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A 2nd Wave or a 2nd Famine?

Updated: Sep 16, 2020

Which should we brace ourselves for?

Normality sometimes has to be turned upside-down for us to face reality. COVID-19 may ultimately be a blessing in disguise, shaking us from a false sense of security. Even with Brexit to face, were we too cosy in our routines to notice the world becoming increasingly V.U.C.A. – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous?

Beyond COVID-19, there is another harsh reality check of something more chronic. This is the famine or at least lack of innovation both globally and locally. According to Business Week in 2019, the number of start-ups obtaining investment on Irish soil is not growing. In 2018, 60% of the €930 million raised was invested in only 9 enterprises, with start-up rates falling in 16 of 18 OECD countries.

Here are a few creative suggestions that might help us address this dearth of innovation before the blight of recession hits our green shores:

1. Breakthroughs are often from the outside-in and not the inside-out.

There are many ground-breaking examples of accidental scientific innovation. What we call ‘serendipity’ is not to be sneezed at (especially in these times). For example, the CRISPR gene editing technology was driven partly by the yoghurt industry sequencing Streptococcus thermophilus. The pacemaker as a concept was born from an engineer (helping out with animal behaviour studies) making a random mistake when wiring a heart recording device.

The trouble is that sometimes we don’t see these novel idea’s or discoveries for what they are at the time. Even DNA structure was overlooked by the scientists (working in the wool industry) who first x-rayed it. Even X-ray was “invented” by accident. When we’re too close to something, we hardly recognise it as we suffer from ‘tunnel vision’ within each of our respective fields.

If we want to overcome this, we need to cross a few borders in our heads, between departments and even between companies. Communities-of-practice are a good model for this to stretch our perspectives, recognise innovative thinking and share practical knowledge.

2. Government is not the most likely source of disruption.

Europe as a continent is yet to produce a single significant digital disruptor. We have no equivalent to Facebook, Google or Amazon although we have welcomed them to our shores and indeed they may support innovative indigenous suppliers; perhaps even spin-off’s if this article’s prediction proves to be correct -

To be fair, we are well incentivised and supported in this country by the government, particularly to create tech. start-ups. However, I sense an innate contradiction in efforts by any government to state-sponsor disruptive technologies given that the fall-out is presumably destroying the status quo of an entire industry.

The fact is that disruption is not usually a deliberate intent of any producer of new technology but more so an unintended consequence. Matt Ridley in his recent book - “How Innovation Works” - cites that governments can catalyse innovation but that they are not the main actor and government policy & regulations are as likely to hinder as to help. The recent UK government attempt to employ their own labs to develop a COVID test being a good example of how dampening the free market actually delays innovation when most badly needed. In short, he concludes that the more diverse actors and the more of them we have to drive innovation, the better. The reality is that a bottom-up approach is much more likely to be effective.

3. Want more young people to set up businesses? Pay them to do nothing.

Generation Z and millennials appear to be the most risk-averse generation in some time. Who can blame them? They’re born into a short-termist mindset where personal credibility hangs in the balance of our now social media-saturated world. Perhaps this is why young people are not starting businesses as they once did. The Collison tech. entrepreneur brothers are exceptional in more ways than one as outliers of their generation. In fact, between 1996-2014 the proportion of start-ups by people in their 20’s has halved.

However, one of the silver linings of COVID has been that less people in their 20’s are leaving this country for foreign adventures. This might be time to try the following experiment. We know that education is key to people getting better jobs and we which sectors need critical skills. There are some great incentives like Springboard to open up access to these sectors including food and life sciences. What if we pay people a salary for a year after they upskill to maintain their peer network? Many of these courses already include product development and business strategy modules. Education providers also develop relationships with students that if continued in a mentorship guise, might support business start-up’s likely to engender more start-up’s. We learn best from those not more than 7 years our senior. Hence, young entrepreneurs would be exactly the role models we need to generate more entrepreneurs for Ireland Inc. We’re beginning to see local talent choose to stay in Ireland to launch yet still capitalize on US funding so we have some great role models e.g. Shane Curran and the Burke bothers.

4. Amateur does not necessarily mean unprofessional

Let’s look no further than the G.A.A for a good homegrown example of high-performing yet amateur actors and organisations. We need more professionals, in fact, who embrace a “deliberate amateur” approach e.g. who are willing to venture into technical businesses without qualifications in the exact domain. ‘Deliberate amateurs’ are willing to make mistakes and with no professional ego to protect are willing to admit and investigate these fully.

David Epstein in his book “Range” dispels the myth that you have to specialise early in your career to become a high-performer. In fact, if you overspecialise too early then you are less able to adapt. We assume less when we approach the world as generalists and as a result, he argues, we see more. In addition, professionals who test their assumptions more are the ones who are more likely to innovate.

In Conclusion

What we need most may seem counter-intuitive but this is to argue, nose into each others’ business and play “devil’s advocate”more. Most of all, we need to do what we do best – narrate our own future based on the lessons of the past, embracing the bountiful ambiguity of what remains unforeseen. The future hasn’t happened yet so the story of what we do with it is (maybe not entirely but) in large part, up to us.

Fiona Fennell is the Company Founder and the Lead Consultant with Think4Purpose. She has a Masters in Innovation from the University of Limerick and works with individuals and organisations to improve self-directed, critical and creative thinking. Fiona hosts a webinar for the Shannon Chamber on V.U.C.A. and how SME's can become use it

to become smarter on Sept. 22nd. Register on the Shannon Chamber events page.


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