The Big Interview: Tech City UK Meets Bobby Ghosh, Managing Editor of Quartz

Avatar, April 30, 2015 9 min read

This article was originally posted on the Tech City UK website.

Tech City UK is partnering with Quartz, the digital global business news brand, which is bringing its successful The Next Billion event to London on May 19, 2015. Followers of Tech City UK can avail of an exclusive 40% off discount using the following code: QZTECHC.

Under the intimidatingly watchful eye of Damien Hirst’s suspended mid-air cow in a box, Tech City UK’s Communications Manager, Ian Plunkett had the chance to sit down and catch up with Managing Editor of Quartz, Bobby Ghosh.  The award-winning journalist and former World Editor of Time Magazine didn’t disappoint.

The rapidly expanding digital business publication is behind the Next Billion, an event taking place next month in the capital, of which Tech City UK has been invited to partner.

With an increase of more than 1 billion internet users expected by 2016, the creation of this connected world will profoundly impact society, politics, technology, education, commerce, and finance. The event will bring together global business and thought leaders to discuss these pertinent questions and tackle the big issues head on.

Ian: Why London and why now?

Bobby: We’ve done the Next Billion on a couple of occasions. We wanted to take it on the road and this year we’re doing London and Delhi. London was chosen because we have a large operation based here and we love this city. When I was at Time we did an event at the Shard, which demonstrated the importance of doing events in the UK. It’s at the intersection of the world. Digital entrepreneurship in London touches Europe but also Africa, the Middle East, and the wider world. It’s a logical step for us.

The next billion online users will be very different to those who have gone before. There are two dimensions here to consider: what’s happening in the developing world where people are experiencing the net for the first time. Another in the developed world, where people are experiencing online in different ways, not simply as a means of communication but through entrepreneurship, new revenue streams, creative business practices etc. London is at the centre of this.

Ian: What do you think are the big themes that will emerge from the event?

Bobby: We think of an event like this as live journalism. We bring together smart people who are thought leaders or entrepreneurs. What we hope to facilitate is an expansive conversation about the future of digital and the debates that will shape the sector worldwide. This will not only produce great content for Quartz but also provide intellectual nourishment for the people in attendance. If we can pull off all of that, it will be a great success.

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Ian: What is the perception of Tech City UK stateside?

Bobby: It’s a no brainer – you guys are viewed as a great success story. In London entrepreneurs are breaking the pattern, trying new things and pushing their business models further. That is the overlap in the venn diagram between US digital entrepreneurship what’s happening in the UK. The universe it occupies is well known and well documented. Lots of publicity comes through the digital space about the great work your organisation is doing so it made perfect sense to partner with Tech City UK.

Ian: There’s a binary that is often editorialised, comparing burgeoning tech hubs worldwide to Silicon Valley. Is that helpful?

Bobby: If we’ve learnt anything from say, Africa, it’s that entrepreneurship in digital can come up anywhere – not just Silicon Valley. The ecosystem on the West Coast has been established for three decades. We’re much more interested in what is taking place far away from big business and digital commerce. In some ways this is a return to the early days of Silicon Valley with people like Steve Jobs working in their parents garage. You can be in Idaho, Bhutan or Singapore – it doesn’t matter. You need the right tools, which the internet provides, and if you have the bright idea, you can make your own ecosystem on a shoestring. We no longer think of California as the prime incubator. Lots of the smart new work takes place away from it. I’m not sure the discourse of comparing everything with the Valley really applies anymore. We must move past that. The whole world is one big digital space. The one other point worth making is that capital is no longer only focused on the US. Investors are interested in entrepreneurship across the world now. Capital moves to where the best idea is.

Ian: In terms of emerging markets, where should UK companies be looking?

Bobby: The trick is to realise that the expectations of the web are very different from yours or mine. In the developing world, the web represents a transformational opportunity. If you have access to the internet in a desperately poor area, the life expectancy of your family, your children’s view of the world, your view of the world, could improve drastically. You can go from being a simple cattle herder with a smartphone (or even a dumb phone), to completely expanding your frame of reference – you can change the operating principles of your life. There was a photograph I saw which went viral recently of some goats in a village and stencilled on the side of the animals was a phone number through which interested parties could call to buy them. You don’t need to find a market. That’s a simple commercial example of the transformational potential.

The political possibilities are also endless. Digital is transforming political schemas irrevocably. For entrepreneurs – including here in the UK – the key is to understand everyone’s different expectations of digital and targeting your goods and services to this. Keep your ear to the ground; don’t assume you know what the next billion wants. Pay attention and listen to them. Don’t try to create the next Uber, try and understand what folks will want in their daily lives. Tailor or create suitable products and services to meet that need. In Africa and India when internet first becomes available locally, entrepreneurs make products and services which are suitable for their communities first. The trick is to identify counterparts and develop products for this market. Reverse engineering for developed markets could be groundbreaking. For so many years the concern was that developing countries were reverse engineering themselves, but now the shoe is on the other foot. Now there is an opportunity to leapfrog forward and create digital technologies that can change the lives of people in this part of the world in incredibly powerful ways.


Ian: Can IoT be the revolutionary catalyst it is often touted to be?

