Unleash creativity in students

STEM 2022 On demand – talk presented by Joel Connolly, Blackbird.

During this keynote Joel will share how and why Australia's leading VC firm, Blackbird, valued at $10b, is preparing to develop entrepreneurship and creativity in students nationally and how your students can get involved.

Watch 'Unleash creativity in students' (22:01)

Joel Connolly – Blackbird

(Duration: 22 minutes 1 second)


[Red and blue logo revealed reading ‘STEM 2022 on demand’.  

Screen reads, ‘Creativity with purpose’ with an overlay of a purple bird with outstretched wings. The screen cuts to Joel Connolly.]

Joel Connolly:

Hi, welcome. And thank you for taking the time to watch this. My name is Joel. I'm here to talk to you about creativity. And how I think it can lead to a life that is rich and purposeful and full of meaning.

So, I just wanted to give you a summary of what we're going to cover in this talk. We're going to start off by talking about the opportunity Australia has. We can paint that picture together. And then we're going to talk about the students in your classrooms and the role they have to play in helping us reach our potential. Going to talk about creativity and how I believe it's the key to unlocking the limitless potential in the students in your classrooms. And then we're going to talk through some case studies and I'm going to give you some examples of what I mean.

Before we get started, I wanted to just quickly introduce myself so you know who I am, and tell you a little bit about the work that I do. My name is Joel Connolly. I'm creative director at a company called Blackbird.

[Screen reads, ‘Joel Connolly – Creative Director, Blackbird.’]

I'm the head of our philanthropic arm called the Blackbird Foundation. Our mission at the Blackbird Foundation is to unleash creativity in as many young people as we can.

[Screen reads, ‘Unleash creativity in students’.]

So, what is Blackbird? We're venture capitalists, so we are technology investors. We take really big piles of cash, we throw it at creative leaders who are trying to solve really big problems. We've invested in a whole bunch of things, like software company called Canva, which you might know. We've invested in rocket ships, in satellites, food tech. You name it, we've probably done it.

Now, important to note, most of the 100 businesses that we've invested in will not be successful. That's the nature of our business. It's super risky. And the model is designed to discover brave people who are looking to solve really, really hard problems. Now, because the problems they're solving are so hard, they often won't succeed. The ones that do succeed though, do so in a very meaningful way. And they're often responsible for massive social, cultural, economic shifts in our society.

So, that's Blackbird. Now, the Blackbird Foundation which I also run, as I said before the mission is to unleash creativity in as many young people as we can. Now, our experience doing venture capital has led us to believe that creativity is the meta-skill and that it is sadly underdeveloped in a lot of young people. So to try and solve this, we're giving money away to organisations who are working on creativity. And we're also running our own programmes, and we're funding young people directly. So, I talk more a bit about our work in a minute.

[Screen reads, ‘The world is hyper complex, it’s uncertain and we have a lot of things we need to fix if we’re going to make it.’]

I wanted to start off today though, by giving you a view of the world from the perspective of a young person, from someone in one of your classrooms. So, it's hypercomplex, it's really uncertain. Students in your classrooms just in the last few years, like one, have been through a global pandemic and everything that comes along with that. Two, they face massive economic insecurity. Most of them don't expect that they will own a home. And three, climate change. Now, I don't need to say much about this one except to state the very obvious. And that's the students in your classrooms, Gen Z, plus Gen Z are going to have to be the ones that clean up this mess that we've left for them.

These are just three of their headlines. There are many other things that are on young people's minds at the moment. The bottom line though, is that the consequence of all of this is anxiety and insecurity.

[Screen reads, ‘Despite all this, they’re the most promising generation we’ve ever seen’.]

Despite this though, despite everything that I've just mentioned I think they show remarkable resilience and positivity. And incredibly, I think they're the most promising generation that we've seen in a really long time. They're purpose-driven. They have an advanced social conscience. They are values-led. They show emotional intelligence beyond anything that I knew as a young person. And because of all of this, and everything that they've experienced, as I said, I think they're really, really resilient.

