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Six things I learned at the Pioneers Festival

Last week, I attended the two-day Pioneers Festival in Vienna. Housed in the Hofburg imperial palace (an “impossible to book” venue), the event was a mixture between discussions, speeches and interactive workshops with topics concerning entrepreneurship, innovation, and technology. True to its name, it also embraced a “festival”-like atmosphere with free-flowing beer and Red Bull, party marathons in the evenings, and a monster-sized Halloween after party on the imperial grounds — all designed to encourage conversation, learning, and connection-building among the 2,500 participants at the event. I’d love to post a review, but it would echo just about everything The Kernel had to say about the event (although I tried Airbnb instead of Hotel Sacher, and probably had a much nicer time because of it).

Over the two days, I learned a lot. But six key ideas stand out:

  1. “The more you give away, the more you get back” — this was the lesson shared by Matt Mullenweg. He should know. His open source project WordPress now powers 19% of global websites. The beauty of open source, he argues, is that by feeding into a broader system, they are able to enable serendipity, and generate new outputs that are bigger than any of us.
  2. It is becoming increasingly hard to find entrepreneurs that have finished college. Walking through the halls of Hofburg, meeting new startups and VCs, it became clear (through my non-scientific observation) that not many people at the event had completed a college program. Some focused on pursuing their dreams in lieu of school, and others dropped out before finishing. A couple others were involved in startup schools, like the one at Aalto University. Of the people I talked with who had completed a college education, I was astonished that so many of them had gone on to complete a PhD. Why is there such a gap between the PhDs in the room and the non-degree-completers? And, as our societies rest our hopes and dreams on startups and startup culture, is a college education important anymore?
  3. “Most ed-tech startups suck!” Inês Silva (participating remotely from Portugal) shared this article by Harvard’s Reynol Junco for VentureBeat, which I think is spot on. The article points out that despite the exponential grown of edutech startups in the market space, very few of them are connected with research or the realities of how we learn. Even worse, because many of these startups are being lead by people who dropped out of school (or hated it), they are focused on fixing particular elements of it. Almost nobody is working on completely reinventing the system. As a result, we are (mis)using new technologies to teach the same old crap the same old way. That sucks.
  4. Timing is everything. This statement might seem obvious, but too often in the entrepreneurial and academic worlds we take a gung-ho approach to releasing ideas before the world is ready for them. Adam Cheyer (founder of Siri) stated early at the festival that, “the best way to predict the future is to invent it …but timing is everything.” Indeed, everybody at the festival came with great ideas. Some of us were ahead of our time, and a few others are a little bit late. Finding the sweet spot on when to release a product or idea can be tough. But, for those of us that are focused on building the future, it is important to keep nurturing it, keep developing our ideas, and work hard to make sure they are a success when it is time to release them.
  5. Megacorporations are clueless when it comes to connecting with startups. There was nothing more painful than watching Konica Minolta‘s Ken Osuga give a presentation on how his company (one of the festival’s key sponsors) is just like the startups in the room: Founded 140 years ago. In Tokyo. (I’m not kidding, that’s what he said … several times.) Nearly as painful was watching Microsoft‘s Ruud de Jonge show the crowd how cool he was for carrying around a Surface — and criticized the rows-upon-rows of people working with iPads and MacBooks for gravitating toward things that are “fruity.” Really. He thought people in the room care about what Microsoft thinks about them. Indeed, there is a growing institutional generation gap between large corporations that want to sell their products and smaller, younger, hyper-individualized firms that wonder why they need them at all. That said, one of the elements that I loved about the Pioneers Festival was that it was focused more on building conversations among attendees and the intangibles that are created in a festival-like environment. Whereas companies like Konica Minolta and Microsoft floundered, the founders in the room created real value among themselves.
  6. The world has no more room for “intellectual masturbation.” In his session on business design, Alexander Osterwalder declared that, “writing a business plan is intellectual masturbation!” Indeed, the old school thinking (and still taught in business schools) of careful business planning is becoming obsolete. Businesses need to be prepared to pivot and transform faster. This requires new strategic thinking for startups. Likewise, academia needs to step away from intellectual self-gratification. Lacking interconnected purpose, contextual applicability, and responsibility for creating outputs that are meaningful can make academic conferences resemble an intellectual exercise in self-love-making. In the age of connection-building and collaborations through social media, can academic societies and conferences find a purposive role and also pivot their strategies when necessary?

