In conversation with……. Frances Valintine, Founder of Tech Futures Lab
The Tech Futures Lab origin story is a master class in entrepreneurship: it’s a hunch that won’t go away and a restlessness that will not settle; then the slog of the viability study and the MVP. There’s a lot of hard work and research and then there’s the glorious, freefalling leap of faith.
“If you know something, you can’t unknow it and if you’re a curious person who reads and listens a lot, you will often hear the same thing from multiple sources. I cannot know something and let it just sit, I am not able to do that, there’s a restlessness in me. So I learn more. And then I know there's a problem to solve, and a gap in the market, and I am compelled to create a solution.”
The conversation about the relevance of current structures in education has been going on for a long time; these structures were built in a very different time in an industrial era when people were taught to work in very constrained ways - clock-in and clock-out work with a sprinkling of professional skills - which were generally for life. When New Zealand set the pension at 65, life expectancy was just 67. 5 years. “So you literally learnt on the job or learnt a profession and then you did that till you retired and then you died. “
Even 50 years ago, there were only so many professions - and for women there were even less. Today there are a limitless number of options alongside traditional careers, albeit more technical and digital. We have emerging fields, and we’re just starting to scratch the surface as to what science is telling us is now possible - from quantum mechanics to space colonisations, to nano-medicine to advanced industrial robotics. Everything now is about how quickly we can learn from emerging best practice and from new information and how quickly we can mentally and emotionally leave behind the things we once held to be true.
“Compulsory education was built on learning answers: I looked at it through my educational experience and realised that I had always questioned the relevance of the system. I could play the game and get the marks to academically achieve but I could not contextualise my learning to anything that I was really passionate about. By the time I had children, my thoughts moved to their learning. Once they mastered literacy and numeracy and could hold conversations and connect with others, my restlessness for their future readiness began : “How would they know what’s possible if their curriculum remains in tidy silos of knowledge and does not reflect the multi-disciplinary skills and knowledge needed in today’s world?”
“And the only way I could see systemic education progress being made was to create my view of what education could be.”
“It was a huge indulgence, based on an inkling. Looking from the rapidly advancing technology sector, I knew that industries were changing and I knew there would be a transformational digitisation of business systems and processes. I spent considerable time overseas, and over many years I could see what was on the horizon and the types of skills we would all need to learn to adapt and thrive in the future. In New Zealand the pipeline of talent development and access to highly relevant content and knowledge just didn’t exist.”
Frances is concerned that many adults are over-indexed by the sector they work in. “If you work in a sector and stay in that sector - even if you move companies - you become heavily indexed by that sector. Your visibility of other sectors is incredibly low. Unless you can step out and look around, you don’t know what you don’t know and that can lead to significant assumptions or knowledge gaps.”
Frances is a big believer in the necessity of sense-making: making sense from new knowledge, new findings or experiences you see, sense or feel. If the majority of new things you hear are dismissed before they are understood there is a risk that the human desire to be ‘right’ will over-power the desire to learn and be curious.
Chasing her own curiosity, Frances attended Singularity University. Besides immersing herself in the world of AI, 3D printing, space and the gig economy, Frances was mostly influenced by the learning environment and the other students in her cohort : “I’d never been in an environment where everyone was interested in what I was interested in. While the presenters were recognised leaders in their field, the greatest insights were from the group around me who showed me first hand the human desire to hold long-format deep conversations on important issues.”
On the 15th January 2016, while attending Singularity University, at the NASA Research Park in Palo Alto, Frances registered Tech Futures Lab.
“I registered the Lab with just an idea of creating a space where mature adults already in the workforce could come together to talk about things that were happening in the world; where they could sense-make; where they could indulge in conversation on emerging or complex ideas and where they could reimagine their future.
I wanted the conversation to be in an education setting where curiosity and asking questions was the core function, but I also wanted the rules of engagement to be non-hierarchical, where no one would feel judged.
And that is exactly what Frances did.
“Great ideas often start with a signal from the market followed by more detailed insights and then you start to see behaviour changes and then you start to see people willing to invest time and money.
You have to validate well beyond family support and focus groups.
You have to back yourself.
And then not be able to find a reason not to do it.”