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…What the Project Manager learned during STEAMhouse’s countdown year to launch…

Table of Contents:

  1. Learn, talk share: the collaboration theory;
  2. What if hyperconnectivity didn’t mean information overload?
  3. Boundary-breaking innovation – the only way to grow;
  4. “Deconstructing uncertainty” – meet the new pioneers;
    • What is STEAM, again?
  5. Dare to be different; dare to win;
  6. Cross-disciplinary mindset — working as a hands-on team, not flying solo;
  7. Striking up unexpected relationships (or is serendipity at play?);
  8. Open doors, attract new markets and then redefine them;
  9. Transdisciplinatory vs Interdisciplinatory — defining true values;
  10. Tangible prototype production: so close, now, you can almost touch it.


The digital revolution has changed the way people interact. With neither inhibition nor conscious acknowledgement, we reveal our lives online. Often what we don’t say reveals more about the person we are than what we do say.

It’s becoming harder to hide in your silo of domesticity. If the small community mindset still exists, it’s almost certainly online.

Through our PC, laptop, smartphone and now even through AI devices in our homes, we interact. Our lives, our dreams, our aspirations — even the humdrum of the dailies — we share them, we connect.

Right now in the UK, we share a commonality, a history, with those whom we predominantly transact. Often, they also harbour dreams not dissimilar to our own.

But here’s the rub: we’re yet to take a similar leap of faith as a national business community.

Despite (some of) the tech being available (and if we know how to find/install/use it), we resist transparency.

We set our opaqueness filter to 100%, building walls around our business.

Traverse beyond the walls you’ve (subconsciously) built around your skillset

As a small business owner, you have a fair idea of your immediate circle. Your supply chain, your prospects, influencers, perceived visibility, and, yes: your competition.

You’ve got those elements pegged; go, you!

But beyond those immediate circles? Visibility dims.

You’re now seeing in others what they see (or don’t) in you.

The clutter of an insular mindset obliterates the horizon from view.

It’s become so easy to demote ideas, we hit the snooze button on them without thinking!

Why? It’s these ideas that could drive your business forward if you’d only avail them to specialists in fields where you lack acumen.

It’s time to stop snoozing; instead, take action!

Is the Internet of Things, y’know, a real thing?

We know that the Internet of Things seems yet to have graced Blighty’s shores, at least with any real conviction…
…but we can throw it a lifeline.

We’re introducing STEAMhouse: a place where small business innovators can access the space they need — a MakerSpace — to connect, research, collaborate, sample and grow.

Clayton Shaw, STEAMhouse project manager, has written an inspirational piece called, What it means to Innovate.

It recounts how STEAMhouse has already impressed upon both the internal- and external-facing communities of BCU.

In this reflective piece, we’ll expand on some of Clayton’s most poignant reflections. When you sign up, you’ll be able to relate them to your own STEAMhouse journey.

As yet, we’re waiting for you to jump on board, bound as we are for the tangible land of the Internet of Things.

Open innovation is a paradigm that assumes that firms can and should use external ideas as well as internal ideas, and internal and external paths to market, as the firms look to advance their technology. ~Henry Chesbrough

Learn, talk, share: the collaboration theory

BCU is, above all else, a seat of learning. But it is so much more: a dynamic beast often forging a path of its own choosing. But it also has to dance to others’ tunes.

Amending positions to bring about new outcomes often means that resources – the human kind – talent-switch.

Academics and business- and marketing specialists often find themselves going where the beat dictates. That steady thrum that calls to the rhythm of their unique expertise and experience is, after all, impossible to resist.

STEAMhouse has been one such collaboration, drawing upon many disciplines from within the university itself. What Clayton has discovered during the countdown year to launch is an impressive lack of inhibition and zero vanity amongst all those involved in the project.

Lecturers, professors, doctors, directors and managers: all have pooled their knowledge to bring STEAMhouse to where it is now:

That goal, that nirvana, is a place where local businesses can experience the thrill of collaboration, just as our own project team has to date. That place is a BCU purpose-built facility in Digbeth set to change the way we think about doing business around here.

They say, “practice what you preach“. In STEAMhouse, that happens. Everyone takes turns at the lectern, with no agenda other than progress. Now, that’s what I call music 101!

What if hyperconnectivity didn’t mean information overload?

One of the issues we as a business community have is information overload. For all the good it’s done, the Internet has given marketers direct access to your streams, to your inbox.

