Oxford Dangerous Sports Club

The Oxford University Dangerous Sports club started in the mid-1970’s as little more than a group of undergraduates hungry for excitement, for the unusual and for extreme experiences. The eclectic group of well-educated and affluent young Britons met exclusively to have some very silly and eccentric fun, but in the process they became pioneers of sports like bungee jumping, BASE jumping and hang gliding; more or less inventing the world of alternative sports. Their mischieveous activities, which routinely involved risking their lives, combined imagination, courage, innocence and blind recklessness. They seemed willing to engage in any activity simply if it had never been done before. 

Apart from grand appetites for fine food, wine, and literature, the members of the club were also addicted to danger. They adopted a peculiar protocol of formal attire and abundant champagne in their outings and activities. These activities included riding down very steep hills in shopping carts (20 years before Jackass even existed), running with the bulls at Pamplona while riding skateboards and carrying umbrellas. They sailed a modified septic tank across the English Channel once, and later they also crossed it in the pouch of an inflatable kangaroo. They organized a bike race down the Matterhorn mountain in the Alps, which naturally required parachutes for the cyclists. These photographs by Dafydd Jones reflect the spirit of the activities.

This race led to other surreal ski races, normally in Saint-Moritz. The “vehicles”, almost suicidal machines, ranged from an ironing board to a baby carriage, from a grand piano to a Louis XIV dining set, all equipped, of course, with skis. A truly Fellinian spectacle. Most rides ended in spectacular crashes of course. They even tried to send a London double-decker bus down the mountain, which was not allowed by authorities. The bus had been purchased in London and driven all the way to Saint-Moritz, picking people up along the way.

The club was always about much more than mere adrenaline and excitement. It was political, adventurous, philosophical and artistic at the same time, and, in a very sophisticated way, radical. One of the more insane activities carried out by the club was a cocktail party held on an extremely small, uninhabited, remote rocky islet in the North Atlantic Ocean, more than 300 miles off the coast of Scotland. The event invitations requested black-tie. They sailed for five days through horrible weather, narrowly avoided sinking by plugging a leak in the hull with a champagne cork, somehow climbed the 70-foot rocky cliffs, and spent the night drinking champagne and dancing to the Beach Boys, before returning home.

The first official bungee jump carried out by the Oxford Dangerous Sports Club was off the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol. True to their unique blend of irreverence and style, it took place on April Fool’s Day, in morning suit and top hat, and clutching a bottle of champagne.

Although the group was never oficially recognized by Oxford as a university group, for some years the existence of the club was tolerated, until its activities became way too dangerous and threw it out.

In the early 90’s the members of the club became interested in another eccentric Englishman who had built an enormous trebuchet on his Shropshire estate. He was flinging old cars, dead cows, and burning pianos into an empty field. After visiting several times, the bold Oxonians decided to build a machine to fire humans. In medieval times, during sieges, dead, decomposing corpses of cows were sometimes thrown into walled villages, to spread diseases. However, men had never seriously given thought to the idea of throwing other men. It was the perfect challenge for the Dangerous Sports Club.

At twenty-six feet tall, the medieval catapult they built was an imposing structure, evil and savage-looking. The machine violently hurled people several stories high and into a net 100 feet away. This activity became popular, and not only with members of the club. Soon they were even charging people for money for launching them to the sky. One November morning in 2002 tragedy finally struck. An enthusiastic 19-year-old freshman biochemistry student was killed when he missed the net by a few inches. He crashed into the ground and lived only a few hours.

The club had departed from their old ways. They had started marketing thrills to the public. MTV and other companies had already started sponsoring some of their events. The gentlemen adventurers had betrayed their fundamental principles of doing everything themselves, harming only themselves and doing things just for the fun of it. The catapult incident was the most serious one, but not the only accident, of course. In fact, the club’s mascot, Eric, was a life-size mannequin in a full-body cast, representing danger…and also an impressive hard-on.

It is not certain when the Oxford Dangerous Sports Club disappeared, but this witty group of eccentric men (and a few women) did gradually dissolve. They left an incredible legacy, though. Bungee jumping, BASE jumping, and to an extent hang gliding, owe their existence and popularity to them. Many followed in their footsteps and created profitable franchises and businesses of alternative or extreme sports. However, such a snobbish and sophisticated combination of elitist quest for pure pleasure, hedonist surrealism, absolute disregard for the norm and spirit of adventure is impossible to replicate. Never again will there be an Oxford Dangerous Sports Club. Unique and inimitable, like Monty Python, like James Bond (perhaps a blend of both) it is already a true British classic.

(To read my original article, in PDF, published in Aug 2011: Oxford Dangerous Sports Club)

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The AKB48 pop revolution in Japan

Pop music everywhere has become dull due to the use and abuse of song formulas and formats that are tired and are exasperatingly repetitive. A popular song in Germany can sound very similar to one in Finland or in the US. Still, innovation is possible with a little imagination. Japanese impresario Yasushi Akimoto has created an incredibly successful franchise slightly tweaking the typical model of the girl pop band. A Japanese television writer, lyricist, record producer, professor and vicepresident at Kyoto University of Art and Design, Akimoto launched the AKB48 concept in the year 2005.

This is not your regular pop band, although musically it still sounds like just pop. What is interesting is what’s behind. The AKB stands for Akihabara, a distric in Tokyo, famous for being a major shopping area for electronics, computers and anime and is always teeming with otaku -a Japanese word for “geek”. 48 is the number of girls that make up the group. The first original idea behind the group is that they are idols that you can go and see anytime, because they have their own performance venue in Akihabara. The 48 girls are divided into groups that can take turns performing, so there is always a daily show. The theater is located on the 8th floor of a Don Quijote store (a popular department store chain in Japan) and due to the enormous demand now tickets are distributed via a lottery.

