If Collaboration is the Key to Digital Innovation, How Can Collaboration be Manufactured?

By Paul Johnson.

As part of Economic Development Australia’s (EDA) Overseas Study Tour Program, Paul Johnson, Manager Business Development at Wellington Shire Council in Victoria, travelled to New Zealand and the United States in November 2018. Paul would like to thank EDA and Wellington Shire Council for the opportunity to participate, learn and share this research.

There is an old adage “Success has many parents, but failure is an orphan”. This highlights two things:

  1. No one wants to be associated with failure!
  2. Sitting behind a successful outcome is a team of people have worked together to make it happen. It is extremely rare to cite a major achievement in the field of medicine, sport, space travel or any other pursuit and pinpoint success solely to one individual.

During my study tour to New Zealand and the USA in late 2018, I visited the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, a short distance from Googleplex and the Facebook’s headquarters. The Museum tracks the history of computing and its ongoing impact on society. The Museum clearly illustrates that collaboration is key to innovation:

  • Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak and the team at Apple
  • Paul Allen and Bill Gates at Microsoft
  • Mark Zuckerberg, Eduardo Saverin, Andrew McCollum, Dustin Moskovitz, and Chris Hughes at Facebook.

Whilst an individual innovator may have had a ground-breaking idea, collaboration was the key to unlocking the idea’s possibilities and ultimately driving its economic potential.

So, if collaboration is critical to success, what is being done in New Zealand and the United States to foster collaboration to achieve digital innovation? Below are a few examples from my EDA Study Tour Scholarship which provide some insights.

AUCKLAND COUNCIL

Auckland Council and Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development have established GridAKL located at the heart of Auckland’s waterfront in the Wynard Quarter Innovation Precinct. The Precinct is home to global innovators including AirNZ, IBM, Microsoft, Fonterra and Spark.

Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development reports that over the last 10 years, the digital innovation sector has witnessed 25% growth. ICT and Digital Media accounts for 3.2% employment in Auckland or 1 in 30 jobs. Half (48%) of New Zealand’s ICT companies are based in Auckland, employing 37,000 people. GridAKL’s role is to assist high-impact, growth-orientated, technology-focused businesses and entrepreneurs to develop and commercialise their innovations.

GridAKL offers modern collaborative spaces for start-ups, SMEs and corporates across three flagship buildings which aim to connect people, places and resources to help businesses become stronger, more successful and more innovative. People can connect via:

  • regular events featuring local and global keynote speakers,
  • seminars focussed on technology and innovation,
  • interactions in modern, open-plan co-working spaces for start-ups and early stage SMEs,
  • free desk space within the Tech Café,
  • mentoring programmes and investment networks,
  • ‘Slack’, an online communication service accessible only to GridAKL users/tenants,
  • community notice boards which profile who is in the space.

Whilst GridAKL’s is Auckland Council’s flagship innovation project, in October 2018 Council opened Ngahere Communities in Manukau, approximately 25 kilometres south of the Auckland’s CBD. Manukau is the capital of south Auckland.

Here I met with Joel Umali, Specialist Advisor for the ‘Southern Initiative’ with Auckland Council. The Ngahere Communities space seeks to cultivate communities that enhance creativity and innovation by using collaborative spaces and co-designed programmes. The space is designed to create a space for innovation and entrepreneurship to thrive, especially for Maori and Pasifika communities.

The co-working space includes eight permanent desk spaces and 32 shared desk spaces, three meeting areas for breakouts, private meetings or group presentations.

The importance of promoting entrepreneurship in Manukau cannot be understated, considering high rates of poverty and obesity and low rates of educational attainment, personal income and home ownership.

Following Council’s significant investment in GridAKL in central Auckland, Manukau is Auckland Council’s next priority for place-making investment. Council’s Transform Manukau initiative seeks  to address the lack of existing space to create  or promote entrepreneurism in Manukau and to promote grass-roots innovation within the community. I look forward to visiting Ngahere Communities in the future to find out how things have progressed.

Open-plan office space at GridAKL, Auckland.

 

Auckland Council’s approach to GridAKL and Manukau demonstrates that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to fostering digital innovation and collaboration. By carefully understanding the needs of the community and the importance of diversifying its economy, Auckland Council has adapted its offering to two diverse market segments. In an Australian context, economic development practitioners and Councils need to consider how place-based planning can extend beyond renewal of physical infrastructure and broaden the remit of place-based planning to build the capacity of communities to access the digital economy and increase employment options.

