Innovation + solidarity: Why I do it

Creative animation of character working in solitude.

Return to the schoolyard

My old school, Waverley College, flatteringly asked me to talk about innovation and solidarity at an aptly named Innovation Assembly. So to save time punching pixels, I’ve marked down what I managed to mumble that day for this blog. These are lessons I learnt in the schoolyard but still continue to serve me until this day…

I used to sit there where you guys sat, with no idea what I ever wanted to do, and I thought, if I was ever asked to come back and talk here, it meant that I’d made it. I’d found my mountain, climbed it barefoot and was pissing into the wind.

Well, I definitely haven’t made it, at least not how most keep score, but I have found my mountain, my reason to get up in the morning. I’ve managed to spend my efforts doing what I’d always found interesting.

Stories and technology. Or more precisely Story 1st, Technology 2nd. S1T2.

I own a company that exists to ask: how can new technologies tell stories? We consist of a group of people with nothing more in common than a desire to do what has never been done. So, I’m not the worst person to make up some stuff about innovation and solidarity.

Our job definitely has its moments, every time there’s a new virtual reality headset, game engine, brain wave sensor, or animation technique, it’s our job to find it, break it, rebuild it, and use it to tell someone’s story, somehow. It’s a mission we’ve been lucky enough to share with some amazing people:

Visa payWave: Wave and Win

We programmed webcams to track thousands of people at the MCG for a halftime video game on the big screen.

Vivid Sydney: RAY

We used solar power and ultrasonic sensors to promote a solar charity, Pollinate Energy in India.

Adobe: Heart Tree

We took peoples’ heartbeats and a century old tree to compose a unique sound and light show for anyone who touched it.

The point being, our work is always different, always new, but most importantly it wasn’t listed in a university entrance book, hell, the job didn’t exist.

Innovating has become our business, which is equally scary and exciting, teaching us all that tomorrow won’t look like today. The world you, year 7’s, will graduate into won’t look like the one awaiting this years graduates. We all share in the burden and opportunity of a world that doesn’t know quite where it’s going or how fast it’s moving.

When I left Waverley, I jumped into a communications degree, from our very first lecture, it was looking like I’d made a mistake as our professor heralded the publishing apocalypse. Halfway through my degree, online articles and content were being heavily outsourced to countries like the Philippines and today, companies like Narrative Science write millions of stories based on statistical data, using sophisticated algorithms, with no humans necessary.

Both offshoring and robo- sourcing are two very real challenges unique to our generations. The job you think you want, might not be there, might not look the same, or might not even exist yet. But that’s not depressing, it’s liberating! It forces you to look at the world as a clean sheet and realise there’s no virtue in doing things how they’ve always been done.

So what can your school teach you about innovation? A school steeped in tradition, heritage, the very vices of innovation.

Well, it taught me the most important lesson about innovation, why to innovate. It’s why this place will never be a great hub of innovation but should be a great hub to find innovators, because Waverley doesn’t ask what you want to spend your life doing.

It asked me, who do I want to spend my life being?

Was I going to be brave, honest or creative?

Did I want people to trust me?

Did I want people to follow me?

Remember me?

Virtue alone makes the man, the translation may have changed since I left, but the point sings true.

If you can leave here with half an idea of what you want the man in the mirror to look like, you possess an awesome power to innovate.

The power to see what needs changing and change it.

The power to ask why, with the courage to follow the question to its conclusion.

In my journey, the motto has freed me to help bind a team of Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Atheists; men and women who are animators, programmers, designers, salesmen, accountants, and mechanical engineers.

S1T2 Creative Technology team in discussion with others.

A team whose only thing in common is a solidarity of purpose built from the values they share.

A team that pushed itself to the edge to deliver what’s never been delivered.

Two weeks ago we had an opportunity that like so many others i’ve witnessed  has proven character and solidarity are the keys to innovation and progress. A world’s first activation of it’s kind, working with world class companies on a world class stage.

Months of 18 hour days, weeks of testing and training had come down to its final moments.

As the clock ticked over the the final hour before launch, the skies of Mordor prophetically opened assault on us.

There we stood in front of 80,000 people in the deluge, waiting for a signal from our command crew , huddled together in a small control room under the pressure of tonnes concrete, clients and dignitaries..

As our launch call comes through, I flick the switch and watch the power trip. We have five minutes to work, it felt like a lifetime, as we methodically try and procedurally start up our systems. Each try took 60 seconds, each time plunged another dagger through my heart. And as the final 30 seconds tick down, we had power, but as I stepped away when the crowds stood up, I hear a crackly: “no feed, system is a no go” through the radio.

There, I stood in the rain listening to the anthems in what should be the highlight of my career, but instead, each line seemed to sound the end of it. When I started the long walk back to the control room, I asked myself why I did this. Little did I know, our teams had shown the fortitude and perseverance when it mattered most to try something they’d never tried to save our heads right as the guillotine fell.

A miracle like this only happens when a group of people possess the fortitude never to give in, who are committed to clear their heads and work until the problem is solved. 

That’s the reason I do these things to myself.

Innovation is scary, the new can be dangerous. Don’t do it alone; make sure you put strong ideas in the hands of strong people.

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