having. Have you had experiences walking around the city or talking to people? Or are there moments of satisfaction that have come along the way where you've where you've actually seen the service improvement in the hands of a real human? And perhaps, you know, not even in a contrived way, but actually people genuinely just benefiting from things? Or is it? Or does this work mean that you tend to be still somewhat removed from from the people as they benefit?
I definitely seen some, especially in the last few months, and some evidence of our impact which fit which is incredibly rewarding, actually, because you don't always get that get to see it firsthand. But there's a few things like permits for restaurants to open outdoor dining, for example. And like, again, it taking over sidewalks pavements, and kind of parking zones as restaurant space. And we had to very hastily work with other departments in the city to kind of work out how was the minimum viable, permitting that we need to do here, you know, and how do we help these restaurants actually just get out there and start serving people outdoors so they can continue to operate. And so walking around the city and seeing these kind of little stations that have been created and little structures stuffed into parents, sidewalks and parking lanes and stuff, and like seeing people outside eating and thinking like, because of the work we did, and because we pushed for this, like very light touch permit approach. Those restaurants have been able to keep going those those patrons have been able to keep, you know, spending their money with those businesses. People can actually enjoy like a social moment in the city outdoors while the weather holds and so that's been really rewarding. And the other thing we did was we put up a registration and scheduling process for booking and COVID test and the city has like a bunch of Sort of COVID testing sites. And so just seeing people saying like, wow, that was way easier than I thought it would be to get attacked. I mean, a lot of the rewarding work as people going, that was much easier than I thought it would be, which is kind of like, I guess it's like a backhanded compliment, like I expected it, but actually, okay, I'll take that, you know, I'll take that,
Will McInnes 25:22
I think you should take that I, my, my biggest moments of delight are often those, it's where you, you have a sense of doom, that task that you need to complete and, and it turns into, it turns into a less painful, more delightful little moment, those, those for me are sometimes the sweetest as assist as a citizen, or as a customer. I'm like, it wasn't s**t, you know? That's great. I'm cool with that. It's 2020. In the medium post that you wrote, and I'll share in the show notes, we've had COVID Black Lives Matter. wildfires. At one point, the worst air quality in the world you mentioned was was San Francisco, California, you and your list of achievements as a team and as a function as a city, supporting the business community with grants and permits, helping them you know, get reimbursed for paying staff for extra sick time, you talked about getting your business operating on the sidewalk, small grants permitting for construction, supporting the city staff, you build tools to help the city's 30,000 employees stay healthy, the tests that you just mentioned, you made it easier to donate to the city. Like that's a lot. And I guess my question is, how have you sustained yourselves? In that, as a team, you can't do everything? It's a big job. But how have you in your team? coped?
Yeah, it's been tough at this, it's definitely taken its toll on on the team and us in different ways at different times. I think, initially, when the cut the shelter in place order was given and everything sort of immediately went into lockdown. There was just so much for us to do, and the not least of which was creating just like very easy to understand web content, which is, you know, is much harder than it sounds. And, and to be able to, you know, our standards are about writing that in fifth grade reading level, which is, you know, so, so easy that a child can read it. And interestingly, some of the reason for that well, partly, it makes it much easier to then translate into other languages. And there are many other languages spoken in San Francisco, especially Chinese, Spanish and Filipino. So that so translating our content into other languages as sort of feature of how we think about our work. But, you know, just trying to have all these like, incredibly complicated health, health information and things coming down. And the guidance was all jumbled. And no one really knew what was true and what wasn't anyway, and just trying to make sense of all of that, and kind of get all of that out there and easy to understand ways. That was really the bulk of our work in the first few days and weeks. And it continues to be our work. But we're also building services now as well. And I mean, I think most of us on our team, were just running on adrenaline at that point, like, you know, our days were like, 16 hour days, we were kind of just it was, you know, the flow of information into the team was just non stop. And we had to really, you know, our communication had to just get super real time super focused. And like, just, I think, I think most of us on the team were just like, yeah, just totally running on pure adrenaline. You know, there comes a point, and I think, I think all of us, right, everybody was thinking, God, I don't know how I'm gonna manage this for three weeks or, and then we realise this is looking for like three months. And now now we're in, you know, whatever we are like month six, thinking, could we be thinking about three years? And this like is, is that really what we might be facing? So, you know, we've just had to pace ourselves throughout, I think and just try and you know, ultimately be very kind and understanding of each other and lots of like, taking the time to revisit our achievements and like, kind of look, look at what we look back as well as forward I guess, to mark how, what we've managed to do, and try to share that success as much as possible.
Will McInnes 29:34
You've just inspired me to kind of look back exercise with my team. Thank you take an unintended benefit of this discussion.
And I think that the other thing is that like the successes kind of start to wear off like I was looking back at the last but our last team check in last week, actually, I was thinking I had just written that blog post about all the things that we had done and then at the T tech note, we were doing their product updates, it can usual stuff like what's happening this week. And oh, you know, like, this team is just launching a new form for a new type of permit. And then this team is like, you know, just rolled out a new feature on something else. And this team has managed to, like, fix a technical issue there. And any one of those things would have been a major, like celebration moment, pre COVID, like, we would have just been like, amazed that like, wow, we've got, you know, we've done a whole permit, and it's now it's online, it's amazing. And this was just like, one of three things that I was reading off, and that that was just like a part of a product update. And I was just thinking, like, the scale and the kind of expectation of what we can achieve is also completely changed. And, but we're doing things that would have been a huge deal six months ago, now. Now we're just like, casually chatting that point.
Will McInnes 30:52
That's wonderful. And when you think about measuring success, or the business case, for this, the the achievements that are yielded through this hard work, what ways do you break that down? Not not necessarily in reporting up through the organisation, but just in quantifying the benefit delivered or created or unlocked? Like how do you guys, because I'm imagining, if I'm listening to this, I'm hearing that San Francisco is a big place. I know, it's cool and dreamy. It's interesting now that I'm thinking about the challenge of taking antiquated systems and processes and modernising them. I guess there's a final piece, which is about what is Yeah, what does that unlock what benefits accrue?
It's, it's really interesting, the context here in the US, San Francisco, is very different than it is in the UK, around digital government. And in the UK, there's this big strong movement of digital government, I would say, for most councils, you can do most things online, it may not be the most delightful experience, it might like be maddening. And there might be like, really insane password requirements or whatever, but, but you sort of kind of can write. And the US is it's not, that isn't the case. And so. So there's a difference there. And there's also a difference in I think a lot of what drove that strong movement of digital government in the UK was around financial savings. So like business cases, and you know, I remember, you know, with future govern with other endeavours, like, you couldn't really walk into a meeting without being able to say, like, financially like, this is what we will save you, if you do this thing. In here, the context is different. I mean, I think we're heading into a moment of financial crunch here, which I think will be quite revealing in San Francisco. But to this point, San Francisco has been a relatively wealthy city. And what's, so that was very surprising when I first got here, because nobody was asking me for a business case. But what's interesting is, what they what's valued much more here is, is that equity stuff this much more valued is like, how many more San Franciscans? Does this help? Like? How, how much more access are we giving by making this digital? You know, how are we helping San Francisco's by by not requiring them to show up in person during the nine to five working day, you know, if they're, if they're having to take time off work to come and access our services, then then that's like, we're creating it in equitable service, thereby making it digital, we're creating a more equitable way doesn't necessarily mean that we get rid of our in person services, or that we, you know, kind of make all these cuts, right? It's not necessarily about that it's more about more, right? How do we open up this so that even more people can access it? So I think those are the those are the ways that we quantify this is like, you know, we're looking at, you know, we look at our traffic and our numbers and all that kind of stuff. But we use that to tell a story around how many more people are able to access this, or specific groups, right, this group has previously excluded and is now because we've translated the service or because we've, we've opened it up in some way they're now able to access it. Smoke. Yeah, it's awesome. And it's a very different lens, because I have definitely had been brainwashed by this kind of like public sector efficiency kind of mantra, which, you know, I think has to get too political for a sec, but I think it has really, we've sacrificed a lot of the soul of our public services in the UK because we've just been so focused on this kind of technocratic approach to public services. And it's all been a that the primary and the only driver has been financial savings. It hasn't been equity. It hasn't been you know, different business models are different, you know, kindness to the planet or anything like that. It's just been, you know, how can we gouge money out of the public sector them You know, I think we were told, well, if we if we take money out of these inefficient services, we can use it to provide more better public services and like that it's just proven to be a lie as well. So I'm kind of like, why did we do that? Like, why why were we so obsessed with efficiency? And, and not? It could have been obsessed with equity. Right?
Will McInnes 35:21
So yeah, that's really interesting to me, I've not, I've not thought about public services in the context of equity in the way that I am from this conversation. It's really a fundamentally different Northstar to be to be heading for. And that's, that's incredibly interesting. I'll be noodling on that and for some time, I imagine. And so when we zoomed out, and you You gave me that, that elevated, kind of breathtaking moment of what could be possible. If you if we go back to like Dreamworld and zoom out, and there are lots of resources and lots of time, and the full promise of this transformation is enacted. What could the benefits be there? Because you've touched on being kinder to the planet, you've touched on being more equitable to people, we've talked about the business case, and the cost savings? Like, what is the promise of all of this? If it's done really, really well? Where can we get to?
I don't know if I ever felt confident making future predictions, but I definitely don't right now feel confident they keep anything about the future. But if I were to throw caution to the wind, you know, I think especially in our Well, in our cities, for sure, but even in a suburban areas, I think the impact of inequality. And poverty is just playing out in ways that are, like socially unhelpful, and I think so many of the things that we're seeing, socially and economically are driven by like this, this inequality, and you know, I think, even even honestly, the kind of, sort of working from home or like this kind of new world that we're living in, you know, there's, there's, there's a privilege and being able to kind of retreat to your suburban home. And you know, that those who are able to do that, kind of in this in this one position, and we see this inequity where there's other people who just don't, they don't have that option. And, and so I think it's changing the fabric of our cities, as we speak, we don't really know what that's gonna look like and our society, right, we don't know what it's gonna look like when working back and change. But by, I feel like if we were really intentional about this, and we designed the, the systems more equitably. If we addressed housing inequality, if we address poverty, if we, you know, address racism in our public services, then we might be in a place where cities didn't feel like such extreme places of extreme, they felt much more, you know, like the quality of quality of life would go up for everybody, not just the few people who can afford it. And I do see that the sense of inequality is what drives so much of the kind of hate and aggression in our kind of narratives and our social media presence. And I think that a lot of that's driven out of this sense of like awfulness. And I think some of that comes out inequality. So, I do feel like we might, if we realised this, we might see a more kind of even spread, I think, which might make cities more livable, might make suburbs feel like viable options for more people.
that, like, it's so vast to think about that right? Like, kind of overwhelming myself, just as I'm even talking about it.
