Sam Handfield-Jones was one of the speakers at the Big Tent Ideas Festival, which took place in Cambridge in September.
The event was held on the grounds of Babraham Hall, in Cambridge. It was an apt venue, as Babraham is a renowned research centre, which was initially government-funded, but is now the home to some 200 high growth businesses, and housing some of Cambridge’s brightest research talent.
Although the event was organised by Conservative MP George Freeman, it was intended to be a ‘non-partisan’ event for individuals to come along and share their ideas on how to tackle the big issues of today and tomorrow. The central theme of this year’s event was: ‘Innovative Solutions to the Challenges of a New Generation’, which made it a perfect platform for Sam Handfield-Jones of Octopus Labs to talk about some of his passions.
“At a time when so many of us are in despair, frankly, at the state of our politics… it’s a joy to see some serious political thinkers and reformers from all parties and from none coming together to explore the real causes of the disillusionment that is sweeping our society.”
What was interesting about the event?
As Sam explains, “this was an open forum where the issues relevant to today could be discussed in a more welcoming and inclusive environment. It covered important issues that are rarely talked about outside of the election cycle”.
Education in the machine age
Sam took part in two sessions. The first was titled ‘Education in the machine age’ and asked a number of challenging questions, including what skills will we need to thrive in a new machine age, and how do we prepare our children for a world we can scarcely imagine?
Sam was joined on the panel by Alan Lockey (head of research at Demos), Bim Afolami MP for Hitchen & Harpenden, Kate Kettle (Deputy Director of Widening Participation at King’s College London) and Baroness Sally Morgan of Huyton.
As Sam explains, “We had a very spirited debate, which focused on the type of reforms needed in order to bring our educational institutions into the digital era.
“In a world where skills are changing so quickly, from the time you leave school to the time you’re in the workforce, any skills learned now will probably be out of date in ten years. This means to be successful, people will have to constantly reinvent themselves, and their careers.
“To me, it is very clear that it’s important to focus not just on ‘what’ our kids are taught, but also ‘how’ they learn. For example, it’s absolutely vital to ensure education involves critical thinking and analysis, rather than just rote learning of facts and figures.
“In my experience, the most productive way to learn is to encourage people to solve problems by thinking for themselves instead of being force-fed someone else’s answers. Everyone on the panel wanted to see children being taught creativity, critical thinking, adaptability, curiosity and comfort with ambiguity.
“Another point of the discussion that was particularly interesting was the debate around specialisation. Today, children are forced to choose their three best subjects around the age of 15. This seems far too limiting. A broader knowledge base can take you much further.”
Building an innovation nation
The second panel discussion saw Sam joined by Flora Coleman (head of government relations at TransferWise), Alan Mak (MP for Havant), Seena Shah (founder of Splash Creative London) and Jack Waley-Cohen (co-founder of what3words).
This session explored ways in which the UK can transform itself into an innovation economy, and covered everything from investing in tech and thinking global, to reducing taxation for entrepreneurs and applying start-up culture to government itself.
As Sam notes, “From an Octopus perspective, we’re doing what we can to increase digital skills, particularly through the Octopus Academy, as this is an area of huge importance to us. Other initiatives, such as Octopus Springboard encourage people to be more entrepreneurial in their mindset and gives them a slight safety net if they are ready to take the plunge and launch their own start-up.”
And what were some of the key takeaways from the event?
Sam said: “For me, some of the most interesting discussions brought out the changing nature of work. Most companies have workspaces that are just not well equipped to promote collaborative working and instead can feel more like a battery farm of isolated individuals churning out their work.
“At the same time, it’s all well and good to promote policies such as remote working, but there are also some powerful statistics that show people who work from home have higher likelihood of depression. So, companies that are looking to innovate and evolve the way they work need to take into account the effects that even well-meaning policies have on the individuals who have to adapt to them, and still find ways to encourage communication and collaboration.
“Overall, I thought it was a very interesting event, where people could feel comfortable having conversations about the topics that really mattered to them, without any agenda, but with the belief that opening up was the best way to create meaningful change.”