Learning How to Innovate

Most entrepreneurs will say that the skills necessary to be an entrepreneur and innovator cannot be taught. This may well be true, but that does not mean that those skills cannot be learned.

We should find it a bit remarkable that for all of the talk of hands-on learning and practical learning in the past ten years, that we still do very little of this in school, whether in grade school or university. Worse, what does tend to pass for hands-on learning is usually just some arbitrary simulation of something in the real world. Universities in recent years have specialized in an attempt to re-create reality in the cloistered confines of their Ivory Towers, in spite of the fact that few of their personnel have any experience outside of the academy.

Consequently, practical learning in the university tends to be a representation of reality, through the lens of an academic who in any case is mostly concerned with her own research far more than teaching, and certainly more than student learning (which is not necessarily aligned with teaching). Of course it is not the professor’s fault. Her incentive structure does not promote student learning and real-world experience. Indeed, the professor herself is actively discouraged by the institutional framework of the university to do much that resembles real-world activity.

Changing the institutional mandates of the university would be insufficient to meaningfully reverse this situation. Professors would at best come up with arbitrary simulation activities, as long as their principle motivations are the publication of academic research and teaching evaluations. They might make the course material more fun in the process, but it would merely be dressing up academia to look practical.

There is a growing body of advocates for “un-schooling,” encouraging university students to drop out and for high schoolers to forgo university altogether. PayPal founder and billionaire Peter Thiel is not only one of the most prominent voices in this movement, he has literally put his money where his mouth is, starting the Thiel Fellowship which gives 20 young people under the age of 20 a $100,000 grant and 2 years to pursue their passion, travel, study, write, and start an entrepreneurial venture.

This is a first and fundamentally necessary shot across the bow of the self-appointed institutional gatekeepers of the modern credentialing cartel.

The challenge now is to take the premise of un-schooling and systematize the life long learning & entrepreneurial ethos without attempting to institutionalize it. This is the paradox my colleagues and I are taking on in Chile with Exosphere. Our goal is to create a scalable model for exponentially expanding the entrepreneurial & innovative potential in developing countries by providing a systematic alternative to a formal university education.

Thiel Fellow Dale Stephens, whose non-profit UnCollege is another leading voice in the alternative education crowd frequently discusses the concept of “hacking your education.” This is an appropriate metaphor, and we would describe Exosphere as a sort of “educational hackerspace.” We believe that innovation & entrepreneurship can be learned by anybody within the right environment. Such an entrepreneurial learning ecosystem can be characterized by:

  • Community (cohesion, mutual respect, interested interdependence)
  • Problem Identification
  • Solution Process Thinking
  • Action-oriented learning (that is, learning because one needs the knowledge or skills to perform tangible actions toward their passion-goals)
  • Non-disciplinary approach to learning (that is, a unified concept of knowledge, rather than it being broken down into fields of study)

Further, innovation-learning must incorporate three essential pillars of entrepreneurship into all activities:

  • Invention (i.e. solving technical problems)
  • Aesthetics & Design (i.e. making technical solutions apparently desirable)
  • Sales & Marketing (i.e. commercialization of solutions through direct customer contact)

These general skills must be learned alongside specific knowledge required to solve particular problems faced by “customers” in the real world. Consequently, we must abandon the traditional distinction between professor and student in favor of a model of co-discovery, whereby more experienced innovators coach less experienced innovators on how to learn, how to adapt, and how to develop their passions into solutions to problems in the world. This means the coaches must be actively engaged in entrepreneurship themselves while they are coaching.

I will be writing further about learning and the philosophical framework from which we are working as well as the radically de-centralized and non-institutional approach we are developing to systematically produce a culture of forward thinking and innovation, especially in developing countries.

At Exosphere we are going to raise up a new generation of innovator-entrepreneurs that are going to re-create and renovate the world as we know it.

Stay tuned.

Skinner Layne

“Learning How to Innovate” is part of a series of articles we are taking from our archives and publishing again. The concepts and thoughts formulated and developed are the foundation of Exosphere. Check our website to see how we are turning those ideas in reality.