18 questions with Shuttleworth Foundation’s Steve Song

As the Telecommunications Fellow at the Shuttleworth Foundation, Steve Song is passionate about exploring ways of driving down the cost of communications infrastructure in Africa, and the positive impact it would have on entrepreneurship on the continent.

Memeburn.com recently caught up with Steve Song to find out what new technologies inspire him, what advice he has for entrepreneurs, what project he is currently working on, and why he is a reluctant Facebook user…

Memeburn: What are the major trends you are seeing in your industry?

Steve Song: Convergence. It’s been talked about for years, but finally we are beginning to see environments where voice, data, entertainment all happen on a common platform. This inevitably means that creative destruction will take place in some communication markets. I hope it will lead to more entrepreneurial behaviour in the broadcast and mobile markets in particular.

MB: What will the industry look like in 10 years’ time?

SS: We are only just beginning to see the kind of innovation that is possible when you have millions of people connected to each other. I think we will see more change in the next 10 years than we have seen in the last 100 years. Connectedness is re-shaping the enterprise, the way we learn, and the way we connect socially. It’s scary, but the potential for positive change in the world is huge.

MB: Which new technologies most excite you?

SS: Technologies that make it easy for people to be good excite me. I love the fact that mobiles were an amazing enabler of generosity after the Haiti earthquake.

MB: What social media tools do you use?

SS: Blogging with WordPress and micro-blogging with Twitter are my virtual preferences. I’m also a reluctant Facebook user. TripIt, LinkedIn, Slideshare, Flickr, and Vimeo/YouTube are all useful to me too.

MB: Are there any social media tools that you despise?

SS: I don’t know if despise is the right word, but any social media tool that doesn’t respect my privacy doesn’t work for me. Facebook has stepped well over the bounds of the acceptable in abusing people’s rights to privacy, but there are signs that public pressure is helping to improve their behaviour.

MB: Why, in your opinion, is Google not cracking the social networking game?

SS: Social networking depends entirely on network effects. All your friends/colleagues need to be on for a social network to be valuable. Facebook was more lucky than right. They emerged at just the right time in the right demographic to take off. At this point, Facebook owns social networking and having achieved that, they are not going away any time soon.

MB: What, in your, opinion will be the next Google, Facebook and Twitter?

SS: I think the big opportunities are:
1) Better content filtering. We’re all drowning in information.
2) Easier and more integrated financial transactions. It is still too hard to spend money on the net or with your mobile, especially across borders.
3) Trust-authentication for intangibles. Can we increase trust through networks TrustFabric may be on to something.

Perhaps some combination of the above.

MB: What inspires you?

SS: Equality of opportunity. I don’t believe everyone was created equal, but I passionately believe that everyone deserves the same opportunity to make something of their lives.

MB: Blackberry, iPhone or Android?

SS: Android. I can see parallels between what is happening between the iPhone OS and Android, and the Mac and MSDOS/Windows operating systems in the 80s and 90s. iPhone OS may ultimately be a superior OS to Android, but the shear proliferation of Android-based devices will spur more development and innovation in the long run.

MB: Can you recommend two to three books we should read that will change our lives?

SS: “The Art of Possibility” by Ben and Ros Zander. An amazing example of, and great advice on, how to live a passionate and inspired life. “Here Comes Everybody” by Clay Shirky. A clearly articulated case for why “more is different”. “The Black Swan” by Nicholas Taleb. A prescient book on something that everyone now knows, that nothing is predictable. Its key message is that we must stop trying to build fail-safe systems, but rather systems that are safe when they fail.

MB: What is the most fulfilling project you have worked on?

SS: It is a cliché to say so, but what I am working on now – The Village Telco. And what makes it amazing is the incredible people involved in it that I am lucky enough to collaborate with.

MB: What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?

SS: My greatest achievement is actually a personal one and that was a solo motorcycle journey from Cape Town to Cairo.

MB: What was your biggest failure and how did you deal with it?

SS: My biggest failure was not betting my career on my convictions earlier in life. Fixed.

MB: What do you love most about your job?

SS: If I’m honest, I think what I love most is the opportunity/possibility to disturb the status quo, to hopefully shake up a market that is in desperate need of shaking up.

MB: Why are you attending the Tech4Africa conference?

To spread the word about the Village Telco, and its potential as an alternative telecommunications infrastructure.

MB: What would you most like Tech4Africa attendees to take away from your talk?

SS: It doesn’t have to be this way! Access doesn’t have to be expensive. Mobile operators don’t need to be walled gardens.

MB: What one thing should Africans be doing to better compete globally?

SS: To paraphrase Bill Clinton: “It’s the cost of access, stupid”. Driving down the cost of access for both voice and data is the biggest single thing that could be done to spur entrepreneurship and innovation on this continent. And the key enabler to this is more competition.

MB: What advice would you give to a tech start-up trying to get a great idea off the ground?

SS: Don’t wait. Start now and use the conviction you have for what you are doing to ignore the nay-sayers and other distractions.

About Steve Song:
Prior to his work at the Shuttleworth Foundation, Steve Song worked at the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) for ten years where he led the Information and Communication Technology for Development research programme in Africa.

He has also worked in the area of ICTs and development since 1991, and was involved in the early development of the Internet for the non-profit community in South Africa, including developing some of the first websites for non-profits in the country, and pioneering the first on-line searchable newspaper archive in Africa.



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