Will McInnes 39:12
I totally hear you. But thank you for for trying, going. What's the next frontier like prep? In practical terms? Once this phase of work, whatever it is, this is, is this the first wave of the digitization of public services? Or is a we in the second wave or what? And if there's a new frontier, is it obvious what it is? Or is this all just a flow and an iterative adventure that you can't really stick a helpful label on? Like, how would you How would you break down or describe what might be
next? Yeah, I it's an interesting question. I think with this is like if this is this way, or is this kind of iterations And or is it just one big rupee blob? Like sometimes it feels like you're in the midst of a blob, but I think there are there are kind of some very real very down to earth, you know, just to kind of bring it bring it right back to like brass tacks, hey, like, there are still like Excel spreadsheets powering government right now. And so I do feel like until we are addressing some of that, like until we are clearing out some of that technical debt that has like laid on the public sector, we really aren't in a place where we can talk about redesigning things, you know, fundamental levels, because we don't, we just don't even have the tools to be able to do that right now. Just simple things like breaking down silos between departments so that two departments can collaborate on providing a better service. But we can't do that right now. Because those two departments have to separate spreadsheets. And so like, just to get really real. I think there's there is definitely a hump, right. There's like a hump of innovation that needs innovation at this point. It's just like, kind of just the obvious stuff that needs to happen for government to be able to function better, honestly, and adapt to the 21st century. So. So there there is, I think that beyond that, I think there are then questions about what directions do we take this into, you know, I think there is a way that it's like, very much Smart Cities driven, you know, this kind of idea of like, which we haven't spoken about at all, but which I think many people who, who think they're going to listen to the Chief Digital Services Officer of San Francisco, probably imagine that, that, you know, I would be talking about smart cities, because that's just such a dominant kind of narrative and the government innovation space. You know, really, like, it's very hard to understand what that means beyond like sensors on lampposts. Like I still can't, it's like still very hard to get under the and it's like, such a sort of, like, male dominated, kind of like, devoid of people kind of agenda that it's like, hard for me to sort of like, take it seriously.
to think no disrespect to anyone listening, might be really into smart cities and bitterly disappointed.
Yeah, I like that. So I think, you know, that is like one sort of a dystopian future, right? where like, we forget that people are the lifeblood of cities, and we only think of cities in terms of infrastructure. And basically, as cities become such, like, depressing sort of, like dystopian, futuristic kind of places that literally nobody wants to live there. And it's all just like, empty tower blocks filled with like investment from overseas. And that that just becomes kind of what's a hollowed out as hollowed out cities look like, right. And we do see pockets of that in global cities around the world. And it is like a worrying trend, I think. Or maybe there's another feature where we recognise that like, all inhabitants of the city, because I think what's really interesting here in San Francisco is we never talk about citizens, right? We talk about residents, or San Franciscans. And we do that because we know that many of the people who live in San Francisco aren't citizens. In fact, some of them are, you know, many of them immigrants, some of them are undocumented. But but we have responsibility to all of them, right. And they all make up our city. And so but, you know, thinking about our cities, in those terms, it's everybody who is in this city, not just the people who can afford to buy a house here or apartment here, but you know, the person who's living on the street, as much as the, you know, the the people who run the businesses, the large companies that are based here, as well as the small businesses that are serving that community. And so we can think about that kind of like glorious jumble of people as being like this kind of this sort of kinetic energy in a city and think, like, how can we make this a place where that can thrive? That kind of jumble of people can thrive and sort of rub along next to each other without too much friction? And what can we do to support that? And that might mean, you know, more equitable social services, it definitely means addressing housing policy, it definitely means dealing with public transport better. And I say this, not just for San Francisco, but for all global cities. Right, because I think this is a phenomenon that's not unique. So yeah, so that's another feature right? And it feels very different than the sort of smart cities agenda that we we hear so much about.
Will McInnes 44:46
I absolutely love it. I'm I'm, I'm buying this vision and it's it's more human and richer and Messier and livelier and not devoid, which is great. So as we begin to kind of wrap up on the discussion, I was thinking about your journey, and I was thinking about how cool it must be to be the Chief Digital Services Officer of San Francisco. And I think what do you do? Like not that you're ready, but what do you do next after that? It's like, you guys, the Bay Area? It's the tech hub. It's it's Silicon Valley, like, wet? Like, have you ever thought about, you know, the, the further out future? Or, you know, some people don't plan like that?
Yeah, I mean, it's been, it's like, it's been so different going from kind of running a company to be working on the inside of government. And, and so I've definitely had to adjust my mindset from like, you know, when you're working, when you're running a company, especially, you know, a company where, where there's kind of, it's an agency type of model, like, you are really kind of, like, you have this sort of sprint mindset where, you know, you, okay, I've got this six month engagement and the client, I've got six months to make an impact, hopefully, there's some follow on sales there, like, you know, it's all about sort of delivering those outcomes. But, you know, ultimately, knowing that you, you hope you have a long term partnership with that client, but you also know that that might, it may not pan out that way, right? working inside of government, it's much more about relationships, right, and like building relationships for for the long term, and kind of recognising all the complexities of everything that's happening and meeting people where they are, and sometimes that can make progress feels so slow, because, you know, I know that if I were doing this from an agency angle, I would have been kind of in and out multiple times by now with like, different deliverables and different projects. And sometimes it can feel quite a different, like more of a marathon mindset. But but it's definitely been interesting, so far, being on the inside of government, rather than the outside. Beyond this, I don't know. I am, you know, definitely interested in making an impact. And, you know, these themes that we've spoken about today, you know, bringing, bringing equity in general, from whatever angle and I don't think you need to be in government to make that happen. You don't even need to be in public services to make that happen. You could be in venture capital, honestly, like, the distribution of venture capital in this world is like insanely, inequitable. And, you know, again, like you can you can draw direct lines between the distribution of venture capital and the inequality and, you know, in the employment market and all kinds of other things. So, so that, you know, that there, I guess my point is, like, there's many angles that you can take to improve the world. So, if anyone has suggestions for what next and will is, but for now, I'll just try and fix those Excel spreadsheets.
Will McInnes 47:46
That is a brilliant, brilliant punch line. Wonderful. How can people follow you? Where's a good place to point people?
I mean, Twitter, I guess is probably the best.
Will McInnes 47:58
There we go. So Kerry, Bishop, thank you so much for spending the time today. I really, really appreciate it and I've learned loads me.
It's nice to see you. I hope everything's all right in your world.
Will McInnes 48:07
Yeah, it's good. I've you know, been on my own adventure. And in a bit like, you're still still, there's so much more impact I want to have. Yeah, talking to us been really, it's been really nutritious.
who happened to be at a nutrient?
Will McInnes 48:24
Right, I'm gonna stop recording.
Get on the email list at hererightnow.substack.com
In this episode we discover and explore how a new kind of citizen journalism is changing the world with Eliot Higgins of Bellingcat, the foremost pioneer worldwide in online investigations and open source analysis, whose work uses publicly available online resources and content freely - and often bizarrely - shared in social media to expose alleged Russian state killers, identify the exact anti-aircraft unit involved in the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 and prosecute murderers of innocent children and their mothers in Cameroon.
From this very practical, deeply determined work from his home - and alongside a growing team and crowdsourcing community - Higgins has built up a unique global expertise.
Through our discussion, you’ll hear Eliot’s stories and practical examples that range across some of the biggest events and news stories in the world. You’ll learn about the workflow and tools of open source investigation and intelligence brought to these global events, the motivating forces of accountability and justice, and we get properly into the timely topic of conspiracy theories, including QAnon, manufactured consent, misinformation and propaganda - a topic that first bubbled up in conversation with Eric in Episode 2, ‘Deep Fake, bots & Synthetic Art with Eric Drass’.
I’m pretty sure this episode with the founder of Bellingcat will get you thinking more about the power of online communities in our lives - both for good and for bad, as well as casting a comically amateurish light on how evil perpetrators handle themselves in digital spaces.
Eliot Higgins on Twitter
Eliot Higgins - Wikipedia
‘We Are Bellingcat’ book - available for pre-order
Lee Rosevere for music
Will McInnes 00:04
Now today we have a very special guest, who's going to expand your mind about the world of online investigations until this moment, You might not believe that you could credibly prove the identity of highly trained undercover Russian killers. The origin and type of chemical weapons used in an attack in Syria, or the exact location where an American journalist was assassinated, just from online research, but you can, or more accurately, Eliot Higgins and the team and crowdsourcing community he's built up bellingcat can do prove all of this. They don't just prove it. Their work reaches international courts, law enforcement agencies and worldwide media, bringing justice to victims and accountability to the world's most feared perpetrators. So let's dive right in and learn more about what's here right now. So Elliot, thank you so much for being here with us today. I've been following You and your work for years now is just trying to dig around the internet and do my own online investigation and try and find out how long I've been following you for but I couldn't, couldn't quite get to the bottom of it. But you've come a long way. And the practices and tools and quality of your work has has had a really meaningful impact. And I just have so much respect for what you've achieved. How did you get going, like where did this all begin?
Eliot Higgins 02:26
It really started probably back in 2011, with the conflict in Libya, where I was just spending a lot of time online kind of arguing with people on the internet about things and I was interested in the Arab Spring what was happening there just because my own kind of interests in you know, I kind of grew up between the first Gulf War and the second Gulf War in 2003. And the kind of build up of that and kind of misinformation around that and the discussions around it kind of fueled my interest in kind of Middle East and US foreign policy. In a kind of Europe's in the UK, his involvement in that. So obviously Libya and what was happening there was of great interest. But with the internet, you had this kind of new element where now you have lots of videos and photographs being shared that claim to be from various places showing various things but issue around verifying what was actually true and what wasn't and arguments about that. So I first started doing is looking at these videos and thinking, you know, how can I figure out where these were actually filmed. And that's when I first realised you could look at satellite imagery, and compare what you could see in satellite imagery to what you could see in videos and photographs and confirm these locations. And that was kind of my first experience with what then became known as your geolocation, which is like a core kind of skill and technique we use nowadays with open source investigation. Over time, I kind of built up a kind of little reputation online for doing this kind of thing. And then in early 2012, I started a blog that then just let me I kind of did it as a hobby as a kind of give myself some time. Because my first child had just been born, and for previous few months, my kind of hobbies and interests got out the window. So I was getting used to that. And then I found myself with a bit of time. And I kind of came back to looking at these kind of videos. And this time it was mainly from Syria, and also looking at the phone hacking scandal in the UK, but it was all using kind of open source material. And it really just kind of dip out from that there is kind of small community starts to emerge online of people from all kinds of different backgrounds, some work in places like storyful, and Dublin, which was kind of factchecking and looking for this kind of content. Human Rights Watch, for example, there's some interest from journalists and it kind of just built an expanded from their entire launch bellingcat in 2014.
