Google Zeitgeist 2011


A few weeks ago I got a call saying I'd won a competition to attend Google's Zeitgeist conference. I'd submitted a 1-minute video for the talking about Scrunchup for a Young Minds contest, and it had been picked for the final 12.

So on Sunday I took the train to Watford to meet the other winners. I met the Livity team who had organised the competition with Google, and they were to be our mummies and daddies for the 3 days.

The young minds included Richard, 19, who is a founding member of the Spirit of London awards, Sadiq, 24, who runs Future Voices International and Grace, 20, from the RYPE initiative.

Another winner was Ludwick, a 20 year old from South Africa who developed a prototype for a dry bath gel which could help reduce the water requirements of millions of people, and wrote an 8,000 word business plan for it on his mobile phone.

I have no chemistry background. But having a resource like Google made it all available.

The Promise of Youth panel

We were treated to lunch, then to a buffet dinner at the conference venue and were given the opportunity to meet the attendees who all seemed to be either CEOs at large companies or Google employees.

It was by far the most opulent event I've ever attended. It was held at a luxury mansion house full of modern art, millionaires, and bathrooms with very soft hand towels.

Day One

Photo of a game being played on a blue screen

On the first evening after dinner, we were given the mission of schmoozing with the other attendees. The venue had lots of themed rooms. I walked through a room full of cheese, entered a room full of bright rugs, sitars and a barman serving absinthe, then into a room with a candyfloss machine attached to a bicycle, followed by a room with popcorn and a barman standing by a slush puppy machine serving beetroot cocktails, then into a club with discoballs and weird gadgets, and then outside where there were marquees and barbecues.

I found it challenging to complete the task of introducing myself to new people because I somehow ended up with a glass of absinthe (which was disgusting and I couldn't get rid of it for ages), then tried to subtly eat a big cloud of candyfloss, and ended up with sticky hands and blue all over my face.

Day Two

Photo of the Young Minds sitting on beanbags

For the second day, Livity organised a serious of workshops. One of the sessions was led by Jared Cohen who has the most impressive CV I've ever seen. When he was 24 he became an advisor to Condoleezza Rice, and he now works as the director of Google Ideas. Geoffrey Canada also ran a session about social activism and leadership, and Tom and Ross gave us an overview of what happens in the Google Creative Labs.

We got to ask lots of questions and were given advice on making our projects more successful. The Livity team went through the attendee list with us and asked who we wanted an introduction with, which was incredible. Through this, I was able to meet Martha Lane Fox who is the UK Government Digital Champion.

Photo of a band playing

We were then invited to a dinner where we were entertained with music and dancing. I sat between an Italian businessman and the president of a political risk research firm. I cheekily attended a cocktail party afterwards when I should have been getting on a bus with the others. My punishment was missing my ride back to the hotel and gaining the "bad girl" reputation.

Day Three

On the last day, we attended the talks which tackled issues such as poverty and radicalism. There was a particularly interesting panel of "formers" including a former white supremacist and a former gang member. They received a standing ovation at the end of the session which was quite moving.

At the end of the morning, the Promise of Youth session was hosted by Sam Conniff, with panelists including Channel 4's Jon Snow and Martha Lane Fox and 3 of the young minds. During the session, Sam asked Martha a question about the work I'm doing.

Sam Conniff: One of the other Young Minds, Anna, is campaigning actively in the U.K. to change the curriculum, transform the curriculum, add to the curriculum, something that's missing that we are completely missing the opportunity to educate young people correctly in I.T. So it's something that runs across all of the different Young Minds.

Martha, what of your experience as digital inclusion champion could you share with these guys facing the same challenges?

Martha Lane Fox: I think it's really interesting to see what the boundary between what government could do and should do and what young, people, old people, people of all age should do around any kind of inclusion, whether it is digital, educational or any other kind of skill.

Listening to you talk, one thing I feel very strongly about here in the U.K. is it's the lowest cost way for the government to help itself is by making sure everybody is connected, and that's the link I feel frustrated.

I am not making the arguments clearly enough. It's beginning to happen in government that by making everybody able to use the Internet, helping everybody be able to use the Internet, certain things start to happen much more effectively. Government can communicate more easily. I believe businesses become created.

All of you set, you are a brilliant example of that. So I think that the pressure should be put on governments to make sure they are looking after their kind of final bits of all of these pieces to make sure that the final third, tenth, whatever it is are able to use technologies, even if it's just making sure the infrastructure is there. And then you guys can layer the things on top.

The Promise of Youth panel

Photo of Oyin wearing a hat made of lego
Lego Mindstorms were doing an exhibit at the conference and I played a game with Oyin where we controlled robots using our heads.

After the panel, there was a Google product showcase. This was followed by a keynote from Steven Hawking on "Why are we here?", then a Q&A session with Eric Schmidt.

It's rumoured that Google employees gain a stone in weight after their first month working in the offices because of the free canteen. I was so well fed that I'm pretty sure I've gained that much in 3 days at their conference.

I'm really grateful to the Livity team for organising all of this, and also to Google for inviting us to the conference and giving us one those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. I do feel though that it would have been just as awesome if it had been held somewhere really dull, because I got so much from meeting the other young minds. They're an inspiring group of people who I feel so lucky to have met.