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Ungrounded: 100 Geeks On A Plane Hope To Solve Skills Problem

BA British Airways plane aeroplance © Steve Mann / Shutterstock.com
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Tech gurus are going up to the summit in the sky

British Airways and the United Nations’ telecoms arm, the ITU, are backing a “summit in the sky” on 12 June which will put one hundred geeks on a plane for twelve hours to look for solutions to the global tech skills crisis.

Ungrounded, as the project is called, will bring 100 “innovators” (Silicon Valley CEOs, thinkers and venture capitalists) on a private BA flight from San Francisco to London. During the flight, they will take part in a “global hack” run by Ideo, a design firm which has made mice for Microsoft and Apple.

When the flight lands, the digerati will head straight for the DNA (Decide Now Act) Summit, a three day conference where they will present their ideas to an audience including Hamadoun Toure, the head of the UN telecoms agency, the ITU. However, to some, the project looks like a stunt which addresses a very “first world problem” in an environmentally-unfriendly manner.

ungrounded BA UN DNA Summit
TechWeek Comment: Get Those Motherf***ing Geeks Off that Mother f***ing Plane!

Getting talent where it is needed?

The summit’s task is to solve what is described as “the global misalignment of talent” – in other words to work out how to get smart people from emerging nations to come and work at innovation hubs like Silicon Valley and London’s Tech, overcoming issues such as the requirement for visas.

Or, as the project puts it: “UnGrounded participants will be tasked with connecting the abundance of emerging STEM talent in cities around the world with civic and commercial opportunities in major tech hubs, where talent crunch is increasingly an issue.”

“Our understanding is that the talent crunch is a real issue for companies and organisations in major tech hubs around the world,” said Amir Dossal, chairman of the United Nations Global Partnerships Forum. “We need to give people the opportunity to discover and be discovered, to grow skills, provide experience and uncover new ideas globally.”

BA recently joined RocketSpace, an innovation campus in San Francisco, and Ungrounded is part of its bid to engage with the startup community.

The whole endeavour also looks like a bid by BA to reinforce the value of executive travel, in the face of an increasing tendency to save money and carbon emissions by using videoconferencing instead.

BA has told TechWeekEurope that face-to-face meetings are important, and promised that the airline is concerned to reduce emissions overall, saying that digital channels do not replace traditional ways of meeting. The statement, received after this article was first published, is pasted below.

“Innovation is a contact sport. With 100 innovators from Silicon Valley together at 30,000 feet, anything is possible,” said Marguerite Gong Hancock of Stanford Graduate School of Business, one of the advisors choosing the 100 passengers. “Our research shows that building talent networks is at the heart of creating high value and high velocity innovation.”

The other advisors include including Todd Lutwak of Andreessen Horowitz; Leor Stern of Google; Celestine Johnson of Innovation Endeavors; Duncan Logan of RocketSpace; Gerald Brady of Silicon Valley Bank; and Rhonda Abrams of The Planning Shop and columnist for USA Today.

Update: BA has now responded, saying “We believe innovation and creative problem solving are accelerated when people meet face-to-face. The time on the flight will be used to identify an actionable solution to a serious global challenge. The destination of the flight also has an important purpose, the results of the work will be presented at the DNA Summit to global leaders in London, ahead of the G8 Summit. Ultimately, in-person interaction with the global community is a critical tool in building real relationships and moving talk into action.

“In the long term, we hope the conversation will be sustained through other channels since in-person and digital platforms should work together, not replace one another.

“British Airways has long been committed to lowering emissions within the airline industry and it is important to note that we are not adding an additional service to our schedule or moving any aircraft out of position for this innovation flight.”

What about London as a startup destination? Try our Tech City Quiz!

Originally published on eWeek.

  1. I don’t know about the UK, but in the US there is no crisis.
    We have plenty of smart people, but the CEOs are completely the WRONG people to ask about how to use them. Factors like age discrimination and low pay are what prevents tapping into the huge quantity of available human resources. Furthermore, premising everything on “…in other words to work out how to get smart people from emerging nations to come and work at innovation hubs like Silicon Valley and London’s Tech” assumes 1)the only remaining smart people are in the third world, 2)the only places innovation can happen is in Silicon Valley and London, and 3) we just have to step over everyone and everything else (like laws) to do it (cheaply). All very bad assumptions to begin with. Create a ‘tech center’ (apparently the only places anything can get done) in the US midwest for example. Create English language learning centers across the world so people, for example in India or China, can become literate in English.
    Australia, Iceland, New Zealand, Canada, Guam… all could have tech centers if they wanted. Venture Capitalists could be the ones traveling, not all the innovators. Think OUTSIDE this box (as CEOs are fond of saying). The limitations are the ones you put in place. A worker over 30 or 45 or 60 is still smart. It is the CEOs who are dumb (or so greedy all they want is cheap 3rd world labor… be HONEST).

    1. HERE HERE!!! You basically took the words right out of my mouth. The problem here isn’t a lack of smart people in the United States, it’s the greed of those at the top of organizations who are just looking for a route to cheap labor. You have only to look at the disparity in pay between the do’ers in technical fields and those who “run” the organization. In addition, the way the spirit of H1B Visa laws are circumvented in practice should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. This hopefully would encourage some of those just politicking for cheap labor to actually follow the protocols designed to get them talent from the pool available in this country. Lastly, our educational system is due for a major overhaul. It’s time to create thinkers instead of factory workers.

      ’nuff Said.

      Reply to Mark >

      I don’t know about the UK, but in the US there is no crisis.
      We have plenty of smart people, but the CEOs are completely the WRONG people to ask about how to use them. Factors like age discrimination and low pay are what prevents tapping into the huge quantity of available human resources. Furthermore, premising everything on “…in other words to work out how to get smart people from emerging nations to come and work at innovation hubs like Silicon Valley and London’s Tech” assumes 1)the only remaining smart people are in the third world, 2)the only places innovation can happen is in Silicon Valley and London, and 3) we just have to step over everyone and everything else (like laws) to do it (cheaply). All very bad assumptions to begin with. Create a ‘tech center’ (apparently the only places anything can get done) in the US midwest for example. Create English language learning centers across the world so people, for example in India or China, can become literate in English.
      Australia, Iceland, New Zealand, Canada, Guam… all could have tech centers if they wanted. Venture Capitalists could be the ones traveling, not all the innovators. Think OUTSIDE this box (as CEOs are fond of saying). The limitations are the ones you put in place. A worker over 30 or 45 or 60 is still smart. It is the CEOs who are dumb (or so greedy all they want is cheap 3rd world labor… be HONEST).

  2. one place to start would be reducing discrimination against women, anyone over 35, and disabled tech folks. try reducing work weeks, stresses that tear apart families and dead ended careers.

  3. Um, you mean 100 frat boys on a plane, trying to solve the problem of having to actually pay and train when they want talent, while at the same time preventing any local industry from developing and competing with them for overseas labor, right?

    ‘Cuz CEOs and VCs are not “innovators”, and that’s the only “talent crisis” out there.

  4. It is easy.
    1. Pay more.
    2. Make sure people can move between jobs and countries easily without being indentured to their employer.

  5. Heaven forfend they should consider paying US/UK domestic tech workers a decent wage.

    Anyhow, if these guys are all that smart, was it really a good idea to send them up all in one plane?