The overwhelming glut of information to which you subscribe is enough to make you want to close the doors to let you concentrate on ‘doing’ business.

But what if there was a way to harness that information? Instead of slamming your office door on its fingers as it tries to encroach upon your workspace, what if you could make sense of it?

Through research and collaboration, STEAMhouse will promote that tranquil environment.

As well as a MakerSpace, Clayton also highlights that innovation is as important to progression as it is to simply satisfying existing market demand.

Boundary-breaking innovation – the only way to grow

It’s through STEAM innovation that STEAMhouse can have a real impact. Yes, we want the venture to help grow participants’ businesses and the West Midlands’ region wider economy.

But each project’s real focus should train on the participant themselves. As a supporting team, we can offer a mix of research and separate individual creative inputs and attributes.

They’ll all swirl around in the melting pot for a time, gestate until…
.…in a split second they meld and the magic ingrained in innovation happens.

As Clayton attests:

Innovation is what people are seeking, and they are exploring it in new ways.” ~Clayton Shaw

This quote satisfies the four tenets upon which the team built the project to form the direction we hope it takes:

  1. open;
  2. curious;
  3. inventive;
  4. productive.

New problems need new solutions; together, we can prove that >1 heads are better than 1. And if that means going off at a tangent, we can draw upon the specialist knowledge and academia at BCU to guide us.

“Deconstructing uncertainty” – meet the new pioneers

Identifying a space where research and collaboration can come together is one thing. Asking innovators and creators to open up about their ideas is another.

Why reveal brand new concepts too soon, when doing so may impact the future of your own business?

In the past, getting innovators to share their concept has been like trying to open a razor clam with the bristle end of a paintbrush.

STEAMhouse wants to help change that perception but in a safe, selective environment.

What is STEAM, again?

STEM subjects have formed a growing part of higher education for the biggest part of thirty years. Science, technology, engineering and maths – classic disciplinary subjects.

For the most, STEM topics rebuff the creative. Strict rules and laws apply to all the subjects that make up the overarching STEM field.

But does that mean that creativity has no part to play in building the future?

Maybe once it didn’t, no. But the Internet has changed that. Creating accessible, functional imagery has never been so in demand.

The visual now plays a massive part in learning. From basic coding that renders images correctly online to virtual reality, educators and marketers know that images work.

STEAM recognises the four STEM fields, but adds a fifth: Art.

STEAMhouse is a place to foster this newer way of learning in a huge Makerspace.

Dare to be different; dare to win

We know that potentially exposing oneself thus isn’t most creatives’ first choice. It’s hardly in their DNA at all. But that’s where STEAMhouse seeks to be different.

When you share your idea with STEAMhouse, it will be with academics at the university or business experts committed to the project.

We want the curious to approach us with an open mind and an inventive spirit.

One of STEAMhouse’s principles is to promote collaboration in a flexible Makerspace…
…but not at the cost of threatening your intellectual property.

We mean to solve production problems, redesign plans or find new ways to perform existing processes using STEAM disciplines.

It will mean letting your guard down to let in experts, experts who can fill in the gaps in your existing strategy or development plan.

Art humanizes technology and makes it understandable. Design is needed to make sense of information overload. It is why art and design will rise in importance during this century as we try to make sense of all the possibilities that digital technology now affords. ~John Maeda

Remember, feint hand never won fair maiden.

We will give participants 12 hours of support from our staff and industry experts. It’s also possible that your innovative idea may qualify for one of 30 grants of £2,500 to help produce prototypes or samples. We’d be delighted if it did.

So if you’re struggling to get to that stage, why not consider cross-disciplinary collaboration? Many of those feint hands make light work.

Cross-disciplinary mindset – working as a hands-on team, not flying solo

We understand that many business owners won’t want to parade their idea or research topic in front of others. We do; we get that.

It may be that your direction towards fulfilling your potential lies along another path. And that’s absolutely fine. You know what works for you.

We have a very firm idea of what “cross-disciplinary” means to us, too.

Knowing what STEAMhouse wouldn’t become ensured that we focused on what we will offer. And what we’ll do, we’ll do it well.

This quote, lifted from our work-in-progress brief as is, explains what we aren’t about. The sentiment it pervades may help you clarify in your own mind whether STEAMhouse will work for you as it has served us:

What STEAMhouse is not:

STEAMhouse supports innovation and the development of new skills and products. Access to the workshops is only open to those involved with the business development programme.

