For a long time, we liked to kid ourselves that Tasmania is a ‘natural laboratory’ that’s home to a world-class research community. This is not and never was true. But it could be.
Sure, we have some top-notch researchers doing amazing stuff here. You don’t have to dig very deep to find them. Add to that our indisputable advantages in certain niche areas such as marine science, biotechnology, forestry, and health, and the potential is impressive indeed.
Our state is geographically and ecologically diverse, clean and green, effectively self contained, and it offers a lifestyle appealing to many people.
But we need to stop saying things like we’re an ideal base, and that we’re a hub of research activity, and, instead, prove it. This is eminently achievable in Tasmania, much more so than it would be in any other Australian region. The outcome would be unique and serve as an extremely solid marketing and promotional tool for our state.
Our state could become a small-world network.
What if Tasmania became known for its comprehensive network of researchers? With government and industry partners, accessible technical facilities and services, operational support, and a streamlined information exchange system? In other words, what if Tasmania became a single body of research effort, where anyone who worked here had everything they needed right at their fingertips?
Before I go on, the following contains vast generalisations. The generalisations are, however, based on a great deal of investigation and experience, and can be backed up with records of interviews and real-life examples.
(This idea is based on a more substantial report commissioned by the Tasmanian Government over a decade ago, which I co-wrote, available on request. To my knowledge there hasn’t been any comparable follow-up since then.)
I’ve noticed a recurring problem. I have been working with science researchers and private businesses with an R&D component on and off since 2003. I have also worked closely with the Tasmanian Government, one of whose aims is to encourage collaboration between researchers and industry. Over the years the government has tried a host of programs intended to manage such relationships and attract research investment to the state. But the Department of State Growth currently has a single web page dedicated to science research in Tasmania. The ‘sector summary’ was written in 2014.
Very few researchers know what their neighbouring researchers are doing. Many are not aware of how their work might benefit other researchers or industries. And, not surprisingly, many industry people do not know how to find help with their R&D, or are put off by the red tape associated with entering into a formal relationship with a research institute.
Opportunities are being missed.
Scientists typically are the first to admit that they do not enjoy, and are not good at, networking in the conventional sense (I told you there’d be generalisations). Events intended to build networks and introduce people with complementary interests rarely result in useful contacts being made. While event organisers provide drinks and snacks and invite people to mingle, many attendees leave the event having spoken only to those they already know.
So, let’s build a database!
Databases aren’t terribly effective either. To be kept up to date they require regular maintenance by administrators, ICT specialists and the researchers themselves. They provide only a snapshot of activity, with information presented inconsistently and in language that often is impenetrable to anyone not from that field.
My discussions have revealed that few researchers or private organisations use databases to prospect for opportunities.
In an ideal world, researchers would be aware of others’ work that could complement their own. They would easily be able to find resources and equipment. Industry people would be able to find specialist help, and researchers would be able to find practical and commercial applications for their expertise. A network would form of its own accord, without those involved needing to spend time actively making contacts. Partnerships would form naturally.
The story of the travelling salesman
Most successful organisations these days exploit an ‘account management’ model. An account manager travels from client to client, gauging the business’s needs in order to sell her own company’s product, whether that’s pharmaceutical goods or advertising space in a magazine. She visits regularly, and keeps on top of changes in each of her clients’ requirements. Although she closely guards sensitive information, often she is able to help a particular client based on what she knows about the industry as a whole. Unlike someone who works for an individual business, an account manager sees the whole industry. In little-old Tasmania you’ll often find that a single account manager can cover an entire industry sector.
Thanks to the account manager’s discreet involvement a great many solutions to technical problems are found, and a great many connections are made.
Tasmania’s research sector needs effective account management.
Unlike account management with a commercial focus, this model would have the interests of the entire sector at heart, serving to facilitate new connections, maintain a knowledge base, and manage formal relationships where necessary.
Let's call it ‘Smallworld’.
In Smallworld, the account manager’s job is to meet people. He or she speaks with senior managers and academics to get a feel for their interests and capabilities, and compiles a list of individuals who are working at the coal face of that particular field.
One by one, the AM interviews researchers and collects information about what each is doing, what services they might offer to others, what services or help they are searching for, what specialist equipment they use.
The AM writes up the information in a standard, consistent format (in language that is technical if necessary but general enough to be understood by those not from that field), then with the researcher's permission loads the information into a secure ‘knowledge vault’, or electronic repository.
