The Thin Emerald Line of Innovation

This article is republished from Dec 30 2015.

TAKE A MOMENT

As we move into our third decade of the commercial internet it is time to reconsider Australia’s place in the world.

We have often heard about the thin blue line of police that protect us with strength to ensure safety, well, we now we need to think about the thin emerald line that protects use with innovation and growth to ensure economic and social prosperity.

The local tech startup ecosystem is a grain of sand in relative terms to the main economy but our impact, just as with other similar groups globally is having an immense impact deciding if we are destined to be a nation of consumers or creators.

Will we just spend the rest of our lives paying for innovative products from other countries or will we create and generate export revenue?

As we wrote recently Australia has a natural place in the world as a leading tech startup location but we need to grab this opportunity with both hands.

Resources and industrial waves are being replaced by mobile/internet software led innovation – which has been much discussed but still not bared understood – here is one unique perspective for ‘the lucky country’.

THE INNOVATION FLOW

Can we create new cascades of innovation to transform our country and underpin our quest to be world leaders in quality of life with high and enduring values?

SO FRAGILE YET CRUCIAL

Innovation is a precious and fragile thing, especial in this harsh land we call home which is so traditionally considered so far from the rest of the world.

In the right circumstances innovation will grow and build upon itself – layer upon layer – and even thrive maybe even accelerate.

the-start-society-startsoc-navy-square-logo.pngEarly in the innovation cycle however innovation is very fragile, brittle perhaps, easily halted and difficult to restart. Like the tenuous grip on life held by our fledgling society when the first fleet arrived or when indigenous pioneers discovered new lands centuries before them.

So many unknowns at the start – from nourishment to security – must to be solved before you can grow.

But we can and should do more than just continue to encourage it through traditional means.

This is why StartSoc was founded, to help fledgling tech startups.

Innovation needs to be grabbed with both hands and placed at the core of our culture – and economic agenda – not because of fashion or politics or just wealth – but because our very future depends on it.

OUR COUNTRY AS A LEADER? REALLY?

Did you know Australia has led the world in so many areas of innovation?

We are so humble and so busy avoiding the risks of being a ‘tall poppy’ we forget to take credit for our achievements – like curing some types of cancer – meanwhile our global peers generate remarkable media coverage for even the most mundane of achievements.

My Australian innovation favourites are in health and pure tech but there are so many more.

If you are not from Oz, your country probably has similar claims to fame but it probably doesn’t have our quality of life or have a highly significant number of your fellow country men and women who have chosen to move there because of the unique (accidental but beneficial) diversity that fosters innovation.

Diversity is one of our secret weapons, and it shows in our language, our culture and of course our amazing inventions.

  • Wifi
  • Insider trading detection
  • Financial Markets Trading communications
  • Movie making (more than Hollywood at one stage)
  • Anti venom
  • Bionic ears, spray-on skin, antibiotics, anaesthetic standards and heart pacemakers
  • Tanks and torpedoes
  • Equipment for shearing, surfing, irrigation, engineering and farming
  • Horse racing

And this is not to mention other legendary ones like – power boards, black box flight recorders, solar hot water, polymer bank notes and winged yacht keels.

But our rate of innovation has slowed, recent decades show this in terms of landmark inventions and in OECD commercialisation comparisons.

SHOULDERS OF GIANTS

And no doubt many inventions are built on the progress of others, on the shoulders of global giants so to speak. Especially for global waves that have shaken our world like the internet and mobile. Enough said.

But the nature of innovation has changed. Probably forever if not at least for the next decade or two or perhaps a century or two. Mainly because of software and the internet. So we need to leverage the new standards and new methods not just play the old game.

UNIQUE IMPACT ON HUMANITY

In the case of tech startups, never before in the history of humanity has one person or idea had the ability to impact so much of the human race regardless of location or socio economic circumstances.

Think about the inventors of standards like SMS (short message service for texting), SMTP (for email), IP (Internet Protocol for machines to talk) that are then built upon for wonderful services that allow us to search, learn, communicate, gained support, get/give funding, lobby for social change and so much more.

THIS TIME IT IS DIFFERENT

Global niche players are systematically ‘out innovating’ every industry and we need to get our slice of the action to have negotiating chips in the global game of innovation trade wars to follow. Travel, accomodation, transport, retail, health, finance – we could go on – all have global leaders well in place that are tech startups typically formed in the last 3-5 years, or often even less time.

These global innovators are not accidents, they are applying the new startup science and then rolling out with global city-by-city or segment-by-segment play-books.

