Riding the Silicon dragon

The China-Australia Millennial Project is a bold initiative that could potentially open up a whole new window of opportunity for our tech and start-up sectors.

One hundred young innovators from China will travel to Sydney’s VIVID festival of ideas next year to be matched with 100 young Australian counterparts for an ambitious five-day program of old-school peer-to-peer networking.

The China Australia Millennial Project (CAMP) is a crazy-brave undertaking. It's an entrepreneurial engagement project on a scale that just might make a difference in filling in some of the blanks in the trade relationship between the two countries.

For the local tech sector - particularly for some of the start-up leaders and future leaders - the project can start to fill in the vast gaps in our industry’s knowledge about China. This is a long-term, soft power initiative: Introducing young leaders and future leaders to each other and getting them to collaborate on a short-term project.

CAMP is the brain-child of Andrea Myles, an over-achieving Sinophile with an out-sized passion for Australia-China engagement.

Having grown up in a tiny Blue Mountains community, Myles says her mind expanded during her first trip overseas - to China - after she completed her undergraduate degree in psychology at Sydney University.

On returning to Australia, Myles completed an international studies Masters program on Chinese culture and politics that included learning Mandarin and an exchange at a University in Yunnan province in China southwest, and then an MBA that looked Asia-Australian relationships and Chinese politics and included an university exchange in Taiwan.

She has spent time at the Australia China Business Council in management roles, and has conducted a series of other China engagement activities. But the CAMP will be the most ambitious.

Myles believes for all the economic value of the China - Australia trade relationship, it is transactional in nature. Most Australians will tell you that the China relationship is important, and yet too few have a deeper understanding of Chinese people, its culture, or its market.

Focus on soft skills

While Australian priorities have put focus on developing the transactional trade relationship, there has been little focus on the soft skills that will enable a deeper, diversified relationship.

This has certainly been true of the broad tech industry and the startup sector in particular. There are exceptions (Seek and James Packer’s Zhaopin.com is a spectacular example), but generally, China is a great unknown.

The transactional relationship will not quickly underwrite the development of friendship, and it a friendship relationship that will create commercial opportunities - because of the better intuitive understanding of needs that friendship creates.

The China Australia Millennial Project (or CAMP) will be held during Vivid Sydney, in collaboration with the Vivid Ideas festival. It has the backing of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. And it has a handful of large corporate sponsors on board and is still recruiting others.

The CAMP model is simple enough. A call for delegates to apply will go out through corporate, government and diplomatic channels in both countries. The 100 best and brightest applications from each country will be selected, and divided into collaboration teams and delegated mentors for the duration of the program.

Each team will work in a cluster on challenges common to both countries over a three month period, through online collaborative channels. They will then come together for a kind of five-day accelerator program in Sydney - where each team will ultimately present their project outcome and commercialisation ideas and prototypes to selected corporate partners, angels and investors.

These cluster challenges broadly map to Millenium Development Goals - areas like education, food security, energy, health and urban development.

While CAMP's goals are not start-up or technology sector specific the program should create huge interest from the start-up community. It’s focus is on entrepreneurialism and ideas. But it is the tech-enabled solutions that should drive many of the projects.

The value of the program is in the relationships, and in its potential for their ongoing development. This is where commercial outcomes get built.

The chief instigator

Myles calls herself chief instigator at CAMP. Co-founding is former University of Wollongong corporate relations manager Aimee Zheng, who has been been a driving force at the helm of UoW China engagement. The program’s other co-founders are Five-fold Happiness author Vivien Sung and management consultant Jun Zhang.

Julie Bishop has spoken in the past week of the supremacy of “economic diplomacy” in her government’s foreign relations policies. This kind of economic diplomacy can take many forms, but soft-power and soft-skills have got to be considered critical to its success.

If the tech and the start-up sector are in agreement about the potential importance of Chinese partnerships to future, then as an industry we need to better develop our soft power engagements.

The Australia - China trade in IT goods and services (outside of consumer electronics) is a rounding error in the overall value of the relationship. It is well past time to build on the goodwill that exists, to diversify the relationship and to create commercial and trade opportunities outside of transactional commodities.

The China Australia Millennial Project at Vivid in Sydney next year is a great start. And we hope it is followed by a reciprocal event that involves 100 young Australian innovators to China.

James Riley has covered technology and innovation issues in Australia and Asia as a writer and commentator for 25 years. Read more from James Riley at www.InnovationAus.com or follow him @888riley on Twitter.

Related Articles