Will McInnes 04:41
It's brilliant, and I can't wait to share with people some of the the global events of such huge significance that you've, you and your team have contributed to understanding better. I guess when I was thinking about us talking I was wondering, were there clues in Who you were growing up? I used to be really interested in the armed forces. I was thinking maybe you were interested in puzzles, like, is there clues that got you into this line of work, but now you look back down the road, you can see the kind of the trail? Well,
Eliot Higgins 05:14
um, I mean, when I was a teenager in my 20s, I used to read a lot of kind of, like, I guess you would say, left wing, especially American left wing literature. I was also interested, you know, I grew up watching things like michael moore's TV nation, you know, listening to, you know, kind of spoken word stuff that was kind of a left wing, you know, read loads of Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, and, you know, that kind of literature. And then that gave me an interest, I think, in kind of American foreign policy in particular, but also, you know, with things like Manufacturing Consent, this information and how countries use information to build narratives and how the media is complicit in that. I mean, now, the kind of people who do that nowadays are the people who kind of read Hey, cat rubber ironically. So I always feel a bit, it's a bit of a shame that those people kind of see it as being, you know, bellingcat been part of the CIA and, you know, that kind of thing. But I kind of understand where they're coming from it to a certain degree. But that's kind of where I think a lot of my interest was I also, you know, I was kind of a Sony spent a lot of time on the internet. So I think big part of kind of internet culture kind of helped me kind of understand, you know, certain aspects of it, or how information was being shared and how these debates happen. And that's become kind of more more useful as kind of online culture has kind of grown and also, you know, started having kind of negative impacts. You've kind of started seeing communities go around conspiracy theories, you know, Cuba norm and all these kind of things, but in a way, it's just repeating the same dynamics I've seen over the kind of last kind of 2025 years of how the internet has developed and also has meant that I understood how as we've kind of done the work of belling cat and we've kind of grown this network have individuals working together? You know, globally or online? It's because I think partly I understand how online communities kind of work. I mean, part of that is just through kind of experience, you know, doing online gaming and building communities there. And the same kind of dynamics exist in all kinds of different kinds of internet communities be they focused on serious subjects or more enjoyable, fun, lighter subjects. But it has been very interesting, particularly last few years seeing the rise of these kind of conspiracy minded communities, how the kind of dynamics and what kind of fuels that is often exactly the same kind of thing happening again and again, born of a wide variety of topics.
Will McInnes 07:39
That is a really fascinating point. And I would love to come back to conspiracy theories because the rise of conspiracy theories is it's a tide that's reaching shores far closer than I'd expect. I actually had the first WhatsApp message from some of my oldest and most trusted friends were one of them shared something that was conspiracy theory and it feels like a very timely topic for us to return to at some point in this discussion when I think about your work, just a, you know, a short potted history you've uncovered the use of barrel bombs cluster weapons, chemical weapons in Syria. You've used your location to estimate where the American journalist James Foley was executed. You've proposed a particular anti aircraft brigade and the actual serial number of the launcher that shot down Malaysian Airlines Mh 17 I was watching the saulsbury documentary or or drama on Netflix yesterday, you uncovered the identities of two or three of the key Russian operatives involved in that poisoning in Salisbury in the UK, it's an incredible body of work. I guess. I wonder what for you selfishly has, has given you the most reward satisfaction in the discoveries that you've contributed to or the in justices that you've attempted to balance out?
Eliot Higgins 09:07
Oh, I mean, there's quite a lot. I mean, mX 17, for us was very important. Because there we had the first case where we had a really strong counter narrative coming from Russia and really strong disinformation, which we're able to kind of categorically disprove and counter that narrative and, you know, within the public bring this understanding to them of what really happened. And now, of course, we have the core case. And a lot of what we've been saying for the past six years is now you know, being brought up in the court case, and you know, the story of that they're talking about in the school case, is what we revealed over the last six years, we've done work, for example, elsewhere, using crowdsourcing to help with the Europol trace and object stop child abuse campaign where Europol has asked the public to look at objects that were basically cut out of abuse imagery, and ask them to help ask the public to help figure out where they work by amplifying that and working on that we've, you know, help children's be rescued and suspects be arrested. So that has a really positive impact. You know, the stuff we've done, for example, we work collaboratively, collaboratively with BBC Africa is on a project examining the execution of two women and two very young children in Cameroon. It was a video that was being distributed on social media. And because we did that work, the soldiers involved were upon trial and be found guilty for this murder. And if it wasn't for that open source investigation is extremely unlikely anything would have ever been done about this execution. So I mean, that's just a small example of it. But also, you know, more broadly speaking, it's taking this kind of thing I started as a hobby back in 2012, to a point where we're now talking to bodies like the International Criminal Court about how open source investigation can be used in the work they're doing and turning this kind of new field of the kind of online open source investigation into something that's being taken very seriously and it's becoming something that although is kind of in a way, first really done by him. is now something that's widely recognised as a very serious and professional field.
Will McInnes 11:05
Just so profound the work you're doing those examples, you know, just reflecting like wow, to be able to say that you have helped with the identification and prosecution of war criminals who've done such appalling things. It's just amazing and and I hear you talking about the the maturation I guess the the movement from, you know, inverted commas amateur to professional and the significance of the attention and respect that this that these practices are getting. And I'm just imagining if someone's listening to this podcast on a jog or on a commute, not that not that many people commute anymore, they might be trying to catch up. They're like, this sounds interesting. This guy and his team are working on incredible things that I recognise and have heard of, but what is open source investigation, and could you just unpack that a little bit, for the for The novice.
Eliot Higgins 12:01
So open source intelligence is something that has been around for a long time. It's basically using all publicly available material to help build intelligence. And in a way, what we do open source investigation is very similar. The online part is actually fairly crucial. Because what's happened over the last 15 years or so is there's been a massive increase in the amount of information that's coming from online sources. And this is a very, very new thing. And it's partly fueled by the rise of smartphones, particularly with the release of the iPhone in 2007. And in parallel to that the availability of information thanks to social media platforms making information more available, and that's fueled by smartphones being available to everyone. So you can take a photograph and share within seconds. The rise of sites like Google Earth, and Google streetview given us reference imagery, and just basically more ways to discover and search for, for just a huge, vast, unimaginable amount of information and actually use To draw conclusions, you know, just piece stuff together, in a way is when an event happens, it creates kind of ripples on the internet. And we're trying to identify those ripples and figure out where they're coming from and kind of focus on one part of, you know, one event and reconstruct it using this information. This kind of, we explore the kind of networks of information that are being created, not just you know, social media accounts being linked together. But even within a photograph that is shared online, there's a vast amount of information that can be gathered from that you know, where it was taken, when it was taken, who's in it, what it shows in the background. And when you have one of those images, it's strong, but when you have dozens of them, and you have material that you can piece together, you can actually get a very complete picture of what happened in somewhere that could be thousands of miles away in a remote location. I mean, we've been spending a lot of time recently looking at Saudi airstrikes in Yemen. And when we first started that, I generally believe, you know, there wouldn't be that much information because you don't think of Yemen as being a very connected sculpture. But even there we are finding enough information to draw conclusions about these airstrikes to show there were targeting civilian infrastructure, you know, marketplaces were being bombed. And there was no evidence of, you know, suppose a targets military targets that were being targeted there and contradicted directly what the Saudis were claiming about these attacks. So it's kind of using this kind of digital detective worse work, I guess, to piece together things. And going back to the idea of conspiracy theories, you know, in a way this is what the Cuban community does, they piece together stuff, you know, from online sources, but the difference is, we have kind of more of a we're looking for soul connections we're not looking for Oh, you know, someone most once posted on this day, you know, something, the word pizza therefore, this guy is a paedophile that kind of cueing on stuff. We're looking at direct connections between things. And for me, when I started blogging, I understood the limits of my knowledge. You know, I don't have a background in arms and munitions and, you know, conflict analysis. My background I used to finance and admin work, but What I was very clear about is what I could see in these videos and photographs, what I could say about it and what I couldn't say about it. So I could say this video was filmed in a location. And it see it has these military vehicles in it and these other details, but at first, I couldn't say too much about it. But over time, I built my own knowledge, but also was very important about this online open source investigation is it involves an online community, and some of them are experts. Some of them are keen amateurs, some have experience in different areas. When we were doing the Cameroonian investigation, for example, that was made up of a team of people from Amnesty International people from belling cat people from the BBC, but also people from Twitter who are just basically keen amateurs, but who are really, really good at doing things like geolocation. So and they're really motivated to do that. So it's not something that's kind of exclusionary. It's not like saying how we're the experts and no one else can be an expert. You know, my own background is not an expert background. So I understand the value of that. You know, a good research you can can kind of come from any kind of background. You don't have to go to university and spend, you know, five years getting a master's degree in open source investigation, partly because those kinds of courses don't exist at the moment, so much. But often the best people who do these kind of investigations are kind of very keen amateurs who will obsess over a particular subject
Will McInnes 16:20
from following you for years. I can I can picture in my mind the kind of materials that you guys scour your way through. You know, from from memory, it's, it's Russian soldiers posting photos to Facebook groups, its YouTube videos filmed by people of, of war, they may be civilians, they may be participants. So you're so in very practical terms, that content as well, as you mentioned, Google Earth and Google streetview. You're taking these broad sources but you're also taking individually shared so Media on you'd like it's it's cut. There's been moments where it's made my mind boggle the amount that people who are apparently, you know, conducting secret military operations or doing very bad things are actually still sharing this stuff online.
Eliot Higgins 17:14
Yeah, when we're looking into one of the scripts or suspects, I think it was wrestling before Bhatia off was the student and he was using those reports in the home it was the Daily Mail that young woman was claiming that she had been contacted by I should met this guy, and they're kind of been flirting and she said, Follow me on Facebook and we discovered the Facebook page of Ruslan boshirov. But what we're able to do this, he had taken it, there's no posts on the page here just listed. He was from Russia in the description, his name, we're taking a photograph and that photograph was taken in a square and posted on a certain day and it was taken in a square in the Czech Republic we had geolocator and this is where she says she met him. And not only that, but later reports showed that the two suspects had actually been in the country on the that very day when this photograph was taken and shared on Facebook. And he just done that. So we could kind of chat up a girl basically, he was married as well. So that's, that's an issue for him. But it was a really dumb thing to do. And we find that time and time again, you know, people you, I mean, there's this sense that, you know, if you're a spy, you're gonna be really careful and really intelligent and, you know, cover your tracks and you know, be really good. But we time and time again, find that's not the case at all. I mean, it's like with the triple case, you had this completely absurd interview on Russia day where you had the two suspects, and they were sports nutrition salesman, and within 24 hours, we could show that No, they're not sports nutrition salesmen. They're very different from sports nutrition salesman, but still, they made this public appearance that in a way, if it wasn't for that public appearance, maybe our story wouldn't be so big, because they made this kind of big show of it. It gave us a kind of real boost for the story that we did published and in the end, what we revealed ended up in the Yukon The front page of pretty much every single newspaper. And it was incredibly embarrassing for the Russian government. And then what happened to add to this kind of stupidity of the situation, you had the Russian ambassador to UK giving a press conference, where he repeatedly claimed that bellingcat was working for the intelligence services and funded by them. And were part of what he described as the British deep establishment, which I think was his attempt not to say the deep state. And at the end of that press conference, he asked questions, and the very first question was from a journalist saying, Well, where's your proof that bellingcat is doing this? And he says, Well, we don't have anything we can show you. We just have a feeling. And it was just a perfect encapsulation of how dumb and how you know, you know, just completely prophetic. The Russian strategy is when it really comes down to communication because it's not based on fat builders any garbage they like, but when they actually get challenged on it, it just all falls apart immediately. And we found that time and time again, it's like we've me, Chairman team, they're bombing Serious buys everything they just don't expect, but they don't even I mean, they might expect it, but they don't seem to respect that if they lie, and so and catch them at the lie, it's a bad thing. They just keep lying again and again and again, I advise anyone who's getting into open source investigation is to watch a kind of Russian Ministry of Defence press conference. In fact, check it because you'll always have to be fine. They're lying about something. And it's a good way to kind of practice your skills.