Building enclaves of entrepreneurship education through pirate-like thinking

On Tuesday, I stopped by the NEXT Berlin 2012 conference at STATION-Berlin to meet up with young innovators in the European education sphere. I had the pleasure of chatting with Inês Silva, co-founder of the Startup Pirates, a one-week startup school that works with various communities around the planet. Headquartered in Portugal, the Startup Pirates work to:

[…] help and foster new ventures that are going to be game-changers, capable of breaking the rules set in their markets. This way, we are creating an inspiring and informal environment, together with a great curricular plan and fantastic experts on the subjects. We expect to open minds and to provide the tools to come up with, and to develop some awesome ideas.

Watch my interview with Inês, where I ask her to describe what Startup Pirates works to achieve, and what the implications are for formal education:

Are you a knowmad or are you just lost?

Knowmads differentiate their jobs from work. Jobs are positions, gigs, or other forms of employment. Work is longer term in scope, and relates toward creating meaningful outcomes. One’s work differs from a career in Knowmad Society. Whereas a career is something that “carries” a person throughout life, an individual’s work is a collection of activities that are backed with elements that are purposive at the personal level. In other words, the results of a knowmad’s work are their responsibility alone.

Knowmads strive to continually define and refine their work. This can be expressed through occupying various jobs, apprenticeships, entrepreneurship, social activities, etc. If the knowmad makes a difference at their job, but there is little opportunity for creating change, then it’s time to move on. Without having a purposive direction to herd one’s various jobs into work, we must question if that person has found his or her way.

As we look to co-invent our futures of work, we need to look hard into what we are doing, and ask each other, are you a knowmad, or are you just lost?


Leadership and Entrepreneurship: "Knowmads challenge all structures"

De Baak‘s Ralph Blom wrote up a short interview with me for last month’s issue of Leadership and Entrepreneurship.

My favorite bit:

What skills are needed in a society 3.0?

“Because everybody is in it together it is not bounded by a specific generation. Nobody has done this before, there are no role models. We all have to co-create this together. Knowmads are highly engaged, creative, innovative, collaborative and highly motivated. They adapt fast in new situations and contextualize ideas due to situations. So schools need to find out how we can learn skills in motivation, creative orientation, being friendly, and an ungoing mindset on always keep up with technologies. All of us have to learn to share without geographical limitation. We have to create global footprints, go beyond the small communities and learn how to engage people all over the world in open and flat knowledge networks. A big cultural mindshift is needed, we have to start thinking that learning is everywhere, always and naturally. It is quit normal that even the biggest leader says: “Can you help me learn that?”. The most successful entrepreneurs do it all the time: “I don’t know how to do this. I have this idea. I want to get it to the next level. Can you help figure this out?” Innovation will not come from software and new technologies. It’s about mindware. That is our imagination, our creativity.”

Read the full interview on De Baak’s website.

Whose crazy idea is it anyway?

As the 21st century digital revolution continues to disrupt the economy, and the traditional knowledge claim held by experts of the 20th century is making way for a global entrepreneurial mindset, (university) education finds itself on the verge of its most radical transformations since the industrial revolution. Whose Crazy Idea Is It Anyway is an academic endeavor that has the ambition to set the agenda in the educational landscape of the coming decade.

The work conference takes a specific angle to tackle the education issue: the (presumed) tension between entrepreneurial and academic values. Where do these values overlap and when do they contradict each other? What kinds of learning environments can start to emerge when both these worlds join forces? And how can these new learning networks be equipped to address urgent societal issues?

Following a “Yes – No – What the F*ck” intermission exercise facilitated by the Knowmads business school in Amsterdam, I gave a keynote talk that centered on invisible learning, and how higher education can contribute toward building Knowmad Society.

