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Honey, I bought an outdoor education centre: Vaughan Fergusson on why he's drawing future thinkers to Raglan

Vend and OMGTech! Founder Vaughan Fergusson (formerly Rowsell) has gone and done something a little bit like the plot of the 2011 film and novel, We Bought a Zoo. In a new venture, Fergusson and his partner Zoe Timbrell have bought a 100-acre block of land in Raglan that houses the Karioi Lodge, a former outdoor education centre, that the pair will remake into an envirotech and innovation centre. The goal is to help the next generation of problem solvers tackle the world’s big, complex issues, while prove that creativity can spark anywhere – not just in New Zealand’s biggest cities. Here, Fergusson explains how the The Institute of Awesome was born from the thought, “how hard can it be?”

Sometimes you set out on what you thought would be a simple journey and it takes you somewhere quite special – somewhere you didn’t expect. That’s what happened to me and my partner Zoe recently when we had a simple idea. You know those ideas, the “how hard can it be?” kind.

Ours was to set up an innovation hub outside of Auckland in the regions where the pace of life is better, and the cost of living is lower. We wanted to prove that innovation can happen anywhere, so long as you have smart people. Smart people are everywhere, but opportunity is not. However, these days it’s easier to build a business from anywhere with just a handful of smart people who know their stuff and want to make magic happen.

This is because we are seeing trends emerge that begin to negate the gravitational pull of cities. Autonomous vehicles will make commuting an activity you travel further doing. They’re also currently testing flying cars in New Zealand, which will make a 2 hour drive 30 minutes, while the rise of remote working and high bandwidth connectivity reduces the need to all in one place. This is significant, considering property prices are making the Kiwi dream a vague memory.

Alongside these trends, the world has a new class of problems requiring innovation. Accessing clean cheap food, water, housing and power, and caring for our natural resources are things that the world cares more about. You may have heard about this thing called global warming.

It’s obvious that we care about these issues in New Zealand. In fact, we are so passionate about it we are already innovators in many of those areas. All you need to do is step out into the regions and you will find them: coastal engineers looking at how we’ll manage when the sea level rises half a metre, environmental entrepreneurs creating zero waste systems, software people using machine learning and AI to track pests, aeronautical designers inventing flying cars, energy engineers creating power from the natural world that moves around us. Farmers have been innovating on the land or in the water for over a hundred years, iwi and hapu for centuries before them. This is because some things you just can’t solve in the city, as the problem or resources to solve it just aren’t there.

So, me and Zoe asked ourselves, ‘What if we drew, smart innovative people out of the cities into the regions to, well, innovate and create jobs solving some chunky problems in new ways, doing it where the cost of living is lower and quality of lifestyle is higher?’ What if as they went, they educated the next generation of innovators too, building capabilities in the communities so as the jobs became available, we had the people there already to step into them?

How hard could that be?

Surf’s up, dude

We had a place in mind – a place we had been in love with for some time. Raglan is two hours by car away from the southwest of Auckland, is located on the west coast, and is world famous (more than just in New Zealand) for its surf and community of interesting thinkers. It was recently named our most beautiful town – an honour it shares with Taupō. It’s pretty clear why the locals live there and are so passionate about it.

Zoe and I have been doing work already within communities teaching innovation to kids, in particular in the Waikato, with the Pam Fergusson Charitable Trust (another ‘how hard could it be?’ project) a charity we founded five years ago to help kids and educators to learn and teach science, arts and technology.

That was the simple idea: to teach kids technology skills. The inspiration was to replicate an amazing gift my mum, Pam Fergusson, gave to me and my brothers when we were kids. In the technological dark ages of the ‘80s, she brought home a computer. This was remarkable because computers were not even a thing yet in offices, let alone in homes.

They were incredibly expensive – like the price of a car expensive – but Mum took out a loan. Remarkably, she was a single unemployed parent, raising three boys. What was even more remarkable was she was a paraplegic. She had been in a wheelchair since she was a teenager. But all these things were just minor details to her, and she never let anything stop her and her positive can-do attitude. We grew up thinking mum was pretty normal, and it was often a surprise to us when our friends came to visit when they pointed out “Dude, did you know your mum is in a wheelchair?”

Because of growing up with computers, and my brothers and I grew up to become successful technologists. Mum passed away shortly after I launched the software company Vend, and never got to see its success, as well as the impact she had made by fostering that curiosity with technology in us as kids. So we founded the Pam Fergusson Charitable Trust to attempt to do the same for others: to connect kids and families with technology, so they could learn how to become the future innovators with it.

All you need to do is step out into the regions and you will find them: coastal engineers looking at how we’ll manage when the sea level rises half a metre, environmental entrepreneurs creating zero waste systems, software people using machine learning and AI to track pests, aeronautical designers inventing flying cars, energy engineers creating power from the natural world that moves around us.

Through the work of our award-winning OMGTech!, our Mana Tangata and e-Pou programmeshave grown in popularity and the Waikato was becoming a community we were doing a lot of work in. We wanted to put a permanent centre down there in the community where we could base our work from and use this as a hub to foster innovation.

We thought it would be as simple as finding some unused space somewhere in Raglan and then we could do our thing. But spare space in the town is not easy to come by as it is already bustling with industry and tourism. Through our journey and conversations, we met many people weshared our ideas with who helped shaped them a little, until we found ourselves 8km out of town in Whale Bay, standing on a hill within 100 acres of dense bush overlooking the Tasman Sea. A few days later, we made an offer to buy the 100 acres, which came with an old outdoor education centre and school camp. To our surprise, the offer was accepted. The surprise was really because we didn’t set out to buy an old-school camp, but as we stood there, we knew there was something really special about this place.

