2016: academia, startups and invention


Academic life isn’t usually very fast paced.

We write papers. We apply for grants to do interesting work. We do supervisions with doctoral students, we travel sometimes to deliver speeches, give advice to companies and governments whenever asked; and in our quiet time, we think a lot, read a lot, collect data, experiment with some models and write more papers. All in all, it is not the sort of activity that gets the adrenaline going. That doesn’t mean it’s not stressful. In its quiet way, it is probably very stressful. Our performance time lines are longer and that means if you’re not on top of your game, time passes without you noticing. No one motivates you or tells you what to do and that means it is easy to be distracted by, well, life generally and then a year has passed and you have nothing to show for it. No one nudges you to keep getting papers out, and pressures you to keep applying for grants. You have to be incredibly self motivated, self initiated and self disciplined. The stress comes from the clock always ticking in your head, which is why, even when there is nothing in the diary and you are at home, you are still starting work early, and finishing up late.

So the clock was ticking for me this year, as it has been every year since I became an academic in 2003. 2015 was a slow year academically and I ended up sitting on the sofa at my boss’ office, explaining why only £30k grant has come in and just one published paper. While it is never comfortable doing that, I have become more patient with myself over the years, and learn not to be torn up by ‘performance reviews’ of this nature that have arbitrary timelines. I know I work hard, my pipeline is usually full, and usually do about 3-4 big grant applications a year. So I recognise that some years are just dry years before the hard work pays off and I stop beating myself up when these years come around. Of course it still requires explaining, but I’m happy to explain. Thankfully, my boss also sees the balance of effort and result so it’s usually a good 5 minute chat before I am sent on my way to face the next (hopefully better) year.

2016 set the bar at a whole new level. 2 grants totalling £2.3m was won, 3 ABS 3/4 papers published means no one will have anything to complain about this February, when I am back on the sofa again. Funding matters less to my career than it matters to the research work that needs doing. Our research team have somehow found ourselves to be at the cutting edge of research in economic/business models, behavioural and market design and smart service systems such as Internet-of-Things and Outcome-based contracts. Not many interdisciplinary teams in the world create the impact we do and for me, it is important to keep it going and that means more funding. So funding is for team, rather than for me personally.

For me personally, I have a method for evaluating myself every  year which is to look back at all that I have done and ask myself – what difference have I made. And every year, I want my answer to be that I have helped people make decisions; that I have inspired action; that I have helped others achieve something in their own lives; that I have changed government policy or influenced markets. To me, it is never enough to influence minds. I must feel that my work has influenced actions. It’s my way of checking that I should continue in what I do.

2016 passed the evaluation but it served up something more.

2016 was the year I got back into the startup world again.

For those who know of my rather colourful entrepreneurial past, yes, I did say it before – I will not do a startup again. 20 years later, here I am doing it. A little different this time – a different country, a different currency, a different team, a different business. Still, it’s a startup and its a lesson to never say never because it comes back and bite you.

Well, for one, it’s a startup that, if we make it, could change the way we interact on the Internet. It’s a startup that is much more activism than commercial gains. It’s audacious, ambitious and to be honest, quite mad. More importantly, it was realising the vision of the research we conducted for 3 years. Someone had to make it happen.

Which meant that 2016 was also the year I invented.

As a social scientist, invention is new for me. Applying everything I know into the creation of something tangible?…. well… that’s a bit like a rocket scientist giving psychology and behavioural advice. Yet, because what we were creating was inherently very human in the way it augments us, it was a great way to channel everything I knew in marketing, psychology, sociology, economics and business into making it exist. My knowledge became colourful swatches to piece together in creative ways. And to manifest the creativity into an innovation, I worked with Andrius, my startup co-founder, super coder, full-stack developer and someone who could literally read my mind, and knows why I chose to do something in a certain way. Whatever I designed and created it in my head, Andrius built it, and often made it better; Together with my 2 other co-founders Xiao and Paul, whom I think had infinite patience and faith in the way they supported us, the year was special in the way the 4 of us became a unit of a shared vision.

Creative work is both frustrating and rewarding. As an ‘older’ person, creative work for me became a mix of experience, confidence and play. Experienced enough to know when I need help because I may not have the skill or the right information; Confident enough to follow my instincts, because how things are ‘normally’ done, may not be the best way of doing it; playful because ……oh, how glorious it is to be 53 years old and still be allowed to play like this. With ideas and concepts, with flows and processes, with interactions, behaviours, transactions and payments; and ending with the creation of something brand new the world have not seen before. I felt like a baby hippo in mud for the first time. Or maybe a kid with lego bricks. Whatever.

So 2016 was the year I went down to 4 days a week on my academic job, gave up my summer holidays … all to create this thing – the HAT. (If you want to know the gory and long details, you can read about it here).

In creating the HAT, I learnt something. Making something new makes you feel young again, much like the young new thing you’ve created. Even though there were days I went on long bike rides in frustration to solve a piece of a puzzle, even on days when I think it’s hopeless and it doesn’t come out right after countless times. It makes you feel you can do anything and everything is possible. That combination of play, puzzle solving and eureka moments? Combine that with the risk? What a high. Academic life can actually have its adrenalin moments. I recommend every academic (especially social scientists) to get into inventing or creating something new. You’ll be surprised how much knowledge you possess that is applicable. It is positively liberating. And hey, you can write about it afterwards, so that could count as research right?



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