PETER COOPER
April 12, 2016

Time to rethink value creation

COMMENT

Time to rethink value creation

Cooper & Co: Top-down innovation is only part of the answer. We need more spent on "bottom-up" initiatives

Humans learn and create value for themselves and society in weird ways. Learning usually doesn't actually require lots of money. It is more about passion, a natural approach and of course repeating or scaling once we find stuff that works.

As more of the world's educational resources are found online free, the focus is more about effective learning.

Because online learning is boring and not very human. It is ok but not energising. These are the keys to changing the world. Learning to learn.

There is an Alvin Tofler quote that is prescient here: 'The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.'

Many of us have heard of pair-programming as a nice structured way to learn software development from a mate. And tutoring or coaching people 1:1 is a well-known concept too.

Well, humanity can take this further.

And best of all, it doesn't pander to the existing bias we have baked into society against gender, race, educational background or other cultural dimensions like language. In fact, peer learning thrives with more diversity! So Australia is in a very very good place.

We have heard a lot lately about innovation precincts. But human conversation doesn't scale to city blocks – we need to be close to each other, shoulder-to-shoulder, ideally with people we like and can learn from like because we have shared interests, passions and values.

Basically the idea is to help anyone with an idea or a passion to accelerate. Immediately.

This is a proven model. There are lots of examples, but one I am involved in is StartSoc, which setup iCentral in 2015. In just over a year, nearly half of all participants have received investment, and/or hired new staff, and/or were accepted into a world-class accelerator.

Imagine what would happen if we did something ten times the size, for ten years, in ten places around every major city in Australia?

And the cost of this stuff is a fraction of other programs. Just providing 10 desks in San Francisco for a year with support services is costing the Australian Government $500,000 a year.

Volunteers could setup a self-funding, rented-at-cost and curated co-working space for 100+ tech startups using that sort of money as a deposit. And it could run happily for ten years. That’s a 100-fold improvement – albeit in Australia not SF – but even better it is building a resilient, hyper-connected local community.

And that is just tech startups. It could work well in other areas, like adjacent to universities across all disciplines. How about the medical research belt outside Melbourne? Or the underutilised resources skills in Perth and Brisbane since the boom started ending? Or the tree changers/e-changers in late-career towns like Bega and Merimbula with remarkable quality of life on the ridiculously beautiful Australian South East coast half way between our two largest cities?

We could do it ourselves or just use it as a way of smarter spending of existing budgets by hassling our government, and the companies we invest in with our superannuation contributions.

Let’s stop governments and corporates wasting money on top-down innovation. It is more important to truly leverage and empower humanity to solve problems large and small. To keep it in perspective, we probably need both, so it is more about how much goes where. And frankly, this suggestion is so cheap it is less than most line items on the National Innovation and Science Agenda.

The real innovation stuff happens bottom-up (with a bunch of obvious exceptions around capital/resource intensive research like quantum, nanotech, biotech and the like.)

Instead of grey cubicles and new departments or government programs with ‘innovation’ in the title, let’s foster peer-to-peer learning. It is cheaper, more effective and more enduring. And way more fun and way more human.

This is best done shoulder-to-shoulder – we’re not talking about precincts or cities – where educated and passionate specialists can work together on their own stuff, but in parallel to peers working on other stuff. Smart people always find stuff in common.

Maybe they learn about the latest tools –there is no how-to for dummies book on new stuff – or techniques or other breakthroughs.

We have seen it in pockets globally, usually around tech startup coworking spaces that have cool founders or are curated effectively.

But there is a need to scale vertically and horizontally. Vertically... you need hundreds or even thousands of geeks in close proximity to get critical mass of just 5-10 people in highly specialised topics.

Horizontally, there is no doubt now that developers and designers have a meaningful junction around UX/CX/UI/design, similarly security and identity or hardware and real-time software – the list goes on – and can include wider stuff like business, marketing and even philosophy.

So if you can pay a base rent (and maybe rent is even free with the right sponsorship model), we have new types of peer learning centres or peer universities (probably close to universities) and the only criteria for entry is passion about something or inquisitive nature about an area.

This new space would need to be porous (curated entry but allow low friction participation from wider specialists community).

The trick of course is to scale, without enough people the 'marketplace' does have liquidity, we need enough people in one place that everyone can find say five other people to share their passions with.

That is the great thing, it is unconstrained.

The currency is knowledge, Casual conversations and friendships are the roads it travels on, and of course people are the key.

And these connections are what makes us resilient and helps us to continue the learning, we get ahead and stay ahead. Values also get normalised around outcomes not mere beliefs or theories.

Think about it, even better try it, at scale. Join a curated tech startup space, and see your passion fire up.

Pete Cooper is founder of The Start Society, he is also an advocate for tech startups and a lifelong learner. You can find and follow Pete on twitter as @pc0 and read more about him here.

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