In December, we became the new guardians of a vision that was set in motion almost 50 years ago: to take kids out of the classroom, into the bush and teach them new skills and learn about themselves and the world they live in. A vision that was not too dissimilar to what we want to do– get kids to be curious about the world and how technology can make it better.

From outdoor education to envirotech

 

The Karioi Lodge and outdoor education centre was established in the ‘70s by a group of Huntly school teachers to provide a venue for school camps where kids could discover and be curious about nature.

For half a decade, tens of thousands of kids have been through the lodge and it had clearly made an impact on them. It seemed every other person we met had a connection to the place growing up and told us their story of their time under the roofs of the lodge on the hill in the bush.

Our simple plan is to continue the centre as a place of education. Not just outdoor education, but to add technology to the mix and by doing this come up with a new model for outdoor education camps.

We want to reboot them as a place to come and innovate and learn and change the world for the better, using science and technology, because we think there is a massive opportunity ahead and New Zealand is the one country that can take advantage of it.

There are big changes ahead of us all as we grapple with some big challenges: how to grow plentiful food in sustainable ways, have global access to clean water, generate clean energy andhow to look after ourselves. These challenges are very real, with real economic impacts, so what if New Zealand became an exporter of environmental innovation? Not just to be tree huggers, but to have this become part of our economic wheelhouse of growth.

We have the will and the power to solve these issues, and technology is starting to play a huge part. Our New Zealand DNA is made from looking after the environment, being outdoors and giving a shit about the big stuff. We controversially became nuclear free and have stood up that and other ideas for generations. Now is the time for us to leverage this credibility to put our collective hands up and say we can solve big issues.

We believe that through access to education and technology, with the context of the environment, we can create a generation of innovators that will solve these problems. They just need the space and opportunity to do it. And so, to prove ‘how hard can it be?’ we are rebooting this outdoor education centre as the Institute of Awesome.

It’s an outdoor envirotech education centre set on 100 acres of bush in a pretty neat part of New Zealand, and this would become a learning centre for kids, teachers and well, anyone who wants to come. We will give them real-world projects to work on, in the bush, in the garden, in the rivers and along the coast. We’ll be looking at how to grow food in innovative ways, create power from the environment around them, how to monitor the health of the land water and sky and how to take the challenge of global warming and rising sea levels head on.

We will teach the skills required to do these things using hardware, software, design and data tonot only the kids coming to school camps, but to teachers too. We will run professional development programmes for educators and adults of all walks and professions. For companies who want to develop their people in a new way and learn how to use new technologies with a purpose with other like-minded people, we will have a regular bus leaving from downtown Auckland and Hamilton for you to book one or more seats on to spend a few days at the lodge workshopping problems and learning new technology skills. Anyone or any group that isinterested in how to put technology to use to improve the world around them is welcome to comestay at our lodge and innovate.

The 100 acres of protected bush will act as a new kind of a lab to test new ideas. It will always be here to grow and teach us all it knows. Kids can fill it with sensors that measure everything from rainfall and CO2, to the water quality of the rivers, to how much sunlight the gardens are getting, to tracking pests and birdsong, all while being curious about what they see, like what is the history of the land, and what are the lessons we can learn from the kaitiaki, the deep wisdom that goes back a thousand years?

Collaboration is key

We have many, many ideas, but we also want the lodge and institute to be a place where anyone can bring a new idea. In February, we hosted what we dubbed The Time Travellers’ Convention and Ball. We invited a diverse collection of people and asked them to bring their ideas on what we could do with the facility.

On 23 February, 100 passionate people from all backgrounds came to the lodge to brainstorm possibilities. They came from both afar and from the local community. The result was amazing,and the walls were covered in paper and notes. We collected a lifetime of ideas for how we can make the best use of an amazing venue in a unique community. There were more ideas cooked up than we could ever execute, but what was clear was the passion for the opportunity to do something new and the engagement to help make it happen.

Simple ideas – if they are the right ideas – can get a life of their own. We asked, ‘what if?’ a few times. We queried ‘how hard can it be?’ and the result has so far been to connect with hundreds of others who ask these questions too. And that is how we want to continue, to make KarioiLodge, the home of The Institute of Awesome, a place where those questions are welcomed.

What we do know is this: if you are a school looking for a different type of school camp, one where kids can learn technology at the same time as they be curious about the outdoors, then we welcome you. If you are a teacher looking to professionally develop to learn new technology skills, we welcome you. If you are a community group wanting to get involved in projects that make a difference, we welcome you. If you are a corporate and want to develop the skills of your people by giving them an alternative experience to an offsite or professional development, we welcome you. If you are in government and care about developing this economic muscle for New Zealand, we welcome you.

Our doors are open to new ideas and passionate people wanting to learn. If you have new ideas on how we can use the institute to further these goals, then we welcome you, too.

  • Vaughan is the founder of Vend, a New Zealand high-growth tech success story, and founder of OMGTech! a charitable initiative to help kids into careers with future technology. He was EY's Tech Entrepreneur of the Year in 2014 and is vice-chair of the NZ Hi-Tech Trust, which celebrates the NZ hi-tech industry through awards and education. Get in touch with him here

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