Connecting the dots

Wednesday, 01 September 2021

Jessica Mudditt photo
Jessica Mudditt

    Mikaela Jade is the founder and CEO of Indigital, Australia’s first Indigenous edu-tech company. Its digital skills training platforms in fourth industrial revolution technologies are designed through a First Nations cultural lens.

    Mikaela Jade saw the comparative lack of opportunities for First Nations people in the technology sector and resolved to create new pathways through training that could generate on-country employment. But first, she needed to make her own way into the world of startups and learn an entirely new discipline of augmented reality. She had no background to speak of in technology. The environmental biologist had 21 years’ experience as a park ranger in places like Kakadu when she first experienced augmented reality in 2012. A Cabrogal woman, Jade immediately saw the potential for it to be applied in First Nations communities, and cultural and natural settings. That was when the idea for Indigital was sparked.

    “I thought about the huge potential of augmented and mixed realities for sharing our knowledge, language and laws in a way that is three-dimensional and incredibly personal,” says Jade. “I was struck by the idea of being able to hold a phone up at a cultural place, and our elders could come forth in holographic format and tell us their story.”

    Starting from scratch

    Jade spent two years learning augmented-reality production from UK expert Jason Higgins, founder of 3D web company Harmony Studios. It was a gruelling schedule — she worked as a park ranger during the day and would then begin lengthy sessions at 11pm. Over a shared screen on Skype, Jade learned how to use different software packages to create content, and then built a bespoke app to display it. By 2014, she had a minimum viable product (MVP).

    The technology was very costly, so Jade needed to raise $200,000 for a proof of concept. She managed this through grants, a business loan and by investing a significant chunk of her ranger’s salary.

    “The financial aspect was very stressful,” she recalls. “I wanted to stop being a park ranger and just concentrate on delivering this massive piece of research and development, but I had to go back to being a park ranger to pay the company’s bills.”

    By 2019, Jade had recouped her investments and Indigital had bagged a number of awards, including the Veuve Clicquot New Generation Award in 2018, and the AMP Foundation Tomorrow Maker in 2019.

    Indigenous communities see patterns in the environment and connectivity within ecosystems.

    Mikaela Jade

    Cutting-edge tech meets ancient culture

    Last year, Indigital provided digital skills training to 1000 primary and high schools students and 70 teachers. The training focuses on augmented reality, animation, audio recording and coding, while also enabling young people to learn from First Nations elders about culture, history and language. Training programs for adults are also available, mostly rolled out by the corporate sector. With an online learning platform recently developed to complement the augmented-reality one, Indigital is looking at ways to adapt the technology for Indigenous communities in Canada, New Zealand and Kenya.

    In the space of 18 months, Indigital grew from one person to nine, which prompted Jade to create an informal advisory board in 2020. Its five members possess different skill sets and include a female and a male elder, business specialist, startup specialist and venture capital specialist. “For ages, it was just me,” says Jade. “In the transition from a single person to having an actual company there were a lot of questions that came up, such as onboarding staff, setting up our tech and meeting all our requirements for running a company.”

    80,000 years of science

    Generating employment opportunities on country is a key part of Indigital’s mission. To that end, it is preparing to establish a registered training organisation (RTO) in 2023, which will be the first First Nations-registered training organisation to offer qualifications in fourth industrial revolution technologies — for example, AI, robotics, Internet of Things, 3D printing, genetic engineering, quantum computing. However, Jade says it’s imperative to simultaneously challenge discriminatory attitudes so that new, meaningful opportunities can be realised.

    “As Indigenous peoples, we face a lot of biases about our abilities,” she says. “A lot of people still view our mob through a deficit lens, instead of looking at our excellence. When people are recruiting Indigenous people into the tech sector, they tend to offer us lower-level jobs and assume we’re beginning our careers, rather than opening roles that are higher up in the organisation, or involved in strategy or business development.”

    Jade believes that the benefits of having more First Nations people involved in the tech sector will flow in both directions. “We bring a different kind of thinking to innovation and technologies because we have about 80,000 years of science to draw on,” she says. “The way we view the world and connect the dots can be a bit different to other people who are not Indigenous.”

    Take pattern recognition used by satellites. As Jade explains, “They collect data on the landscape, but the algorithms only process that data through Western knowledge systems. Indigenous communities see patterns in the environment and connectivity within ecosystems. This can be applied to developing new algorithms that look at the world through a different lens.”

    Ethical questions

    As part of its research and advocacy work, Indigital also contemplates philosophical questions about the ethics of applying First Nations culture to new technologies. To date, the holograms at cultural sites have been representations of rock art characters, rather than elders, as Jade initially envisaged. “There’s a lot we need to think about before we jump into capturing holograms of our elders,” she says. “If our people haven’t had a hand in creating the algorithms behind the holograms, is the representation still cultural knowledge? What are we calling our ancestors back to do? Is the hologram for education or for entertainment? You’re essentially creating a digital twin. How do you protect that digital twin into perpetuity, so that it won’t be used for another purpose?”

    Jade would like to see elders have a more significant input into such discussions. With the technology rapidly evolving, one thing is for certain — there are no short answers.

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