The account manager needs a general understanding of science, and an excellent understanding of people. While the knowledge vault would be a valuable resource, it is the account manager who is the key to cementing the Smallworld network. There's no substitute for face to face.
Researchers and business people become used to the regular visits. Over conversations, new projects are brought to the surface, obsolete ones are quashed, introductions are made, and opportunities are born. A good account manager is a very useful person in this respect. And the best thing about this approach is that the researcher does not have to lift a finger, apart from giving up half an hour for a one-on-one chat from time to time. Once Smallworld has been set up, the account manager needs only to keep the plates spinning.
The benefits of Smallworld
In addition to the direct benefits that Smallworld would give to researchers and industry there are a number of spin-off advantages:
Who would look after Smallworld?
Smallworld could be run by a (very) small group of administrators, account managers and a geek or two to build the knowledge vault and internet portal. Most of the resources we already have; it would merely take a little shuffling and redirecting to begin building Smallworld. Smallworld doesn't have to be ‘finished’ for it to be effective. Like any good network, it would essentially build itself.
According to small-world network theory, places like Tasmania are ideally suited to embrace a close-knit model of doing business. Our network of researchers is sufficiently closely connected to be self sustaining. Check out Aussie Duncan Watts’ excellent work on small-world networking: Small Worlds – The Dynamics of Networks between Order and Randomness.
One last thing about Smallworld: it doesn’t need to be limited to science research. The same model could be applied to any of Tasmania’s industries: tourism, farming, manufacture, health care, minerals ...
As the MC ended her intro and revved up the audience for the last performer of the night, Rachel the barmaid plonked her teatowel on the sink and took the stage, to rapturous applause. Who will get me my beer now, I thought, but only briefly, as the beer FOMO was quickly replaced with, What the Budweiser is going on here?
Turns out, Rachel Joan is one of New York’s finest stand-up comics. She also runs Old Man Hustle, a tiny twelve-seat dive bar on the Lower East Side of Manhattan next to a Hebrew religious goods store. The comedy show she organises virtually every night at 8pm is free. And bloody good. The Hebrew store closes at 6, just so you know.
Somehow, me and the missus scored two of the highly-coveted bar stools, despite arriving a few minutes after the advertised kick-off time. When the show started a few minutes later there were another dozen or so folks standing, cramped into the narrow space between us and the wall. A capacity house.
At this point we were yet to learn that our gifted barmaid (I say ‘gifted’ because I know one when I see one) was the headline act.
The MC took the stage to the usual whoops and hurrahs, the audience high on anticipation, or at least on a gutful of the $3 Genesee-and-a-shot-of-tequilas so popular in the area.
If you’re like me, watching amateur performers can make you cringe inside a little. You tend to pray for competence, hoping that no-one is going to be embarrassed, especially me. Comedy is probably the riskiest of all performance genres in that sense; you can listen quietly to a bad guitarist and no-one gets hurt, but when a comic bombs it’s as awkward as getting your scrotum caught in a revolving door and needing help to get it out.
Phew. The moment MC Gracie Canoon hit the stage I knew I could relax. Here was a pro, albeit an unpaid one (at least, tonight), such is the vastly competitive comedy scene in New York. There’s unrecognised talent here who, were they doing the rounds in Australia, would not only have their own TV show but also some kind of monument in their honour, like David Boon does.
But New York City is the big league. Comedy here is a passion for so many folk that the bar is considerably higher than the one we’ve set at home. For some reason, in our country Dave Hughes is a legend, despite his humour being not too far removed from what your typical father-of-the-bride can muster at a wedding. Or Tom Little, whose condescending one-liners to the old folk he interviews on The Project somehow reinforce that mediocrity in comedy is the best we can hope for.
Sure, we have some funny people, but we haven’t seen true excellence in Australia since the likes of The Aunty Jack Show, saving perhaps a handful of bright sparks like the Working Dog mob, who’ve owned the top space since the late 80s. Shane Jacobsen is terrific, but he’s rarely allowed to be, instead settling back into the aforementioned pop comedy mediocrity and jumping through the hoops of commercial television. And yes, some of the talent at local comedy clubs is top notch (a mate of mine, Gavin Baskerville, runs a tight comedy ship in Hobart that’s always worth a look.) But somehow the industry at home has never achieved escape velocity.
if a comic wants to get to the top in NYC they need to pedal hard. There’s simply so much extraordinary talent vying for a place at the mic. It prompted Jess to ponder what they’re trying to achieve. A paid gig maybe (to be fair, more paid gigs – I'm sure some of tonight's acts command a tidy sum when they want). A writing job on one of NYC’s myriad TV comedies? It’s hard to know, and I guess everyone will have a different story. Lots of comics back home do it merely to build confidence, or because it scares them (and they seem to enjoy that for some reason), or just for the buzz. I suspect there are lots here who fit that mold too … but you also get the impression that ‘aspiring comic’ here is like ‘aspiring actor’ in Hollywood. The Big Time beckons, even if when you get close enough it flips you the bird and disappears in a puff of fart.