[Screen reads, ‘The opportunity in front of us is immense’.]

Now, because of the way these young people are, everything that I've just described. I think the opportunity in front of us is immense. More than any other generation, these people have the potential, I think to change everything. But what does this mean? So, let's dig into this a little bit more. What does it mean to say that we have a large opportunity and that these people show a lot of potential? So, I want to talk through three areas where I think we have a pretty significant opportunity and where I think the young people in your classrooms might even have an outsized impact over their lives.

[Screen reads, ‘Exceptional Australia – 1 country, 2 culture, 3 technology and innovation.’]

So, these three areas are country, culture, and technology and innovation. So, start with country and environment. We are blessed with a country that's resilient, diverse, dramatic in its beauty. But won't be a surprise to many of you to hear this. We don't use it very well. We don't respect it. So, imagine a future where we respect and care for country and in return, it provides us with an abundance of food, energy, and everything else we need. Imagine if instead of being recognised as global laggard on decarbonization, we become a renewable energy superpower. We're one of the windiest and sunniest countries on earth. What if instead of aiming for net zero emissions, we try as Mike Cannon-Brookes is suggesting for 500% renewables. Now, imagine what that would mean for Australia. The people who will bring about this future are sitting in your classrooms. They are the engineers who will build the tech. They are the activists who will ignite the change. They are the generation with a social conscience strong enough to actually make it happen.

So, second point is culture. So, our artists and creators, and cultural curators are making waves across the world. And unlike creators from the 50's and 60's, and 70's, they're actually celebrating their nationality. They're not denying it. And we're just beginning to see to take our own unique culture and our creativity, and our cultural identity to a global audience. There's so much to do, but we've made a lot of progress. And we're just beginning to grab hold of this cultural identity and what it is, and what it means. And we're just really beginning to bravely learn how to express our own uniqueness, and to bring an Australian voice to the world.

So imagine a country, imagine an Australia where we are not just consumers of culture, but we're creators of it. Imagine a future where Australians bring our culture to the rest of the world instead of just importing culture into Australia from the United States. Now, the people who will create this future, who will take the work we've already done and supercharge it. They are sitting in your classrooms. The work is not done. We need a new generation of creatives to bring it home. And I believe the kids in your classrooms are the ones that could do it.

Lastly, technology and innovation. Now here lies a really immense opportunity for us. For over 50 years, our economy has gone from luck to luck, not strength to strength. We are one of the richest countries in the world with the GDP per capita that sits us up with other countries like the United States, Denmark and Sweden. All of this is driven largely by our rich resources. We haven't needed to do much except dig things out of the ground and ship those things to other countries where those resources are turned into useful goods. Australia is at a crossroads and we need to work out how to be more than just a lucky country rich in resources. We need to be inventors of technology and not just customers for big American tech companies.

Through my work at Blackbird, I've seen just what young Australians are capable of. And I believe that we're just starting to scratch the surface. Here's just one quick example.

[Screen shows a photograph of two smiling people sitting casually on office chairs, in a home office.]

In 2012, two young Aussies started a company called Canva. They spent two years trying to raise the money to get it off the ground because nobody believed you could start a tech company from Australia. 10 years later, they have hundreds of millions of customers. Billions of designs created on their platform. They're worth $40 billion. Most of which they're going to be donating to social causes. So, through creativity and a wild imagination, the young people in your classrooms will be the inventors of tomorrow. They will help to transform Australia into one of the smartest nations on earth. There's no reason why we can't lead the world in creativity and invention.

And all of this is in front of us. The people who will do this are in front of you every single day. And I believe that by developing their creativity, we can not just dream of this future but we can actually go out there and create it.

[Screen reads, ‘Creativity is the meta.’]

Okay, so I've tried to show you what I think Australia could become and how I think the young people in your classrooms are the ones who will do this work. And I've also tried to explain that I think creativity is the key to all of this; the point that I've tried to make. Now, I thought I'd spend just a little bit of time showing you what I mean by creativity. Because I mean it in a very, very broad sense.

