Can gaming spark a revolution in savings?

A few months, ago, I was invited to join a think called the Future Prosperity Panel. It was convened in London by Aviva, a global financial services company. There were nine members (they called us “thinkers”) on the panel, all from different backgrounds. The aim was to reach beyond the traditional confines of the City and Wall Street to find fresh ideas for reshaping financial services for the future.

Each thinker wrote an essay putting forward a single idea. Mine was that we might be able to inspire people to save more if we make saving more like a game. Since I submitted the piece, the media has been full of stories of how “gamification” is working wonders in many fields of human activity. So perhaps I was on to something.

You can read a very abridged version of my essay on Page 3 of today’s Financial Times. An interview with me will be broadcast on Radio 4’s Today Programme very soon (depending on how the News of the World story plays out).

And for the full version of the essay plus a video interview and more background on the think tank, click here.

Jump into the debate and let me know what you think….

To tweet or not to tweet

The other day I spoke at a conference for the leading bloggers in Norway.

It was a little unnerving. Bloggers are a pretty fast bunch, so singing the praises of Slow to them felt like barbecuing a steak at a vegan retreat.

From the stage, I could see laptop screens glowing in the dark. An iPhone rang. Members of the audience tweeted my talk, their dispatches scrolling down a large screen behind me. In Norwegian.

Even so, the Slow message seemed to go down well. I was not booed, heckled or pelted with tomatoes. Okay, someone tweeted that I reminded him of Quentin Tarantino. But given the high geek content in the room, I’m going to take that as a compliment.

The surest sign that the Slow philosophy made sense to those Norwegian bloggers is that several of them will soon be blogging on Slow Planet.

But the conference left a mark on me, too. I lost my Twitter virginity there. I decided that the only way to balance all the tweets about me was to start tweeting back.

So what do I make of Twitter? It’s a question put to me a lot by journalists these days. My view is that, like all technology, Twitter is neither good nor bad. What matters is how we use it.

Twitter can be a fun, enriching and provocative way to air views and connect with people. It can even reshape the political landscape, as we’ve seen during the protests in Iran. Sometimes a heat-of-the-moment 140-character missive is just the ticket.

But I think Twitter is best enjoyed as part of a balanced diet. In other words, it should complement – rather than replace – other forms of communication.

The trouble is that it can be very tempting to do everything at the speed of a tweet. And I mean everything.

Two university students are now reducing some of the greatest works of English literature, such as James Joyce’s Ulysses, to 140-character tweets.

This strikes me as an amusing parlour game that might inspire some people to read the original books in their entirety. It might even add to our understanding of the English canon.

But it also plays into the cultural pressure to reduce all communication to high-speed sound bytes.

Already, research shows that millions of people are no longer bothering to update their blogs. Why? Because blogging is now too slow. It’s much easier (and quicker) to type a short update on Facebook or to fire of a tweet.

If the Slow revolution stands for anything, it stands for doing everything at the right speed. And that principle holds true for communication. There are times for a shoot-from-the-hip tweet, but there are also times for more reflective – or slower – forms of communication.

I’ll tweet from time to time when it feels right. But I’ll also continue writing blogs, emails, articles and even books.

If you want to follow my tweets, my username is carlhonore.

In Praise of Snow…

Talk about climate change. Britain is grappling with the largest snowfall in nearly 20 years. London is buried under seven inches of the white stuff – and there are still flurries blowing around outside my window. The country has ground to a halt. In London, there are nobuses, no Tube, no school, nothing.

This is a huge inconvenience for many, but there is also a silver lining. To begin with, children are over the moon to have the day off school. Mine dashed outside in just their pajamas and boots this morning before breakfast. My son declared it the “best day of his life.”

Many Londoners know how he feels. The absence of traffic has changed the whole mood and feel of the city. Streets normally clogged with cars and buses are now full of children (and adults) building snowmen, throwing snowballs and even tobogganing. Neighbours who usually avoid eye-contact are stopping to chat about the weather. This is hardly surprising:Studies around the world show a direct correlation between cars and community: the less traffic that flows through an area (and the more slowly it flows) the more social contact among the residents.

I do not mean to demonize cars. I drive one myself. The trouble is that driving has gained too much ascendancy over walking. For decades, urban life has been haunted by the words of Georges Pompidou, a former president of France: We must adapt the city to the car, and not the other way round.

