Originally published September 9, 2016: To mark the arrival of the Vodafone xone business accelerator, Idealog is interviewing a whole heap of established New Zealand innovators, as well as the founders of the 10 startups selected by Vodafone to receive mentorship, funding and the potential benefits of working with a global network. In this episode Tech Futures Lab founder Frances Valintine talks with Idealog's publisher-at-large Vincent Heeringa.
Vincent Heeringa: Frances, tell us about the Tech Futures Lab, what's it for?
Frances Valintine: It's a learning environment for professionals. We are looking at people who are mid-career, or, perhaps, coming in towards the end of their career and saying, 'This is what I want to achieve but I want to be in areas where there's actually a lot of opportunity.' Whether that means coming in and re-skilling or actually building on skills. The areas we're focused on are things like cyber security, machine learning, artificial intelligence, big data, data science, business disruption, and robotics. These are sectors which are growing rapidly but also there's plenty of scope for people starting up new opportunities, too.
This is a new venture for you but just previous to this you have been busy with the Mind Lab. Tell us about that.
I've been in education, actually, for over 20 years and the Mind Lab was actually just launched about three years ago with the view of actually educating young children, and school children coming in to learn about things like robotics, and coding, and 3D printing, and things. It just really found its mark and grew really rapidly. We now teach 40,000 children across the country. It's part of a school group as they come into the labs and then we also teach teachers on a post-graduate program and we're in partnership with Unitech. It's in 16 locations across the country.
Who knew that you could be an entrepreneur in education when it's a sector dominated by the state. What's the opportunity for you?
Yeah, I think it's driven by frustration, mostly. I mean, as an educator, I was looking and saying, 'Well, why are we not teaching the subjects that are really going to carry our kids forward and why are companies not investing in professional development so we can be gainfully employed?' When I was looking at what opportunities that were available for up-scaling in traditional universities, they're just not there. I thought, "Well, if you don't, you know, you either complain about it or do something about it." I did something about it.
Did it work? I mean, the Mind Lab seems to be a success.
The Mind Lab was an extraordinary success and it really hit a nerve, I think, with both teachers and students but also with parents understand that they get that children need this exposure to new subjects. It's not great waiting until you get to high school to learn about science. Getting them excited early and getting them thinking about technology early is actually going to be critical for their future success.
We'll come back to that in a minute, but just talking about you as an innovator, where did you get your, kind of, get up and go to do that? Were you born an entrepreneur?
I, probably, am not a typical entrepreneur. I grew up on a very small farm in Taranaki and my dad was a bit of a self starter of a jack of all trades. My mother was a very dynamic business woman.
What sort of business was she in?
She started in travel and tourism and also got into education. I think what happened is they were extraordinarily hard working. Young parents with three children living in a small town and all they ever knew growing up was if you worked hard, it paid off.
Has it paid off for you?
Yeah. I'm driven by social causes. I think if you take it from, 'What do I get out of my roles?' I absolutely love what I do. I can go to sleep at night thinking, 'Well, I've done something pretty good to help out others and fulfill their potential'. In terms of scaling, I think that's my real measure of success, that you get something, you bring it to life, and then you realize that actually it's meeting the expectation of others and it can grow. Education is entirely reputation industry so you're only as good as what you can actually produce and what you promise. I'm incredibly mindful of that and I surround myself by extraordinary people who are educators with a real passion as well and I think if you of into any career with the view that you're doing it for the right reason and not to make money, you'll always have an element of success.
You passed over quite quickly what you and your mother achieved with the Media Design School. That was a, is still now a terrific business.
Yeah, I think the Media Design School was an extraordinary institute and it was really the first to be involved in the era of creative technologies, areas like animation, visual effects, game development. You know, since 1998, it's grown to be an extraordinary institute and it continues to be so. It's something I'm very proud of. It's part of my legacy.
Frances, let's talk about the role of innovation in New Zealand. I know that you're very passionate about this topic but why should we care?
I think that the realization that is missing for a lot of New Zealanders is how close we are to almost driving towards the cliff. You know, if we're looking at the industries that support our country and our GDP, they are traditional primary sectors. Actually, they're not going to carry us forward as a country on the bottom of the world.
