Design

Musician, Entrepreneur, Author: Riffing with David Usher on Creativity

David-Usher_photo-credit-Sabrina-Reeves-1050x700

I was going to make a book in the digital world, I wanted there a reason for it to exist. I wanted it to feel like an artifact , and still deliver a meaningful message.”
David Usher:  Let the Elephants Run: Unlock Your Creativity and Change Everything

Sure he’s sold more than 1.4 million albums and won 4 Junos, but that didn’t really grab my attention. When I connected David Usher with being a technology entrepreneur, and that his company CloudID has worked innovative projects for clients like Cirque du Soleil, Deloitte and TIFF, reading an advance copy David Usher’s new book “Let the Elephants Run: Unlock Your Creativity and Change Everything,” was an easy choice.

The overall design of the book made it easy to pick up. There’s a playfulness to it, highlighted by the wide variety of font styles, the creative use of whitespace, and different paper colours, making for a great visual experience. Even the choice of paper stock made for it being a very tactile experience. It screams, pick me up, open me, bend my pages, and scribble in the margins. It the first book that I’ve picked up in a long time that says, “deface me.”

Talking with Usher, I agreed that the book is a good fit with a couple types of reader. He shared that, “after the talks I was giving about creativity, people were coming up to me wanting to engage with the idea of the creative process; how to get back and re-discover that long forgotten sense of childhood wonder and imagination.”

For someone already doing something creative, but looking to explore the process, this book could give them a different lens on what they are doing. For both the young or the inexperienced entrepreneur, Usher offers some valuable insights. Here are a few nuggets off the pages worth keeping in mind –

  • “When you start to see creative thinking as independent of genre or discipline, suddenly you can work on almost anything.”
  • “Unpredictability opens the door the the possible”.
  • “Talent matters, but work is what delivers you.”
  • “Artist or entrepreneur, in my mind we are all hustlers and thieves…”
  • “There maybe a few rare geniuses that can pull incredible brilliance out of the air without any prior knowledge or contextual influence. We build off the work of others.”
  • “Today, value is measured by attention.”
  • “Protecting your idea becomes far less important than your ability to execute them.”
  • “When you learn the language of creativity it alters the lens through which you see the world.”

The book is full of some great non-Usher quotes, and this one in particular every startup entrepreneur should keep in mind: “As a startup CEO, I slept like a baby. I woke up every two hours and cried.” – Ben Horowitz

David Usher Let the Elephants Run

Usher’s affinity for lean startup methodology weaves its way throughout the book. “It’s a synthesis of those ideas, I think how artists take in their creativity and the process of the lean startup is very similar. It runs in parallel. A lot can be learned by looking back and forth between the two,” he said.

Asking about what sparked his interest in technology startups, it was having a front row seat to “watching the music business implode from the inside out.” Usher added, “I watched EMI, who had been doing the same thing the same way for 100 years, and watched their whole infrastructure, everything that was of value to that company dissipate over a few years. That gives you a choice as an individual; hold onto the old or really go down the rabbit hole for the new.”

With the recent success of Moist’s new album “Glory Under Dangerous Skies”, Usher is preparing to head out on the road for the Summer festival circuit. And with the added focus on this book he admitted that tech isn’t top of mind right now. He indicated that “I have the bug to do something that is some kind of integration with tech for sure. But I’m really looking for something very specific. I think that what you learn from those things that don’t go as expected, is that you get a clearer understanding of what you’re looking for.”

“I watched EMI, who had been doing the same thing the same way for 100 years, dissipate over a few years.”

We circled our conversation back to the book itself. In particular I was curious about his choice of title. Usher talked about how in his own brainstorming sessions, “whether it’s music, interdisciplinary theatre, or tech, we use this technique that’s about letting the ideas (the Elephant) be large. We try to keep at bay the idea of reality. We try to eliminate the word NO. If you put no on all of the ideas outside the realm of reality, by the time you actually get through the grind of the creative process, the idea you have is probably pretty average and already been done.”

Entrepreneurship, innovation, and creativity are unquestionably connected, and it’s important to see creativity as something more than an artistic endeavour. Usher wants to make it clear that, “beyond a tiny bit of inspiration, the creative process is wrapped up in a whole lot of structure and grind. As well, it’s not just about building some big project. Creativity exists in the small moments.”

Furthermore he challenges everyone to see that “it’s in conversations, it’s in negotiations. These are all opportunities use creative thinking. Look at the patterns you’re imposing on a situation, and then try to impose a mutation on that pattern to see if you get different results.”

Beyond ideas, and beyond products, the startup business is a human endeavour. “Just like there are waves to building or launching anything, there are also emotional waves within that whole process,” Usher has learned. He knows that “the more complex your structure, the more people involved the more complex those emotions can be.”

In spite of his successes to date, I asked him about managing emotions. “I’m better at the roller coaster now, but even with this book there’s nerves before it comes out. How will people respond to it? What the hell am I doing? But like anything, I’m learning as I go. When this is over I’ll do what I always do; I’ll do a post-mortem and an analysis on my process.”

Title: Let the Elephants Run: Unlock Your Creativity and Change Everything
Publisher: House of Anansi Press
Price: $29.95  CDN

The books are available in the chain bookstores like Indigo/Chapters/Coles as well as your local independent bookstore. Also available to purchase online via amazon.ca / chapters.indigo.ca etc.

