Posted By QEII National Trust | June 17, 2019

Virtual reality, artificial intelligence and the fast changing high-tech landscape seem a world away from the natural world of QEII National Trust covenants. But tech entrepreneur Vaughan Fergusson has a vision that one day kids will one day climb up through the 32ha of covenanted forest at Karioi Lodge to a rustic cabin overlooking the Tasman Sea. When they open the door, they will find a bank of computer screens telling them everything that’s going on in the bush.

Vaughan, the founder of the Vend retail software company and 2014 EY Tech Entrepreneur of the Year winner, bought Karioi Lodge at Raglan in December. He and partner Zoe Timbrell are establishing what they call The Institute of Awesome, a place that will bring together the environment and technology for the benefit of kids and the New Zealand economy.  “Technology has a huge role to play in solving problems in the natural world, including issues like climate change, which is incredibly relevant to kids,” Vaughan says.

Their plan is to incorporate the lodge into the work of their charity, the Pam Fergusson Charitable Trust. The trust runs programmes including OMG Tech! to teach cutting edge technologies to primary and intermediate age children.

The trust is named in memory of Vaughan’s mother, who bought computers for her young sons from the early 1980s despite the difficulties of being a paraplegic solo mother. She nurtured their passion for technology in the same way Vaughan and Zoe are now doing for other children through the trust. Pam Fergusson’s example also inspired Vaughan at the end of last year to change his surname from Rowsell to honour his mother’s memory.

Vaughan and Zoe had been looking for some indoor space in Raglan to run some of their educational programmes. They wanted to show innovation could happen outside the main cities and they liked Raglan, a town with a powerful sense of community, a reputation for innovation and strong environmental values.

Raglan friends suggested they take a look at the lodge, which had been set up in 1974 as a school camp and run as a trust by a group of Huntly teachers. Today it also serves as a backpacker lodge and home for the Raglan Surf School in the summer months.

They were initially cool on the idea, thinking they only really needed 100 square metres of office space rather than a 100 acre property. “One day we went up to the lodge and fell in love with it immediately and then we instantly expanded our thinking and thought this would be an amazing asset,” Vaughan says.

Their vision seems at odds with some parents’ idea of a school camp as a place to get their children away from their mobile phones and other devices. “But what we’re saying is the future of technology is not going to be screens, technology is going to be pervasive and all around us and we will be using it to solve some gnarly problems.”

The covenant over an area of broadleaf coastal forest, covering three-quarters of the property’s total area, appealed to Vaughan and Zoe. “It means whatever legacy we continue on the property, it will be guaranteed into the future as well”.

Vaughan and Zoe thought about how to integrate the bush and the 100-person lodge with their programmes and that led to the idea of an enviro-tech camp. “What we will be doing won’t require Facebook or Instagram, it just requires the kids to get outdoors with a soldering iron, some componentry and some coding. With a bit of innovation, they can do some pretty cool things”.

“We can get the kids really curious about the outdoor environment and present them with some interesting problems and ask them how they would solve them using technology. It might be how to grow food, create elec tricity, track pests or to know if the water is safe to drink.”

As well as the programmes for kids, the centre will also be running professional development courses for teachers in technology, a timely move with a revised curriculum coming into effect next year. The lodge will also invite groups of industry leaders and their teams to short term residencies for teambuilding and brainstorming.

The goal is for industry to come and build things utilising new technology to leave behind for kids to learn from. The first cohort of industry people will be arriving at the lodge in the first half of this year and the first groups of teachers will follow soon after.

Karioi Lodge will continue to provide accommodation for backpackers during the summer holiday months and to be a home for the surf school. “Surfing is one of the ways we can encourage kids outdoors and in the ocean and get them thinking about how to use wave energy to generate power.”

Vaughan reckons the natural beauty, birdsong and tranquillity will ensure everyone who comes to the Institute of Awesome will be forced to disconnect from their normal lives and to think more creatively. “This is one of these once in a lifetime opportunities and buying an outdoor education centre wasn’t something we set out to do. But now that we have one, we’re so excited about the possibilities of what we can do with it to create a new generation of innovators in the environment.”