Will McInnes 20:23
Kind of comical, awful, hilarious, all in one go. When something happens. What is the workflow? Are there other things that take a very long time to build? And then they gain a momentum? Or is there a kind of an early rush? Like, what's the Do they have different peaks and troughs? what's the what's the rhythm of the work?
Eliot Higgins 20:43
It can vary a lot. For example, at the start of this year, we have the shooting down of ps 752 and around a Ukrainian aircraft. And when that happens, we were kind of doing other stuff as a kind of team. We're now like, we've got like 18 staff members, that The moment and volunteers work together on slack and other communication channels. But at first, we weren't really looking at it. But because we were known for Mh 17, people saw aircraft being shot down in Ukraine and started just sending us everything about pr 752. And very quickly, we just had so much material, we kind of had to look at it. And it was an interesting case anyway, especially when imagery started showing up that appeared to show a missile hitting the aircraft that night. The remains of missiles that are anti aircraft, missiles supposedly taken in that area. And we have to kind of do some analysis on that just because it kind of grew very rapidly and organically, in our kind of, you know, our investigation team. Sometimes it's an individual investigator will be interested in something and work on something and then come to us with kind of the finished product or you know, nearly the finished project. Sometimes a few of the team will work together. So, and I'm a very strong believer that I want people to investigate things that interest them, not just tell people to do stuff, so I'm never really telling people suing him. investigation, they're finding interesting stuff. And then if they're investigating it, and they're interested in it in it, they will dig and dig and dig and dig, and they will stick at it. And it's like what happened to me 17 I mean, we've got, you know, people who've been working on that since July 17 2014, who are still looking into new angles on Mh 17. And because we've stuck at it for so long, we have people who want a new piece of information appears like we're seeing at the trial. We can contextualise it very, very quickly, because we understand all these tiny little elements of the entire case. And I think that's been very important for us to kind of go have an edge over more traditional media organisations, and also unusually bellingcat. Whilst it is often seen as a media organisation, we do a whole range of different kinds of work with different kinds of organisations and some of it is focused on more Justice and Accountability then producing a kind of final media project project. So we have a process we'd like to call identify, verify and amplify where we identify information as part of our investigation. But then verify it. Once it's verified, we then have multiple ways to amplify it. So bear with me, show me team, we've done multiple articles and reports. But we've also done a very high quality podcast series that we released last year. We've worked with various media produced different kinds of products, we've submitted information to the European Court of Human Rights case on it, and you know, all these different kind of applications of what we've managed to verify. Because I kind of feel like you want to make the most of this material because often this material is being filmed by people on the ground, who are at great risk, and they're filming it because they want something done about it. They want the world to know about it. They want accountability for what's happening. And in bellingcat that's in a way what we try and deliver with this material.
Will McInnes 23:45
When you harness the interest that your researchers have and you and you encourage that kind of climate of, let's pursue what we think is interesting and let's see where it takes us. What are the underlying behaviours or qualities that may People great at this work like what what does it take to be this kind of investigator or analyst,
Eliot Higgins 24:06
I think it's more perseverance and a real desire to find out as much as you can about a subject and the kind of feeling that's rewarding because often you're digging through masses of irrelevant material. Like when we were looking at the 53rd Air Defence Brigade, which we identified as being part of the, but they basically transferred the missile launcher that shot down extremities to the border with Ukraine through Russia. And they had a social media page and their social media page was filled, followed by a lot of the brigade members. So over about a year, a couple of researchers used all of that, that basically entire social network to piece together the entire structure of the brigade photographs and names of all the people in there, the people who are parts of the convoy and which vehicles they were in and, you know, all these tiny little details but that requires digging through literally thousands of web pages 10s of thousands of photographs looking at tiny tiny details, and that The kind of perseverance you need when you're building something like that. That's not to say that every single investigation is like a huge complex thing. Sometimes it's just like saying, you know, where was this one video filmed. A good example of that is when we were doing our investigation into Russian airstrikes in Syria that started in late 2015. Because there, Russia had started posting gun camera videos of their bombings onto YouTube. And they would post a few every single day. And very quickly, a very small community of people on Twitter started geo locating them and showing that they were inaccurate. They weren't the places where they claimed to be bombing. Sometimes they were the only one example. They bombed the same place three times. And on each video, it claims to be in a different part of Syria. So we started a project there where we use that small community of people doing in a way a fairly discrete task of geo locating one video at a time and use that to build a dataset showing that Russia was consistently lying about who and what it was bombing in Syria. So what we'll do with that now is we're launching a volunteer session on balance bellingcat because we get A lot of people asking if they can volunteer will have those kind of more discreet tasks shared with the kind of public allowing them to get involved with that kind of investigative work.
Will McInnes 26:10
That's amazing. So like your own belling cat, Mechanical Turk, a kind of army of volunteers who are motivated and who do some of the next line of of the work that happens. And I was wondering about this, this beautiful interplay between you and your close collaborators, and then the broader community? Because you and I are familiar with the idea of crowdsourcing, but what does crowdsourcing look like in practical terms for you guys in the work that you do?
Eliot Higgins 26:41
I mean, sometimes it's because we're making a request to our audience on social media, we'll say, you know, particularly on Twitter, you know, does anyone know what can I figure out where this was filmed? Like we've made 17 there was a video showing missile launcher driving down the road. I just tweeted out Can anyone figure out where this is and within 10 minutes at you 20 ounces of people pointing to set several locations, but most of them point to this one location showed double checks and it was the correct place. Another example we had ISIS supporters posting images on telegram where they were holding a piece of paper with a kind of ISIS hash tag on it. And we and they were ISIS supporters were part of these telegram group groups, and they're in Europe. And the idea was they were trying to spread fear in Europe that there's ISIS supporters everywhere. But because they took photographs with pieces of paper with a background, you could actually geo locate the background and there is kind of followers on Twitter if they could figure it out. And most of them they found within about 10 minutes. So and then that was kind of passed on to local law enforcement, I'm glad to say that found some very bad people and got them into trouble. So that's kind of how we would do crowdsourcing. Sometimes it's also seeing what communities are out there already doing stuff. There's a you know, examples like even pre internet you had the kind of plane spotters with this CIA rendition flights, gathering all this information that they didn't realise pointed to what was happening, but by exploring that kind of network of information that being correct, created by people of this face specialised interest, you can discover new information. I think there was a fake photograph shared by 4chan. Alexandria ocasio Cortez, supposedly in the bath, it was her feet. But there was a reflection they were claiming it was on her Instagram account. And the wiki Fie community, which is a community of fetishes, immediately discovered, said this is not her This is this particular model, ever. It's only because they have that very specialised knowledge of wind speed, that they can make the identity identification very quickly. But it's always you know, that there are these communities out there have all kinds of different interests that can be extremely useful. I mean, even now, play spotters are very useful for kind of spotting people who've landed in airports without their transponders on, you know, that can be used for investigation. So that information is out there, it's just kind of knowing where to look and how to explore it.
Will McInnes 29:04
I literally can't imagine a better example of how to tap a niche community of knowledge than the wiki feet community, which is, which I've only just learned about right now. And that is quite amazing. One of the other things that I'm guessing that our listeners will be pondering to themselves is Whoa, like, this is pretty heavy duty. How do you interact with authorities? And does it feel heavy to you this this work? Does your own personal risk and safety come into it as well?
Eliot Higgins 29:34
Obviously, we haven't got many friends in the Russian authorities. So we kind of had the policy that you know, we can take certain steps which are kind of cyber security, for example, our personal security to a certain extent, but in a way, the best security you can have is by just being as high profile as possible and making as a difficult target to attack. I mean, I've been attacked a lot in the Russian media, we've had cyber attacks, but that kind of all is something we publicise as much as possible, because then it kind of gives us, you know, it makes people aware that we're the sort of person who will be, you know, attacked in this way by the Russian government. And if I stub my toe, people will think the Russians government's behind it. So in a way, that's a certain level of protection. I mean, we get contacted by authorities as well in different countries, because often we're talking about, you know, discovering spies and stuff. They've been operating in their country, and they'd really like to fight, find out how we figured it out. So, for example, in Bulgaria, there was a case where a local businessman was poisoned. And we discovered that it was actually connected to the same Gru unit that poisoned skiffle. And then that led to the local authorities reaching out and talking to us about us and asking us, you know, could we tell them about what we found? it? I mean, one of the most alarming things for this is often where we're approached by people look kind of law enforcement, you really haven't even discovered you've got a clue about what we're doing, let alone the evidence we've discovered. But that's kind of understandable because the kind of origin ones that are doing investigations at the moment are often quite large bureaucratic organisations. And this is a very new and kind of amateur in a way feel that's becoming professionalised. So it's really only in the last couple of years with the skripal case, in particular, and how the Mh 17 cases moved into trial session where I think that kind of community is taking open source investigation more seriously. So that's kind of been a real change over the last couple of years of how that's being used now, by organisations like that and the interest in it amazing.
Will McInnes 31:31
How do you personally find downtime in this work like the headspace? It strikes me that this is always on and there's always something to solve? How do you chill out
Eliot Higgins 31:43
I think a lot of the people who do this kind of work because they find it so enjoyable to do it's kind of their it's their hobby as well as their job. So it's not a nine to five job where you kind of switch off at five o'clock because you're you enjoy so much the investigation process that often it just becomes useful. Tired day. I've wife and two children, so I have to be a bit more careful about that plus, now betting has become a much larger organisation with like, for example, a fully registered charity in the Netherlands and we have a proper Business Administration team and stuff like that I find myself more doing the higher kind of level organisational stuff than the investigative stuff which I missed to a certain extent. But it also means that I can now go and do interesting projects like you know, I've been working on a book that will be coming out next year called we are belling cat. We've got various media products that we've been developing, we've worked on podcasts. And that allows us to bring this message to a new audience. So it's a new interesting thing for me, but it is difficult to switch off when you're an investigator and you're like, Okay, maybe if I click on that number 20 web pages, I'll find that one little clue I'm looking for. And then when you find that little clue, you think, okay, I can look at another 50 web pages and maybe find even more stuff and it just builds from there. So it can be quite, it's enjoyable, but it can be quite exhausting doing it kind of nonstop, but You know, it is very satisfying when you find that one thing that basically makes your entire case for you and approve something, you know, beyond that,
Will McInnes 33:07
yeah, I totally get that. When you think about the future of the world, I'm curious, you know, your vision of how this interacts with whatever we mean by traditional journalism. So I see you as a pioneer, I see the practices and, and, and work that you guys have done this early signals of what will become normal. And you just gave an anecdote there of the bureaucratic, slower moving organisations that are formally responsible for law enforcement often kind of stumbled on your work and reveal just how little they know about these opportunities to solve to solve the problems that they want to solve. So I'm curious, like, where does this go? How does traditional journalism evolve? Is this a distinct area when you forecast what does it look like?
