How the hell did I get here? Five minutes with new Callaghan Innovation board appointee, Frances Valintine

Last week science and innovation minister Steven Joyce announced fresh appointments to the board of Callaghan Innovation, among them Francis Valintine. We tracked her down to find out how the hell she ended up here.

Richard Janes was reappointed to the board, as was Sue Suckling, who has been reappointed as Chair, along with new additions Kate McGrath, Simon Botherway, and Idealog favourite, education-futurist Frances Valintine.

For those not familiar, Valintine’s resume is as long as her, or anyone else’s arm. She’s founder and chair of The Mind Lab by Unitec, a private/public partnership focussed on digital literacy in teaching, founder and director of Tech Futures Lab and sits on the board of NZTech and Education New Zealand. And that’s just for starters.

At Idealog we’re impressed by that sort of pedigree, so we tracked her down to find out how the hell she ended up here. 

Idealog: How were you as a child? Were there any signs that this interest in innovation would be a life-long pursuit for you? 

Valintine: I grew up on a farm and I was always a tinkerer. The person who hung out in the shed and my father was always an innovator. He'd be out in the workshop and I'd be there as well. 

What kind of things?

He built a stage coach once for example. He just loved designing things and he was a big part of that for me. I think when you live rurally you have to become much more of a self-starter and find your own activity. If you grow up in the environment you get to know and trust each other and you're always discovering new ways to do things. 

Was there a catalysing moment when you thought ‘maybe this is who I am’?

Well, I love the idea of usability. Initially I thought I'd end up in the design sector and looking at how things looked and felt. Architecture and fashion, that's where I thought I was going to go, and it wasn’t until probably in the mid-nineties, when I could see technology becoming more about the user interface, that I started to look at it seriously. Up until then it was really in the domain of people who were in the engineering technology/space, but at that point I just started to understand the internet, which was on the very cusp, and I thought ‘Gosh this is really going to change the world and I want to be part of that world’. 

So what was your first job?

My very first job was in London as a teen and I actually was in the fashion industry. Even there I found myself leaning more towards people who were behind the technology side of it and the business aspect of the fashion industry. By the time came back to New Zealand I was really nurturing that interest in all things technology. With the beginning of the internet, that was it.

So how did you turn that interest into a paying job?

I actually ended up in an organisation that had launched in New Zealand as the ‘Megabrain Centre’ – That was all about looking at technology in terms of cognitive development. I had a chance meeting with an American woman who had come to New Zealand for the launch – she was the one who run it – and I just felt like it was something, or at least the beginning of something, I was really interested in. 

So would you describe yourself as a geek?

I think that others would find me a bit of a geek I suppose, but when it comes to the really technical aspects of it, like coding for example, I lose interest very quickly.  I'm not someone who can sit there and problem-solve around code. I just really love the macro side of it, seeing what the code can do and making something happen. I guess it’s the ‘enabling’ side of it I like.

So what are the emerging technologies that excite you at the moment? Where’s the action at the moment? 

This year, in terms of education, it’s virtual reality. It's taking education out of a two dimensional space and putting it into a 3D, immersive space. That’s being driven by the cost of the cameras that can shoot virtual reality coming down in cost, and the headset, which you can get for less than twenty dollars these days. We’re now seeing schools coming through where whole class has got access to either Google Cardboard or a virtual reality headset. The same thing’s happening with tourism. If I want to see what it was like in, say, Bali, I can just go to a tourism office website, download an app and enjoy a 360 video with a virtual reality headset. 

Big data is a big deal too. We’re receiving data at a rate we couldn’t once imagine. The computer processor has really speed up the way we can analyse and extract data, whether that’s data from social media channels, data from what you’re wearing or the things you have at home, and we’re sharing that information in a format that can actually be processed by a computer. We can get this real-time feedback now. We can understand our customers better, we can understand cognition to learn better, we can understand which medicine is going to be better for someone who’s not well, and we can understand which logistics can get things from A to B much faster. Almost every part of the world is being transformed by access to data. 

Then we've got AI and machine learning. The capability of a computer now is not just to look for the answers, but to actually find solutions to things that you haven’t yet asked. 

So what do you bring to the Callaghan board? Why have they come for you?  

If you look at the primary industries that are the backbone of our country right now they are all under threat. The likes of lamb or beef for example. There is now stem cell-grown meat that is incredibly cost effective; much more so than having cows running around a paddock. You can actually grow it from cells. Things like that could potentially disrupt those industries in a very short time.

What is it that's going to put us on the world stage and support us in our retirement, with an aging population? If I look at it from a ‘New Zealand Inc’ point of view, asking ‘what do we need to make New Zealand really good?’ we have to answer ‘the digital economy’. We have to be going into this with eyes wide open and understand that these opportunities are coming at us very rapidly. They’re coming down the pipeline at a speed we couldn’t have understood just a few years ago. 

We’ve got a lot of challenges around science and technology that we’re going to have to question, but also to advance very rapidly, and that comes down to our education system, which is the heart of what I do.

My passion is making sure the students we have today are learning the right skillset for tomorrow’s jobs. We know that 40% of those jobs re going to be automated in the next ten years, so what skills to they really have to have? Instead of having fixed, non-transferrable skills, how are they going to keep evolving through this technological change?

So what's your proudest achievement so far?

By far the thing I'm most proud of is our grad success. We’re two and a half years old. We’ve become the largest education facility in the country, teaching 40,000 kids a year and it’s 40,000 kids that wouldn’t have that experience of looking at robotics or 3D printing or understand how they can build these capabilities in their learning. On top of that were teaching thousands of teachers across the country. We now teach a post-graduate programme in eight locations across New Zealand. Slowly there is a change that is happening in the education system which is recognizing that we need a more contemporary way of how we teach and what we learn. 

And what have you got happening now?

The Tech Futures Lab. It’s a very similar concept to what we do at Mind Lab except it’s aimed and CEOs and board members, looking at the future of technology and how it’s going to interact  with business. 

Finally, I've got to ask: What did your father end up doing with that stagecoach? 

He sold it. I saw it once in a magazine at some tourist attraction years later, so I clipped it out of the paper and sent it to him and said 'look, there it is'.