Sydney is the innovation capital of Australia, making it the perfect backdrop for the 2019 Microsoft Protégé National Finals. The competition itself is an open invitation to university students to create an impact in their community, with this year’s theme around sustainability empowering students to think innovatively about solving current and future Australian issues.
Timothy Suley, Charlotte Hepperlin, Christopher Mullin and yours truly, Alexandra Zimbatu, were amongst the four teams lucky enough to progress to this national final, with our initial innovation focusing on maintaining food security through intelligent pest management, utilising Microsoft Azure and Internet of Things to better equip agriculture communities. Having never worked as an entire group together before, Team SMARTCROW (SMARTCROW, scarecrow, digital pest deterrent – get it?????) successfully progressed through two rounds and close to 100 competing teams across the nation, being the only team to bring Queensland representation to the final event.
Before being flown to Sydney, we were issued with some pre-reading material, all centred around disaster relief and current Microsoft Artificial Intelligence developments in this field, providing quite a solid indication of the final case. Naturally, you can safely assume we did our research before take-off, reading about the locally renowned Messina Gelateria, all the hotspots for the Vivid Light Festival and also drafting our plan of attack for the 24-hour case crack, of course.
The Protégé Finals were an impressive step up from my previous Sydney experience (Grade 7 Canberra trip anyone?), with an impeccably organised three-day event that involved the perfect networking to alone time ratio. Day one featured an introductory dinner with all of the competing teams and Microsoft representatives, not to mention we had our interviews taken by the event photographer upon arrival to our hotel rooms! Vivid Light Festival was a fantastic opportunity for the team to further strengthen our bond before going into the 24-hour case, giving us the chance to be tourists in our own country and enjoy a spectacular display of everything Sydney had to offer.
The centrepiece of the event, the 24-hour case crack, was released at 7am the next day, with teams scattered around the breakfast buffet trying to brainstorm incognito mode. The brief itself asked us to apply Microsoft Technologies to assist in disaster relief within the first 72 hours after floods, fires or cyclones. Armed with this food for thought, we moved to the Microsoft Reactor, a newly established collaborative working space in the heart of the technology precinct, nestled amongst innovation hub giants like Stone and Chalk and FinTech Australia. Rather than being thrown completely into the deep end with a 24-hour case and a page full of hyperlinks, we were aided throughout the process.
Each team had their own buddy, a mentoring session with Microsoft’s Chief of Staff, as well as access to Design Thinking, presentation skills and Microsoft Technology workshops. We were given not only the technical resources necessary to complete the challenge but also the soft skills, with the common theme being to understand the end users of our solution and their key moments of truth before designing a solution.
The 24-hour case was genuinely a rollercoaster, with the elation of finding our focus early on counteracted by a midday crisis. We welcomed a scheduled dinner break alongside our Microsoft Mentors, rounding off the day with a 3am PowerPoint submission and rough presentation rehearsal. The photographer was nowhere to be seen in the hotel lobby at this time…
Presentation day was exhilarating, due, in part, to the lack of sleep but also to the excitement behind pitching our disaster relief solution directly to SES and Microsoft Representatives. Drawing upon our own flood-related experiences as Queenslanders, we were able to convey the magnitude of the impacts to the audience, demonstrating the desirability of a Mixed Reality solution to better equip emergency responders in situations that don’t match their immediate skillsets. The competition allowed us to combine our love for the environment with our newfound passion for innovation, utilising Microsoft Technologies such as Dynamics 365 and Hololens as the catalysts for positive change in Australian disaster relief response. Upon the conclusion of our presentation, we were met with positive feedback, earning third place and a network of like-minded and passionate individuals.
For any other students considering applying, my key piece of advice is to be specific and truly understand the people or community you are designing your solution for. Have empathy for these people, understand their key moments of truth and convey how you are making a meaningful contribution to their lives. Also, if possible, sleeping for more than two hours before the presentation is recommended…