The second innovative idea was introduced in 2009: girls aggresively compete against each other and face elections by fans, who decide the member line-up that will record the next single. Only the top 21 members appear actively in the media. Additionally, there are many aspiring members, kenkyusei, which means “trainees”. In 2010 a new and original selection method was introduced to pick which girls participated in a recording: girls competed against each other in a rock-paper-scissors tournament.

Akimoto has been criticized for sexualizing teen girls, because songs say things like “I want to take off my school uniform, I want to misbehave, you can do whatever you like, I want to experience adult pleasure”, but he replies that he simply reflects realities that young Japanese girls experience in their lives; their doubts, their problems, their aspirations and dreams. The lyrics also sometimes address serious issues like teen suicide, he says.

What is clear is that the concept, a unique combination of theatre company, girl band and reality show, is a huge success, with the girls becoming pop superstars and tickets to the theater permanently sold out and some singles selling more than a million copies in a single day. In the first six months of 2011, total sales of merchandise reached almost 70 million euros (aprox $93M). They will also have their own anime series and will have their own official shop where fans can purchase official merchandise and their own AKB48 cafe that will serve Japanese fusion food and desserts. They already have their own fight card videogame –AKB48 Stage Fighter.

Akimoto has already announced that versions of the band will be launched in Taiwan, Indonesia and in Singapore. He has also teamed up with Sony Music Japan to produce a new “official rival” that will be called Nogizaka46.

Below, a photo of AKB48’s new sister group: SDN48. This group is made up of older girls, 23 on average) and there are only 12 members. They will sing both in Korea and in Japanese.

(To read the original article in the BMR magazine, Mar 2012: AKB48)

Hungry for the Real Thing

Intellectual property rights enforcement is considered today crucial to sustaining economic growth across all industries around the world. Some economists estimate that up to two thirds of the value of large businesses in the US can be traced to intangible assets. Intellectual property protection stimulates innovation, the thinking goes. Creators will not have sufficient incentive to invent unless they are entitled to obtain value from their inventions.

The origin of the concept of intellectual property goes some time back, the legal term is pretty recent. We can find the first traces in Jewish Law but the notion of intellectual creations as property did not appear until the 16th century. Patents evolved from royal prerogative -Queen Elizabeth I gave royal grants for monopoly privileges- to the legal right of any inventor to have exclusive control over the production and sale of his invention. In section 1 of the French Law of 1791 it says that all new discoveries are the property of the author. The author is granted a patent for five, ten or fifteen years. It was not until the 19th century, however, when the term intellectual property began to be used, and it has not been common worldwide until the end of the 20th. Although there are some unresolved ethical issues with intellectual property, especially when it comes to life-saving medicines or genetically modified seed that are given intellectual property protection, in general terms intellectual property is considered absolutely fundamental for trade and development.

One of the most flagrant cases of breach of intellectual property was discovered by a blogger in China this year. 5 fake Apple stores that sold authentic -but unauthorized- Apple products. So realistic were the stores that even the employees thought they worked for Apple. Chinese entrepreneurs are not only copying products now, they are appropriating successful retail concepts, replicating the look and feel of stores and in effect pirating the whole brand experience, the most valuable asset for many companies.

11 Furniture, a Chinese furniture retailer in the city of Kinming, has taken this practice a little further still. They have created a 10,000-square-meter, four-story replica of an IKEA store. Not a full copy, because they have not actually used the IKEA logo, but nearly everything else, including the blue-and-yellow color scheme, the mock-up rooms, the rocking chair design, the cafeteria, and even the miniature pencils. The name in Chinese “Shi Yi Jia Ju” also sounds like the official IKEA Chinese name “Yi Jia Jia Ju”.

China is feared because it seems to be out to conquer the world, but at the same time it is obvious that Chinese are fascinated and seduced by western brands and culture. Let’s not forget that Rome conquered Greece, but it became Greek in doing so. Roman elite spoke and wrote Greek as fluently as Latin. Greek philosophy, religion, science, art and thought permeated into every aspect of Roman life. Horace once said “Graecia capta ferum victorim cepit et artis intulit agresti Latio” (“Conquered Greece has conquered the brute victor and brought her arts into rustic Latium”).

The future doesn’t just appear, it has to be invented. To invent you need the drive, the money, both of which China definitely has, and of course the imagination. Imagination is fuelled by learning, and the best way to learn is to copy. However, one thing is to copy products, labeling, stores, or uniforms. Copying the ideals, values or aspirations is not that easy.

China does have real IKEA stores, especially in the wealthier coastal and southern cities, in Beijing and Shanghai. So if you want the real deal, you can have it, but you would need to have your purchase shipped. Why the hassle when you can have 11 Furniture? IKEA has said wisely that the best thing to prevent such stores from opening in the future is to open more stores and make IKEA products available to more people. So in the end, maybe having fake stores isn’t that bad after all. 11 Furniture and the fake Apple stores did breach intellectual property rights but they also brought free publicity for Apple and IKEA. They also showed there is demand for their products. If anything, they simply paved the way for the American and Swedish brands, giving customers just a taste and creating anticipation for the real thing.

(To read the original article, published in Nov 2011, in PDF: Hungry for the Real Thing)

European Union Innovation Performance Scoreboard

I created this graph today, it is basically the same graph included in the  European Union Innovation Performance Scoreboard 2011, but it is a little easier to understand. The report includes innovation indicators and trend analyses for the 27 Member States, as well as for Croatia, Iceland, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Norway, Serbia, Switzerland and Turkey. Sweden is this year the most innovative country in the European Union.