The upshot of such a vibrant scene is that these guys have had so much practice with their material, so much experience reading a room and adapting to shifting tastes, that everyone can relax and enjoy the insights. Combine this with a heavy Jewish influence and you get extraordinarily fast, ridiculously funny performances from people who were probably hilarious even before they decided to try stand-up.
We’d gotten through half a dozen five-minutes sets from an eclectic bunch of comics all eager to impress. Some hit, some missed, but that’s not unusual in any comedy scene, even in the greatest of clubs. In any case, when you have Rachel batting at number three (sorry, pinch hitter) you know you’re in safe hands. Her material? Buggered if I can remember. I rarely can remember, and not just because of the drinking. All you need to remember is the feeling that, fuck, that was good.
Later on in the evening (much later on) Rachel tricked Jess into appearing on camera giving a testimonial, which subsequently appeared on Old Man Hustle’s Facebook page. Despite being three sheets to the wind Jess made a good point: this was better than the other shows we’d already seen during our stay in New York, including one at the much-feted Comedy Cellar. Some of the performers there – professionals of many years – had some terrific material. Off-Broadway legend Rick Crom is one of them, admirably belting out some hilarious show tunes in between much-practised cabaret gold. Sarah Silverman was amusing but not funny. At The Knitting Factory in Brooklyn, 30-Rock icon Judah Friedlander was similarly meh. These are bored people who presumably feel they need to appear in public from time to time or we’ll forget they exist.
Okay, admittedly the Comedy Cellar on a good night is one of the funniest things you’ll ever be a part of – the funniest of the funniest would crawl over broken dreams to appear there. But you’re sharing that experience with 300 others in a packed hall where it’s club policy to allow patrons a maximum of three drinks each for the duration of the two-hour show. I think I’d rather have been back at the revolving door wearing loose-fitting shorts.
We were still at Old Man Hustle well after midnight. It seems that sharing a small, funny space with only a few others is a formula for a good party, particularly when the host is not only piss-funny but keeps bringing you beer. Such an eclectic, friendly, good-natured bunch!
New York is cool, that’s a no-brainer. But when you dive a bit deeper into the local neighbourhoods you find gold. And some really cool Jewish artifacts if you’re there early enough.
I have it on good authority that explicitly quantifying what you’re writing about in the title of your story leads to a higher click-through rate. That’s a shame, because so often the “Six things you didn’t know about cataracts” or “Eight reasons not to believe a digital marketer” stories can leave you feeling a little ripped off. You get the impression that somewhat less work has gone into that particular list than went into, say, the three laws of thermodynamics. In an article I saw recently, “Seven ways to get a flight upgrade”, the number-one tip was:
Be a frequent flyer.
As if you can decide while you’re in the check-in queue to magically become one. You either are or you are not a frequent flyer with that airline, and speaking as someone with a bit of travel-hacking experience I can tell you that anyone who is not a frequent flyer need not trouble themselves with the remaining tips in that particular article. Smile all you like, dress to the nines, if you ain’t Platinum status you’ll sit where you’re bloody well told, you cheeky sod.
Anyway, thanks for indulging me. To the point of my essay, which I could argue segues nicely from the frequent-flying gripe because it was a plane trip to Japan that prompted the idea.
Here are some ‘objectives’ I randomly plucked out of three current government strategic plans. You know the type of document: the one that sits on the organisation’s website to demonstrate that they’re on the ball and forward thinking. It'll be apparent that it’s a strategy document because it will have the words ‘strategic plan’ in the title.
Serious stories about communication
told in a silly voice.
I dig a little deeper than most comms folk. From science at university, to a cold-and-wet career as a commercial diver, to working underground, and for the past 15 years as a communicator-at-large, I've had my fair share of weird experiences in all sorts of situations. It's given me a fair-to-middling grounding in all things explanatory.