This was originally published in BetaKit

photo credit Sabrina Reeves

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#NoFilters. Social Media, Representation and Responsibility

No filters

It’s time we stop prefixing media with the word “social.” It’s media. It’s also a free-for-all, that’s both filtered and unfiltered. Everyone with an internet connection has access to the platforms and ability to use the applications of their choosing. Everyone is free to participate, create and communicate.

Everyday at BetaKit we get to celebrate, question, and sometimes deride, technology. Thinking about, talking with, and writing stories about the people behind the technologies empowering us to communicate in ways unimaginable even 10 years ago is an opportunity I’m grateful for.

For instance, it’s staggering to consider that we’re uploading and sharing over 1.8 billion photos each day according to KPCB analyst Mary Meeker’s 2014 Internet Trends report (see slide #62). How tall would that stack of polaroids be?

Technology is more pervasive than ever. There’s a deluge of stories to share and sift through, and no shortage of shiny new gadgets to communicate or consume media with. Yet everyday I find myself thinking more about the meaning of representation. I ask myself about what representation means with respect to context; or how does representation come into play in terms of my understanding the relationship between an object or a subject. Most importantly, I think about how representation comes with responsibility.

It’s worth remembering, representation is the use of signs that stand in for and take the place of something else. It is through representation that people organize the world and reality through the act of naming its elements. Signs are arranged in order to form semantic constructions and express relations.”

Generate Kris Krug

Images coming from the filtering app Generate jumped off my Facebook feed one day. It was Galiano Island photographer and entrepreneur Kris Krug’s creative touch applied to TEDxVancouver that pushed me to thinking more the relationship between technology filters, representation, and responsibility.

Is the representation and therefore our relationship or understanding of a person, a group of people, a place or thing, impacted by the filters we apply to any medium – be it visually, through our choice of words, or the soundscapes we create?

Any images, words or sounds we digitize and submit to the public domain puts us in the position as both a creator and communicator. As a creator and communicator what is your responsibility? It’s one thing to misrepresent yourself, but it’s altogether another issue when you’re misrepresenting the world around you.

Using filters, or changing the appearance of an image is nothing new. The history of photography and film is one of alteration through development techniques, and using different materials such as paper and chemicals. The difference between then and now is cost and accessibility. Then, you had to be a professional or well-heeled amateur to own the equipment. I wonder if photographers like Ansel Adams, Annie Leibovitz, or a National Geographic contributor like Jim Brandenburg would use #nofilter?

Think about it, photoshopped is now an adjective, but photoshop the application is barely 25 years old. As well, it originally cost $1000.00. Today we have sub ten dollar to free photo apps at the disposal of everyone carrying a smartphone. It was overwhelming scrolling through the app store at the number of photo-filtering apps; I quit counting at 35.

Instagram has over 200 million users, and you can apply filters to pictures with the mobile Facebook, Twitter, and native iOS camera app. So mainstream they’re the source of some great humour like this Oatmeal cartoon, and this YouTube video.

All joking aside, it’s important to think about representation as related to what we see. Consider the intent of what’s being created and communicated. Is there a relationship between representation and some form of truth and reality? Does the use of a filter make that person an agent of change? Does it potentially alter our relationship or sense of reality?

Generate Kinder Morgan Protest

Is some regards the filtering of a visual experience can be adding commentary to our reality. Are we filtering an angst or dissatisfaction with reality? Blurring the lines of reality? Could we also be representing a filtered sense of joy, marvel, or perspective of what could be better or more beautiful?

Science is largely about the study of objects, whereas much of what’s populating our media feeds are people, places, events, food, and funny animal tricks. I’m all for sharing the subjects of our interest, desire, and love. I’m all for using filters as a form of commentary or creativity.

When there’s a lack of rigour and thought behind what’s being represented, it then becomes a potential act of objectification. Simply put, our world needs less objectification. It’s at the root of so much tension, misunderstanding and anxiety that pollutes our conversations and narratives.

The tools of communication might be free and we’re all free to use them, but it shouldn’t mean we’re free use them free of responsibility. It’s worth pausing and asking “why am I thinking this, why am I saying it,  or why am I seeing it this way?” before pressing submit and post.

“How strange painting is, it delights us with representations of objects that are not pleasing in themselves!”
– Eugene Delacroix

Photographs courtesy of Kris Krug.

This story originally appeared in BetaKit

“We’ll be Like the Silicon Valley for Healthcare in Canada”

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It’s been barely a year since it’s launch and Ryan D’Arcy said “it’s been moving like a bullet train: a lot has happened, and there’s a lot of progress.” D’Arcy is SFU’s BC Leadership Chair in Multimodal Technology for Healthcare Innovation, and is referring to the fact that Surrey BC’sInnovation Boulevard is being primed to emerge as a world class digital healthcare technology cluster.

D’Arcy caught the science innovation bug early in his career.

Having the chance to come home with his innovation and collaboration playbook that proved successful in Halifax, he didn’t hide his bullishness on the future of Surrey. He envisions a massive opportunity in front of the Innovation Boulevard.

“One of the rapid ways you can affect health from both an improved care perspective and an economic development one is rooted in technology,” he said. “Engineering, science and the development of new technologies can be fast acting and have impactful meaning for health.”