We are not a place to carry out large-scale production of an existig product, and we are unable to offer studio or workshop hire.

Still not sure whether cross-disciplinary is right for you?

We will hold lunchtime drop-ins. There, you’ll be able to discuss your idea in confidence with our staff. From there, you can form a plan of action, or not.

Striking up unexpected relationships (or is serendipity at play?)

Work aside, there’s another reason for using STEAMhouse beyond developing your idea. Serendipity is as close to real magic as we encounter on a day-to-day basis.

In life as in Google search, we trigger the Serendipity Algorithm (yes, Google Search really has one) without even knowing it. Yet we play a huge part in informing the results that intertwine the two, our real lives and our digital ones.

Opportunities arise because of the situations in which we place ourselves. As Woody Allen said,

Eighty percent of success is showing up. ~ Woody Allen

The more situations (and online conversations) around a bespoke idea or topic you place yourself, the greater the chance you give yourself of developing thoughts, concepts and a solid reputation in that field.

Collaboration, by definition, focuses the minds of different specialists around one specialist topic. That’s a convergence of authority from different industries creating a tangent that’s possibly brand new.

You can see why artificial intelligence is also keen on developing the serendipity algorithm, what with Google’s AdWords platform being its biggest money spinner. The more relevant the conversations algorithms find, the better the chance of delivering Ad conversion.

Google can then use that source to tweak the serendipity algorithm, eliminating the random and the coincidental and hard-wiring the results of CoLab into its databases. In theory, they’ll then embed this information in their Knowledge Graph so that inquisitors will recognise you as the progenitor when your product becomes world-famous.

Open doors, attract new markets and then redefine them

By creating a new product (even if that wasn’t your intention when you signed up for STEAMhouse) you naturally step into the spotlight. Your acumen is suddenly the focus of third parties who might show interest your innovation.

Clayton recounts one such research and collaboration encounter that is already WIP due to a random (or serendipitous) meeting at a STEAMlab:

For example, at one of our recent STEAMlabs, an unexpected but potentially beneficial relationship was struck up between an artist and a company working in advanced manufacturing.

They are now working towards conceptualising and prototyping a new product that helps the manufacturing company to redefine market perceptions to attract new markets as well as opening a new door for the artist to work in an industry that would otherwise have remained outside their network.

Transdisciplinatory vs Interdisciplinatory – defining true values

The meetings of minds is the true definition of what STEAMhouse is about:

  1. to research innovative ideas;
  2. plan them with STEAMhouse and BCU staff;
  3. then collaborate with other participants to produce and realise them.

Many creatives are bound to find Makerspace and prototyping tools enticing. There’s a distinct lack of either in around the Greater Birmingham area.

What STEAMhouse can’t accommodate is a space for every creative for every idea they ever produce.

If you know a true creative, you know their capacity: they can spout hundreds of concepts in the blink of an eye. Some of those ideas are worthy of follow-up, others not so much.

So to help manage volume and project type, STEAMhouse will run as a disciplined operation. But not in the usual sense. STEAM is gathering, mm, steam across the globe. In our eyes, the concept falls under the categories of transdisciplinatory and interdisciplinatory.

What are they? Here’s Clayton to help out:

Interdisciplinatory activity identifies a problem and encourages each discipline to come up with the solution.

Transdisciplinatory action looks at developing methodologies where there is a concern that applies to both sets of disciplines but that, when reviewed together, creates a third way to solve a problem.

Clay Shirky’s quote sums this concept up a treat:

maximise both the autonomy of the individual and the power of people working together”  ~ Clay Shirky

Tangible prototype production: so close, now, you can almost touch it

The great thing about STEAMhouse is that it’s not only a place for research and conceptual thinking. With its dedicated tooling and machinery, it’s also a place of action.

One of the biggest barriers to growth is actually producing a product that you can give prospective manufacturers or marketers to touch.

As a standalone digital, conceptual project, your big idea could remain just that: a plan in the cloud. When you bring that idea to life in a workshop, your concept takes on a whole new dimension.

Manufacturers don’t have to imagine what you’re pitching at them. They can feel it, touch it, fall in love with it.

You’re safe in the knowledge that what they’re holding contains not only your idea (and growth strategy), but also the input of exceptional third party creatives, machinists, experts and academics.

If you’re ready to get on board with that opportunity, we’re setting off full STEAM ahead. Care to join us?

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