Eliot Higgins 33:53
I think the one trend I'm seeing more and more is an understanding that it's no longer a world where and it organisation kind of work can work on itself, you know on a story and not be involved with ever organisations that are maybe in different fields like we've been doing a lot of collaborative work with human rights organisations, news organisations, Justice and Accountability organisations where we all work together on the investigation because it's using open source evidence, and we're verifying and everyone is kind of transparent about what they're sharing. It means that again, we come to that kind of amplify stage and a newspaper can write a new story about a human rights organisation can do a kind of more reporting their style, just as accountability organs or organisations can take it to a court spelling camp and kind of produce our kind of own glasses a bit. So in a way, by collaborating together, we all get what we would get out of it anyway, but it's much much more better and it has more impacts over a wider range of fields. And I think for most people who are more used to working in a kind of more traditional model, a, you know, the idea of a human rights organisation and a news organisation and you know, all these different ways organisations working together collaboratively was quite alien. You know, you don't share your scripts with other people. But often we're working with you know, we'll find a print organisation to work with television news organisation, maybe a documentary film, kind of, you know, all those different elements of it working together to produce multiple final products. And I think that's far more effective at getting the message out than just saying, here's a news report paper report on this investigation. Because then the life of that kind of what you've discovered, what you've verified, goes beyond just that one moment is creates a series of moments and different range of fields, some of which have a much longer impact than some of the other kinds of moments but they all serve a purpose. You're much more comfortable in the pragmatic outcome focus blurriness of it you don't really care about
Will McInnes 35:51
which silo or team people belong to particularly and I think what you're saying is those who are bred bred in a in a more formal Domain might find that blurriness a bit more challenging to deal with. It's it's fascinating to me how that how that story evolves. And I think the multi disciplinary nature and the collaborative DNA that you guys have is really interesting part of the success,
Eliot Higgins 36:17
I think, as well, when I'm often talking to organisations that are interested in countering disinformation, for example, and that's a big topic at the moment. They're often so focused on the kind of thing they're doing, they don't actually think about how they're going to go about doing it. They think they think they do, but they don't understand that we live in a connected online community. And you have all these kind of counter disinformation groups appearing and they produce stuff on the internet, but because they're kind of one thing in a massive kind of community, they don't really propagate through that community, if you see what I mean. And because with bellingcat, what we're doing is we're connected to all sorts of different people in all sorts of communities and we're using our community to be part of our investigation. It means we're almost like part of a living organism rather than just something that's kind of stuck on the side of it. And I think understanding the difference between the those two is crucial to, you know, a whole range of fields, particularly this issue now, where we have disinformation and conspiracy theories becoming so widespread. And the reason those conspiracy theories become so widespread spread is because they are part of that same organism, they're kind of internet organism, and they kind of grow and evolve and spread through it. So as I mentioned earlier, and as actually our guest, I think it was on episode two who specialises in creating art from what lots of people would call deep fake. He was saying that he'd noticed more people in his personal social network spreading conspiracy theories and, and I was alarmed at that, but it hadn't affected me yet. And then in recent times, graduates in my social network, people who you know, are in theory, I'm not graduate, so I don't really care whether someone's been to university or not, but but I'm trying to reach for like something level of healthy scepticism and education and worldliness
Will McInnes 38:04
conspiracy we seem to be awash in conspiracy. And given how bizarre and awful 2020 has been, I can understand that that's an environment ripe for fantastical beliefs. But what's your take on all of this
Eliot Higgins 38:17
being very much part of unlike communities, I've kind of seen this evolve over time. And it really comes down to how the internet is really good and make you find people who think exactly the same way that you do. And for most people, we've kind of fairly normal thoughts, that's okay. But you always have part of those communities of kind of buy into conspiracy theories or kind of more fringe theories. And then when they do that, they kind of become the outcasts of those communities. But luckily for them, they can find another community that is has a similar kind of viewpoint, and then they might become too extreme for that and they find another community that's a bit more extreme. And it goes on and on before you before you know it, you know, you're thinking that, you know, bleach is a brilliant medicine or Or you know Coronavirus is complete fake, or that, you know, Donald Trump is trying to save the world from a evil cabal of paedophiles. And those people because they tend to be more extreme in their beliefs also tend to be the kind of noisy so now this online, but also we have it working now is the kind of algorithm that these social media companies use to help people find content. And I think one of the issues is if you're, you see a video on YouTube, and it's claiming something completely wild, you might click on it, you know, for a laugh, just kind of something boring, you probably won't. And you might not believe it, you might never watch a video like that again. But the algorithm has been taught that people will click on these videos, and it will then recommend these videos to people. And even if 1% of those people buy into it, you start building a community around it. And that starts you know, creating creating a feedback loop into the algorithm where more and more people are seeing these videos, meaning that more and more people are being converted into these crazy ways of thinking and you see this time and time again with all kinds of different things. Also, you have people in this country He's especially the more extreme ones where they are often people who spend a lot of time on the internet and base a lot of their personal value and what self worth on being part of these communities and being a useful part of these communities. So they tend to be quite noisy, they also tend to be quite aggressive online or you know, quite produce a lot of content, which means it creates even more people who are following this stuff because there's more content for people to be found. If you just got normal average views, the internet isn't really for you. The internet is designed around people who have kind of more extreme or specialised views and that can be in sometimes quite useful. I mean, in a way the Bangkok community has people arranged in a specialised area. But in other areas, it's not it's like q anon for example, you also have this other layer where certain communities are really interested in investigation and the bellingcat community because in a way, it's almost like a in a way a game is something that you can come get absorbed him it's something where there's always a new clue, a new thing to discover. And you see a power With that, I think with the Q anon community, it's almost like alternative reality games, except the community itself with q anon is building that alternative reality as they're playing in the game in a sense. So there's always some new idea, someone's always adding something saying, Oh, well, you know, if you look at the cue clock, it tells us, you know, this piece of information, and none of it really makes any sense, even to some of the people who are part of it, but that kind of feels like it makes sense, if you see what I mean. And that really is what fuels this and that's why in a way, it's so dangerous and damaging because there's no way to kind of stop that kind of thinking you know, you can't like say to you can't explain to people they're wrong, because then that you become part of the conspiracy they said, well, you're just you know, she Paul who believes any nonsense, and you know, q anon is kind of one of the biggest examples of this but it also comes down to things like truffer ism around there. Mm hmm. Team, for example, you have a community that is so convinced that Russia Russia is completely innocent, even though there's literally photographs of the missile in the ad, you know, videos of the missile So launcher, they always find some reason to say, Oh, no, that's fake. That's misleading. It's the same with chemical weapons attacks in Syria. And that is actually an area that's becoming slightly more dangerous because you're seeing slightly more mainstream acceptance of the idea that these chemical weapon attacks in Syria are fabricated. You know, it's the White Helmets faking stuff. Yeah, typically around the 2018 doomer. chemical attack? Well, I know there's Members of Parliament who believe the Duma chemical attack was, you know, a setup wasn't, you know, fake. And that's completely insane. But there's a community of this kind of alt left community that promote these ideas, they get these leaked documents from the OPC w that don't quite say the things they say they mean, but they're very technical and difficult to understand unless you've really been in the roots of it. So this is kind of where, in a way you have, if you imagine kind of the Venn diagrams of online communities, the kind of mainstream community and the edge of the kind of conspiracy theory community is kind of where you want to place that's where you want to watch. You can't jump in conspiracy theorists community and tell them they're all wrong. It's all conspiracy theories, because they aren't going to listen to you. But we can look at is how the kind of edges of that kind of Venn, the circles of that Venn diagram start crossing over, and what are in a way the centres of gravity that's drawing those together and why that's happening. And that's the area that I think needs to be paid attention to and analysed. And in a way, often when we're dealing with bellingcat. Now, you know, some of the topics we work on with like me, 17, and chemical weapons attack. We know that by kind of trying to debate every single point, you're just adding fuel to the conspiracy theories fire and it's best in many cases, just to try to ignore it until it gets to the point where it has this kind of mainstream crossover, but at the same time was ignoring it also knowing what it is and actually having a reason to counter it because you will end up in many cases, having those arguments with people who should know better
Will McInnes 43:49
is the people that should know better than I'm most worried about earlier, but there was loads of wisdom in what you just said. There was also a moment that genuinely introduced a new idea. And kind of blew my mind a little bit, which is, you're the first person that said to me that these narratives can create a world that people can live in and calling on popular culture, my own experiences, playing video games, you know, my love of fiction, whatever, the power of propaganda misinformation, just I've never thought of those as a world, but when you think of them as a world, there's, there's magic in that world building is a magical thing to do. Whether you're JK Rowling or Tolkien or Putin, I guess, will trump I will have to ponder that
Eliot Higgins 44:40
a bit further. If you think about what's happening in America at the moment with kind of the way Trump kind of says something stupid. And then you have the alt right media kind of laundrette for him and then you have kind of Fox News kind of give the mainstream version of it and Fox and trump watches that go so I was right all along and you have an entire Media community that people who want to believe Trump is great can go to and just exist inside. It's an alternative universe they've basically created. And in America if it gets particularly severe because you've got an entire political network that is part of that now, the republican party has basically bought completely into this kind of cult of Trump and how the right wing media uses, you know, misinformation and disinformation, to propagate stuff. That's untrue. And it's part of American culture. And we get to that point, we can clearly see the dangers of that by just looking at what's happening in America at the moment with Coronavirus and the violence that the protests and the way Trump is fueling this stuff because he realises or maybe just naturally moves that way that this is where in a way his power comes from, and that he's got a supplicant political party party and media ecosystem that supports that. And in a way, you know, you have these discussions about Oh, how did Russia influence the US election in 2016? Yeah, they had fake news sites, but the real influence there was the Fox News not rush today.
Will McInnes 46:01
Hmm. There's one last question I'd like to ask before we start to wrap up. And that is prompted by what we've just been talking about. In part, I know that you've said the people on your team need to be able to follow the things that they're interested in. That said, How, how do you guys still decide on the boundaries for where you work and where you don't? What's characteristic about the core of the work that you guys do that then determines where you find the interesting angles?
Eliot Higgins 46:30
It varies quite a lot. I mean, usually what we're thinking about is more kind of the victims in the stories and whether or not it kind of serves them to write the stories like if we have a story that would probably bring unwanted attention to the victims, we would kind of move away from that. We also think, you know, if we're writing a story, and it has more value being used elsewhere, rather than the story on the website, like we might be doing an investigation that is actually more useful if it's part of a Justice and Accountability process and maybe publishing about it will kind of reduce usefulness, then we'll kind of focus on that rather than pulling something out on the website. But, I mean, we have a pretty wide range of subjects that we look into. And usually, if there's some kind of injustice that has been done that can kind of be highlighted and corrected by investigating it.