“The raw ingredients are all here.” He pointed out  “We have the strength of SFU’s Applied Sciences program, Fraser Health corporate head office (the health region serves more than 1.6 million people, and has $2.9 billion annual operating budget – 2010/11) Surrey Memorial hospital (home to B.C.’s busiest emergency room and a $512-million expansion), the City of Surrey itself (2nd largest city in BC and the 12th largest city in Canada with a population of over 468,000). Along with access to some still affordable real estate, the overall formula is here to attract the right people, the right teams, with the right ideas to build a world class health technology cluster.”

There’s an estimated 180 health-related businesses already located in the area. As well, further driving innovation is the addition of SFU Surrey and the city expanding their high-speed Canarie fibre-optic network. All of this is essentially located within one square mile, as D’Arcy characterized the walk down King George Highway “as the spinal cord of the Innovation Boulevard.”

Maryam Sadeghi is the CEO of MetaOptima Solutions, and the science and technology adviser for the Digital Health Hub. She shared how it was question about the future licensing of her technology that lead to a conversation with D’Arcy. With a telemedicine solution for the prevention and detection of skin cancer, she was trying to understand the potential of working with Surrey Memorial Hospital or Fraser Health.

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She candidly suggested that “It didn’t take much conversation before D’Arcy opened up the door to this research lab, with a bunch of computers and said ‘this is all yours’. Bring MoleScope, bring your experience, and bring the vision of creating more companies like yours at SFU.”

“A lot of startup companies who have great ideas are challenged to test things in a real environment. It’ crucial getting the necessary feedback to improve on what they’re trying to eventually commercialize,” she pointed out. “It’s a real strategic benefit to be here, having access to the university resources, grants, funding, Fraser Health and Surrey Memorial. It’s going to be very attractive for companies to come here, we’ll be like a Silicon Valley for Health Care in Canada.”

From D’Arcy’s perspective, “it’s an unprecedented example of partnership in BC’s history. Historically the province has under-performed in its ability to connect and partner in order to compete in the global race, and to some degree we’ve shortchanged ourselves.”

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By unprecedented partnership, he pointed to four universities and others incoming, as well as health authorities and businesses generating an excitement around working together. D’Arcy credits much of this to the role that the City of Surrey is playing, saying “the city is like Switzerland in it’s neutrality by allowing everyone to come in to be part of this.”

For the healthcare technology community this partnership is also allowing for the launch of Health Tech Connex. D’Arcy isn’t characterizing this as an incubator or accelerator. He says “it’s first and foremost about location, location, location. Proximity to the healthcare professionals is vital. It’s all about facilitating access to the right people, and helping companies from early stage university spinouts to multinationals to move their commercialization efforts along much faster.”

Entrepreneurs will also be able to count on the support and services of the BCTIA and Life Sciences BC through their roles as founding partners. There are currently about 30 companies in the screening process, and asking for access to the hospital, pilot projects, clinical trials, or university resources. Demand to join is growing at a pace D’Arcy didn’t imagine even in his most optimistic moments.

Sadeghi is so convinced of the potential for this digital health hub and the Innovation Blvd concept, since August 1st 2013 she’s essentially been mentored full time. She plans to join the SFU research team shortly, but said it was question about the future licensing of her technology that lead to a conversation with Ryan D’Arcy: “it’s all about helping realize this vision.”

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It takes more than buildings, pavement and technology to create a winning business cluster. With D’Arcy driving the vision and acting like the connective tissue, Innovation Boulevard stands to be a difference making destination.

This story originally appeared in BetaKit

Charles Montgomery, Talks Technology and the Happy City: Part II

Charles Montgomery I

It was thinking about the relationship between people (individually and collectively) our space, and built environments that motivated this conversation with Happy City author Charles Montgomery. It’s envisioning a post-combustion engine, congestion free, non- pollutant spewing transportation grid. It’s future where people not cars claim primacy to the urban experience. This is an idea worth turning into action.

Borrowing lessons from the ancient world, he writes about how Athens captures a human-centric approach to design. “The city was more than a machine for delivering everyday needs; it was a concept that bound together Athenian culture, politics, mores, and history… Anyone who did not concern himself with public life was himself less than whole” (p.19).

Looking at our 20th century car-centric design thinking and urban planning, the detrimental societal and environmental effects are on full display. There’s nothing social about meltdowns in gridlock. There’s also nothing sustainable about a melting planet.

Asked about a future for the self-driving car, and the potential that a vehicle will simply become a node on a distributed transportation grid, Montgomery thought “it’s an exciting possibility.” He added, “because of the errors, the catastrophe of modernist city planning throughout the 20th century that many existing neighborhoods, particularly on the fringes of cities simply can not support public transit.” Something that simply looks like a human driving an expensive automated bus isn’t going to improve a system of infrastructure built for yesterday.

“At the same time I think that the tech fetishes out there fail to see that traffic and congestion are a natural occurrence in vibrant thriving cities,” he pointed out. In other words, having driverless cars is not going to solve the problem of congestion. Montgomery said “as along as individuals insist on traveling alone in their vehicles whether they are driving or a computer is driving, they’re going to get stuck in traffic.”

He thinks, “driverless cars will be useful, even as part of the public transit system in helping people in dispersed areas access say transit nodes or suburban villages so they can reach high quality, high status shared transportation. Ultimately, it still doesn’t solve the problem of squeezing all of these separate vehicles into the limited space in your thriving central city.”

