How parents can help Hong Kong create the next Google

Hong Kong’s telecommunications, transport and talent are among the very best in the world. Low taxes, efficiency and world-class infrastructure make the territory highly attractive to business start-ups. In a  Forbes article this year, Hong Kong was named first in “The World’s Top 4 Tech Capitals To Watch (After Silicon Valley and New York)”. With a  cosmopolitan population and a growing base of angel investors, our city has the potential to develop into a major regional start-up centre.

I have worked in Hong Kong’s technology sector for two decades, and it seems to me there is some room for improvement.

Despite the positive atmosphere and increased activity among the start-up community in recent times,   tech entrepreneurs are much more abundant in other Asian countries than in Hong Kong. So what can we do to encourage a more vibrant start-up culture?

When I started Outblaze more than 15 years ago, the local technology scene was dire. I was  often obliged to educate business acquaintances – including potential partners – by outlining the true potential of the internet. At the time, it was incredibly difficult to explain why our new business was a worthwhile venture. Prospective employees were sceptical of working for a cash-strapped start-up.

Thankfully, today those attitudes have changed radically: technology has become pervasive in everyday life and new tech opportunities are much more readily grasped by the business community. We all use Google, Wikipedia and Facebook on our digital devices, yet we tend to forget that the oldest of t

hese brands – Google – is   just a teenager. The success of young technology entrepreneurs is celebrated everywhere. Technology start-up fever is sweeping the world.

These are undoubtedly positive developments, but the global surge of technology entrepreneurship means that Hong Kong is merely moving in lockstep  with other markets; we are not producing any more start-ups than our neighbours and, in fact, the overall number employed in the local technology scene remains relatively low. Hong Kong needs to supercharge the entrepreneurship trend.

I believe parents hold the key to strengthening our start-up ecosystem. More specifically, the parents of “millennials” – children

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born in the 1980s and 1990s,  who are going to be our entrepreneurs of tomorrow.  A similar point was passionately debated at a panel I led at the recent StartmeupHK Venture Forum.

Hong Kong puts great emphasis on traditional Chinese values such as “face” and “respect for family”. The Chinese virtue of filial piety is   deeply ingrained in Hong Kong society, extolled in literature and culture. Because it is common for young  adults here to live with their parents well into their 30s, local parents often remain closely involved in their children’s lives.

In Hong Kong, parents have great influence over the adult decision-making  of their offspring. I remember vividly how some of our earliest university graduate recruits had to ask 8parental permission to join Outblaze when we were a start-up in the 1990s.

Today’s parents are beginning to accept that a job at a company  such as Google might just be superior to one at Citicorp or Morgan Stanley, but that’s still not enough. We need those same parents to encourage their children to work for a start-up or even convince them to set up a company of their own.

Society encourages us to revere successful people and to strive to match their achievements. As a result we often concentrate on a positive outcome instead of the effort required to achieve any outcome at all, be it success or failure. Our intense focus on attaining a desirable end point is a form of myopia, because we routinely neglect to appreciate the sweat, toil and occasional failures required to achieve success.

From our earliest school years, standardised education teaches us to avoid failure at all cost. This is a short-sighted miscalculation because success without failure is merely a lucky coincidence: it is by failing that we learn how to succeed.

Fear of failure and the need to save face are so deeply ingrained in the Hong Kong community that it has become difficult to accept any significant level of risk-taking. This attitude is often passed on to our children, for whom we want good, safe jobs.

We are doing our children a disservice. Parents of the millennial generation ought to consider the following:

Only five companies have exceeded US$500 billion in market capitalisation and  three of them are tech companies – Apple, Microsoft and Cisco. The five largest US companies by market cap at this time include no fewer than three tech companies – Apple, Google and Microsoft.

Many of the biggest companies by market capitalisation today,  such as Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook, are still quite young and most did not even exist when we were children. There is a decent chance that your son or daughter will be a pioneer in the kind of company that does not yet exist today.

The richest phase of learning often begins after the completion of formal education, when one enters the workforce full time. Working for a cash-strapped, lean, management-by-crisis company (like a start-up) teaches efficiency, independence, a strong tactical approach and makes you more grateful for opportunities and resilient in character. This kind of experience is much more valuable than an MBA. Parents wield incredible influence over their children, even if they may not always appreciate this. Encourage your children to join a start-up or to set up their own company, and lend your love and emotional support to their cause.

This article first appeared on the South China Morning Post on 22nd December, 2013 http://bit.ly/J9KRbm

Scratch, a great way to teach your Kids how to code

I’ve always been a big supporter of teaching children how to code at a very early age. My Son started coding when he was 7-8 years old and I already think that’s too late. The software I used for that is called Scratch and it’s a great free tool to teach kids the fundamentals of coding. In a world that is largely run by Software which is effectively code, not knowing how to program is a little bit like being able to read but not to write.

Mitch Resnick led the group that developed Scratch over at MIT and listen to what inspired him and why he thinks your children need to learn how to code too!

Children’s learning styles in the 21st Century

This is my speech at the Dr. Louise Porter Conference held in Hong Kong earlier this year were I raise some of our thoughts and ideas behind Children’s learning styles in the 21st century as part of our Thinkblaze initiative. In general I advocate for more responsible technology use in the family, rather than less and discuss concepts of how our children are affected with todays technology, videogames and internet use. The full blog post on the topic with all the videos can also be seen at: http://bit.ly/1a0assw

Moms & Gaming

The ESA just released this very interesting study Mom Gamers Study: A New Generation of Gamer that says that 74% of Mothers today play video games and most of them do so on a mobile device of some sort (Smartphone most likely).  Mothers today are also more likely to be playing a game at least once a week (and most play every day).

