“The Future Of…” series asks a variety of UOW experts and researchers the same five questions, to provide insight into the potential future states of our lives, communities and world.

Omar Khalifa is the CEO of iAccelerate, and is driven by fuelling new ideas through innovation and collaboration. Omar has a passion for entrepreneurship particularly in social enterprise and sustainability and is driven by the possibilities of the intersection of creativity and technology to deliver innovation.

Omar’s vision for iAccelerate is to create a space where artists, students from all disciplines, researchers and the community can rub shoulders and get exposed to new ideas to create sustainable businesses for the Illawarra and beyond. He has had a diverse career working with many businesses undergoing transition and growth, delivering new products and services in digital and technology-driven sectors including Apple Computer; Hewlett Packard; Optus; Telstra BigPond; Citigroup; and the Business Council for Sustainable Development in Geneva. However, his career started as an engineer working on the Space Shuttle program. “I always wanted to be an astronaut and I literally got as close as designing the TV camera housing aimed at the shuttle’s entry hatch.”

What are you researching or working on in 2018?

We’re on a journey of expansion and extending our reach. We’re extending our capabilities to offer more and to support more start-ups better. We aim to increase the numbers of entrepreneurs that we can assist accomplish their goals. There’s no specific target, but we’ve grown from 30 start-ups and entrepreneurs, to 60. Last year, these firms employed 290 people and put $5.7 million into the local economy. The number that we’re most proud of is reaching 44 per cent female founders – over double the national average for start-ups.

We’re also starting to expand by bringing in groups from other organisations such as IRT and the Wollongong City Council, who are working at how they can create new capability using entrepreneurial approaches. We have also applied, with UOW’s Bega Campus, to extend the reach of our program there and have plans to do the same across the region to help stimulate the building of more successful companies – wherever they are based.

iAccelerate is setting itself apart from other accelerators and incubators by positioning ourselves as a whole-of-community asset and resource – where all parts of the community can interact – from local and state governments to small business, students to researchers and academics, corporates to creative groups and beyond. We even insist on local foods and drinks being used in our catering. We want to bring people together and encourage collaboration to create real capability and longer term opportunities. Today’s innovation depends on highly interactive and even random interactions. We need to do that here too.

In regards to your field of study or expertise what are some of the most innovative or exciting things emerging over the next few years?

Things are changing fast with the digital economy and new technology emerging every minute. As much as these are threats to some they also provide an opportunity for things to be rethought, redesigned and become more efficient and effective. People are also beginning to wonder if untethered technology is delivering what we need. Entrepreneurs are rethinking their own values and what they can bring to the party, and re-evaluating the way things are done. We think entrepreneurs will need to be more thoughtful in the future than in the past about unintended consequences of their products and services.

Increasing opportunities for connections and knowledge sharing is becoming more valued. Having interdisciplinary groups all together here at iAccelerate has that beautiful thing going on – collaboration between organisations and sectors. They sit next to each other, they go to our Educate classes together, they begin to talk to each other and who knows what that will lead to? Sometimes ideas just need time, encouragement and that special catalysing moment.

In regards to your field of study or expertise what are some of the things readers should be cautious/wary of over the next few years?

There’s so much hype about being an entrepreneur and it seems like so many people want to talk about it, and make it seem like it just happens – it doesn’t. A lot of things need to be in place for success and we are trying to focus on those things and provide the learnings and tools for them to succeed. We can supply 20 per cent of the effort, they need to do the rest.

Also, there’s a real need in the world for people who are conversant across disciplines, and that’s a challenge for universities and even a challenge for secondary schools. That means to not categorise young people too early and have them go down just one path, but rather to consider things with more of a fluid, interdisciplinary approach. Today’s world is complex – and it can feel overwhelming to those with a narrow field of view. We need to understand that one does not just go down the path of being a technologist or an engineer, or an artist or any other type of discipline – we need multi-skilled people – and we need to begin to think about what that means. Where does that start and what are the implications to that and how we educate?

Black and white thinking and single careers are pretty much over for most people, and that means we really need to develop people with skills and capabilities to keep them adept and flexible. That means re-thinking the way we learn and what we learn. Education will no longer be static or degree-driven for many; it will be practical and experiential. Instead of three or four employers across a career, it’s more likely to be 20 or more. This will cause profound changes in all aspects of life and even re-align our thinking of what it means to be “employed”.

Are we, as an education sector moving fast enough? I think that’s an important question. Just because we have been doing things the same way for a very long time, and been teaching certain degrees – will this suit the future? Are we really exploring and being as imaginative as we could be, to develop the people the world needs? I think that’s a huge sector challenge, but I think enough people now are asking the question, and soon students and employers will demand it.

Where do you believe major opportunities lie for youth thinking about future career options?

We talk a lot about pure research – sciences and STEMM – we don’t talk that much about the applied side or the role of the arts or philosophy for instance in helping to define a better world. In our rush to create more individual fulfilment we appear to have lost sight of the underpinnings in the Maslow hierarchy. Opportunities lie in asking the question ‘What does that mean to change people’s everyday lives?’. Creating a balanced community that really responds to people’s needs is always a challenge for all of us as a society. How will what we do impact the social and physical environment for my kids and theirs?

We want people to have great jobs, but fewer will have the same job. There’s going to be lots of new and different roles, but we are still going to need to have people that will build your house, and people who are going to wire up your solar panels, fix your leaky pipe or trim your trees. We need to understand who will do those jobs and in the future and how will they do them?

That’s the challenge for all of us- to make sure we are not just designing a future that revolves around only a few. How can we take these new technologies and start to solve every day problems and make the world better for people, who do struggle, or are not yet conversant. The opportunities are very exciting but will test our values too.

In regards to your field of study or expertise, what is the best piece of advice you could offer to our readers?

I think it’s important to stay curious, and learning about things you may not understand or know about. Step outside of the world you know, and challenge yourself to step beyond what is laid out in front of you. Ask the question ‘Why can’t I?’ and challenge the people around them and to also question what may have become outdated orthodoxy.

I think if that were to happen there would be a positive outcome, but it means people need to reach out and to say “I want my learning to prepare me for my future”. People need to take charge of what they think they will need in the future and develop those skill sets. I’m not advocating avoiding what may be difficult – the basis of any learning is a strong foundation in the fundamentals.

Stay open and collaborate more with people who are different and whose skills insights may be really useful and complimentary. Sit next to people not like yourself and see how others think and why.

We need to open up conversations that are much more two way. It’s not just doing what we have always done, but we should be discussing those things that we are getting a little uncomfortable about and work on how we respond to that. We need to get in to the discomfort zone a bit more and challenge ourselves. Let’s do things that we think are beyond what we are capable of because that’s when you do your best work!

Omar Khalifa 2016 arms crossed

This article first appeared in the 2018 UOW Research Newsletter 

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