He reported being impressed with Arlington Virginia as a city that’s creating happier experiences. Saying “they are converting boring, blank, horrid, what some people call car sewers into livable neighborhoods. The subway nodes are surrounded by low and mid-rise with building of shops and services and bars and fun with great sidewalk.”

More impressively, Arlington’s transit authority has dozens of people working on transportation demand management. Montgomery said, “what this means is engaging in the good work of changing hearts and minds.  When we think of cities, movement and technology we keep looking for some holy grail that’s going the fix the problems, when really the biggest issue around transportation is in the firing of our own neurons.”

He doesn’t hesitate saying “we habitually and predictably get it wrong when making decisions about our own happiness about maximizing utility. We all do this everyday in making decision about how to move.”

Public health experts and psychologists are doing robust studies on how moving affects life happiness. According to him, what they’ve found out is “that when people switch from driving their cars to active transportation like walking, biking and even taking transit they get happier. This was a shocker, because most people report in surveys that they don’t like taking transit, and that they feel more fear, rage and sadness than in any other mode.”

We need to envision a system of movement. “It’s a system of life choices that occurs whenever individuals decide to move in a different way, so a transit journey or transit lifestyle isn’t just about getting on a bus. It’s about walking through your neighborhood, and the getting on a bus, and then walking through another neighborhood,” he pointed out.

Coming back to Arlington, “what their commuter services is doing is hacking the minds of commuters in their town. Simply by not showing them data but showing them new stories about how peoples lives are changing when they decide to move differently, that’s all.”

Montgomery said they’re succeeding. “More and more people are choosing to move differently, what that means in Arlington is even though they have tens of thousands of people moving to these new transit neighborhoods there are no more cars on the road. Life gets easier and cheaper for everyone, and the municipality ends up paying less for road improvements.”

TEDxVancouver Signage - JonathanEvans

As we both call Vancouver home, I had to ask his thoughts about it’s place on the Happy City continuum. “You can see we’re doing many things right,” he offered. “Those of us who are lucky enough to own here get to drink from that sweet fountain. But, it’s false to rate a cities happiness simply on questions of livability. You also have to ask yourself the question of equity, of fairness and the question is really very simple; is your city really happy if most people can’t afford to live there?”

According to Montgomery this is where the city has failed. “We’ve failed to anticipate and deal with the effects that the global economy would have our city and on our lives. I’m talking about affordable housing. The big question for Vancouver is not how we can be greener, but how can we extend the riches of city life to more people who want to live here and to the people who already live here and are being pushed out.”

I’m grateful for the opportunity to write about technology and to share stories about the dynamic people making Vancouver a thriving community. But I also 100% agree with Montgomery when he says “guess what, technology is not going to solve that problem. It means finding new forms of tenure. New ways of owning property that makes it less attractive to speculative buyers, and it means finding new ways of adding supply in our neighborhoods. The kinds of housing supply that again aren’t attractive to speculative buyers. The solution to that problem is policy.”

Technology can be enabling, engaging, and empowering, but will accomplish none of this if it’s not designed for people first. The machine, it’s bits and bites are soulless. More than ever we need to keep humanity front and center in our conversations about technology.

“Whatever creates or increases happiness or some part of happiness, we ought to do; whatever destroys or hampers happiness, or gives rise to its opposite, we ought not to do.” Aristotle, Rhetoric

This story was originally published in BetaKit

Charles Montgomery, Talks Technology and the Happy City: Part I

Charles Montgomery -JonathanEvans

Massive urbanization on a global scale is inescapable. It’s not just a trend, it’s happening. Some research suggests that by 2210 nearly 87 percent of the worlds population will live in a city. This future will undoudtedly highlight both the best and worst of humanity. I don’t harbour visions of the Blade Runner like dystopian future. With meaningful policy, purposeful planning, and the infusion of humanity into technology, I’m hopeful of seeing our collective best.

I’ve written about topics like the connected city and urban mobility. It was a significant consideration for the TEDxVancouver team to arrange a conversation with Charles Montgomery. Reading Happy City was a seminal experience. Montgomery works with the BMW Guggenheim Lab, the Museum of Vancouver and other institutions. He creates experiments that challenge us to see our cities—and ourselves—in entirely new ways.

Asked if a city can be happy with technology attempting to make it smarter? “An interesting question” he suggested. “I’d turn it around. I think we need to be asking how is the smarter city going to make us happier? How can it? It may not always.”

Montgomery offered that “there’s a relationship between the use of information and technology in urban systems that may make our lives a little easier. But I’d like to also talk about limitations.”

Mobility’s importance starts the smarter cities conversation. Considering public transit, Montgomery commented that some of the greatest anxiety for transit users involves a sense of uncertainty. “If you don’t know when your bus or train is coming and if you don’t know about making connections, stress levels spike.”

Reducing this stress on shared transit systems isn’t rocket science. This is where information and technology can play a key role. “Just by give people better information make a huge difference,” he said. “When institutions curate more information for customers, doing things a simple as including information or light boards at train and bus stations telling you when the next bus is coming is found to decrease stress.” People feel more in control just having the perception of a shorter wait time.

He talked about the growing number of jurisdictions offering open data. This is allowing app developers the chance work with around transportation systems to give people the information they want in their own pocket. As a Radar user for the Vancouver transit system, he said, “it’s terrific. It shows me where my buses are. It’s not about projected arrival times, I find cognitively that it’s more reassuring to see where the bus is.”