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What I also found important is that the the majority of them (71%) also indicate that they closely monitor the video game content of their children and that 56% of gaming Mom’s agree that they video gaming can be a family activity.

I think this is potentially a critical shift in the relationship of Parenting and Video Games. There are still a lot of influential people who consider video games as generally bad, especially for children. I disagree with this view but I won’t go into this debate today as I and many others have argued  previously that there are benefits in playing video games for children which has become a common discussion topic these days. What I have also said is that one can never expect any sort of  medium (TV and Video Games included) to replace Parenting and this shift of Mothers as active video game players who can also effectively monitor/play video games together with their kids is important as it could finally indicate a bridging of generations rather than a widening generation gap which has been the general trend so far.

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Only if Parents actually play video games will they understand it and therefore be able to correctly assess and appreciate their children’s video game play time for all the right reasons. I remember when I was answering questions in a parenting conference (Organized by Dr. Louise Porter) not too long ago it became clear to me that it was difficult for them to assess what was suitable for their child because they were unfamiliar with Video Games in general. Imagine if you had to try to determine the appropriate reading materials for your child but you were illiterate? Perhaps an exaggerated example but it’s in the same ballpark. If you don’t play video games at all or try to play together with your child, how will you ever understand why kids (and adults) are so fascinated with it?

The trend is clear. For all the parents who are not yet playing Video Games, apparently you are now in the minority so get moving and start playing games with your Kids if you want to get to know them better!

Shedding New Idea Resistance

Dr. Peter Attia: Is the obesity crisis hiding a bigger problem is a great self-reflective and very personal speech about his experience in the Medical Profession. He talks about his previous (mis)understanding of obesity/diabetes and how previous prejudice and wrong assumptions led to incorrect treatment that was never questioned and ultimately always led to blaming the patient for not taking better care of their health. Listen to the whole speech below but I liked this quote: “As medical professionals we’d shed our excess mental baggage and cured ourselves of new idea resistance […] the courage to throw out yesterdays ideas and the understanding that scientific truth isn’t final but constantly evolving”.

Shedding excess mental baggage isn’t just limited to the Medical Profession but to every aspect of our personal and professional life. Whatever we were taught before, a lot of it is just completely wrong or completely irrelevant today be it in nutrition, science, healthcare, education, parenting or business practices etc. Many of us have experienced resistance to new ideas and are likely also guilty of the same (including myself) because personal prejudice is developed over time, like plaque on teeth because as we gain new life experiences not all of them are positive and it affects us and it is something that we need to constantly trim and clean as we constantly develop new forms of “prejudicial plaque of the mind”

Keep an open mind and have the courage to throw out yesterdays ideas and know that any “truth” (not just scientific) isn’t final but constantly evolving. Change is what gives us progress, embrace it.

Child-driven Tablet learning experiences in a remote village school in Nepal.

When we set out to donate Android Tablets to a remote village school in Nepal it was never intended to be a SOLE (Self-Organized Learning Environment) setup, in  part, because the School that we are supporting was setup in a traditional manner with teachers, classrooms etc.

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That said, even with teachers present, the power of child-driven learning was clearly evident within just minutes of us passing out the tablets. My son had dutifully prepared a little step-by-step instruction assuming (correctly) that none of these Nepalese children in a remote village up in the mountains had ever seen such a tablet before and would therefore have difficulty using them. Many of the students don’t have electricity at home, let alone own any kind of digital device.

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What actually happened was that instead of being a “child lecturer” educating novices on the use of a technologically sophisticated device, my son ended up being more of an agile facilitator, a sort of sysadmin, stepping in when something appeared broken. This arrangement worked beautifully. In under 5 minutes an entire classroom of children, whose command of English was very poor (and my son speaks no Nepalese), were exploring their Android tablet, in some cases opening up new pre-installed educational apps, in other cases racking up high scores and 3 stars in Alphabet Car. It looked like the students could continue playing, engaging and learning from the tablets without adult supervision as competently as children in the developed world who are accustomed to regular tablet use.

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What was also fascinating was that small groups formed around those who picked up the devices before others; these “early adopters” began educating those around them on the use of the devices and teaching them how to do so, in their native tongue. While it wasn’t quite like Dr. Mitra’s Hole-in-the-Wall the effect was startlingly similar in that children began teaching and discovering all by themselves.

I plan to write more about this later but here are just a few thoughts:

1. Giving children a tablet is the way to go, especially in underdeveloped areas. I’m not sure there is a need for OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) to cover that role given the excellent and affordable alternatives out there; it just seems productive to skip the laptop and go straight for the tablet instead. A tablet is also very portable and can be used anywhere and in an environment were a steady and reliable flow of electricity is a challenge; light and portable battery operated devices are ideal.

2. I believe the devices ought to be “open” (i.e. programmable/hackable/tinkerable) and that good quality color screens are important. As such I think Android is a great OS for this purpose, with many affordable options in its stable.

3. As a classroom model, consider giving tablets to share rather than one to each child; this could more opportunities for collaboration and teaching via peers rather than a figure of authority (i.e., teacher). Unlike a desktop PC, a tablet is ideal because they are multi-touch and naturally collaborative – and there are plenty of free apps that take advantage of that.

The tablets we donated were Android PIPO U1 models, which, for the geeks out there is a Dual-Core 1.6Ghz running Android 4.1 on a 7” IPS 1280×800 screen, Wifi, Bluetooth and 16GB of onboard RAM with micro-SD Card expansion slot.

More details of the Tablet donations available over at the Outblaze blog.