AND THE WAY TO WIN IS DIFFERENT

Mobile and internet software innovation needs to be discovered, nurtured, incubated and accelerated using new ‘extra’ methods that are often unlike traditional inventions – processes that are unique to this new opportunity (and threat). This is no longer speculation, it is fact, with global wealth creation and social impact consequences.

Old business studies and IT education with R&D government support helps but it is not enough to cut it.

Most of the new innovations are creating wealth and social impact without R&D, they may have a small number of patents but this is typically more about ‘defensive ammunition’ for any future ‘war’ over IP (intellectual property) with competitors than about protecting core innovations. Did Uber or AirBNB patent core processes extensively before starting?

The real innovations happening now are about product market fit – getting (via iteration or experiments) to the product customers love and solve real problems right now using technology that exists right now and listening to data collected right now so that the product is simply better suited and easier to use. Remember the first time you saw Paypal work or ordered an Uber or booked an AirBNB or used Freelancer.com?

There are plenty of techniques and methodologies to achieve this but (the original) ‘lean‘ and ‘business model canvas‘ are just a few. These methodologies are unlike traditional R&D, they usually focus on customer feedback in minutes or seconds, sometimes days and weeks. Rarely does an iteration take months or years like traditional science.

LARGER, FASTER MOVING … AND WAY MORE IMPACT

This is not to say we stop funding R&D, traditional sciences are moving ahead rapidly too and remains a crucial battle front, but this new ‘software tech startup’ front (typified by unicorns) is larger, faster moving, uses less early stage capital, originates anywhere and has way more impact than we are currently recognising.

Tech startups are fundamentally different to traditional innovations and need to be addressed as such, from the earliest moments of their existence (and probably even before the idea is formed by going back to the way we develop nascent minds).

It takes a tech startup ecosystem to fight an ecosystem and we are currently viewed as a minnow swimming with whales, which may be good or bad depending on strategic perspective, but more likely we are like a tortoise barely aware the race has been running for two decades.

Think about it, most of the tech startup global leaders (at StartSoc we call them MNS – multi national startups) just make life easier, technology is hidden in favour of UX (user experience) being smoother and closer to the customer (e.g. laptop over desktop, tablet over laptop, phone over tablet, watch over phone, wearables, virtual reality headsets, the list goes on, no doubt impacts and crowd sourced augmented reality will follow).

And this difference needs to be incorporated into everyone’s thinking, assuming the government will act in a timely manner is naive (albeit unavoidably disappointing).

Innovation is not the responsibility of a department or one person, it is yours and mine. Innovation is our responsibility.

Technology has always led innovation and innovation has always led regulation. From new life saving drugs to high frequency share trading and forms of flight, the best we can expect of government is to play catchup moderately well.

CROSSING THE LINE/S

For decades globally we have referred to the thin blue line (police or defence or service men and women) facing off to threats, this also has similar versions such as the lesser known thin orange line for emergency services personnel and the thin green line for environmental and/or animal protection services.

These are our enduring – and usually humane and honourable – lines in life. We all decide case by case where we stand, which side if you will.

This new emerald line of innovation is no different and is equally if not more important to current and future generations.

If any line is crossed, the hopefully well intended mission can fail. It typically appears strong yet once broken is hard to recover. Imagine the consequences of a real quarantine breach or a major act of terrorism or just one poorly chosen national leader here or even at arms length amongst our international friends and peers. Often is is just one or two officers in customers, defence, police or even electoral governance that stand between a negative impact on tens of millions of people – or life as normal.

Line breaches are potentially devastating, especially when they are the core of our values and our future but they are avoidable through diligent thought and action.

MORE THAN A NOD TO INNOVATION

The Start Society logo has gentle Emerald Green line as a nod to innovation (and more – see post script) symbolising a small but magnifying force. Simultaneously a static protective barrier but more optimistically a forward moving wave – the new front in our battle for global competitiveness.

This particular thin emerald line deliberately appears frail, light in colour and in presence, easily ignored yet crucial to our mission. The thin emerald line represents innovation in all the forms creativity and entrepreneurship may take.

Like protective forces, innovation has a a down stream impact that is remarkable as it protects, nurtures and allows futures to flourish.

It is also magnifying in the sense that one idea or one individual (say tech startup entrepreneur or inventor or even mentor or other enablers) has the ability to impact not just hundreds or thousands but billions of people.