The open data movement can also be empowering for people who just need to get around town. Montgomery sees “it’s powerful for both transit and sharing networks like ZipCar and Car2Go.” He added a unique take on Car2Go, likening it to recycling a pop bottle. Find a car with an app, pick it up, use it, and toss it (leave it curbside). “I think our mobile technologies are essentially enabling these new systems of sharing that are making us more free in cities,” he says.

But he highlighted an important limitation, musing that “we have so far to go.” Recounting a conversation with a leader of the Paris bike sharing program who said, “we know we need to shrink our environmental footprint, and the good news is that it can actually make our lives easier.” He kept returning to this theme of freedom, “what we want is to be free, to move unencumbered through our cities” he said this without mentioning any specific technology or specific mode of movement.

There was a stated desire that more and more Parisians, “want to leave the front door, and want to reach a destination using any mode they please without having to think about it.” Montgomery said further that “he suggested the problem with the old fashioned model of mobility is that you need to own a thing, typically an expensive thing like a car or even a bike. It’s useful for only a few minutes or up to a couple of hours per day, and the rest of the time you have to worry about maintaining it, storing it, and even protecting it.”

The wondrous thing about the Velib bike sharing system in Paris is that it brought a new kind of freedom. A freedom from having to own things, which sounds like Socialism to “us”, but he was talking about valuing experience more that stuff. And guess what, the psychologists and behavioural economists are now telling us that experience is the key to happiness.”

Touching on Aristotle’s notion of Eudaimonia he offered that, “happiness is feeling empowered to reach your full potential. So the question is, how can our cities help us get there? How can they empower us so that we can take on the great challenges of everyday life, and thrive?”

There are current technological limitations relating to shared mobility supply, demand, logistics and fulfillment. Montgomery points out, “in some ways open data and mobile technologies are helping us get there, however I don’t think we can detach ourselves from the realities of the material world. By that I mean, as wondrous as a bike share system or a system like Car2Go is, all you have to do is look at your bike share or car share app to see that at certain times of day there are no vehicles in your neighborhood. They all disappear in the morning, and they all come back at night. So this tells us all the data in the world is not going to fix the issues arising from urban design.”

He talks about intensifying the mix of uses right across the city. “Some people might not like the sounds of this, but if I had more offices, or auto body shops near my house I would have more cars available. And I think the smarter city of the future is necessarily a city of fine grain and mixed uses”

The self-driving car, plus interesting examples of what the cities of Arlington VA, and Vancouver, BC are doing highlight Part II of our conversation.

“It’s impossible to separate the life and design of a city from the attempt to understand happiness, to experience it, and to build it for society.”Charles Montgomery, Happy City

This story was originally published in BetaKit

Fusing Compassion and Technology. Notes from Siggraph 2014

Siggraph crowd shot

In his opening address Siggraph 2014, Dave Shreiner said “this event is all about technology to enhance peoples lives. But more importantly it’s also about compassion.” Being at conference that was putting people above the technology was a revelation. For the chairman, compassion is the narrative that matters.

Siggraph Dave Schreiner

He introduced everyone to Paulo Henrique Machado from Sao Paulo, Brazil. The computer animator attended Siggraph for the first time despite being confined to a bed and hooked to an artificial respirator 24 hours-a-day. Shreiner’s own iPad adorned Machado’s telepresence robot that allowed him to experience the people, the sights and the sounds in real time.

Machado shared with the SIGGRAPH team that the robot, “gives me the freedom that I physically can’t have.” Shreiner offered to the audience. “SIGGRAPH is a community. Paulo is part of our community, and we take care of our own.”

You can learn more about Machado from this BBC feature story.

The compassion theme was further amplified in keynote speaker Elliot Kotek. As chief of content and cofounder of Not Impossible Labs he’s a storyteller of the highest order. But he’s also a driving force behind a team whose core belief is that technology has to exist for the sake of humanity.

Read also: Not Impossible Mobilizes the International Maker Community to Save Lives

Kotek highlighted a number of projects the Not Impossible Labs team is currently tackling, as well as their commitment to a philosophy of shared innovation. He highlighted stories where open source platforms, hackers and do-it-yourself makers are fusing a community together and improving the lives of others with a mindset of “permission-less innovation.”

The genesis for Not Impossible Labs was the Eye-Writer project. For Tempt, a world renowned L.A graffiti artist fully paralyzed because of Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS), this amazing “hack” now allows him to draw and communicate using only his eyes. It worth watching Kotek’s partner Mick Ebeling’s TED talk.

Time Magazine proclaimed that it’s “hard to imagine any other device here doing more to make the world a better place,” as Kotek’s team leveraged open source CAD files and 3D printing technology to meaningfully transform 14-year-old double-amputee Daniel’s life. Living in war ravaged Sudan, Daniel lost both of his arms during an air raid.

Siggraph Elliot Kotek (1)

Kotek spoke of Daniel despairing about his future and about being a burden to his family and village. By creating a 3D-printed prosthetic arm the impact of seeing Daniel simply feed himself for the first time in two years was massive. Project Daniel was born. Now in Sudan’s Nuba Mountains they have set-up what is likely the world’s first 3D-printing prosthetic lab and training facility.