Will McInnes 47:16
Yeah, that's what it feels like. Because it does feel like your geographies, the actors in the stories, the topics, they are broad, but I see that core of injustice. So that's that's what binds it together. I'm so grateful for your time today, Elliot will be sharing in the show notes, the links where people can find out more about belling cat where they can pre order your book where they can follow you on Twitter,
Eliot Higgins 47:38
tell us a bit about the book is basically kind of the story of you know, what I've kind of been through from my own background of, you know, non professional background turning bellingcat and my work into something that now has this kind of worldwide recognition and talking about the development of online open source investigation where it came from the impact. It's having the details of some of the investigations that we've done. You know, things like the scripting investigation and HMT and kind of how that has helped shape this kind of online open source kind of field of investigation in the community that surround that. And it's, it's full of kind of, you know, the unusual stories that we encounter and kind of this quite a lot of weirdness that happens with this kind of work as well, and some of the interesting personalities that appear around it as well. So I'm really looking forward to seeing people get a chance to read that story.
Will McInnes 48:27
I think it's gonna be great. And that's available for pre order now. That's right, I pre ordered my copy this morning. Okay, so that's we are bellingcat. And what guides what comes next for you guys?
Eliot Higgins 48:39
Well, what we continue to do is kind of expand the work that we're doing into new regions of the world, we've we're starting an expansion into Latin America and Africa. We're also developing now more ways for people to get involved with banner cast work. So we're adding a volunteer section that I mentioned before to the website, also part of the website that has basically all the tools that we use, which is many, many tools But making that more accessible for people. So it's easier for anyone who wants to do this work to actually find the guys the case studies or tools and something to do. And you know, just to continue to expand bellingcat. And you know, we've spent the last 18 months getting charity status and being audited and all this really complex business stuff. But that's given us a really solid base for future growth. So I'm really looking forward to seeing where we can go in the future.
Will McInnes 49:23
amazing work. So you are at Elliot Higgins on Twitter, which is with one l one T. Eliot Higgins, thank you so much for giving us your time today. So there it is. Episode Four with Eliot Higgins of belling cat. I hope you got some new perspectives on what's changing in the world today. I know I really did. If you enjoyed this, please do sign up here right now but sub stack.com that way you'll be the first to know every time a new episode comes out, get the guest details and the transcripts and do sign up. As for our future. There's so much more for us to cover. We have some insanely interesting guests coming up. Please do let me know if you have any feedback on Twitter. Onwards!
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It underpins our society and the way that we live, the way we share. We commune, it's cultural, it's religious, it's societal. It's everything that we do. But it's also - as I say - just dinner. And so it has lots of meanings and it has, in some ways, no meaning at all.
In this episode, fellow adventurers, we’re exploring the future of food, glorious food.
I talk to food futurologist Dr Morgaine Gaye about her trend forecasting that supports innovation at global brands like Unilever, Mondelez and Mars. Our conversation is wide-ranging and lively - you’ll hear Morgaine’s rarely-shared predictions for future themes in our food, find out how she became a futurologist, confront what Dr Gaye believes will be an extended period of disruption and unearth newer, clearer connections between fashion, technology, geopolitics and broad societal change.
I hope you enjoy our conversation and take something away that you can apply in your life and in your conversations :)
Please shout with any feedback you have, and if you liked the podcast, do give us a rating - I truly appreciate it.
Dr Morgaine Gaye - website
Morgaine Gaye - Instagram
Lorne Armstrong of Fathom XP for the introduction
Ross Breadmore for continued support and ideas
Lee Rosevere for intro music
Will McInnes 03:10
I was thinking before this, it would just be brilliant. To get a sense of your story. Like how, how did you get to being a food futurologist? You don't like this question!
Dr Morgaine Gaye 03:25
Oh, goodness, this is the hard. This is the hardest of all questions, really, I think like most people, they end up doing a job that they didn't expect to be doing. And I also believe that the thing that we think about trying to avoid is the thing that we draw to us. And definitely, as a teenager, might you know what this the only subjects I really hated at school was what we used to call home economics, which was sort of cooking and sewing and I really didn't like it at all, and I had some horrible disasters that really, were soul destroying in the cookery class where I ended up with the largest 10 on everybody else got the tins first for the Victoria sponge, I got the I got I got the 10 that was too big. So my Victoria sponge never met in the middle. And it was just like a thin wisp of emptiness in the middle and it was, I mean the whole thing itself must have been less than a centimetre thick. It was a poor link like a pancake. And I didn't even take it home was just horrible. So so those are those sorts of food experiences. And my mother was a butcher and my father was a bodybuilder who a power lifter actually and used to sort of want to bulk up so would be eating baby food has calories back in those days and all of the things that you could do to gain weight so there's a lot of I found mealtimes with the family really stressful. I didn't like it. I was always forced to eat things I didn't want to hear I just food was just for me, not a pleasant space. And I definitely remember thinking that is definitely not a place. I want to go Don't want to be involved in food whatsoever and low and low Here we are. But I do think that really my title food futurologists is a little bit of a red herring because the food part does make people think that I am eating my way around fabulous restaurants in the world or know a lot about cooking or, and really that is the very small end of the wedge of what I do, which is a lot more, I suppose, anthropological or distich trend forecasting. So I'm looking at lots of other things in order to forecast and think about future scenarios. And food is is the biggest part because of course, it underpins our society and the way that we live the way we share. We, we commune, it's cultural, it's religious, it's societal. It's everything that we do. But it's also it is also as I say, it's just dinner. And so it has lots of meanings and it has, in some ways, no meaning at all. So it's So food really is this like I said this small part of it.
Will McInnes 06:03
I love it. Oh this is gonna be such a good conversation. So because as you say food is so universal and it has so much power and and yet at the same time as you brilliantly put it it's just dinner How did you go from that fabulous sort of set up and the wispy Victoria sponge and into the world of trend forecasting and tell us tell us a few, just a little bit of the some of the steps that that or the way that you When did your way to to where you are now.
Dr Morgaine Gaye 06:36
I think, of course when you look back you see the connections we all do. And at school even during this time of my appalling cooking, I will I was doing things that like school pop psychology age 12 was, I would with my friends, I would say to them for them not to buy sweets and ice cream with their pocket money. Say that just imagine that you don't have these sweets. In fact, if you take this five minutes of your time when you've eaten those sweets, or buy the sweets, eat the sweets as five minutes of your life. Let's condense those five minutes, pretend that you've had those sweets, and then you've saved that money. I wrote, for me, it was like genius. So, I was sort of trying to get my friends to live in a future space. And think about things differently. So so in that way, I was probably slightly doing what I'm doing now and friends now who've sort of seen what I do probably much later on, because I'm not in touch with them have said, Oh, you will like that at school of that's the sort of stuff that you were you were at school, used to wear really weird clothes unlike anybody else. And it wasn't that I was sort of a social outcast. But that possibly I was slightly they used to say you're ahead of the curve. I don't know that for sure. But that's what they were. So that would be what they'd sort of say. So I suppose that somewhere inherently, I had this idea that time is important, and we can, and we, as human beings can think about time in a different way and position ourselves in a different future. And then life moved on. And I guess that after many different trials of things that I thought I would do, because I thought I would be an artist, I didn't want to have a job which would leave me on my own, I wanted something that would connect with people. And I couldn't figure out how to do that in an art form that would also give me a living. So I wasn't very astute at sort of putting those things together. And I think that it really the kind of the icing on the cake of how I became this is a really dear, this is a real terrible cover blow. But my friend who obviously knew that I had these different qualities that's called different qualities at this point, as she was making a progress Which is somewhere Google Hubble somewhere for BBC Worldwide, and it was about the future. And it was called business 2025, which is still the future. There's a it was a long, long time into the future at that point, as opposed to five years. And they needed an extra expert on the show. And on the show, they had some serious sort of older men who for me, I mean, I was at that point in my probably early 30s. And there were men on there who were in their late 50s. And they seemed a lot older than me at that point, I sort of low hairless and things like that. And, and they were these are experts in the future of tech and the future of other things. And she said, I'd like to sit on this panel, here are the six topics. You've got two days to think of a proposition about these six topics into into 2025. And what you what your personal opinion about this future is. And then I went on the show, and they gave me a title and the title was futurology. Just so that was the beginning of that, really is that she gave me a title. And I thought, okay, I can I can do that. And I held my own against these guys. And I just thought, well, maybe I couldn't I can do this. I don't know. That's sort of it. Rather,
Will McInnes 10:17
it's a great, it's a great story. And I'm sure there's so much more. But it's wonderful. Thank you for sharing that and to hear, to hear from, from those early days at school that you are always a bit of a future gazer and seeing the world slightly differently and, and trying to get people around you to put themselves somewhere else.
Dr Morgaine Gaye 10:38
Yeah, I mean, just trying to trying to think I think for me, it was about thinking about things. That was General and then my PhD was about thinking about things and how things connect. And I think that was just a setup really for doing what I do. I'm connecting lots of things. My my, the most important thing about what I do is to challenge people's thinking I'd open their minds and then it's up to them what they do with that knowledge really.
Will McInnes 11:04
And tell us about your PhD, what what was the PhD on or about
Dr Morgaine Gaye 11:11
the, the idea of the PhD was looking at the way things connect, and it started off sort of trying to be in the realm of quantum mechanics, but that was a little bit difficult. So then it moved into a philosophical place where I was connecting seemingly random things. Number Number in nature, basically, what is the foundation of our existence? And how can we connect to that and how can we connect that to lots of perhaps unrelated things, and then create a, a map for, for existence and connection,
Will McInnes 11:50
and so forth? Amazing.
Dr Morgaine Gaye 11:52
So so it was it was, it was, for me life changing and the stuff that I learned, I didn't write it all because what I learned the really the main thing I learned is how to get a PhD. And I think maybe a lot of people who do a PhD, figure that out, it's not really about the definitely not about the learning, it's about how you communicate the learning. So the second if you did a second PhD would take half the time, because you'd realise what is it that they want? And how can I deliver that and I sort of faffing around learning interesting things for myself way too long, and eventually got a PhD out of it.
Will McInnes 12:26
So the story builds and so in your PhD, although the bulk of it, as you put it was about learning how to communicate the PhD or the learning, learning how to communicate the learning. The essence of it was about again, about connection. So it sounds like it sounds like core to your work is is Connecting, Connecting ideas, connecting things, challenging people by connecting their brains to an alternative future.
Dr Morgaine Gaye 12:55
Yes, I think I think connection probably is the root of everything that I do. Because I'm seeing what everybody else sees I'm, but I'm almost like that game where you're turning over those cards and you're trying to match, match the ball with the bicycle or the umbrella and then you turn them back and you try to match the pair. That's really what I'm doing all the time. I'm holding things in this Rolodex of mind and waiting to see a match and think, oh, that's really interesting, because that thing in close connects with this thing in food. And that to me relates to something that the government said about a new something or other in the future of linking things and trying to make sense of them trying to develop a premise and then prove a future scenario.
Will McInnes 13:40
Now you are a food futurologist What wouldn't he us? Yes. Officially, official, official food futurologist approved. I'm hoping our listeners don't even know that that's a thing. And now they're starting to think oh, yeah, of course. It's a thing and I would love them to get a glimpse. into the you know what, what does a brief look like? Or what what might what projects have you worked on that they might have devoured? Or you know, what, what can you help us understand about that work?