NOBLE CREATORS

The Start Society is named not just as an organisation helping geeks. It is named as a ‘call to action‘ for us to change our culture to recognise, revitalise and reward these inventors and entrepreneurs. We must direct future generations to be humanity serving creators, the most noble and enduring of goals.

‘Society’ is the baseline word, everything else builds on people because once aligned, people and their views are more enduring than stone. ‘Start’  is the first step just one word above Society because you can’t grow if you don’t start and you can’t learn if you don’t take the risk of starting. ‘The’ is the definitive, that is we want to be the one, the best, the leaders, the definitive society of creative starters and growers.

THE FUTURE OF RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT

Existing programs for R&D are often working well in Australia however we are ignoring this new tech startup opportunity. Even the recent Innovation Statement barely touched this opportunity despite the size of the price being at least as large as the Future Fund or a decade of new superannuation contributions.

Pure mobile/internet software focused global businesses are an additional opportunity and need additional support in the form of free or cheap incubators. These are educators (that need traditional university/school subsidies despite the students, curiculum skills, locations and personnel being very different) that also focus on peer learning and connecting (which are not traditional core goals of most other types of educators).  This requires high density (imagine Dunbar’s number applied to micro groups of peers by topic so it is no longer as limiting). You might know 150 experts in growth hacking and another 150 in cloud data storage.

Peer learning for tech startups is best done in dense environments so your fellow entrepreneur is shoulder to shoulder in the same incubator not blocks away in some contrived ‘tech precinct’. Scale for these incubators is crucial given the sheer number of skills a tech startup needs to know and there are few if any school or university courses, even then the nature of disruption means they are ALWAYS out of date prior to them being developed and deployed.

NOW WHAT?

There is no ‘for dummies’ book on most new disruptive innovations, to stay ahead we need each other and a cultural change to recognise the need of being hyper connected.

Hyper connected entrepreneurs and inventors are more likely to apply the latest skills and resources and have talent and knowledge within reach. They are also more likely to be resilient and less likely to suffer the negative sides of high pressure work like stress.

So, we need to start to grow and we need to nurture the starters and each other through peer learning and that needs physical space. Curated and careful fed with the best insight.

Would you like to join the ‘line’? Or should we say ‘wave’ or even ‘front’

We are more likely to succeed in making Australia into The Start Society if we do it together.

Dec 30 2015

Pete Cooper is Founder at The Start Society and a serial tech entrepreneur, mentor and advocate who is passionate about tech startup ecosystem development and education. Grab a startsoc e-membership if you would like to support our goals.

PS: An amusing yet quirky postscript –

Emerald Green as selected by The Start Society in our logo is adjacent to a few other colours in the shades of green category on wikipedia, the visual proximity is telling and even more so the coincidences and irony are not wasted on us if you consider (with a grain of salt) –

  • Mint Green – amusingly mint.com garnered millions of users and was one of the first global innovators in fintech and personal financial management it was founded by Aaron Patzer and sold to Intuit for $170m
  • Jungle Green – considering how much of a jungle much of our commercial world has become and how we try to retain a focus on environmental sustainability it is kind of funny and even more so when you note that most tech startup communities globally refer to themselves as an ecosystem now, we were starting to use that word in 2009-10 and people though it was irrelevant yet now is it most apt, it takes more than a village to raise a child, it takes an ecosystem to raise a startup.
  • Blue Green – the name of the famous form of colourblindness also hints at the confusion between structure/order (blue) and flexibility/organic (green) most often played out when corporates try to innovate by engaging or emulating startups. Emerald is also on most scales positioned between green and blue.
  • Spring Green – probably the most apt because it refers to the constant regular renewal, startups ages faster than we all care to admit and the constant stream of new ideas and talent especially the young and also corporate refugees bring new life just like spring the season while also putting a spring in our step as we rise to the new opportunity
  • Paris Green – a uniquely placed and rather spooky coincidence, perhaps inevitable given that city has a nick name ‘the city of light’ and long term home to the enlightened creatives, inventors, scientists and artists (and more recently terrorist attacks) that galvanised and united the world to turn towards the better sides of human potential.
  • Kelly Green and Shamrock Green – a perhaps light hearted but certainly hard to ignore link to Ireland which has become home to many corporates in part due to tax avoidance but equally as a symbol of the mobility of people, ideas and capital in the fact of innovation and hardship, a useful reminder of innovation and flexibility as enduring traits of success.

Cheers, Pete.

@pc0 @iCentralCo @StartSoc @CooperDotCo

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