PLUG AND PLAY TECH CENTER, SUNNYVALE, CALIFORNIA

In the heart of Silicon Valley, you’ll find the Plug and Play Tech Center with its mission ‘to make innovation open to anyone, anywhere’.

Plug and Play aims to be the ultimate innovation platform bringing together the best start-ups and the world’s largest corporations.

During my tour with Andrew Hans Chang, Associate, International and Government Relations, it became clear that Plug and Play’s reach extends well beyond US borders and seeks to bridge the gap between countries around the world and Silicon Valley. Plug and Play works with international government agencies, technology incubators and universities to source, identify and accelerate the most promising start-ups from various global ecosystems and is currently working with partners from over 25 countries.

Plug and Play’s all-in-one Start Up Ecosystem model includes:

  • Mentoring
  • Logistics
  • Networking including daily events
  • Corporate innovation
  • Investment

Major companies base their innovation teams on site at Plug and Play to get access to the talent pool working within the office space. This way, major corporates are able to gain a competitive edge by attracting innovators to help solve problems and remain competitive.

Plug and Play, like the other digital innovation spaces I visited in New Zealand and the US, focus heavily on hosting events to gather a critical mass of people and increase the cross-pollination of ideas between digital innovators.

Companies who have collaborated with the Plug and Play Tech Center.

CAPITAL FACTORY, AUSTIN TEXAS

When the Capital Factory in Austin, Texas was first established, it was exclusively an accelerator for digital innovators to refine their business and commercialise their product or service. However, since then the Capital Factory has broadened out to attract and host events to help attract entrepreneurs. Incredibly the Capital Factory now hosts approximately 1300 events a year!

Through events, the Capital Factory promotes a sense of community which is at the core of its success. Start-up businesses accepted into the Capital Factory’s Accelerator Program have access to 170 experienced mentors, who make a one-year commitment to mentor participants on a monthly basis for free.

The Capital Factory’s expansive mentor program and highly competitive start-up scene attracts high potential start-ups, all co-located in one location, matched with an extensive events program and deep-pocketed venture capitalists to create a density of activity which fosters collaboration, drives innovation and has given rise to a very mature digital ecosystem.

The Capital Factory demonstrates that mentoring is a key factor when delivering an accelerator or incubator program. Economic development practitioners can identify the local digital champions in their community who may have successful businesses but who often operate from a home office or another location. These champions may have national or international trade activity yet maintain a low profile locally. However, these champions are an untapped resource for local startups wishing to pursue a business idea or scale up but needing a local mentor to support commercialisation of their business. Practitioners can foster this collaboration through local events, the use of Meetup groups or via Facebook to bring enable the ‘master’ and the ‘apprentice’ to collaborate formally or informally.

Storm-trooper and Darth Vader welcome visitors into one of the floors at Capital Factory, Austin Texas.

ROLE OF UNIVERSITIES

An observation made during the study tour was the role of universities in cultivating digital entrepreneurship. If cities, towns or nations seek to manufacture or cultivate digital innovation, the role of universities cannot be understated. Universities can provide the tertiary courses, student pathways, and partnerships between for students and corporations to play a critical role in fostering a mature ecosystem.

Stanford University and University of California, Berkeley have been central partners in the rise of Silicon Valley. University of Texas is credited with supporting the digital renaissance of Austin and Texas more broadly.

  • Is this simply borne from the fact that young people congregate at universities and university-life provides students with opportunities and time to collaborate and create?
  • Are university students more likely to take risks, challenge the norm and be technologically curious, therefore more likely to innovate?
  • Do universities with a strong pedigree for research and development bring a higher degree of collaboration which links students with real-life industry experience and capital?

A proactive university (or TAFE) can be another key driver to promote collaboration and promote digital innovation. Economic development practitioners need to understand the course offering, industry placement programs and international partnerships offered by their local university or TAFE. These opportunities need to be actively promoted throughout the local business sector to ensure collaboration between the tertiary/vocational education sector and the local business sector remains relevant, reflective of local industry needs and provides access for local businesses to benefit from the university’s digital innovation capabilities and research and development. An Australian example of strong local links between university capability, innovation and business competitiveness is the establishment of Carbon Nexus within Deakin University in Geelong with provides industry with access to a team of globally recognised high technology materials experts to deliver the solutions for businesses and researchers to gain a competitive advantage.

Play Tech Center in Silicon Valley very explicitly displayed the financial value of start-up companies from major US universities via a graph which compared the worth of different companies and the universities these start-ups originated from.