Dr Morgaine Gaye 14:11
So it typically, it's, gosh, it feeds into many areas of what people do eat, drink, experience some because sometimes it'll be in the media. So of course, we're being fed, which is a perfect word really. We're being fed information. We're being fed food we're being we're, were in taking all of this, this future where we are, we're inhaling the future all the time. And so it's what we read. It's what we see. It's what we we connect with other people on the internet. It's our aspirations. It's how we speak to other people about what we're up to. It's like, Oh, I'm dehydrating my own salmon in the airing cupboard or whatever it is, you know. So people are wanting to be an experience the next new thing and food is a great vehicle for that. because it enables people to show status. So you only have to go around a supermarket and have a look what somebody else has got in their trolley. And it's already easy to make a judgement like value meal for one, you know, that kind of thing. So, so we know we're doing that all the time with food so, so my work can be with a brand who typically wants to reinvent their brand. So they might have a really well known food product that they have been making for decades that's really popular, but they realise that they want to do something new or it needs innovation, it needs updating. So I'll do a trend briefing around that particular area. So for example, what could happen for Cadbury in children's snacking, so I will do a children's snacking trend briefing which will be one hour in the future of children snacking. And then we might either innovate some new products, or we might take a product that already exists within their product portfolio and revamp it and this this this Sort of quick word of revamping takes about three years. So from the complete innovation, ideation, packaging, branding, all of the positioning the massive checks and balances on everything from health and food safety to, to where this will be positioned. And just every single thing about the product. It's very in depth food, unlike fashion fashion, which can be turned around in six weeks. Food is a minimum of 18 months.
Will McInnes 16:27
Make sense? So let's go to perhaps the more fun place than what is actually genuinely exciting to you, at the moment,
Dr Morgaine Gaye 16:38
who so many. I mean, I think the world is exciting at the moment. I think it's just an incredible time that we are on this planet at this time. And I sort of believe that everyone who's alive right now, obviously has some kind of capability to process change and be able to be a witness to This cataclysmic times I mean, we are for I think, 4000 years we have been living in this time of having and accumulating, and this whole, the whole consciousness of humanity has been about having. And we're moving into knowing, and knowing on a much bigger scale, so not just brain knowledge and AI, but also self knowing, human knowing, interconnected knowing of our species and of the world species. So it's, it's, it's so exciting. So I'm excited about that. But as part of that, the ingredients I would say that are exciting or interesting to me as water, I think that we're going to understand what's in our water supply, how we can manipulate water in a better way, how we can live with water in a better way and understand water. And that goes from of course, all the pollution in the ocean, to write down to tap water, how we can how we're using that What's the stuff we shower in? What are the chemicals that we're using filtration systems, the way that what water wants to be stored, it doesn't want to be stored in linear shapes it wants to be stored in sort of vortex of, of inverted x shapes really is the perfect shape for water. So we'll understand all of that. So I think like waters really interesting. I think air is just surprisingly the, of course, right now we're much more focused on the airway, breathing and how it's contaminated. But air is a future ingredient, or a present future ingredient is really where the money is because it's free, but it matters. And it fully Mises and it gives texture and texture is the thing really, that divides our preferences. So we often think that we don't like things because of the taste, but often for us, the defining thing that stops us liking something is texture, and that can be cultural. So for the, for example, that the Chinese Chinese law tend to like slimy texture. They're slimy, that's good. Whereas if you were British, you might think slimy, that's not good. So, so air is a great texturizer. And it will change our ability to take a food that we might not like because it's slimy, like avocado, and profit with air, and then we've got crunchy avocado bites. So we ended up being able to take something we don't like, but also volumize something so we fill a bag for cheaper, we can fill a bag, you know, with a couple of bits of avocado, because we've popped it with there. So I think those those ingredients are exciting. I think there's some really fun stuff happening in in 3d printing where we can make something that looks like Lego sushi out of sushi ingredients. So it looks like a digital image of sushi. But it's real. It's just messes with your mind in terms of playfulness. I think there's a lot of play in that 3d printing space. So I'd say those those things are
Will McInnes 20:00
fun, really interesting, I would never have thought of 3d printing in the context of food and water and air elements, you know, fundamentals that we that we take for granted.
Dr Morgaine Gaye 20:14
And the fundamentals right now are where our focuses because we are we really becoming much more concerned and connected with, with earth with rewilding with nature with wanting to connect with that. One of the things I predict, which I think is starting to happen now is people wanting to go of cities, people will move, there'll be an exodus from as opposed to cities, because people are realising that that connection with nature is so so key and so essential, and it's what people have reconnected to during lockdown, I think, and it's become a big part of people's conversations and focus. So that's definitely part of our future future motifs, patterns, interests. It's such as reconnecting with nature. So
Will McInnes 21:04
how does that come to life? How would you? How do you see that panning out? You mentioned leaving cities which I've seen a couple of examples of contacts of mine professionally, moving away and friends speculating that houses will be chosen more on you know, less on the exact location and proximity to a city and more on how is their space to work from home and can I get out and do the things I want to do mountain biking or whatever it happens to be? And you mentioned fashion motifs patterns like how does this return to nature come alive in your mind?
Dr Morgaine Gaye 21:42
in all our because food doesn't exist in a vacuum so that we are looking at everything across casually so homes, interiors, fashion, surface textures, every single thing that we exist within? Is that real expressing expressing the earth it's a bye failure. It's it's trying to connect inside and outside so that we will want much more of an integrated outside space inside space. Inside growing countertop growing, outside living, I think there's been a massive surge in garden furniture and garden games or whatever that might mean sort of hot tubs and trampolines and all of that. We're already seeing it. And it's just this this sense that we, we are, I think we up until now we've spent a long time feeling like humans and nature as though we are separate from nature. And I think that what we're going towards is this connection between humans as nature and it will make a massive difference. So these patterns will be patterns of tree barks, things made from tree bark materials made from bark, we will be like you know, it will feel like leather, but lots of use of waste materials way more so that we take orange peel and we can make a beautiful From it or we take used bamboo and we can make packaging from that will take mushrooms and it will be the will we have the mushroom colours but we'll have something that has maybe a mushroom motif and also we'll be drinking more mushroom tea and then we'll be using mushroom for packaging and building materials so that we see food and nature becoming integrated every element of our life
Will McInnes 23:25
so enjoyable hearing you talk and and my signups as a firing I'm seeing things and it's exciting me about how this world how this world changes before us and I agree with you like it's such an interesting time to be alive. We are we are witnessing such strange or full beautiful, crazy. I don't know is it disruption is it phase changes are the chickens coming home to Bruce, it feels incredible. And I guess making sense of it is making sense of it. It's pretty hard, but making or do you do not find it hard to make sense of all of this?
Dr Morgaine Gaye 24:12
For me, I was talking about this yesterday, actually to a couple of friends that for the last eight years, my job has been to map the disruption trend. So for me, it's been definitely happening since 2012, the collapse of things that we have held esteemed, or that we could just trust and believe. So whether that was no and it's it turns out in sex sex scandals, its horsemeat scandal, it's everything that it's almost like I always think of it almost like the Wizard of Oz, and you pull back the curtain and it's a little old man operating it all. It's been like that. And we've been leading up to this time, and I use the example which I think was in 2012, where there was the volcano eruption in Iceland. And if you remember that you remember that with In a week, people were fighting for bread on the shelves at the supermarket. There was barely anything left. And that really was a signal right then that we almost had a preview. I think that was very much a preview of what was to come like, here we are. With one week without flights coming in. And look at the state of us. We've already turned into an anon community minded, unpleasant human beings fighting for more than we need. And we actually don't even have our needs met. Suddenly, the basic needs were taken away within a week of there being a problem with the flight. So that was a preview, but we just because we're human, we go, Oh, yeah, we'll just get back to normal it'll be fine. And then we get the big stick, you know, get the same again, but bigger and we get the same again and bigger until we listen. And here we are. And the big stick was always for me. 2020 I don't think it's any surprise. It's 2020 vision. I just think 2020 This is when we actually see it all. And when you say that, you know the chickens come home to roost. Okay. This is a This is really a global experience of what it looks like when things fall apart. Who are we? How do we behave? What's our capacity to change? And, and so this whole time the last the last eight years have been in this disruption phase. And then the almost the massive breakdown and the the global life changing events that affect everybody are 2022 2021. So my predictions, this was always coming. And that's why, as I said, there's a an example of me speaking about a year and a half ago where I'm showing masks and people in hazmat suits and talking about how the air will be very valuable and it will be concerned about these things about our safety and protection will be the biggest conversation how do we protect ourselves, how to protect the environment, excuse me, and, and so that this was always is going to come. And of course straight out of the gate 2020 we had the fires the bush fires Australia which have killed species and decimated massive part of Australian wildlife. And then and then the next thing we've got COVID and then we've got the Black Lives Matter, which really, you know, of course, there's been horrible deaths in custody and, and, and in the past and treatment of people of colour, but nothing's really shaken things like now. It's almost like now when things get shaken. It's on a whole nother level. And that's what we're going to see on everything. And we're in July. We're halfway through the year. We've already had a big year and this is I say to people don't think Oh, well. Good. We've got that out the way now we can just get back to the new normal No, forget that. Because there's a next thing coming and the next thing and the next thing and the next thing until we it's like Armageddon we need to be we the ashes will be what we pick up and we say right what are we actually left with what are we left with as a as a people as a potential? And what's good and what can be retrieved? And what can we recreate and co create to go forward into a better space because we've done a pretty shitty shitload of things up until now we've done some amazing things of course we have, but we've got lost and things have got lost. And, and it's not really about a this is not it's not my my job to make people feel like bad or, or this is what you should be doing because it's not my it's not necessarily about my opinion, my opinion doesn't really matter. It's this is what's happening. This is what will happen. And these are and the reasons why these things will happen and what I show for my job, and it's just that our focus will completely shift and it's shifting. And this is the beginning of that shift.
Will McInnes 28:50
I find it so compelling when you when you hit that stride, it's it's it's it makes a lot of sense. What what Where do we go next, then what, in divisions that you've outlined and that you've, you know, been recorded on camera talking about? If If it's not going to relent yet? What does are there phases or shifts in the future? Or should I just strap in? Order extra toilet roll, get my well sharpen my Hunter, like prepare.
Dr Morgaine Gaye 29:28
I think preparedness actually, all that all the trends that I would speak about what all towards 2020 really the thing was, this is this is to 2020 let's get to 2020. This is going to be our focus. For me now, what I'm looking at my trends that I've been working on during lockdown have been what happens from where are we from 2021 to 2027 28? What what's that look like? And actually, I have Oh, did you hear that? Did you hear that?
