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Michela Magas lives and works in northern Sweden, from where she runs her London-based business Stromatolite Design Innovation Labs. The company, which she co-founded in 2000, builds networks of innovators and advises clients on turning research and ideas into products. In April she won the top award in the EU’s Prize for Women Innovators (pictured below) for fostering entrepreneurial innovation in general, and in particular for Music Tech Fest, a live event and tech platform.
Here, she outlines a working life divided between many locations and time zones, as well as a community of thousands of innovators.
When I need a break from liaising with contacts or staying on top of a project, it is a matter of moments to put on a coat, gather my two dogs, and step outside into the clean air of Umeå. If it’s at night, I may spend some time gazing at the Northern Lights. It makes a huge difference.
I accepted an invitation to move here after learning that the city wanted to foster entrepreneurial projects. I realised I did not have to live where Stromatolite is based. Since I worked at the FT as a young designer in the 1990s, I have been interested in how new technology can change how we all work. Now, lots of people, not just me, are trying to get to grips with not having a building to come to work in every morning. Some call it nomadic working, but I prefer “decentralised”.
Right now I’m back at my home-and-studio in Umeå, where I was desperate to step back and spend some time thinking. My recent business trip destinations included Helsinki, Macedonia, Romania and Belgium — before that I’d taken 22 flights in a month.
When I’m travelling, I travel light. The only tech hardware I take is an iPhone 6 Plus and a MacBook Air. I do all my work using apps — using Dropbox, for instance, to share files with my management team in Sweden, Germany, France and the UK. Having worn out three keyboards, I use SwiftKey, which uses artificial intelligence (AI) to predict words and whole phrases when I’m writing documents. I’ve written lots of funding applications, pitches and speeches in that way while travelling.
My working life is focused on developing an environment that would allow creative people in Europe to contribute to industry and the economy. A year ago, I was in Berlin for our 2016 Music Tech Fest, which uses music and creativity to enable people from worlds as disparate as science, arts, industry and academia to explore technological innovation together.
As well as showcasing music technology and performance, we brought together people as diverse as engineers and fashion designers, neuroscientists and classical violinists. It is the kind of event where an artist with blue hair from Florida will be solving problems with an engineer from Barcelona and an innovator from Sweden with communication implants in her tattoos.
One outcome of Music Tech Fest is #MusicBricks: interactive component building blocks, which act as a “social glue” to help, say, a performing artist and a data analyst communicate because they can bypass their complex, specialist jargon to build something together simply.
Viktoria Modesta, the bionic pop star and performance artist, used her prosthetic leg at the Berlin event to control her performance and smoke effects on stage. She also used her thoughts, via EEG (electroencephalography) brainwave readers and neurofeedback, to control lights on her carbon-fibre outfit.
Applications that unite creativity and technology in this way could ultimately be employed, for instance, in heavy machinery sectors by using smart, gesture-enabled tech to operate the machines.
Such events can involve 500 people making, developing and performing. With a community — or ecosystem — of 5,000 people spread around the globe, as well as the Stromatolite team in London, Berlin, Nice and Umeå, I’m always communicating electronically.
The team continuously try out communications and collaboration tools. In fact, they go through a lot of pain to find the right ones. We have relied on Skype in the past — even though it is more glitchy than we would like — and have been experimenting with Appear.in as well as Amazon’s Chime software.
These programs and social media tools are making it ever easier for people from different sectors, time zones and sizes of company to discover each other’s work and make contact. When I observe West Coast companies contacting our community on Facebook about projects under way in Europe, it makes me think that big companies will have to relinquish some of the control they currently have over collaboration between skilled, creative people. I see the fast exchange of knowledge and ideas between diverse people creating a bond that becomes personal.
But I also travel and meet up in person with clients, partners and staff because you can’t do everything electronically. You need “acupuncture points” of meeting face to face in your working life. That is why my management team all came to Umeå for a five-day boot camp recently; and why I stayed here in April to interact with the local networks of entrepreneurs and creative people. I lecture from time to time at the city’s design and business schools, which gives me contact with the ideas and insights of the students.
You can have some of the fastest broadband in the world, as we have in Umeå, but you also need the human exchange with like-minded people. The way that I work gives me the best of all possible worlds.
As told to Harriet Arnold