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Does digital have to be disruptive?


Personal data and kick-starting the personal data economy are what makes Professor Irene Ng tick, both in research and practice. But how can we make better use of this data as technology evolves and markets change as a result? In this interview she explains more about her current project, the first human-centric database - the Hub-of-All-Things. Words by Gareth B Jenkins.

Irene NgAs an entrepreneur and an academic, Professor Irene Ng is passionate about the link between practice and research. She is an advisor to start-ups on new pricing and revenue models in digital businesses. Her third book 'Value & Worth: Creating New Markets in the Digital Economy' is available on Kindle and in print from Cambridge University Press.

Gareth B Jenkins spoke to Irene in June 2014 about the book, her field of research and her thoughts on the digital economy.

What are your academic interests?

If you’d had asked me two or three years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to answer the question succinctly because it was quite wide. But now I say I research personal data and kick-starting the personal data economy.

The individual has been subjugated by how they participate in the market. We use words like ‘the market’, ‘consumers’, ‘citizens’ and ‘society’ to subjugate individuals because it marginalises the individual for the sake of serving the so-called ‘collective’.

In an age of technology this doesn’t have to be the case. Every voice can be a personalised one. You can be empowered, digitally. My interest in the personal data economy is to push forward the idea of the market of one. Such a market used not to be possible, since transaction and coordination costs were too high, and scalability couldn’t go together with high variety, but this [Irene holds up her iPhone] is a market of one; it’s a fully standardised platform but every single one is unique.

How did you start your academic career?

I was a straight F student when I was a teenager; I used to freeze in exams and I don’t think I ever thought I was going to be an academic. When I was around 15, I had a commerce exam followed, a couple of days later, by a class quiz. I failed the exam but I won the quiz. My teachers couldn’t understand it but I started studying only after the exam because I wanted to win the quiz!

I never did well in exams. My PhD didn’t really have that many exams and it was mainly coursework. I did really well in those. It was then that I realised, maybe I’m not that stupid!

Where does research end and practice begin?

They’re nested. Like Russian dolls. And they’re recursively nested – research is embedded in practice and practice is embedded in research. You cannot distinguish between them, at least not in the social sciences.

What were your interests as a child?

The same interests I have today. I love to play! I have been playing all my life; the toys are different but they’re still toys. Since I was very young, I’ve always put my creativity towards play (hence the winning of the quiz!) and it’s one of the ways I deal with problems. For my husband, if a problem arises, he’s like ‘Oh my god, this is a problem!’ but in my head I’m thinking, ‘Fascinating, that’s cool. Let’s go play with that!’

Sometimes the penny drops and I have to think ‘you’re not playing anymore’ because things get serious and there is more at stake but I think there is always room for play. And there’s nothing like being pushed right to the edge to realise where the edge is.

You’re the Professor of Marketing & Service Systems at WMG, Director of the International Institute of Product & Service Innovation (IIPSI) and you’re also a Senior Member of Wolfson College, Cambridge. How do you fit it all in?

I have a great team.

What inspired you to write 'Value & Worth: Creating New Markets in the Digital Economy'?

When you want people to get what your research is about but they’ve got to read 30 or so papers to do so, you tell yourself, it’s time to write a book.

Practitioners learn from experience but how do they learn advanced concepts that can help them be better?

They can go back to school and read textbooks. Textbooks can be ten years behind current research. What about research articles? Practitioners will probably be bored by the end of the first article. They’re not written in a way that is interesting or relevant to practitioners.

There’s a whole lot of information; facts and concepts and ways of thinking about the customer in a digital economy that need to be told. No one’s going to know about this unless it’s written in an accessible way. The book is for advanced practitioners ¬- they’ve probably done their MBA and have been working for several years, they’re probably a chief innovation officer or even a CEO. They’re looking at the economic landscape, they can see businesses being disrupted and they’re asking themselves ‘what the hell is happening?’. This book tells you, fundamentally, what is happening and how things might change.

Does digital have to be disruptive?