How wrong can someone be? The city of the future – a truly Slow city – must take a different tack. It must adapt not to the car but to the citizen, to the pedestrian, to human beings. And it shouldn’t wait around for a snowstorm to do so.

By coincidence, this snowfall has hit Britain on the day that alandmark studyon the statechildhood hit the headlines. The report sounds fascinating and flawed, and I will blog on it later once I’ve actually read it. But a quick comment now.

On the BBC this morning, one of the report’s authors blamed the unhappiness of modern British children on career-obsessed parents, competitive schooling, broken families, excessive consumerism etc. But he failed to mention our collective reluctance to let them run around and play outside on their own. If we want happy, healthy kids, then we need to redesign and rethink our cities so that they have plenty of outdoor space for play. And surely reclaiming the streets from traffic must be a first step to achieving that.

Is golf too slow?

Golf is famously slow. Shooting a round on an 18-hole course can take three, four or more hours. Which is part of its charm. Fresh air, a bit of nature, some friendly banter and exercise a very relaxing way to while away an afternoon. And yet some people like nothing more than a bracing round of Speed Golf. I suppose the acceleration of golf is inevitable in a world with Speed yoga, Speed meditation and Speed Dating. Speed Golf is pretty simple: players carry only six clubs and sprint between shots, with the fastest rounds lasting about 45 minutes. I have to admit that this holds a certain appeal to me: I’ve given up golf because now that I have kids I don’t have time to be blowing off a whole afternoon on the course. Is squeezing a round into an hour the solution?

What I find most fascinating about Speed Golf is a comment from Christopher Smith, the sport’s world-record holder: “In Speed Golf you don’t have the option to think,” he says. “All you have time to do is size up the situation, look at the target and hit the shot. So golf becomes a reactive sport rather than a deliberative one. It’s more like tennis where you’re responding to the something coming at you.

This jibes with my own experience of golf – that dreadful, sinking moment when you think a shot to death. Once the second thoughts and self-doubt start to flow, you know you’re going to mess it up even before you swing. That is why I prefer faster sports. I love squash precisely because you have no time to mull over a shot.

Does that mean that golf is too slow? Or that we play it too slowly? While almost everything else in the world has accelerated over the last century, golf has been slowing down. The star players of yesteryear, like Ben Hogan and Sam Snead, played quickly. What changed was that golf became a TV spectator sport at exactly the same time that Jack Nicklaus was at his peak – and he was remarkably slow. The upshot: around the world, both amateurs and professionals began spending long, tortured minutes circling their ball, sizing up the path to the green, testing the wind, visualizing the perfect shot, regulating their breathing.

Whether this helps us to golf better is unclear. Smith finds that he often racks up a better score speed-golfing a course than when playing it more slowly. He recommends that we all experiment with acceleration try a few rounds with no practice swings, for instance, or take no more than 10 or 15 seconds to play a shot after pulling the club from your bag. Since I won’t be venturing onto the course any time soon, I’d be interested to hear if this acceleration works for any of you out there.

A final caveat, though: even the fastest golf player needs to make room for slowness. When Smith reaches the green, he always walks. The idea is to slow down his heart-rate so that he can putt smoothly, calmlyand accurately.

Warrior girls

Last week I shared a stage in Chicago with Michael Sokolove, the genial but sharp-eyed author of a compelling new book called Warrior Girls.It explores the same terrain that I look at in the Sports chapter of Under Presure, but in greater depth (it’s a whole book on the subject, after all) and with the focus on girls. Our insistence on treating children like professional athletes, with punishing training regimes, long seasons, win-at-all-costs competition and early specialization is taking a heavy toll, but in some ways the damage is worse for girls because their bodies are simply not as robust. Less testosterone means less muscle and more oestrogen means laxer ligaments. That makes girls more prone to chronic knee pain; shin splints; stress fractures; ankle sprains; concussions; hip and back pain. They are five times more likely than are boys to rupture an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). Just look at the roll call of female athletes hobbled by over-training in their youth. Katharine Merry, the fastest girl in the world at 14, was laid low by a series of knee, achilles and foot injuries. Martina Hingis hit the pro tennis tour at 14 but was forced by foot and angle injuries to retire at 22. Foot trouble ended Anna Kournikova’s tennis career at the same age. Of course, sports are wonderful for girls and we should be encouraging more of them to take part. But this needs to be done in the right spirit – that means without turning sports into a fight to the death. Like boys, girls need to learn to push themselves hard without pushing themselves over the edge.