People still need to eat though, right?
They certainly do but in terms of there's so many synthetic options coming through, you know, synthetic milks and stem cell grown meat and people are looking at creating more viable crops that use less greenhouse gases, which don't require huge, vast amounts and investments in paddocks and farms. We've got to think about how we're going to be supporting 10 billion people in this world before too long. While we are richer, healthier, more educated than ever, I think we've also got to understand the best, most successful businesses are going to be global, they're going to be scalable, they're going to be highly connected, they're going to respond to the increased youth population but also for the aging populations.
They're not fields that New Zealand is doing very well in right now. We've got to do a bit of a left turn somewhere and go, 'Well, what other industries that kids are going to thrive in and what can we do to make New Zealand an incredible country that we don't just keep depleting her resources?' And actually taking on a much more responsible mode about not just what's good for us as a country and for our success, but what's good for us, for our kids.
That all sounds imminently sensible. Is there anyone that would disagree with you and, maybe, if not disagree with you, then why aren't you being showered with money and support?
Look, I think, we hold onto what we know and as parent, or as an employer, or as an employee, if somebody presents something, that's something unfamiliar, the immediate reaction is we want to dismiss it, or it's not going to happen to us, it's going to effect others and I think that we, sometimes, we're loathe to step back and say, 'Actually, it is a bit broken. What we're doing is not the best way, not the most efficient way and, perhaps, we could do it differently'. Different means it's tricky and it means it's complicated and potentially could do us out of a job, or a current job.
Resistance of change is something that could be taught, though. Is that an element of what you're up to here, with helping people to manage disruptive change?
Certainly, at Tech Futures Lab, we're trying to get people to understand that investment in your own skill development is essential. Whether you're being paid by your company to come in and spend ten weeks with us, or whether you decided to take ten weeks out of your career to re-invest in it, that people, if you're somewhere between 30 and 55, you've got a lot of life left and if you want to have that gainful employment where you're enjoying what you're do but also being able to keep paying the mortgage and supporting your family then that investment is critical but it does take an acceptance that for a little period of time, it's going to be a discomfort as you go back to school.
People are worried about robots, aren't they? Robots taking over our jobs, taking over our lives, perhaps even our relationships. Are you fearful of robots and the future of AI?
I think automation has been happening for many years. Anything in New Zealand from abattoirs to fruit picking, through to drones going out to crop and rounding up sheep, we've got automation happening everywhere. In terms of the robots that we sometimes see in sci-fi movies, the humanoid-type robots, there is a very small market for them but they're coming through in places like health, and in rest homes, and for company for people with Alzheimer. They're often their seal pups, or they're little puppy dogs, and, you know, it's usually not those who are going to take over the world.
I think we have to mindful with artificial intelligence that it has the potential to be a weapon, I guess, in anyone's hand the same way a gun can be in someone's hands. It comes down to the individuals but the good thing is in most cases, people are making these technologies open source, they're available to everyone. You'd hope, you know, I believe that mankind are infinitely good and for the few that might try to take it as a more negative approach to this is going to be plenty who can actually out do them.
All right. My last question is about me. I'm your age bracket for Tech Futures Lab, that 35 to 55, I'm not going to tell you which but, but we all have to face these transitional changes in our careers. What shall I study to manage the frightening future that I face?
I think you chose the subject that you have, sort of, a natural lean towards, something that attracts you to. Data science won't appeal to everyone and, you know, it has 1.5 million job vacancies globally right now. Cyber security, it's one of our greatest threats in New Zealand and, certainly, it seemed to be one of the most important careers of our future. Yet, a lot of people who are sitting in IT don't understand that with just a little bit of tweaking, that they could become a cyber expert, get a lot more money but also be globally in demand.
Business disruption, I think, for most people is the idea that whatever industry you're in, you need to understand what are the business that are disrupting, where the competitor is coming from, because they're not coming from traditional legacy-type companies, what are the new models, how do we innovate inside of companies?
All of those things are typical whether you're running the corner dairy and having to think about the shop that's going to come in and take you out, or if your running a multi-national,we have to take a stock check about what we're doing and how we're going to survive if a major competitor comes into play.
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