This is the transcript of the introductory talk I gave at the 2019 Oxford Humanities Innovation Challenge.
I want to start by telling one of my favourite stories about innovation.
Aaron Swartz committed suicide at the age of 26 while facing 30 years in jail for downloading too many journal articles because he believed that every brilliant mind in the world should have access to the sum of human knowledge irrespective of accidents of birth. By that time he had been shaping the world’s future for the better for a decade and a half. By the age of 14, through W3C, the consortium that curates the World Wide Web, he was offering advice to Tim Berners-Lee on particular difficulties with the semantic web.
Aaron often seems remarkable. But, as the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Danny O’Brien commented at Swartz’s memorial, “Aaron himself wasn’t the exceptional part of this. The exceptional part of this was an institution that allowed someone like Aaron to come through its door and before anyone had noticed where he came from or what age he was or what his background was they allowed him to start contributing good work and learning from his peers. An institution is not truly open until somebody you could never even imagine exists comes through the door.”
Now, there’s a really trite cliché that says something along the lines of “if you wait until you’re ready you never will be.”
Two years ago, when I was sitting where you are sitting now, I knew I wasn’t ready to be an entrepreneur.
To give you an idea just how not ready I was, here’s a picture of my big idea the night before my entry to the challenge was due in.
By the time I turned up at the pre-challenge workshop, I had managed to get it to this.
By pitch night, my idea had become an image.
And winning the challenge enabled me to develop that into a prototype.
And after a long period of public testing, and commissioning two amazing artists, and with support from OUI, I had a finished article.
I might not have had a product when I sat here, or a whizzy set of slides, or an elevator pitch. But what I did have is the same thing each of you has got. A burning desire to make the world better. And an inkling that there might be some way I could contribute a footnote to that task.
In the two years since I stood here I’ve been on two courses with the Said Business School’s VIEW programme, which helped me understand concepts like blue and red ocean businesses and business canvasses and acronyms like TAM SAM SOM; I’ve taken part in two Started in Oxford Demo Nights at the Weston Library, played games with the public at The Natural History Museum and St Luke’s Chapel; taught hedge fund managers how to be more creative, seen people’s faces transformed as they realised they could do things they never dreamed possible; and just 2 months ago popped the cork and cut the cake and signed the papers and become the CEO of a Limited Company helping people and institutions use creative thinking to solve wicked problems.
And over the course of those two years I learned that what being an entrepreneur actually is, is having a burning desire to make the world better. And an inkling that there might be some way I could contribute a footnote to that task. It turns out I was ready all along. And so are you.
I want to end by saying two things.
First, to every one of our wonderful finalists, whether you win tonight or not, you are at the start of a remarkable journey. If I have one piece of advice, it is to say yes everything you will be offered in the next 12 months – if you do then you, and your idea, will grow beyond anything you can imagine right now.
Second, I want to thank OU Innovation for what this challenge represents. And I want to thank the Humanities and Social Sciences Divisions, and most of all TORCH, for supporting it. And I want to explain what I mean by that.
My business is about creativity. I help people think more creatively so that they are better able to devise, and then implement, ideas that will help tackle the world’s wicked problems.
A fundamental principle of creativity is what one might call creative strangeness, which explains that the truly original ideas, those which change the world by an order of magnitude, are far more likely to occur when people step into surroundings and disciplines with which they are unfamiliar. It saddens me that I spend a lot of my time with the business not seeing institutions and individuals fail to come up with amazing ideas. But seeing them fail to implement them because they come from somewhere unexpected.
And that brings us back to Aaron Swartz. Because what Danny O’Brien was effectively saying is this. Innovators, entrepreneurs, people with the world-bettering ideas – they’re ready. They’ve always been ready. But without a platform, support, even just someone to say, OK, I don’t quite understand but go for it, those ideas will go nowhere – the bootstrapping ideal society fetishizes – the genius in the garage striding out into the future unfettered by circumstance and breakfasting on barriers like some bearded libertarian incarnation of Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog – that’s the kind of entitled hogwash that serves no purpose but to hamper true innovation.
What we need is for the platforms, mentors, funders, research institutions, think tanks, media, politicians also to be ready. Indeed, the major pivot my own business is taking is to move away from helping individuals be creative and towards helping institutions to allow creativity to flourish.
I think it’s fair to say that OUI still has a lot to learn about the work that happens in these Divisions; and that the people in these Divisions still have a lot to learn about what happens at OUI.
But it is to the infinite credit of everyone responsible for this event that they have taken the rarest of steps and put their trust in the principle of creative strangeness, and have adopted the very best practice of “let’s do this weird, scary thing and see what happens.”