Peer learning with shoulders, not precincts

| August 1, 2016
Pete Cooper team pic

To kick off our discussion forum ‘Spaces of Australian Innovation’, we hear from Pete Cooper, founder of The Start Society. He suggests a cheaper, more effective and more enduring way to make real innovation happen from the ground up.

‘The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.’ – Alvin Toffler

Humans learn and create value for themselves and society in weirdly diverse ways.

Learning usually doesn’t actually require lots of money. It is more about passion, a natural approach and of course repeating or scaling, once we find stuff that works.

As more of the world’s educational resources are found online for free, the focus is more about effective learning. Because online learning is boring and not very human. It is merely functional but rarely energising.

These are the keys to changing the world. Learning to learn.

Many of us have heard of pair-programming – a structured way to learn software development from a mate. And tutoring or coaching people 1:1 is a well known concept too.

Well, humanity can take this further. Much further. ‘Rock the world’ further.

Best of all it doesn’t pander to the existing bias we have baked into society against gender, race, educational background or other cultural dimensions like language.

In fact, peer learning thrives with more diversity! So Australia is in a very good place.

Lately we have also heard a lot about innovation precincts, but human conversation doesn’t scale to city blocks, we need to be close to each other, shoulder to shoulder. Ideally with people we like, or can learn to like, because we have shared interests, passions and values.

The idea is to help anyone with an idea or a passion to accelerate. Immediately. It is a proven model. There are lots of examples but for one close to home, it is hard to go past this one.

Our organisation StartSoc (The Start Society) setup iCentral in 2015, and in just over a year nearly half of all participants received investment and/or hired new staff and/or were accepted into a world class accelerator program.

Imagine what would happen if we did something ten times the size for ten years in ten places around every major city.

The cost of this stuff is a fraction of other corporate and government programs. Just providing ten ‘landing pad’ desks in San Francisco for a year with support services is costing the Federal Government of Australia $500,000 per annum.

Volunteers could setup a self-funding rented-at-cost curated co-working space for 100+ tech startups using that sort of money as a deposit and run happily for ten years. That’s a one hundred fold improvement – albeit not in San Francisco, but it’s even better, because it is building a resilient, hyper connected local community that learns to get ahead and stay there.

And that is just tech startups. It could work well in other areas like adjacent to universities across all disciplines. How about the medical research belt outside Melbourne? Or the under-utilised resources skills in Perth and Brisbane since the boom started ending? Or the tree changers/e-changers in late career towns like Bega and Merimbula with remarkable quality of life on the ridiculously beautiful Australian South East coast half way between the two largest cities?

Did you know that Bega Innovation Week, organised by Liam O’Duihir, has over 300 participants despite being five hours drive from Sydney and Melbourne? Did you know that a new ecommerce shop in Cooma has 110+ employees founded by Jane Cay? Did you know that Wagga Wagga is in the process of a similar revitalisation with leadership including Simone Eyles, and so is Newcastle with the 1804 organisation? How about what Craig Dunstan from Tamworth Regional Council is doing with their new innovation hub?

We could do it ourselves or just use it as a way to smarter spending the existing budgets by hassling our government and the companies we invest in with our super.

Let’s stop governments and corporates wasting money on top down innovation. More importantly, let’s truly leverage and empower humanity to solve problems large and small.

To keep it in perspective, we probably need both so it is more about how much… and frankly, this suggestion is so cheap it is less than most line items on the National Innovation and Science Agenda.

The real innovation stuff happens bottoms up (with a bunch of obvious exceptions around capital/resource intensive research like quantum, nanotech, biotech etc).

Instead of grey cubicles and new departments or government programs with innovation in the title, we foster peer to peer learning.

It is cheaper, more effective and more enduring. And way more fun. Oh, and way more human.

You know, shoulder to shoulder (not precincts or cities), where educated and passionate specialists can work together on their own stuff but in parallel to peers working on other stuff. Smart people always find stuff in common.

Maybe they learn about the latest tools (there is no how to for dummies book on new stuff) or techniques or other breakthroughs.

We have seen it in pockets globally, usually around tech startup co-working spaces that have cool founders or are curated effectively.

But there is a need to scale vertically and horizontally. Vertically, you need hundreds or thousands of geeks in close proximity to get critical mass of just 5-10 people on high specialised topics. Horizontally, there is no doubt now that developers and designers have a meaningful junction around UX/CX/UI/design, similarly security and identity or hardware and real-time software. The list goes on and can and should include wider dimensions like business, marketing and even philosophy.

So if you can pay a base (acorn) rent (maybe it is even free with the right sponsorship model), we have new types of peer learning centres or peer universities (probably close to universities) and the only criteria for entry is passion about something or an inquisitive nature about an area.

University students get distracted by coursework. When I did Comp Sci and Business, I later found that 60% wasn’t used, but I have become a lifelong learner.

This new space would need to be porous (curated entry but allow low friction participation from wider specialists community).

You could start with tech startups but go large – 10,000+ in a few blocks shoulder to shoulder.

The trick of course is to scale, without enough people the ‘marketplace’ does have liquidity. We need enough people in one place that everyone can find, say five other people to share their passions with. Maybe it is some new existing software tool to apply or some new problem to solve.

That is the great thing – it is unconstrained.

The currency is knowledge; casual conversations and friendships are the road that it travels on, and of course people are the key.

That’s peer learning on steroids…

And the connections are what makes us resilient and continue the learning. We get ahead and stay ahead.

Values also get normalised around outcomes, not mere beliefs or theories.

Think about it; even better try it, at scale.

Join a curated tech startup space and see your passion fire up.

Pete Cooper team pic
Photo: iCentral coworking space run by the Start Society, with Dave Cheong, Pete Cooper, Paul Rule, and Trung Hoang from the Mobiusly and Diet Duo teams. If you look carefully, you can see the amazing Jo Burston in the background. Jo had spoken about 20 minutes prior, and you can see how popular her talk was. There is still a group of entrepreneurs asking questions!

This article was first published here and is republished with the permission of the author.