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Designing the future with Vaughan Rowsell: It’s all about the kids

On the future, these two sayings wrap it up nicely:

“Prediction is hazardous, especially about the future” – an old Danish proverb.

“The best way to predict the future is to create it” – an Atari ad from 1982.

My answer on predictions is another question – What future do you want?

The rate of innovation is clearly driving us at a pace where everything we thought was science fiction over the last 100 years is now science fact. It’s going to be amazing, if that’s the future we want to make.

But we have some big choices ahead. When we’re able to hack the human genome, what lines do we draw? Curing disease? Absolutely! What about an extra pair of arms? Hmmm. And what about automation and AI? There’s always a barbeque conversation that ponders an apocalyptic future and most people lean towards the killer robot scenario, whatever that says about our collective hopes. But what about: how would a digital democracy work and could we vote on issues all the time? What about blockchain? How it could change the operating model for our economy? Is that a strategic asset we should build?

There is a lot to think about. The New Zealand Government has recently and rightly been looking for a chief technology officer to help us ponder all this and steer us towards a bright future (hopefully, without the killer robots). Unfortunately, no one yet has fit the bill of what we’re looking for. This is a unicorn who can give us a vision, align the industry to help us achieve it, modernise our institutions in health and education and be political enough to sway bureaucracy, all the while inspiring us all along the way. That search continues, and we may now be looking offshore for someone to come tell us how to do it – something we Kiwis love.

In the meantime, we citizens need to get cracking. Never wait on others for the change you want to make, I say. And so at Idealog, we thought it would be good to start a conversation – actually, a BBQ chat – about the future. Then when the CTO takes her desk at the Beehive, we can hopefully give her a great steer on where some of us would like New Zealand to go. The world’s best problems are solved over a good BBQ, I reckon. Grab a sausage!

It’s all about the kids

Our future is massively dependent on our 10-year-olds today and their ability to adapt with technology. I truly believe this, and is why I started the charity OMGTech! back in 2015 so we could start inspiring girls and boys from all backgrounds to take apart devices and technology, learn how it works and how to innovate with it – robots, drones, AR, VR, 3D printing and design, plus whatever the next wave of tech is. Why? Because in another 10 years, they will be living and working in a world driven by technology and will need some new skills, even if we haven’t quite figured out the applications of it all just yet. 

It’s not just about teaching them to write code. That’s important, like algebra is. It’s a great skill to have, but it’s not the only answer. We need to teach kids how the technology around them works. Where does the information go? Who owns it? How do you design and create an end-to-end solution, from idea to delivery? How do you think critically, with teamwork, how to fail fast and try again, while thinking about ethics? Most importantly, how do think outside of the small device in the palms of our hands we are increasingly living in?

Paradoxically, to teach all this, we also need to change how we teach. If we want to empower our kids to make massive transformative changes, we need to make massive transformative changes in education, but do we know how? Strangely, we get paralysed by the thought of changing the 100-year old systems we live by. I know us over 30 will find it hard to keep up in the future (I’m assuming I will never understand blockchain) but we can make sure that our kids are ready for a different world. That’s kind of our jobs as the grown-ups around here. We may have all walked five miles to school barefoot in the snow building character, but how we lived and learned decades ago is not our kids’ future. 

The focus on kids and education is critical because there is a massive opportunity ahead for New Zealand – and it’s pretty cool. You finished that sausage rather quick! Grab a beer.

What if New Zealand was the innovation centre for the rest of the world? Ditch your tall poppy syndrome for a bit and hear me out. What if we are considered the place to bring big ideas and our trademark ingenuity is used to solve problems? Automation will have disrupted most industries globally but innovation and the ability to take a vague idea and turn it into a reality is now the most in demand skill-set worldwide.

What if our industries are all lined up to solve the big problems? We send stuff into space, we have clean energy innovation, lead in education, we have the best IP for synthetic food production and we are opening democracy using technology. We’ll be solving the best problems the rest of the world cares deeply about.

What if our people are the most connected to technology and information on the planet? This access enables us all to become lifelong learners, as well as be participants in a digital democracy.

What if daily, we tell stories of our pioneers of innovation – the girl in the garage, or the global company based in New Zealand, or of how we send rockets to Mars and cured diseases? Better yet, we change our national psyche to believe we can do it – we can change the world – or better yet, notice that we have been doing it since Ernie split the atom.

What if our kids are learning in new ways with those new skills that will be in demand by the world and are inspired by the stories we tell of our innovation heroes? They want to grow up to be like her! They learn anywhere and everywhere, with world-class connectivity. The jobs they will have are the ones where our industries are solving those big world problems, not just creating another cryptocurrency.

Other nations would be foolish not to have this master plan already, and well, they do. The UK, South Korea, Singapore, Israel, Canada and Uruguay have a plan, for starters. With New Zealand, they make up the D7, which sounds a bit like a rock band but is a group of seven digital nations all with a similar vision. We all have ideas and policies we can share and adopt, but we have a secret weapon: our people. We are tenacious and have always have been great at doing things with not much except for a bit of fencing wire, a few lines of code and some hustle. We’re experts at solving problems and have never been afraid to take on something bigger than us. We’re honest and trusted, plus we have a cool country to live in, far away from the crazy of the rest of the world, with clean, cheap energy, low corruption, ease of doing business, fertile lands, fibre, a small, self-contained test market and ridiculously smart people. 

Using all our assets, we can set up our 10-year-olds to become the best innovators the world has ever seen. I like that future.

There are other parts to the plan to build an innovation nation: having universal access to connectivity and online services, lining up industry to help solve the important problems creating new jobs, enabling pathways for lifelong learning, celebrating our stories of success. These are all critical planks to build upon. 

For now, the potato salad is mint, so crack into that and in the coming issues of Idealog,we will dig in a little deeper on each of these topics and explore how we can all do our bit to help make New Zealand the innovation centre for the world. It’s going to be awesome.

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.  

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