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Disruption is our new favourite word

I wrote this for Brighton’s newspaper, The Argus, but the wider idea that disruption (and in particular digital disruption) is big and is here to stay is the underpinning of our strategy for the next 3 years, so I thought I’d share it too, and though it finishes with a focus on the city of Brighton, the same lense can equally be applied to industry sectors rather than clever little cities. Original article

You know what it’s like in business – one thing guaranteed to never stay the same is the buzzword-du-jour.

What are the current faves? Mine is ‘piece’ – when did everything become a ‘piece’? The strategy piece, the investment piece, the marketing piece: it makes me wonder if people at the UN talk about the peace piece? But the thing is that language is powerful, and words themselves represent ideas.

The unveiling of the Fusebox project, an exciting Wired Sussex initiative working closely with Brighton & Hove City Council and funded by the EU, brought a less frequently used word into the city’s business community consciousness: ‘disruption’. Located in New England House, Fusebox will support the formation and growth of businesses that operate in a ‘disruptive, digital business environment’ but what does that mean?

To me, it’s pretty simple. The status quo is being massively disrupted.  We are in disrupted times. There are many drivers to this disruption – but digital technologies and especially the internet are at the heart of it. For example, every kid at the state school my dad teaches at has been given an iPad. They even gave my dad one. While in India, Professor Sugata Mitra has been installing basic PCs in remote villages and then observing how the villagers exploit that technology with absolutely zero tuition or technical support (watch his brilliant TED talk). This is disruptive.

So what does it mean to teach in a world where your class are connected to the World Wide Web, to one another, to the most vast and ever-evolving library there has ever been? What does it mean to learn without a teacher, to self-teach as a child and to be connected, from rural India, to the people and resources that can be connected to through the internet?  What education has been and what it is becoming are not connected in a linear, neat and tidy way. Bridging that gap is going to be exciting, exhausting, awkward, painful, amazing and will continue to open up all sorts of valuable business opportunities.

Just as education is disrupted, so too are healthcare, politics, food, publishing, defence and so on. Just pick an industry sector. Yet the infrastructure, behaviours and expectations of the world remain largely linear, as if disruption didn’t exist. Support for business and business thinking in general is still operating in the stable, dependable world we came from – banks still look for the same things on an application forms, mentors still expect the same approaches and motivations from the entrepreneurs they work with, accountants still look for the traditional business models and KPIs, and business training & education knocks out the same old material. It is as if the disruption doesn’t exist!

Disruptive thinking is being open to seeing things differently, is asking not has this always been but how could it be tomorrow, it is the classical domain of creative thinking and of entrepreneurship. But it requires a certain ambition, a certain confidence and a technological DNA interwoven through everything.

So what do we do about it?  In this city we have a huge opportunity: to harness disruption, to make it our own, to ride these changing, tumultuous waves. We are a small, clever city with a heritage of being different, of being innovative. (The Prince Regent building a gigantic Indian-style palace close to the sea is a great example of disruptive thinking. Bit bonkers too.) Disruption is our friend. What we need to do is actively build our own propensity to thrive in disrupted times, and to become the place that others come from – globally – to learn about disruptive business thinking and doing. Counter-intuitively, it is exactly that kind of disruptive thinking that will help this city be as resilient and stable as it can be through whatever comes next.

What do you think? Oh, and for more, check out Culture Shock – the disruption of business-as-usual is really what the book is about.

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