Bobby: Not carrying legacy systems is an incredible opportunity. One challenge in the West with IoT is you’re trying to replace something that already exists. In some cases people may have to rewire their homes to make it operational. In developing markets the infrastructure may not exist. If you have the opportunity of making someone understand the value of the new product, it’s much easier because you’re not replacing anything. People not only have great expectations of the web, their experience will come through lots of different interfaces. In India, they’re creating an app that will provide hundreds of government services via the concept of the ‘missed call’. There is not enough electricity to fuel urban and rural areas so farms are deliberately cut off, meaning all their pumping systems can only operate at night. The pump house, which is noisy, sits at the opposite end of the field to their living quarters. So they have to walk across the field to turn it on or off. What’s the problem? Snakes. Through a simple act, this technological innovation is stopping people dying. Government is installing a device on the pump that connects it to a phone in the farmer’s living quarters. The ‘missed call’ starts the pump meaning the farmer does not have to leave the house in the dark. It’s not cool or sexy but it’s saving lives. That is revolutionary.

Ian: In what way will the next billion disrupt journalism further? In terms of citizen journalism specifically, will we continue to see a complex hybrid relationship?

Bobby: The New York Times can link to a citizen’s smartphone video of a plane coming down. So traditional media is now adapting, embracing the culture of using citizen content as an aggregation mechanism. You’re seeing more and more hybridity but let’s be honest – the field is a little chaotic. How do you contextualise citizen journalism? Some consumers don’t need authentication or contextualisation. There is a civil war in Syria, here is a video of horrible things happening from someone who is there – oftentimes that’s all that’s needed to inform a viewpoint. Once the zone is flooded with content however, then you need the classical tools of journalism to understand the context. Who are these people? Who shot it? What is a their agenda? Can you trust them? Look at Richard Engel. If someone like him – who speaks Arabic fluently – can be taken in, what are the chances that someone who makes a YouTube video can tell the difference? Journalistic codes and practices can still legitimise a story and elevate its significance, which is vitally important in reporting.

The existence of Quartz is proof of the scale of the digital disruption of journalism. Traditional media has a history they have to maintain; they won’t let others tell them how to do digital. Quartz can jump onto things when it pleases. There are no entrenched constituencies. We can try quickly, fail quickly and move on. No VP is losing his job. No committee will lose their prestige. This happens in big corporations. We decided we would start Quartz in India and Africa. It only took a few months. I can’t see the Wall Street Journal or the FT having the same agility and nimbleness. One of the key factors is that digital media can move to the speed of ideas, not because we’re intrinsically faster, but because we’re carrying a lighter load. We don’t have this bureaucracy attached. No corporate energy is wasted. No downsizing, we have one HR person, spending 100% of their time in hiring. The model is refreshing when you embrace it from insemination.

Ian: It seems to me you’re adopting the lean and agile startup mentality.

Bobby: We are! The most successful media companies in this space are those that adopt and hold onto startup culture. The next challenge for us is as we grow bigger, how do we preserve the energy, and scale the creative spark that got us to where we are now? How do we learn from the failures of traditional media and avoid repeating them? So far, I’m thankful to say, we’re doing okay. 

Ian: One area I’m particularly interested in is the societal impact of technology. The digital revolution has often left a policy chasm in its wake. If you look at the developing world, what advice would you impart to a policymaker as their country begins to collide with the forces of digital disruption?

Bobby: The top line advice is don’t give in to fear. Questions of cyber security are too often raised as a Trojan horse in the civil liberties debate. Saying we’re going to criminalise ideas put forward on Facebook is not a cyber security issue, as implausible as it might be to implement on a grand scale. Cyber security is often about protecting data from hacking. There is a lot of confusion in public discourse that is being perpetuated by media outlets. You don’t hear enough from other sides of the debate. If you’re a cyber security expert in the Indian navy, there is a lot you can learn from the US or UK. You need help. There are so many areas where developed countries can provide expertise to make the world a safe place. The trouble is that too much of the conversation originates from fear. When you put the words digital and security together, you’re talking about two types of ignorance – about both of them – which makes things exponentially more frightening and the response is one of outright rejection: stop everything! The fears policymakers and broader publics have are not the right ones. They are often irrational and we must change that to incubate a more pragmatic debate.

Ian: What are the opportunities for the Sharing Economy model in this emerging space?

Bobby: It’s hard to predict, particularly in poorer communities where either the cash is not available, or the payment mechanisms are not reliable. One could assume there will be some sort of sharing mentality and the digital services will replicate that cultural development. If farmers are sharing in the real world, surely they’ll do the same in the digital world. I think its more likely that payment mechanisms will become more accessible and therefore they’ll be able to conduct transactions that will in some way reduce the need for sharing but it’s difficult to predict. The ability for the model to truly take hold is not possible if the infrastructure is not developed. It’s about getting the basic of connectivity right and then staying out of the way.

Ian: Finally, what will the ‘Next Billion’ event look like in five years and what will be the status of Quartz?

Bobby: We’re very excited. The transformation from a journalistic obsession to an event is very unique. It’s big enough to bring together lots of ideas. I’m very excited about this potentially becoming our flagship. I can’t wait to move it to India, where the rubber meets the road. We’ll have three this year and hopefully one every quarter in the near future: two in the developing world and two in the developed world. I think this is a format that will work very well for us. Anecdotally, it’s easier to get people to speak because they get it. Similarly sponsors understand it, it’s an easier sell, and most importantly, people are willing to buy tickets and participate. We’ve got an audience.

As for Quartz itself, it’s difficult to say. We probably should avoid five year planning to remain agile. One or two is enough. In 2014, our goal in terms of unique visits was 3mn and it hit over 10mn. The important thing is holding onto the spark. We’re fortunate to have a great team who love what we do and rather than coming to tell me, “here’s what the advertisers want”, they find the right sponsors who know exactly what we can bring to the table. We’re starting up a video unit. We’ll produce video in a very different way – our aspiration is stay different. A Quartz story has a unique editorial identity; we want our videos to reflect this. It’s been an incredible experience so far and I’m looking forward to the bold next step.








Opinion, London