The team’s goal was to teach and empower the local community to use this technology and help the too many victims of similar tragedies. Kotek credits Richard Van As for making the  prosthetic hand an open source file. At a cost of about $100 in materials, the needed hardware a little teaching time with people whose education is the equivalent to about the 4th to 6th grade learned in fours days the process to make these prosthetic arms. He pointed out that this is “proof of a process transcending the tech savvy. Most importantly the project lives on!”

Even with an exhibit hall overflowing with the technology that’s driving the visual brilliance we’ve come the enjoy from our games, movies, and animation, as Shreiner later shared with me, “for the Paulo’s, the Tempt’s and the Daniel’s of our world, this is what it’s all about, we make these marvellous things so we should be using them for good.”

There was no shortage of inspiration at Siggraph 2014. Seeing the very tangible results by fusing compassion with technology will hopefully be a catalyst to transcend inspiration into mobilization.My imagination goes into overdrive thinking about what this collection of exceptionally talented people will do in creating an even richer human experience.

 

Human Communication is the Heart of a Connected City

Nora Young
“We at the very beginning of time for the human race. It is not unreasonable that we grapple with problems. But there are tens of thousands of years in the future. Our responsibility is to do what we can, learn what we can, improve the solutions, and pass them on.”Richard Feynman 

The From Now conference gave over 100 people an opportunity to learn and discuss how technology is integrating into, and changing our societies and culture. Conversations both formal and informal ranged from smart cities, wearables, the internet of things, the quantified self, quantum computing, big data, grassroots tech movements, the maker movement, apps, mobile, robotics, cyborg anthropology, philosophy, bionics, user experience, the impact today and the future of where our tech-led world is taking us.

However, the theme stayed true to keeping humanity with technology. The speakers delivered thoughtful, thought provoking, entertaining topics with each warranting a feature story in their own right.

Nora Young’s (Journalist and host of CBC Spark) morning keynote ‘Design for the Internet of Things: An Urban Utopian Fantasy’ had a deep resonance. For the past 34 years ‘the city’ has been my home, and Young’s talk spoke to the roles that cities play today and how they’ll be the future home to more and more of the worlds population.

The evolution of the connected city has to be more than the applications designed for the efficient delivery of services. Technology can increase citizen engagement, but should also give us a deeper sense of local connection. Asking “does it all have to be known?” Young suggested “we need our digital cities to have a place for the unstructured, unplanned, discoverable, and with room for surprise.” Young cited the great example of Bristol, UK, being a ‘playable city’ with their “hello lamp-post project.”

“We need to actively plan and think seriously how the digital world will influence our physical spaces,” said Young, reminding everyone that we are and will continue to be part of the digital city. The language of the smart city can’t be driven and dominated by the soulless, technocratic, neo-liberal discourse. Touching on her conversation with Adam Greenfield and his work “Against the Smart City,” it served as further reminder about the importance of creating a better human experience.

There’s the need to think locally, and as Young offered to build on the unique “placeness.”

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By taking a distinct approach to urban information she asked “what’s the data personality?”

“What’s the digital difference between Toronto and Vancouver?” she asked. “Consider how we experience our spaces, and to look at something like the Murmur project, illustrating how located media can play a role in connecting us to place.”

There’s a place in the language of the connected city for the vernacular, or to reimagine our spatial relationships through the experience of augmented reality. As citizens we can take ownership and claim to build our own digital and data environments. Young sees this as creating “the democratization of space making in the urban environment.”

Citizen engagement should be about advancing our collective creative and intellectual capital. Within this fabric of citizenry, Young pointed out that “partnerships are needed in the politics of the city.” Conversations should be happening around how we define the notions of “data civics and the data commons.” She shared the importance of spreading of ideas, and how Social Physics can act as a mechanism of change.

Technology can’t be about creating individual bubbles and it can’t be about cutting people off or creating isolation. Isolation only creates more despair. Taking a moment, pausing to wipe away the tears, Young reflected on a friends recent suicide. “Technology should be about the removal of obstructions. The city can be a place of accidental sharing, bumping shoulders, unexpected connections, and place to just hang out. Let it encourage empathy. How do we see ourselves better? Other people better? How do we see each other better?”

Defining the type of cities that we want to call home is “a moral and spiritual issue. The city should be a platform for improving the human experience.” Technology isn’t the savior, it’s only the enabler. We’ll get the cities we want by asking more of ourselves, not by asking more of a city government. Revolutionaries we’re not.

The evolution we should want will happen, as Young said, in true Canadian fashion “by taking to the sidewalk in an orderly fashion.”

Originally appeared in BetaKit

Car2Go is at the Heart of an Entire Transportation Platform

BikeShop

 

If you call Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, or Montreal home you’ve most likely seen Car2Go’sSmart “fortwo” vehicles parked or on the move. The service’s North American debut was in Austin, TX (March 2010), and followed launching in Vancouver (June 2011).

Vancouver is now home to their largest fleet, with 650 vehicles and over 55,000 members, serving a home area of 110 sq. kilometers. The Car2Go footprint is growing globally, servicing 26 cities and over 700,000 members.

Making it easier to get around the city is nice, as is going car free altogether. But more importantly we’re looking to a future where an estimated 70 percent of the world population will live in cities by 2050. Increasing global urbanization is an issue. Car2Go, is essentially one part of a much bigger strategy for addressing the future challenges of individual mobility.