More stranger danger

Yesterday I did a radio interview with a station in Newfoundland in Canada. Before my segment, I listened to a report of how local police had street-proofed a city there. You heard a voice repeatedly saying “Never do this” and “Don’t do that.”I felt afraid just listening on the phone from the other side of the ocean.Then you heard children talking about how they would run a mile from any strange adult. It was chilling, and depressing. Is that really the message we want to send to our kids? That every grown-up is a potential abuser? That you can’t trust anyone unless you know them personally and they have been formally approved by your parents? What kind of society does that create? And how will children ever learn how to distinguish the very tiny minority who are a threat from the rest of us? Anyway, it made me think again how timely is the Safer Stranger campaign just launched in Britain (see blog post May 7).

Just like riding a bike

The tendency to over-protect children can backfire in lots of ways. Keeping kids cloistered indoors means they don’t learn how to navigate traffic, how to identify a well-meaning stranger or how to play with their peers without an adult taking control. The same may apply to learning to ride a bike. A landmark moment for any parent is buying that first bicycle and slapping on thestabilizers (training wheels)to support the child. But do children actually need that support? And do stabilizers really help them learn how to cycle? Maybe not. Recently, pre-school teachers in London noticed that even children under three were able to balance on two wheels if given half a chance and that they learned better as a result. They also developed more strength, stamina and balance. Said one teacher:”We might be wrong but at every stage we found that what holds them back was not them but us.”To prove the point, one London borough is now running an experiment where kids are given small wooden bikes with no pedals and their progress is monitored. We’ll have to wait for the results but I can already report that at least one two-year-old has almost mastered cycling without stabilizers. He’s the one that ran over my foot in the Battersea Park on the weekend.

Slow improv

I love improvisational comedy. It has a high-wire act quality that adds an extra edge and energy to the humour. It also seems like a very fast art: you have to come up with killer lines or movements in the blink of an eye. But now it seems that the Slow philosophy is making inroads in the world of improv. Apparently there is a Chicago school of improv that is more patient, less frenetic and built more around characters and ensemble work. Read an intriguing chat-room thread about itHERE. Meanwhile, Katie Goodman, a smart, funny and very thoughtful actress-director-writer is just finishing up a book on how to use the tools of improvisiational comedy in everyday life. One of the things she is exploring is how finding your inner tortoise off stage can allow you to be calmer, sharper and more creative when you’re actually in a fast-moving game of improv. You can find out more about by clickingHERE.

Best job in TV?

Last Friday I appeared on an Argentine TV show called Mañanas Informales. It’s one of my favourite shows for talking on. It manages to be noisy and dynamic without being stressful. One reason for this may be the Laughing Trio. In one corner of the studio, three rather scruffy young men sit in front of microphones sipping yerba mate and providing the show’s live laughter soundtrack. They whoop, whistle, make cheeky remarks and laugh with infectious gusto. I know they’re laughing to order but the effect is still the same: I find them hugely amusing and weirdly soothing. Certainly beats the hell out of the canned laughter that blights so many sitcoms. I even feel a bit envious: if you have to work in TV, then what better job could there be?

Slow poker

One of the most surprising cultural eruptions of recent years has to be poker’s arrival as a television sport. Talk about strange bedfellows: poker, when you play it right, is slow; TV is all about speed. In fact, impatient TV producers have favoured the fastest variant of poker and tweaked the rules to make it even faster. But is something being lost in all this acceleration? Victoria Coren, an English journalist and poker aficionado, thinks so. In an article published last year, she laments the way the need for speed is warping her favourite game. Here is her take on it (I don’t understand half the jargon either, by the way): “When a tournament is moving quickly, you have to gamble. In many cases, a re-raise before the flop would put a player all in. There isn’t time to let the cards tell a story, to try “feeler bets” for information, or make a good fold: you just can’t afford to leave chips behind. So, on TV, you often see people gambling in a way that negates much of poker’s thoughtfulness and sophistication – the speed favours luck over skill.” Yet there may be a backlash brewing. Coren writes about the emergence of “slow tournaments” that allocate a full day per game and give the best players the time to strut their stuff.