ImageAt the Do Lectures a few years ago I was lucky enough to be in the audience as Tony Davidson spoke. His talk introduced me to the acronym BHAG – “Big Hairy Audacious Goal”. He spoke of his BHAG – to build a massive 2 mile long building/sundial in the desert. It’s a wonderful, inspiring talk, full of wit and humour, and I urge you to watch it. It’s emotional, and ostensibly about his Dad’s creativity. But the importance of having a BHAG was drilled home.

Last week I was in London and had a coffee with James Clark from the British Venture Capital Association. We both sit on a UK government panel aimed at strengthening tech clusters around the country, but we’d never had the chance to chat properly. In an all too short meeting we discussed the challenges facing Wales, and how it could help itself become an important cog in the world’s technology economy. His fresh, objective, input was invaluable and over the course of the hour Cardiff’s proximity to the Raspberry Pi production facility (just 10 miles west of where I’m sat right now) was covered, and how that could be an important part of both Cardiff and Wales’s armoury.

From their own site: “The Raspberry Pi is a credit-card sized computer that plugs into your TV and a keyboard. It’s a capable little PC which can be used for many of the things that your desktop PC does, like spreadsheets, word-processing and games. It also plays high-definition video. We want to see it being used by kids all over the world to learn programming”. Raspberry Pi is a charity, and is changing the way children are learning about technology. Within minutes of owning one (they cost less than £25!) you can be learning the basics of computer code, and (if you’re smart) within hours can be building your first program or computer game.

So, here’s the elevator pitch, the dream, the BHAG:

“A Raspberry Pi for every school child in Wales”.

It’s big, and slightly ridiculous. But imagine the benefits to Wales in 10 years time if every kid had had the opportunity to play with one of these every day while they were in school. Imagine how far ahead of most of the world it would put Wales if every 16 year old, even if they left school at that point, had some kind of code-literacy. As if to illustrate the point, The Arts Council, the AHRC and Nesta yesterday released a report, “Digital Culture”, that states that 40% of our cultural institutions (whether that’s dusty museums or cutting edge theatre production companies), where traditionally technology hasn’t always been a priority, say they just don’t have enough people with the digital skills to fill their needs. Where are we going to find these skilled digital workers of the future? And if this is happening in the arts, imagine how bad the situation is in web, software and other associated technologies.

Of course, it couldn’t happen overnight, or without some kind of pilot project. And it would probably take the support of the Welsh Government, as well as Raspberry Pi. But by my (very quick) maths, there are approximately 40,000 kids starting school every year in Wales. To give each one of them a Pi (at an arbitrary cost price of £10 each) would cost £500,000 (if you include £100,000 for some kind of distribution). Which is about 0.025% of WG’s annual education budget.

Even if you added in three times as much again for training/workshops/developing lesson plans etc, taking the budget to £2 million, it’s still only 0.075% of the annual education budget.

Of course, there have been dissenters to this kind of idea in the past, and something of this scale can’t be rolled out without some testing, and prototyping. Critics have suggested that at least 50% would end in cupboards, or on eBay. But even if a tiny, tiny, tiny percentage of the recipients went on to become young technology innovators and entrepreneurs the economic benefits to the country would massively outweigh the costs.

Of course, this is all crazy, pie-in-the-sky thinking based on 10 minutes worth of research and maths. But there’s no reason the concept isn’t sound, or that the results would be tangible, and huge. This isn’t a hard and fast proposal, and there are endless amounts of potential barriers. But it is a call to think bigger for Wales and its future, with one eye on technology and how this phenomenally fast-growing sector is vital to our future success.

Less than an hour after I met with James Clark I was at an event with Nick D’Aloisi and marveled at how someone so young had sold a tech business (his iPhone app, Summly) for $30m earlier this year at the age of 17, having raised a $300,000 round of venture capital at the age of 15. He first made money from software at the age of 12.

Just imagine in 10 years time, having stoked a lifelong fascination in technology by earlier being given a Raspberry Pi, a young girl from Carmarthen, Wrexham or Newport is able to do something similar. By his own admission, Nick wasn’t a ruthless wannabe entrepreneur. He was just someone who built something with talent, creativity and imagination. He says it was “a hobby”. But his passion and self-taught skills gave him the platform for it to become a wildly successful business by any standard.

There’s no reason the same story couldn’t repeat across Wales over the next few decades. But it will take the right conditions to enable this. And we have to start helping to create those conditions today.

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I’m trying out putting links at the bottom of blogposts, just to see if it makes my posts more readable, and allows the reader not to get distracted. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve clicked on a link in a blogpost and then realised I never went back to the original piece. Maybe you’re not all as easily distracted as me…

That Tony Davidson talk about BHAGs.

James Clark on Twitter

The BVCA

Raspberry Pi

Why a Raspberry Pi for every child is a bad idea

Nick D’Aloisio

Photo credit – Mike Cogh

Digital R&D report (PDF) – Report summary (PDF)

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