Later, I chatted with Andrew Keen on how we might foster entrepreneurship and expressions of innovation in higher education. Unfortunately, the studio lighting couldn’t mask my jet lag and emerging head cold:

Other interesting interviews:

Parag Khanna

Zoltan Acs

Thieu Besselink

Hrobjartur Arnason

Uffe Elbaek on social entrepreneurship

Uffe Elbæk is a social entrepreneur, politician, and cultural leader in Denmark. In his knowmadic career so far, he founded the KaosPilots school in Århus, organized the World Outgames 2009, and the Change the Game consultancy. Currently, Uffe is running for a seat in the Danish parliament as candidate from the Social Liberal Party (Radikale). Last week, we met up, and he shared his views on social entrepreneurship in the “fourth sector” (metaspace where government, private, and non-governmental organizations converge):

In the Invisible Learning project, Cristóbal Cobo and I revealed that the development of soft skills are critical for success in Knowmad Society. In an era where the useful lifespan of information and personal knowledge decreases at an exponential pace, soft skills are increasingly seen as critical to help individuals navigate and lead in a perceptively chaotic and ambiguous world. When posed with the question of which skills and competencies are critical for successful social entrepreneurship, Uffe cited four key competencies from the KaosPilots program:

  1. Meaning: If you don’t understand what you’re doing and why you are doing it, your activity will fail. It is important to create meaning through what we do.
  2. Relationship: Today’s society requires more teamwork and sophisticated communication and problem-solving skills. Building good relationships with the people you work with is critical.
  3. Change: You have to be able to unlearn what you already know so that you can learn what is important in a changing world.
  4. Action: You need to produce solid, visible results.

Update: In September 2011, Uffe was elected to the Danish parliament. On October 3, he was appointed the Culture Minister of Denmark. Congratulations, Minister Elbæk!

Read more on Uffe’s work:

A plutocratic education

This piece from KQED captured my attention:

a number of authors and high-profile businesspeople and entrepreneurs are debunking the notion that college is the best solution. They’re questioning whether paying tens of thousands of dollars and investing four or five years in an institution should be the default for young people when so many more options exist. With free, high-quality education available to anyone, is college necessary? These folks say no.

Indeed, we have been hearing a lot from the überwealthy lately on what they think of education. Bill Gates thinks the Web will outperform universities (Windows required?); Peter Thiel thinks higher education is in a bubble of false promises; Mark Zuckerberg dabbles by bankrolling Newark’s schools; and, Oprah is waiting for Superman to revolutionize America’s schools.

They might be right. But, that’s not the point.

The problem is that these people have hijacked the entire conversation.

If the ultra wealthy are concerned about America’s competitiveness, the schools aren’t failing. They’re failing the schools. The nation’s ranking on the PISA tables continues to slip, but if we control for poverty, we’re darn near the top.

Maybe the problem doesn’t stem from failing schools and a rotting education system. Maybe the problem is that the number of America’s poor under 18 years of age is rising (21.7% live in poverty as reported by UNICEF in 2007) and wealth among all age groups is being concentrated to a tiny percentage of the population. Given a problem that is rooted in poverty, can we trust the ultra wealthy to “fix” education? …or, can we build a more inclusive conversation and generate more realistic solutions?

Apply by December 17 for the next Knowmads tribe

The Knowmads have released their new brochure, which I made available for download at futr.es/knowbro. Please give it a read and spread the word!

Knowmads is a school in the Netherlands that launched in January of this year. Much of the school — including the name itself — is based on the Knowmads concept that I shared at the Creative Company Conference in Amsterdam in 2009.

A one-year program, they are looking to build their next tribe for the February 2011 – February 2012 program. The application deadline is December 17. To get started, simply send an email stating that you’re interested to apply@knowmads.nl.

A Knowmads student is, on average, between 20 – 35 years old, willing to learn in a team setting, adventurous, curious, has an entrepreneurial attitude, cooperative and independent, value driven, innovative, responsible, and fun to be with. Moreover, Knowmads attract students from diverse backgrounds around the world. This diversity is a stepping stone to learning from and with each other.

Want to learn more? Visit the Knowmads website at knowmads.nl.

Got a business plan for Open Educational Resources?

Startl has announced a $25,000 competition, soliciting business plans for best uses of Open Educational Resources. The prize is modest, but this could turn into a generator of alternative ideas for education. From their blog:

In partnership with the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Graduate School of Education at University of Pennsylvania, Startl will announce the winner this spring during the Milken PennGSE Education Business Plan Competition. The Startl Prize for Open Educational Resources awards the best business plan that leverages openly licensed content to change the paradigm around the production, delivery, sharing, and experience of learning. The intention is to catalyze models that increase access to and dramatically lower the cost of learning. Startl is seeking to inspire entrepreneurs to think creatively about how to incorporate open principles into their core business strategy.