Bondi Innovators: Michael Johnston on design, creativity and alternative futures

Michael Johnston is an advertiser turned designer who has spent time in the UK and USA with startups, design and technology studios and is now back in Sydney.

He was an angel investor and advisor to Tech Will Save Us – a London-based STEM toy start-up that combine making, coding, inventing and technology in kits for children. Now sold in over 97 countries.

In this interview he discusses how he splits his life in 3 helping creativity succeed today, tomorrow and alternative futures.

From corporates today to startups creating tomorrow to co-directing Speculative Futures London – a 1000+ member group that uses design to explore possible futures. Think Netflix’s Black Mirror.

He explains why he loves Bondi and how the startup/VC scene evolved in San Fransisco and London and how it could similarly evolve here.

Check out the video and transcript below and reach out to Michael via his BIA members page.

Transcript

Ross:
Michael, great to have you.

Michael:
Thank you.

Ross:
So what’s your story?

Michael:
Well, I actually started in advertising about 20-odd years ago in Bondi, amusingly enough. Started there for a few years and then moved over to the UK. Moved out of that into more creating technology and experiences and things like that. I went back and did a masters at a design school and thought, I quite like this design stuff, and as a part of my masters, I invested in a startup. I got really into everybody who was talking about products and services, and I was like, what about businesses? And so that was interesting for a couple of years. Then went into consulting to teach big businesses how to build startups and products and services. Now I’m back trying to figure out what’s next.

Ross:
What factors, what might you do? What are the projects? What are the ideas? What are you trying to do?

Michael:
I’ve kind of split my life in three. I kind of say that I help creativity succeed today, tomorrow, and an alternative futures. So the today work tends to be with corporates, working on products and services. Then I am helping out a couple of startups at the moment for tomorrow. One around helping product owners in large tech companies, which keeps you on the edge when you have to get quite specific in detail. Then alternative futures is, I learnt about the space called speculative design, about eight or nine years ago. The easiest way to explain it is black mirror is an example of it. Take something now and think about maybe a dystopian or protopian future. I run a group around different or side projects on how we push things like climate change or how to put it into kind of the public. I’ve got a few side projects on that at the moment, just for fun.

Ross:
Yes. Well, as you know, I’m a futurist, so I believe in the power of looking at exploring possible futures. So you spend all this time overseas, being a big important person and you came back to Bondi. So why Bondi?

Michael:
I’ve always loved it here. I guess I always came back and I think there’s an essence of being at the beach, but also close to the city at the same time. It kind of feels like a cheat. Then I think the second thing is, there’s always a young energy here and it could be travelers or it could be whatever, but I think even as the area is gentrified and grew up, it’s great to see that kind of young energy still happening and that could be – it seems to be a South American influx now, but they’re doing their own little businesses or their own things or own events. I like that balancing act of being youthful energy but also it’s a nice place to live.

Ross:
It’s interesting. For me, it’s like saying, okay, you got beach and you got global city in one. All right, that’s good. The youthful energy I think is really important. It does cycle over, different nationalities or groups who have ever been here.

Michael:
Totally.

Ross:
But it’s always fresh and young.

Michael:
Yeah, exactly.

Ross:
What do you think the potential is for Bondi and what we could make of it from here?

Michael:
I think a lot of places I’ve traveled and been at seems like they all start in a little network. So there’s this kind of park in San Francisco where one cafe was where a lot of VCs started and worked and it still works like that. I think you could say the same in London around East London, there’s the same sort of thing. There was those few coffee shops were all the VCs. I think people will go to where they want to live to a certain extent, and I think, why wouldn’t you want to live here? I think there’s a lot of creative people here, generally. I think that’s always a good base and start. Lots of places have started just with great parties and great drinks and that serendipity, and I think that’s actually just a great place to start.

Michael:
One of my friends is the Bondi Hipsters and I think they’ve made a great joke about that kind of culture that’s already here. I guess it’s now about what’s the next stage of that. What’s the interesting things that you could start to set up at the next layer of building that community and being a little bit more connected. And then thinking about how that works. I think outside Australia, to think the startup scene is really strong in Australia, but can often think maybe not enough beyond the country. I have another investor mate who says the Kiwis tend to think about international before the Aussies do. It’s actually a great place to live. You have great regulatory, the government’s supporting a lot of things. I think even if it’s in this small network we have here, how do we start to think-

Ross:
Think while making sure we are thinking globally.

Michael:
… a bit more globally. Yeah.

Ross:
And that’s all familiar. It’s always like this phrase, world class innovation out of Bondi, so you’ve got to have that global frame. But having you here, we can help design that I hope.

Michael:
Yeah, for sure.

Ross:
Awesome.

Michael:
Great.

Ross:
Thanks so much, Michael.

Michael:
Thanks, Ross.

Responses

Related Articles