Digital isn’t disruptive. Technology never disrupts. It’s people that disrupt and they are disruptive in the way they use technology. The fact that I use the dictionary on my phone disrupts the ‘dictionary market’. On my phone the dictionary is not just useful but available in context, and on demand.

The way we appropriate technologies as resources, and make them work in our lives, causes disruption. This is what human beings are like. It’s not about digital or not digital, it’s the fact that digitisation is a set of resources that allows certain activities to transcend states. If you and I were to have an argument over the lyrics to Stairway to Heaven, we can now resolve it immediately. You couldn’t do that 30 years ago. Digital works at the point of need; the point where we are most willing to pay. Digital isn’t disrupting all industries. Tea, for example, cannot (yet) be digitised so, when you open your cupboard in the morning, you’re limited to what’s there. Digital is not about to disrupt the tea industry any time soon.

We are creatures of market behaviour. Look at what happened to music when digitisation occurred. The markets that were traditionally held in different places died because markets emerge where they are most efficient; they’re like water coming down a mountain, markets will find the path of least resistance. Music found a device closest to where people wanted to listen to music.

What does that mean for the future? Well, we may not digitise a train ride home but the information about the train, where we’re sitting on the train, the available space on the train might be digitised. So, a train ride home is no longer about 500 people sitting in 11 carriages but five million people who might want to know something about that train ride home and how that information is useful and relevant. We’ve not yet developed that business model, but it will come.

How do you find writing for a non-academic audience?

Writing for a non-academic audience was easy. It’s the switching between academic and non-academic writing that is hard. Both have a different voice. I had to stop writing academic papers for about seven months to write the book.

Which businesses excite you?

There are businesses out there that really try to understand the individual, and that would try hard to help the individual. IFTTT is a good example. ‘If this, then that’ is such a simple concept but that firm understands the fact that people like to have structure and processes. I love businesses that try to ‘get’ us.

The companies that irritate me are the companies that take people’s data and play with it as if it was their toy. It’s like boys in the playground. They take your toys, they play with them and then they have the nerve to say ‘here are some other toys you might be interested in, given your interest in this toy.’ I do appreciate the recommendations but can I have my toy back please (no names mentioned on the companies)!

You have your own YouTube channel

…only to collect some of the weird videos of me that are out there! Actually, I’m toying with the idea of adding a few recordings of my own. I’d like to do more pieces like how we’re talking now in this interview. I’ve got friends who say, ‘talking to you is so different from reading your book’, they’ve said, ‘you should have a YouTube channel and do a weekly rant!’.

Next year will be Warwick’s 50th anniversary and WMG’s 35th anniversary. We’re looking forward and ‘imagining the future’, so how do you imagine the next 35-50 years will play out?

Have you seen my HAT project? The plan is to launch the Hub-of-All-Things (HAT) next year. If you have an email, you should have a HAT. It’s the first human-centric database. It’s not a personal data store, we’re not aggregating vertical data – what are you going to do with a bunch of CSV files? The HAT has a very special schema that helps you fit the different vertical data about you (finance, health) into a database that can help you make decisions about that data in your life. And you can contextualise the data with the meaningful events in your life and buy future apps and services that can help you use your own data. HAT is freely available, under a creative commons licence, and we will develop it as a community so that what works on one HAT will work on all HATS.

Imagine going to a HAT-ready restaurant; when you pay the bill, the transaction will go straight into your HAT and maybe they’ll include a record of what you ordered and ate. The HAT holds data that you can personally contextualise so that when you go on to make future decisions, you’ll be able to do so based on your past data. At the moment, companies like Facebook and Google have (probably) about five per cent of the data that you create – you could collect the other 95 per cent about yourself with your own HAT and, when you do, Google will trade with you. That will be a much more democratic personal data economy than what we have now.

June 2014

Professor Irene NgIrene Ng is Professor of Marketing and Service Systems and the Director of the International Institute for Product and Service Innovation (IIPSI) at WMG, University of Warwick. She is also a Senior Member of Wolfson College, Cambridge. Her third book 'Value & Worth: Creating New Markets in the Digital Economy' is available on Kindle and in paperback from Cambridge University Press (

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