I recently returned from a two day technology conference in New York thinking about how to action the ‘Big Idea” I was lucky enough to stand up and present to the audience.

The conference was the usual mix of technology vendors, consultants, experts and users brought together under one roof to show off their latest products and innovation. Spread throughout the two day ‘educational’ part of the conference program were a series of vendor sponsored, independent expert and discussion panel sessions.

I was asked to participate in three different panels, two of which were of the usual sort but the third and final panel which happened to be the ‘grand finale’ of the conference was designed to be a little different. Unusually there were thirteen panelists; far too many to orchestrate a focused discussion around. Instead the conference organizers had asked each of panelists to think ‘out-of-the-box’ and give a two minute pitch on the next big earth shattering idea that was going to take us forward.

The line up of fellow panelists was pretty daunting! CTO’s, CEO’s, tech experts, many of the ‘who’s who’ of our industry. However I was honored and excited to be involved so I got to work trying to think about the next big idea that would take not just technology but the human race forward in a leap and a bound rather than a small incremental step.

I came up with all sorts of ideas but I knew every single one of them were not original thoughts for me and indeed many I’d used before at conferences when asked what I thought the future held for the tech industry. Almost all were specific to IT and Data Centers because that’s the industry within which I work so my mind is filled with the day-to-day challenges that this industry faces and thoughts around how we might solve those challenges.

I knew I wasn’t therefore thinking outside the box.

I realized my thoughts were being bounded by the world I was living in and an industry I’ve worked in for almost 20 years. It’s not surprising I was having trouble thinking beyond my own self-imposed boundaries. I thought about this more and realized that my whole career and in fact my education too had charted me course directly to where I find myself today.

I thought back to when I was a child and how my imagination used to run wild with seemingly crazy and impossible ideas. I thought about how my own 9-year-old son is exactly like that today. He’s young enough to not really know the boundaries of our world today. Then I was struck by a profound thought that every parent watching his or her children growing up must have at some point. That was that as he grows up and gets educated, the education system he’s in is teaching him from a huge learned knowledge base built up from thousands of years of historic learning.

The system he’s in teaches him very little about the future. Why? Because we don’t really know what the future holds. While we can, and many do, speculate, it’s very hard to get it right as we all know, predicting the future is not a science!

I thought back to my school days and how the world was back then. Compared to the world we live in today, the changes driven mostly by technology is spectacular, much of the technology we take for granted today, we considered impossible just a decade or two ago.

I decided to turn to my son for inspiration as his world was not constrained by the years of education that is shortly to be programmed into him. It made me realise that we are educating our kids the wrong way, with too much focus on ‘learned’ knowledge and not enough focus on skills to learn new things. That’s another story and perhaps a blog for another time though.

Getting back to my big idea for my panel I decided to ask my son for his help. I didn’t ask him for his ideas on solving a specific issue or problem; instead we talked about his views on technology in the future and how that might impact his life.

Of course a lot of his thinking is shaped by the world he lives in, which today is roughly 25% the actual physical world he lives in, 25% the futuristic world shaped by the virtual world he watches on YouTube and Netflix – he’s a fan of watching (and playing Minecraft), the New Avengers, Mutant Ninja Turtles, Star Wars -the Clone Wars, etc. – the remaining 50% is his pure and almost unbounded imagination.

I love watching the 50% imagination in action because it brings back memories from my own childhood. Watching his make Lego into almost anything he can imagine and then play with that Lego in a completely imaginary world is amazing! Its also slightly sad to think that as he gets older and more ‘educated’ that 50% is highly likely to get reduced and eventually squeezed down to maybe 5-10% if he’s lucky.

My son spends a lot of time ‘playing’ Minecraft like many kids his age. I often hear parents and other adults saying they don’t understand the game at all or the point of it. I’ve taken the time to understand what it is about Minecraft that captivates them so much. I’ve joined my son in his virtual Minecraft world and what I found was amazing!

Minecraft offers kids with an active imagination a chance to recreate the almost boundless world in their head within a computer and then explore and live within it as if it was real. Minecraft is a little bit like Lego; you have different blocks that you can stack on top of one another to build things, except that Minecraft blocks represent the building blocks of the real (physical) world. Grass, dirt, stone, gold, diamond, steel, wood, trees, seeds, plants, fish, meat, tools, clothing, almost anything you can imagine is available, and with a little programming knowledge, literally everything is available.

Kids can take the raw materials of the physical world we live in and construct them into things within this virtual world whose physical laws have been reduced to a minimal level when the game is played in Creative Mode. This means you could build yourself a sailing boat floating in the sky! However when played in Survival mode most of the laws of the physical world apply, so for example in Creative your avatar can fly and live forever, but in Survival mode you can’t fly and if you don’t eat or you get hurt you could eventually die.

So my son and I discussed what the future would look like….his first response was “Minecraft”. I guess I wasn’t surprised but the more I thought about it the more I realised he was onto something. We went and did some research together and found that many people, not just kids were playing Minecraft. In fact at this point using the world ‘playing’ feels wrong, because in these cases both my son and these other folks were ‘using’ Minecraft to unbound themselves from the constraints of the physical world.

We learned that an IBM researcher had created a working hard disk drive within Minecraft! When I read about it (link to story here) it blew my mind. I had a hard time comprehending how he’d done that and I went off to learn more about what others were doing within this boundless virtual world.

It turns out there are hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of virtual worlds out there and some are so spectacularly mind blowing I wondered who on earth (literally) could have conceived of what I was looking at and in fact, exploring using my own Minecraft avatar.

Entire virtual worlds exist out there with amazingly complex rules and interactions that just made my mind boggle and interestingly start to think about the possibilities of using and interfacing these virtual worlds to the real physical world. Could that be done? Could we be prototyping within an entirely virtual world in the future? Could we be carrying out new science within them? The answer was obvious, of course we can and I’m sure looking at the VR technology, machine learning and the massive computing to name just a few real world tech innovations, I’ve no doubt that’s the direction we are headed.

In the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s space became a new world in which science could continue to grow and explore in a gravity free environment. Minecraft Creative mode is another gravity free environment. One costs billions of dollars to use and the other cost me $500 and resides on an old Mac Mini in my living room!

Just think about it for a moment, what if we could remove the boundaries of the physical world and innovate within the virtual world. What if we could take a young mind and teach them how to learn and then allow them to imagine, explore and create in a world without physical boundaries. I’m pretty sure I for one cannot even begin to imagine the wonders that would come from that situation.

So my two minute pitch on the step changing Big Idea was to teach kids more about how to learn than have them memorize already learned knowledge, and have them use the technology we’ve created to imagine a future we cannot begin to fathom ourselves…..

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