Creativity is not just for artists, it's for everyone. And I thought, I mean I could try and explain creativity to you, but I thought it might just be more effective to show you what I mean instead. And so to do this, I'm going to turn to a programme I run called Protostars. It's a micro grant I give out to young people with a passion project. Doesn't matter what the project is. All they have to do is show me how much they love it, and that they're going to deliver a result in three months. We're in our second cohort now. In total, there are around 80 Protostars, and hopefully in a few years there'll be thousands.

So number one, Tash Atkins. She's an opera singer, a mezzo-soprano opera singer who's into a thing called Algorave. During Protostars, she explored a combination of these two things. So, Algorave is - imagine like software developers, engineers on stage in front of an audience creating dance music but with code. Executing code and it creates like techno, I guess that the audience can dance to. So, she was exploring Algorave and mashing that up with opera singing. Totally wild.

[Screen shows a series of shots of a young person singing, code on a large screen and a purple lit room with a grand piano and boxes covered with fairy lights, a projector with series of code is covered with a sheer sheet.]

Joanna. Joanna learned how to code by building this beautiful project. It's called A Garden of my Mother's Concerns. Each flower you can see here represents a day. And each leaf represents a text message with her mother. So, pink flowers are for when a love heart emoji was shared. She made all of this. And then she built a course to teach other young people how to code using creativity. Or how to learn to code using their creativity. And that was what she did during the Protostars. She'd already made this project, and then she built the course through the grant that we gave her.

[Screen shows a series of flowers at different heights in either yellow or pink. The flowers sit on straight vertical stalks with many small green leaves attached to them. Some leaves have a small heart attached to the leaf.]

Bridget Kelly is an artist with Down Syndrome and minimal speech. And she joined Protostars to make a video for her art exhibition. She uses POSCA. That's her main tool. And it's absolutely beautiful the work that she does.

[Screen shows a young person with Down’s Syndrome and screen reads, ‘Hello’. Screen shows a series of shots of this person working with clay on a bench and various brightly coloured sculptured artworks hanging on a wall.]

Ginger-Rose is an Egyptologist. She was studying at university, decided she wanted to translate this ancient Egyptian text that hadn't been fully translated in over a hundred years. Because the texts were the Papyrus, was sitting in different museums around the world. So, she went and tracked the Papyrus down and did a translation from what it turns out was an Egyptian solar cult. And that's what she did during her time with us at Protostars.

[Screen shows an Egyptian image of three people in historical dress, beneath it screen reads, ‘Introduction to Merysakhment’s Song’. To the right of this image are 3 lines of hieroglyphics with a written translation underneath and an English translation below that. The lines, as one sentence, read, ‘Reward with a good burial the singer, who causes to be sung to you, that he may go forth upon the earth as a beautiful ba in order to see the Lord of the Gods.’]

Lastly, Oliver Coates. He's a game developer and a history buff. He's making an educational game called "Turning Point" featuring history, strategy, economics and politics. So, the player takes on the role of the New Zealand government during their 1980s, around the time that the Rainbow Warrior was bombed by French spies. Super fascinating, right?

[Screen shows a game interface with historical photographs, economic figures and a map of New Zealand. The background is black with white text. Tabs on the page read, ‘Think Big’ and ‘Balancing the books’. Beneath that reads, ‘Economic Reform – state of the economy’ with a series of question marks and an image of sheep in a field with a farmer. Beneath this image reads; ‘Locked – The government is not currently pursuing economic reform.’ Screen cuts to a photograph of a ship with the name ‘Rainbow Warrior’ painted on it.]

If a love of climbing led to the Patagonia company, what could any of these passions lead to? Of course not every like project will become a company and nor should they, but I think you see what I mean.

[Screen reads, ‘Creativity is the meta.’]

My point is that creativity is the thread that ties all of these disparate, diverse projects together. It's the thing that ties these people together. Creativity can help a young person to build confidence, to find things they love doing, to develop the skills you need to be a self-directed lifelong learner. It can help you find community and shared meaning, as you seek out other people who love the things that you love. And all of this in my view can make for a life that is full of meaning, that is rich and rewarding, and fulfilling. And if we raise a generation of these people with these sorts of skills, imagine what will happen when they apply some of those skills to really worthwhile things like I outlined before in country, culture and innovation.

