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March 09, 2011

Mark Shuttleworth: “Creativity happens on the boundaries”

mark shuttleworth

Mark Shuttleworth. Photo courtesy trancept

To the rest of the world, Ubuntu Foundation founder Mark Shuttleworth is “space tourist” first, “entrepreneur” second and “open source warrior” third. But to South Africans, he is a prized export, boldly going where no African has gone before, championing innovation and making science hip again.

The nation is proud of this über-geek from Welkom who made his first billion(s) right here in the Mother City with the sale of his internet security business Thawte for a cool R3.5-billion in 1999.

In South Africa, Mark Shuttleworth is a household name. An alumnus of the University of Cape Town (he studied finance and information systems there, lived in the prestigious Smuts Hall and was instrumental in setting up the first residential internet connections at Ikeys), Mark Shuttleworth calls Cape Town home.

Cape Town Tourism had the chance to meet Shuttleworth for some face time at last month’s Design Indaba, and we quizzed him about Cape Town’s bid to become the 2014 World Design Capital, about great design and about his feelings for the Mother City.

But first …

What is Ubuntu?

Ubuntu is a desktop operating system distributed as free and open source software. Its development was also funded by Shuttleworth. Now a firm favourite with Linux lovers, Ubuntu is part of a growing international trend that sees community participation at the centre of product development.

Open source is defined as “pertaining to or denoting software for which the original source code is made freely available and may be redistributed with or without modification”.

Of course, Ubuntu’s origins are doubly African, as the word itself refers to the humanist philosophy that “I am what I am because of who we all are.” What better way to describe what open source programmers do, as they make information freely available and build on shared experiences to develop the best operating system possible.

Shuttleworth at the Design Indaba

During his Design Indaba presentation, Shuttleworth noted that “Open source everything is a key characteristic of a creative economy.” But, he said, “Designers have a pathology of preciousness. Histrionics never shipped a product.” His sentiment, it seems, is that the ego can only stand in the way of ubuntu-inspired practices.

The Shuttleworth Foundation has been involved in rolling out desktop technology for underprivileged schools throughout Africa. For Shuttleworth, the real benefit of open source lies in its adaptability.

“Historically,” he said, “schools were supplied with word processors, spreadsheet programmes and PowerPoint for presentations, but this doesn’t mean anything if you’re an aspiring artist, musician or programmer. With Ubuntu, there is a limitless array of things you can do – there is a tool for any particular interest.”

2014 World Design Capital: Cape Town on the boundaries

We asked Shuttleworth about Cape Town’s chances of becoming the 2014 World Design Capital.

“Creativity happens on the boundaries,” he answered, “and a place like Cape Town is uniquely positioned. It’s a melting pot of cultures and people, with a rich history as well as a focus on modernity.

“There is a kernel of creativity that exists in Cape Town, and I am a great supporter [of this campaign].”

It would follow, according to Shuttleworth’s principals of cadence, quality and design, that Cape Town is ready: We’ve been hosting a series of major international events with great success, our standards as a creative city are high (if the Design Indaba is anything to go by) and design is at the forefront of our economic and social progress.

How does Cape Town inspire?

“Coming to a conference like [the Design Indaba], with its thoughtfulness, talent and creativity is, for me, what good design is all about,” said Shuttleworth.

“We’re running out of space and resources, so simply doing ‘more’ is not enough. It’s now about looking at how we do what we do, and that for me is good design.”

mark shuttleworth

Photo courtesy ejhogbin

Here be dragons: Forecasting the trends

User-centred design, personalisation and convergence will be key technology drivers in the next few years, according to Shuttleworth.

With convergence devices, he said, you’ll be “docking your mobile phone into a device to turn it into a personal computer. This device knows everything about you – it’s a profoundly personal experience.”

Speaking of Ubuntu’s somewhat revolutionary, and quite contentious, commitment to designing a platform that gives the bulk of screen space back to the user, Shuttleworth said: “More and more, people own their computing experience and yet [the software industry] tries to push into that [screen] space.

“We [Ubuntu] want to give [users] as much of the screen as possible, to take out these promos and commercialised pop-ups.”

Shuttleworth on Cape Town

We asked Shuttleworth, who is currently based on the Isle of Man, how he feels about Cape Town.

“I am quite rootless and consider myself quite global.” But, he said, “This is home.”

Will he ever come back? “I think I will. My parents are here and I do have a piece of land … I will build there eventually, but I don’t want to mess it up!”

Read Shuttleworth’s blog, Here be Dragons, and then find out more about the Shuttleworth Foundation.

Mark Shuttleworth travelled to the International Space Station on Apri 25, 2002, becoming the world’s second self-funded space tourist. In this short clip, watch Shuttleworth do the Madiba jig in zero gravity. Video courtesy matthewknottcraig


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