At IBM’s Impact2014 conference Nicholas Cole’s (CEO, Car2Go North America) keynote address introduced everyone to Moovel. It’s a platform that IBM mobile and cloud computing technologies are playing an important role in developing and deploying. With an intuitive smartphone application, Moovel bundles the offers of different providers for the optimal path from A to B, and is linked to public transport.

BmUn_SkIIAAlkYFThe platform is being tested in Germany right now, but there little question that we’re moving towards transportation as a platform. I spoke with Cole about Daimler’s bigger vision. “It’s not just about our own services. We’ll be connecting people with bike sharing, integrating the platform with city transit services, a limo like service such as Blacklane, and air travel. It will be one stop to arrange and book all of your mobility requirements,” he offered. Moovel will also opens up opportunities for third party development with the future release of an API.

I joked about the challenges of making a trip furniture shopping to IKEA in the Smart fortwo. Cole had heard that one before and mentioned that Europe is rolling out Car2Go Black, “it’s a natural progression being able to offer a bigger car, and longer duration of use. At trip’s end, the vehicle is returned to one of the dedicated parking stations – including those in another city where car2go black is available. There’s no return time required during the trip.” In Europe, the car2go black network will be based solely on the Mercedes-Benz B-Class.

Cole talked about the evolution of their business saying, “you just can’t drop a few hundred cars into a city and expect it to work, it’s important to be part of the community fabric.” Working with the city administrations is critical to the success of any urban transportation efforts like this, but so is working with business. “It’s the residents of every city who are the heart of our business, but we do see growing opportunities to work with companies too. We’re looking to do more with local businesses who have campus size footprints in a city.” While it’s a natural fit, he highlighted how they’re working with Daimler Trucks North America in Portland.

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Five years ago the idea of allowing car sharing service vehicles to flow through the city, versus simply being allocated a set number of parking space, was met with no shortage of resistance. Conceiving a new vision for personal mobility within the bureaucratized city transportation grid and revenue generating model didn’t align with many cities in those early days. According to Cole, “thankfully cities like Austin and Vancouver said lets discuss it, and see what makes sense. Today, cities are approaching us.”

We also touched on how the car can eventually just be another sensor. There’s no reason our cars shouldn’t be telling us what’s happening around us, like the air quality, emissions, traffic conditions, road conditions, and where to find parking. As he noted “technology is getting closer to where cars will tell you what roads to avoid. With the integration of apps like Waze is where we’ll have the ability to know the best ways of getting around in real time.”

The transportation network is a key to creating more livable cities of the future. Envisioning a network that’s integrating more mobility options, that’s more efficient, less congested, flowing more efficiently, and spewing less carbon is a good place to start.

This story originally appeared in BetaKit

PrintToPeers Software is Adding Teeth to 3D Printing Hardware

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Talk about serendipity. Two guys who don’t know each other move into the same Calgary coworking space discover they’ve been working on the same idea, over the same amount of time.

The pair, Tom Bielecki and Kaz Walker along with James Thorne are the cofounders of PrintToPeer, and now call Vancouver home. They’ve been part of  GrowLab‘s most recent cohort.

PrintToPeer is a web platform and printer driver that simplifies the 3D printing process. They envisioned the AirBnB for 3D printing. “Our whole idea was around accessibility to 3D printing. The problem was that we had 3D printers and but it was hard for people to find us,” said Bielecki. “We wanted to build this network of discoverability, where people could easily order parts from us, or we could print other projects for them.”

Doing some deeper market validation they found upwards of 30 similar businesses, but none of them were “making the printing process easier by sending the file directly to the machine” according to Bielecki. “Once you actually send that file to someone, they still have to go through this very complicated process to print off the object,” he added. “It’s because there was no networking. You couldn’t send it from the network to the 3D printer.”

SharingThe printing process for objects is nothing like printing that .pdf file document off your laptop. Many trees would be saved if we had to use three different software applications, and go through hundreds of settings to print a document. Printing objects is a complicated process. “You have to understand the actual physical properties of the plastic that the printer is extruding. All of the settings need to be tweaked based on your own hardware, and based on the different plastic being used,” said Bielecki.

The vision for 3D printing is about breaking down the barrier from idea to product, but today it’s almost the exact opposite, said the cofounder. “You pretty much have to be a physicist or an engineer to create a functional and useable finished product. By adding a network and easy user interface to the printer, we knew that we could deliver a simpler online workflow.”

It all about making it easier for the innovator to use this technology. Seeing it as more than an application for the basement hobbyist, they’re thinking back to how the ethernet made networking office printers possible. PrintToPeer is looking at how businesses, schools, and even new business models will be able to leverage the capabilities of the networked 3D printer. “Still being a scarce and shared resource, there needs to be an easier way to open up access to what this technology is capable of” said Bielecki.

He thinks “there are absolutely huge possibilities when you network 3D printers with a common API.” The hardware itself is quickly becoming commoditized, meaning the space is just as quickly becoming even more software centric.

iPad-screen_camera_smallLooking into the future, Bielecki sees important changes for rapid prototyping. “We see this opportunity for hardware startups and creators of other physical products to bring consumers into the product development cycle. With connected printers it will be possible to A/B test products. This creates a whole new feedback loop of people being able to confirm things like a products fit, form and function. I see being able to iterate on hardware products in an agile process, just like the way software engineers have valued for a couple of decades.”