So, how do we as advocates and educators approach this problem? Creativity is underdeveloped. I don't think many people dispute that. How can we go about solving this and how can you as educators approach the problem? And how can you help young people to develop their creativity? It's the question that we asked ourselves at the Blackbird Foundation. So, I don't claim to be any kind of expert, but I can talk you through the approach we've used at the Blackbird Foundation with the Protostars grant I mentioned earlier.

So, we took what we learned about investing in founders and technology and looking for really special people. And we then went and found some research out of the MIT Media Lab around creative learning and the future of work. Essentially, I combined their research with our learnings and we built the foundation and the Protostars grant.

[Screen reads, ‘Protostars and the four Ps – Projects, Peers, Passion, Play.’]

So MIT, they identified four components of a creative learning experience. Those are passion, peers, projects and play. So, let's talk about some of these in detail and I'm going to show you how we use them in designing the Protostars grant.

[Screen reads, ‘Projects’.]

So, first off is projects. Now people learn best when they are actively working on projects, generating new ideas, designing prototypes, making improvements, creating products. In the course of working on projects we learn to improvise, to adapt, to problem solve and to iterate. And by reflecting on the process of design and iteration, we learn not only to solve specific problems but also to understand how to design solutions to any problem. So, Protostars is project-driven. We start by telling applicants that we are interested in passion projects and that they have three months to work on their project and to complete it. So, there is a clear beginning and an end to the work.

[Screen reads, ‘Peers’.]

Next up is peers. So, learning flourishes as a social activity with people sharing ideas, collaborating on projects and building on one another's work. The hardest problems cannot be solved by one person alone. In our professional lives, we rarely work in isolation. So, that's why the ability to engage others in our work and to collaborate with them constructively is so important. Sharing ideas with others and helping them learn is a great way to deepen our own understanding too, because it requires us to explain empathetically what we know.

Protostars is cohort-based. Right now, I have 50 of these people all working remotely on their passion projects. Every week we meet up online and we discuss our projects.

We collaborate via this chat program you can see here called Geneva. Here you can see people sharing their project updates, linking to their social media posts, so that we can all support them and like and comment.

[Screen shows a communication interface with a vertical menu bar along the left-hand side. The majority of the screen is of people’s posts in the centre. In this section, underneath a name and photo are text and images or videos. Other people have liked or commented on these individual posts. Along the right-hand side of the screen are the room members, shown by a small circular photo and their name.]

We have this principle by which we work called that helps support what they're sharing.

The principle that we work by is called Build in Public. Essentially we all share our journeys publicly. We make our passion projects and share our updates, stories and failure with our communities on social media. Now, the intention is that we build a community of peers around our work. We get feedback, encouragement, and support but importantly, we build empathy for each other.

We also have this shared notebook, which is like a public journal.

[Screen shows a page titled, ‘Shared Notebook’ and underneath are files in a list, with tags labelled, ‘journal entry’, ‘BIP’, ‘notes’ and ‘goals’.]

Every week Protostars go in, they write a journal entry on their project and their progress.

[Screen shows a file being opened from the ‘Shared Notebook’ and the screen scrolls to show journal entries organised by week, containing text and images. A second file is opened, and it shows animations and video to accompany text.]

All of this is to say that we build in full view of our peers. And this fosters shared learning, empathy, helps us to build confidence and a support network based on meaning and and real value.

[Screen reads, ‘Passion’.]

Passion. This is next up. So, when we focus on things we care about, we are likely to work longer and harder to persist in the face of challenges and to learn more in the process. So, research has shown that people make their most creative contributions when they are following their passions. Not when they are motivated by external rewards. Rewards and pressure can kind of squash rather than foster creative thinking. The educational challenge is to help students identify their passions and then to provide them with the support they need to turn their ideas into reality.