Will McInnes 29:57
Was that a train? Yeah, yeah. Talking to a food futurologists chewing in the background. I know
Dr Morgaine Gaye 30:04
and this is London in the future or the past, I don't know, I just felt like I went to the railway children for a moment. So I've got seven big sort of category of trends for the future. And in the first one, which I am calling survival, because this is going to be a big part of things. One of the sub trends in that is preparedness. And so exactly the things that you mentioned, are key. It's for people to understand, and people will be doing this naturally. Absolutely. They'll be doing this about what it is that they need to be prepared. It's almost like a self contained potential. Do they do they have a food source? Do they have a way that if thing if we had locked down again, How different would it be for them? because they'd have a different preparation? Could they work from home? Of course they could, because that's set up now. What other things would they have in place? What is that network? I mean, one of the things that I do talked about in the past, for this time and going forward would be the value of our social network. Because that will be and has been really for lots of people their Lifeline during this lockdown. It's been people's real lifeline. I mean for some people to get grocery shopping done. It's been that it's been their lifeline. And that's just you know, that that's one example. Of course, there's loads of examples because of mental health, our wellness, our holistic wellness, I'll give you some sort of top line, things about the future trends, just words really, that I look at So, so touch lists, what touchless society will be, preparedness, the home as a sanctuary, soothing, self soothing, restorative setting, how do we restore and pause the instinct, what how we understand our natural instinct. There's something about wandering because we're moving into this age of uncertainty. So that being anchored might To not be what people choose going forward, because their investment in stuff will be less, less interesting, less focused. And for them, it will be about the freedom and the quality of themselves of their life. I talked about eco futurism. So at which I mentioned the rewilding transformation, we're going to see a lot of things in that sort of trace mysticism type space, which we haven't seen in the mainstream before. So these internal mechanisms and this idea of wonder, so that a little bit like childlike wonder at things in nature and things that we can't see what about those things that we can't see and understanding, understanding that more humanity a massive focus on humanity, about feeling good and belonging and sharing and what that starts to look like? These are real top line by the way, and then what I would like to call the fundamentals as a mean by that is the fun In the in the Playhouse, so it's the fundamentals in the Playhouse. We're going to want to go to these this idea of texture and comfort. We want comfort, and we want to feel comforted. And we want to feel joy and play. And we're going to go towards that. So on the one hand, we're going into this very minimal essentialism. Natural, pared down minimal place. And on the flip side of that, it's going to be, it's going to be fancy dress and, and fun, and it's going to include nostalgia, because that gives us comfort. And there's going to be a lot of ideas of this fluffy, puffy, sort of marshmallowy soft hug machines, and there will be hug machines, because some people will be worried about other people touching us, you know, so we have to have our own personal hug, hug system. There'd be all sorts of fun for all sorts of fun things.
Will McInnes 34:00
Wow, a hug machine.
Dr Morgaine Gaye 34:04
Would you like would you like one john?
Will McInnes 34:11
This is this is incredible and such so enjoyable to listen to you and to think about all of this. My brain is my brain is fizzing. I have agency to indulge in a lot of this to be more prepared to I was lucky to be able to work from home. What what? What does it look like? In your view for the for the less privilege,
Dr Morgaine Gaye 34:36
my job isn't really necessarily to see how it's going to be for different parts of the society because really, when I give these top lines that I'm drilling down into possibly real examples of what that looks like, I suppose we're looking at an aesthetic and an aspiration for everyone. So rather than the aspiration being, Oh, I'd like a new car and a new watch. The aspiration will be The things I talked about. So the good, the good news for people who are less fortunate to have a lower income or less mobility is that nature for them is free, pretty much so that people can get to a green space, they can grow a plant in their home, that there are some very simple things that don't cost the money of the previous aspirations. So in some level, that's a great thing, in terms of working from home, and that not being a possibility, obviously, one of the things that happens when we're going through a massive disruption as we are now is that things get extremely difficult, which is why there is civil unrest, which is why there is social uprising, which for for different people for different reasons, that people's people's status quo, people's fundamentals are shifted. And it's very frightening for a lot of people for very different reasons for many different people. I mean, even people with money can be very frightened by these. It's just, it's challenging. It's challenging for everyone for different reasons. But one of the things that we are doing and that we will be doing, we already seen it, we are celebrating, we're celebrating cleaners. And we've set people who've never been celebrated the invisible people who are supporting society, the binmen. And suddenly, they're, you know, they're getting a shout out every day, or every week, which they never have before. And celebrities are getting less fake, like less time, less focus, as we focus our attention on key workers. And so already we're seeing a rise in that balance because our future focus will be on kindness. And that's how we're going to value people in our culture. It's about the work they do so the unsung heroes for want of a better phrase Really?
Will McInnes 36:53
Yeah, and so those people will definitely for the first time, get some airtime and get some get be seen wonderful. We haven't touched on do you think about space? You know, like Ilan Musk is launching rockets. And it sounds actually like your work is your processes leading you much more to Earth than to space,
Dr Morgaine Gaye 37:12
I suppose I'm looking at trends which, which have actually incorporated space in the past, some of the trends have been much more about the notions of space, it's funny about about space and our notion of space, which are not the same thing. So that we often think of, we often think of space as silver. And we think it's shiny, and we have ideas of what space is, and so we incorporate that. So, and we had a whole phase of that in the 60s, when we had lots of things that were to do with space, but we were singing about space. We had the whole us space missions and first man on the moon, everything was really focused and it had a real look. And so space has a look for us has an aesthetic really, and we have been actually have we had a little bit of that. A few years ago, but but I suppose I've looked at I've thought about space in different ways in terms of, really, in this future when we're talking about knowing. One of the things really is if we're talking about war in the future, it's the war of knowledge. It's the war of knowing. And it's the space wars. Because that's really what the fight is, for now, people have given up with trying to put a flag in a country and say, you know, this bit of land is mine. And what they want to do is say, This planet is mine. This bit of this, this platform that's floating around whichever planet is ours, this are we our country on that bit of space. And so I think really, that's space was even thinking about the things like flying drones, and who owns that space, who owns the airspace. I think that there's going to be a lot of conversation about that. But I'm not sure that our focus in the next few years will be that, of course it's happening, but it's not happening to the average person and I don't think it's the person's thought process or focus, where we are trying to get this earth sorted. Because if we don't sort this earth and most people can be saying to get me a ticket out of here,
Will McInnes 39:09
you're right. I do think of spaces silver and shiny. That's that's, that's fine.
Dr Morgaine Gaye 39:15
There's a wonderful perfumier in New York who's developed a fragrance called space. Moondust. Oh my goodness. And it smells like Oh, it smells like it smells like moon dust. I mean, you think yeah, that's what that's what the moon smells like. It's great. It's really great. I mean, to go and smell it.
Will McInnes 39:34
Love it. And what's your favourite meal?
Dr Morgaine Gaye 39:38
Oh, I'm so rubbish at things like this. I'm I really like I'm sorry. I really like seaweed. Big fantasy weed. Big fantasy with seaweed. I do quite a lot of big plays seaweed. Yeah, I do. I like Japanese food a lot. I like salads a lot. I like variety. So I mean, like tap Because as you get a little bit of everything rather than a big dinner, I don't like a big dinner. And I don't like anything that's got this, which I've called wet food, which apparently is a very British thing with food because I had a comedian do is the first time a few weeks ago had this amazing South African comedian say that one of the things that he noticed about the UK was that everything was wet. Because he was like I heard like it said, you know, baked beans. Yeah, that sounds really good like beans that have been baked in and then they come in it's like wet sauce. Like, like yeah, then you said what's wrong with the biscuit and then they dip it in their tea to make it wet? Why would you do that? The best thing about biscuit is crispy. And he went through all of the list of wet things. I think I am totally on there. I hate gravy, wet things. Slight slippery. All of the wet foods. Yeah. So I'm not a fan of the wet food, food, dry food, dry food.
Will McInnes 40:47
Like dog biscuits. You know that kind of. Okay. And one other gimmicky question before we before we start to come to a close. What will I be eating in two or three years second, he sighing What will I be eating in two or three years time that I'm not eating right now? Something something new.
Dr Morgaine Gaye 41:06
I don't fully know what you're eating now. But will you eat a lot of wet food? Okay, right, you'll be a lot of wet food probably, but probably more more aerated food that I talked about. So definitely food with their, I would imagine that you'll be eating eating way more vegan plant based stuff, for sure. Because all of those big brands are doing that and part of a project with doing some of that stuff so that for sure way more options in the non meat meats in the non egg eggs and the non milk milks that don't GTS, all of that. So I think lots of that stuff, and possibly some fun, some fun digitally, digitally produced foods and I think a lot of a lot of really cool stuff that they can do using digital printing with waste material. So waste food that's recreated into shapes that makes it not look like slop makes it look like something that's, that's fun. So think a little bit of that perhaps by three years to three years. Oh, well edible edible packaging,
Will McInnes 42:11
more edible packaging, more edible packaging, more edible packaging. Yeah. Love it. If I was to interview someone else about a different topic, what's a topic that's outside of your domain or there your domain is very broad because you're synthesising lots, so it could be within, but what? What's the topic that you are finding really riveting? And do you think that people would be surprised to hear about, like, what's changing in the world that people underestimate?
Dr Morgaine Gaye 42:39
So I think what's, oh, gosh, I think there's a couple of areas that are on the edge of my understanding, just because I look at it but I don't know enough about it. One is materials. So material scientists are doing phenomenal, amazing things where you have this tiny little thin jacket which could be like this. It's super thin. You can scrunch it down. into a ball, and you can wear it to go skiing. And it's completely it's just, it's the same as a proper ski jacket, or that you have materials that can self repair themselves. Or that said that if you cut it, it repairs itself. Wow, or what wild stuff, all of the different carbon fibre material. So I think a material scientist, amazing all sorts of cool stuff happening there. And in the realm of architecture, some really exciting things happening with using wind power and and water power as a as a way to to power buildings and all the different growing spaces that being integrated into new structures. So I think those two areas are
Will McInnes 43:46
cool. Those are very cool. Really, really cool. Where can listeners follow Dr. Morgan gay, where where should we point people to research you further keep up to date with your interesting stuff?
Dr Morgaine Gaye 43:58
Not much. I'm on Instagram. Which is just Morgan gay calm, which is more gay, not calm. And my my website is just Morgan gay calm and there's some videos on there about different stuff that I've done,
Will McInnes 44:09
where we're really privileged and I've definitely felt that today I've really, really enjoyed listening to you and speaking with you more.
Dr Morgaine Gaye 44:16
Thank you so much.
Will McInnes 44:21
So there it is. Episode Three, the future of food. I hope you got some new perspectives on the world we live in from Dr. Morgaine Gaye. I know I really did.
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I talk to respected synthetic artist Eric Drass - who you may know as Shardcore - about his work playing with neural networks, Deep Fake, bots and, underneath it all, the increasingly pressing question of how we can know what is true and what is not
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This episode we learn about the fascinating, fast-growing, sprawling world of esports with special guest Angela Natividad.
Angela is a co-founder of Hurrah Group, a passel of creative companies dedicated to esports and gaming, and advisory board member of Women in Games WIGJ, all of which give her an incisive first-hand perspective on this world that blends the play and popular culture of video games with the performance-orientation of sport and athleticism.
Our conversation spans gaming culture, esport stereotypes, the brand of sports vs esports, athleticism and health, the quirks of intellectual property law & the business of esport - a freeranging conversation about part of the world I knew so little about beforehand.
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Angela Natividad @luckthelady / Instagram / LinkedIn
Hurrah Group - the esports and gaming advertising agency
Ed Mancey, Ross Breadmore & Georgia Tregear for first listens and essential feedback
Jack McInnes & Ross Breadmore for editing and production support
Lee Rosevere for intro music
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