What has him most excited is “having one design file and being able to print it in a whole array of different materials and qualities. It will expand my choices beyond just what’s on a store shelf. I can choose whether something is simple and prints in two hour, or more complex that will take 10 hours to print.”

PrintToPeer is launching an initiative to build a common OS for 3D printers,  and enjoyed a successful Indiegogo campaign to help move the effort forward. If 3D printing has your attention, this is something designed for a beginner, and configured for a pro. The startup is making the print process as seamless as possible so that your print jobs will work on the first try.

This story was originally published on BetaKit

Solid Thinking: Reflections on Solid Conference 2014

Jon & Joi

“Software is eating the world…. Hardware gives it teeth.”Renee DiResta (Principle, OATV)

With one look at what the O’Reilly Media team, Jon Bruner and Joi Ito had planned for the first Solid Conference, there was never a question of me not going. It was only a question of getting there. Having the deep pocketed editor helping jet-set me around in the pursuit of a story is the unicorn in my freelancing magical world. Between the support of the Vancouver technology community, and the generosity of many others the trip came true because of a successful crowd-funding initiative. The 21st and 22nd of May at Fort Mason revealed a treasure trove of thoughts, conversations, and visions of the connected self and connected society. I’m grateful to have earned the experience. This is only the start of a story that will keep on giving.

For the more than 1400 attendees at times the choices had to be overwhelming. With key note speakers like Rethink Robotics (CTO & Chairman) Rodney Brooks, Google X’s Astro Teller,  Autodesk CEO Carl Bass, Hiroshi Ishii from MIT’s Media Lab and many more, plus five different session tracts with over 100 talks fuelling the imagination. There was so much on display the senses had moments of being overloaded.

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Jon Bruner started everyone thinking by simply asking “what’s a tech company, anyway?” It’s more than the 0’s and 1’s, the circuits, sensors, the materials, the connectivity, and the transcending science fiction into science fact. As the digital experience continues merging with the physical experience, there’s no shortage of why’s to ask. Asking why some of this technology needs to exist is a good place to start. Is it solving big problems? Is it making us more capable? Is it making us smarter? Cool wasn’t making the grade for me.

Astro Teller“Hardware is hard” seemed almost understated coming from someone who’s all about moonshots. Visions of what could be aside, Google’s Astro Teller gave advice more entrepreneurs need to seriously consider saying “get more oil on your hands or mud on your boots to take down the really big problems.” Take the time to learn more about Google X and Astro Teller in the great Fast Company feature.

Envisioning relations in terms of both the potentiality and the tension between our digital, spacial, and physical worlds, Hiroshi Ishii was brilliant.  His talk, “Vision Driven: Beyond Tangible Bits, Towards Radical Atoms” left me breathless.

Hiroshi IshiiIshii leads The Tangible Media Group at the MIT Lab, where the TRANSFORM project is described as one that “fuses technology and design to celebrate its transformation from a piece of still furniture to a dynamic machine driven by the stream of data and energy. 

The motion design is inspired by the dynamic interactions among wind, water and sand in nature. Escher’s representations of perpetual motion, and the attributes of sand castles built at the seashore. TRANSFORM tells the story of the conflict between nature and machine, and its reconciliation, through the ever-changing tabletop landscape.” Watch for yourself.

 

SphereIn the category of science fiction meeting science fact, the SPHERES program was on my radar before the conference. Seeing the partnership between NASA and Google first hand was a highlight. NASA says the project “aims to develop zero-gravity autonomous platforms that could act as robotic assistants for astronauts or perform maintenance activities independently on station. The 3D-tracking and mapping capabilities of Project Tango would allow SPHERES to reconstruct a 3D-map of the space station and, for the first time in history, enable autonomous navigation of a floating robotic platform 230 miles above the surface of the earth.”

This video is quite the ride – 

Richard IsaacsQuite possibly it was Richard Isaacs (Mechanical Designer and Organ-builder with C.B. Fisk)  who best wrapped a unique context around Jon Bruner’s opening question. His talk, “Musical Counterpoint in Wood, Bone, Metal, and Carbon Fibre” introduced us to the history and the complexity of pipe organs. It’s worth noting (courtesy of Wikipedia) that “beginning in the 12th century, the organ began to evolve into a complex instrument capable of producing different timbres. By the 17th century, most of the sounds available on the modern classical organ had been developed. From that time, the pipe organ was the most complex man-made device, a distinction it retained until it was displaced by the telephone exchange in the late 19th century.” It’s both a history and a future of craftsmanship and musicianship that’s capable of taking us closer to the heavens than any spaceship can. He also shared an impressive visual collection of “pipe-organ porn” too.

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Most encouraging throughout the two days was the talk of design centred thinking, and how crucial user experience and the user interface is. It’s about putting the human experience at the centre of  our hardware and software experiments. We can talk about the industrial internet and the internet of things, yet there is no industry and there are no things without us at the heart of the equation.

Tim O'Reilly

Tim O’Reilly summed up the spirit of solid thinking best, saying “we need to think about the people… not just about things.” He also extended all of us a challenge, one we need to collectively endeavour towards delivering on everyday – “work on what is hard.”

Many of the pictures are courtesy the O’Reilly Flickr collection.