[Screen reads, ‘Play’.]

Finally, something we're probably all pretty familiar with here is play. I don't need to say much about this. Except to say that learning involves playful experimentation. Trying new things, tinkering with materials, testing boundaries, taking risks. Iterating again and again, and again. Play teaches us how to fail early and often, and how to learn from our failures importantly. Protostars often change projects. They change their goals. They alter their plans all in response to what they learn while they're playing and experimenting.

[Screen reads, ‘FIRST Robotics’.]

I thought I could tie all this together with a story about an organisation called FIRST Robotics. It's actually the story of the Blackbird Foundation and how we got started.

FIRST is a global robotics competition. Students from all over the world form teams and build robots to compete in challenges in a competition with each other.

[Screen shows a series of shots inside a stadium, filled with many young people and robots moving around. There are people working with the robots and others sitting in the audience. The shots inside the stadium are highly dynamic, filled with energy and movement, and the people involved appear to be having fun.]

Now, we first met FIRST when we were looking for ways to support STEM education in Australia. When we met them, we were pretty new to the STEM space and we went along to their FIRST regional finals at Sydney Olympic Park. And let me tell you, it was electric. Imagine a giant stadium with kids cheering, robots like slashing and crunching, DJs playing music.

[Description not needed: The visuals in this part of the video only support what is spoken; the visuals do not provide additional information.]

It was amazing. And we wanted to help raise money to send the winning teams to the USA. We wanted to support them. We did this by bringing our investors along to the event showing them what it was all about, and then asking them for money afterwards, essentially. One of the events, our host was this young student named Nicola.

[Screen shows a series of shots insider a stadium, again. The shots include young people, robots fighting, people in fancy dress costumes, and a group of young people wearing medals with 2 holding trophies, smiling and cheering.]

Now, she was magnetic. She told such great stories. She brought shy kids out of their shells, and completely won over a bunch of like CEOs and really rich people that I brought along. It wasn't until after the event that we found out prior to FIRST, Nicola was selectively mute. She didn't talk to anyone. And this was just totally in contrast with the experience we had with her. And we thought STEM was to blame for this. We were like, "Wow, look, what can happen when kids get into engineering. And look at what's been responsible for, you know helping her come out of a shell and discover her voice."

Of course we were wrong about this. STEM provided the vehicle, but what happened was actually a little more complex. Nicola had found her passion she could pursue with her friends. They learned together through project-based discovery and through play. This is her team. You can see in the video here that I'm playing in the background.

[Screen shows a series of shots insider a stadium, again. The shots include young people working together on robots and competing with their robots.]

They spent months working together on weekends, building, making, failing, learning. She discovered who she was. She created community, shared identity with her friends, learned what it is to work hard, and to make something where there once was nothing. She found purpose and meaning through creativity. And this helped her to come out of her shell and to discover her voice.

Now, out of all of this, we decided to form the Blackbird Foundation. And now, we're trying to unleash the same kind of magic in young people all over Australia.

I guess what I wanted to illustrate here is that the outcomes of this work aren't just about jobs of the future and entrepreneurship. Sure that's part of it. And we're preparing young people for a world that's uncertain and in constant flux. But I truly believe that people who discover their passions and learn how to pursue them lead richer, more meaningful, purposeful lives. The students in your classroom show the most promise, I think of any generation we've seen. They're passionate. They're purpose-driven. They're values-led. By helping them to find their creativity to develop their passions, we can equip them, I think, with the skills that they need to solve the world's biggest problems. To be creative, to find purpose and to discover who they truly are and what they were put on this earth to do.

And I think the key to all of this is creativity. And as teachers, I believe you can be the guides. The ones that help them, that help these young people to discover their limitless potential. Thank you for listening.

[Screen reads, ‘Joel Connolly, @joelconnolly on twitter, Meaning Making on Substack, @joelconnolly on linkedin.’]

This is me, if you want to follow along. Thank you very much.

[Video concludes by displaying the NSW Government logo.]  

[End of Transcript]  

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