Stephen Collins – Founder of acidlabs

And we’re back with our first interview of 2013 where we get to know a little bit more about the founder of acidlabs and one of the organisers of TEDxCanberra, Stephen Collins.  You can find Stephen in Canberra most of the time, where he’s spent much of his working life including stints in both the public and private sectors. Six years ago, rather than being promoted to ‘professional meeting attendee’, he jumped and started acidlabs. He hasn’t looked back.

I’ve never been much of a good fit as an employee – I’m not good at shutting up and prefer to be thinking and doing rather than following ‘the way we do things around here.’ There’s always a better way.”

In his day job, he helps people under­stand and do bet­ter com­mu­ni­ca­tions, solve prob­lems, make change, do design think­ing, design ser­vices, embrace ­con­nect­ed­ness, and collaborate.

What are you working on right now? 

I think design thinking is a critical skill for 21st Century business, and I want to be a part of making that happen.”

Right now, I’m working with some interesting NFP organisations on communications and innovation in the intersection of the academic, policy and energy sectors. I’m also working on ramping up acidlabs’ work in design thinking and running a number of workshops to develop design thinking capacity in the organisations of my workshop attendees. I think design thinking is a critical skill for 21st Century business, and I want to be a part of making that happen.

I’ve also been doing some teaching at the University of Canberra, tutoring a class of postgrads and undergrads on social informatics – a look at how our increasingly connected society is affected at all levels by that hyperconnectivity.

We’re putting the finishing touches on TEDxCanberraWomen, which will be on the first weekend in December, and I’m putting together a plan for a large TEDxCanberra Salon in the first quarter of 2013 that will focus on climate change and innovation.

How do you make ideas happen?

A friend and I were talking recently about how to describe our job; lots of people don’t quite get what we do and at what point in their work they might need us (I’d say whenever you have a curly problem). We both came up with “talk with people a lot and draw pictures”. When you’re doing design thinking and innovation work, that’s the dream. Of course, there’s lots of mundane work too – reports, planning and the like.

What does your typical day look like?

If I’m lucky I get to do that ‘talk and draw pictures’ bit.”

CrossFit training in the morning and a couple of afternoons a week (healthy body, healthy mind and all that). Then off to work, usually on client site. I wish it was as exciting as it is in my head, but often there are meetings and lots of writing. If I’m lucky I get to do that “talk and draw pictures” bit.

What challenges have you faced when starting or growing a business/organisation in Australia?

Scale is hard. Especially when the work you do is emergent or not well understood. I’m still mostly a one person operation. I’d really, really like to be about three people in acidlabs. I already know who those other people would be.

What is one idea you are willing to give away for free?

Keep asking why. Eventually, you’ll find the real issue.

What people/companies/organisations do you think are doing really cool stuff in your industry, in Australia at the moment? 

Pollenizer is a fantastic startup incubator working mostly out of Sydney. It’s full of smart people doing amazing things.

I think most Australian organisations, and particularly government where I’ve spent much of my working life, remain too slow to embrace achievable change. We seem to have a view that incrementalism is an acceptable approach. I beg to differ.

What about internationally?

I couldn’t love Stanford more than I do. I dream about studying there.

Naturally, as a TEDx organiser, I believe in the aims of TED, and the Sapling Foundation, which is the non-profit that runs it.

What role do you think design and communication can play in affecting social change?

Imagine more creative, not business as usual approaches to obesity, Gaza, asylum seekers, poverty elimination… pick one. Get creative.”

Fail communication and you fail. There’s no argument.

As a design thinker, my personal belief is that we need to embed this approach into more of what we do so that we can move complexity towards business as usual. The wicked problems will, naturally, remain wicked. But maybe we can chip away at them? Imagine more creative, not business as usual approaches to obesity, Gaza, asylum seekers, poverty elimination… pick one. Get creative.

Name 3 websites you would recommend to our readers?

  • Crikey for the best news reporting in Australia.
  • Umair Haque’s blog at HBR for an angry, powerful take on what it’s going to take to destroy business and politics as usual and come out the other side as a better society.
  • Dumbo Feather because it’s the best cultural magazine in Australia (get the paper magazine, too).

Name 3 Australians we should follow on Twitter? 

  • Mark Pesce (@mpesce), the inventor of VRML and now the inventor of The Light by Moore’sCloud. A huge brain.
  • Scott Steel (@pollytics), who is arguably the best political and economics analyst in Australia.
  • Kristin Alford (@kristinalford), a fantastic science communicator.

Are there opportunities for people to get involved with your idea (e.g. are you looking for funding, interns, marketing help)?

If a fairy came along and offered to help with funding acidlabs so I could dedicate time to TEDx and developing the design thinking practice, that’d be a delight.

Of course, for TEDxCanberra, which is volunteer-based and non-profit (we spend every dollar we make or receive from partners and don’t pay ourselves), we’re always looking for new partners that share our vision and we’re now at the point where we’re getting very picky about volunteers. Our volunteer recruitment round for 2013 will be very tough!

Our readers are smart, creative, talented and good looking. Here’s your chance to ask them anything.

What can I learn from you? What are you passionate about?

These are the questions I use at gatherings now. They freak people out, because they’re used to being asked “so where do you work, what do you do, how senior are you”. I could care less about those questions.

What’s your favourite bar/café/restaurant?

Soju Girl in Canberra serves fantastic, interesting food. My wife and daughter love it too.

You can’t go wrong getting coffee and cake at Cream in Civic or Urban Pantry in Manuka and the guys at Mingle in Civic are good too.

Last I was in Melbourne, I discovered Miss Jackson in a back lane in St Kilda. Their baked eggs are sublime.

We thought it would be cool to crowdsource an annual prize to award to the interviewee’s choice (each person interviewed gets one vote) winner for the year’s best interview. Are you willing to kick in a prize?

Sure. What do you need? A half-day design thinking workshop I can do.

Make sure you sign-up to join our amazing community for Australians making ideas happen.

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