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The “Moonshot”, and the Conversation. Words to think about from Commander Hadfield

CAH-Spacesuit-Credit-NASA-1050x700debt of gratitude is owed to the BC Innovation Council (particularly Director of Communications Lindsay Chan). In preparing for the feature story about the recentTechnology Forum, I thought it a “moonshot” asking for the opportunity to interview their keynote speaker, Commander Chris Hadfield. They delivered.

Of course, I’m also grateful to Commander Hadfield and his team for making the time for us to have the conversation. Articulate, eloquent, and informed, talking with Chris Hadfield is a personal highlight. Lob him a good question, and he’s off. As the keynote speaker at an event focused on innovation, that was the theme of our conversation, which spanned the gamut from the Commander’s personal life to the role innovation can play in solving today’s global complexities. There are some lessons below that I hope everyone takes to heart.

Creativity and innovation are interrelated. This process often about being able to connect more than one disparate idea, concept and/or discipline. It can also be about how we relate the past, to the present, and with a vision of the future. How should people approach the process to be more innovative in their thinking?

The simplest clearest example is a field stone house. A lot of houses are built where every brick is the same shape. Makes it easy for the bricklayer, makes it a very predictable structure. All you really vary is colour and texture, but the shape is the same. But so many walls are built (everything from what the Inca’s did through to right now) where you use available stone, available materials, where the shapes are not regular and the density is not necessarily regular. So what you do is that you recognize that you have to work with what have, but you need a certain amount of skills, and sometimes you be able to build what you’re trying to build until you find the right piece. I think that way of thinking is how I’ve approached the problem [of creativity and innovation] my entire life.

Cmdr. Hadfield with Albert and Jack.

You don’t even know what you need until the problem is already upon you, and if you have not built the skills in advance, if you haven’t thought about it, if you haven’t put yourself in a position to recognize that is actually what you need, then how are you going to progress?

I think you have to have a perpetual restless dissatisfaction with your own set of skills. You should always be trying to better understand how things work around you, and try to fill in the holes of your own knowledge, so that you can build your particular wall higher and more soundly.

You can just make a simple decision or you can really dig into it and try to look at your particular wall you’re trying to build and figure out the pieces that make sense to you and then make the right call. It’s a real combination between building the baseline of competence and experience so that then your innovation can be enabled and you creativity can be enabled sort of back and forth. They bounce off each other. But if you don’t have that fundamental basis, then all your really have is belief, and belief can collapse like a house of cards or a poorly built wall any time. So for me, real creativity and innovation are hand and glove, but they have to be based on a sound understanding of the principles that support them.

How do you fill these knowledge gaps? What does the role of mentors mean to you?

For me, there are very few things more satisfying than talking to an expert. I love it when I am given time with someone who really understands something in a field that I don’t. You can learn so much in a hurry and get them to explain it to you.

“I’ve kind of chosen a life that is rife with mentors and mentorship.”

The other revelation I had a few years ago was that every single person you ever meet is expert in something that you aren’t. A three-year-old knows stuff that you don’t know. He or she has done and experienced things that you just haven’t yet. Life is varied. So for me, the real key is to find the mentor in everybody.

I’ve been lucky in my life that I’ve kind of chosen a life that is rife with mentors and mentorship. As a university student at three different universities, and then as a pilot learning, and then as a fighter pilot learning, and then as a test pilot (the most rigorous academic year of my life), and then as an astronaut, all you really do is learn your entire career. You’re surrounded by people who have more expertise than you in some finite area, and you become the great integrator of your particular exposure and knowledge.

I think that’s a great way to view yourself. I am the integrator of all the mentorship of all of the raw and available knowledge that I’ve been exposed to in my life. And it’s really up to me to decide how much of this am I going to absorb, understand, and then use in order to be more creative and innovative, and fun loving and may be fruitful in the future.

Commander Chris Hadfield

I was almost seven, but have my own memories of Neil Armstrong’s momentous declaration, “this is one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” So I wanted to ask you about your decision to become an astronaut. Was it a series of ah-ha moments, leading to one ah-ha moment?

Both. Sometimes the environment creeps up on you, you don’t really notice. Sometimes you don’t notice the mound of history has built up underneath you. You slowly accumulate a great swathe of ideas and influence and opinion, but then maybe something seminal happens like when two people walk on the moon.

Oh yeah, I knew that we were having rockets, and Sputnik happened, and Gagarin, and Alexei Leonov, but wow we just walked on the moon. For me it was that. I read science fiction. I was reading Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, and Edgar Rice Burroughs, and watched Star Trek and even Lost in Space. I’d watched 2001 A Space Odyssey, and listens to Bowie’s Space Oddity, and all of that was this sort of building wave of awareness of something that was happening that was interesting to me. I had a big picture on my on wall that came from National Geographic of what we knew about the moon. Then on July 20th, 1969, it’s like when you spin the dial on a microscope and you can sort of see everything, but suddenly, wow it comes into this sharp focus and you suddenly recognize what’s in front of you.

“Sometimes you don’t notice the mound of history has built up underneath you. But then maybe something seminal happens.”

So very much based on the past it all came clear to me at this is what I want to do. When I went outside afterwards and looked up at the moon. That’s really when it rang home for me. This what I want to do. There are people walking on the moon and that they’re not walking there because it was bound to happen, they’re not walking there because they had to, they are there because they just barely could.

It was immensely invitational at the time, but the key of course was what do you do with life’s invitations? I decided that day to start turning myself into an astronaut, which is a whole different process than wishing. I said okay, how do I do this? What changes do I make? And I just used this as a guideline for the rest of my life. When I try to make the small daily decisions, I use that as kind of the end game. If everything goes great, that’s where I want to be, so what do I do today? What do I do tonight? What do I do this weekend?

It occurred to me later that your life is not the big grandiose decisions. Your life is the answer to the question of what do I do next? Your life is the accumulation of that answer. Your choice, what you choose to do next defines who you’re going to be, defines what skills you have. And it really does define your life. Fortunately I choose something that really suited me, opportunity arose, I was lucky, I worked hard at it, and I’ve had some magnificent experiences as a result.

Earning your seat in space gives you a unique, special perspective. How has your rare view of our planet shaped your thinking about innovating to making a world of 11 billion people (projected by 2100) a more humane and sustainable one?

We’ve been riding the crest of an accelerating wave driven by enabling technology for a couple of hundred years. It has had incredibly good consequences. The world have never fed as many people as it does today; we have never had this standard of living on average for as many people we do today; literacy over that past 50 years is a good measure of that, with over 80% of the world having an incredible opening of opportunity. But we’ve built it in an accelerating phase and not a sustained phase and anything that’s done under acceleration is temporary. So how do we turn this into something sustainable?

Commander Chris Hadfield

“I decided that day to start turning myself into an astronaut, which is a whole different process than wishing.”

We didn’t get to where we are by being lackadaisical or unimaginative or hesitant. We got here by being driven and restless and hungry about ideas, and we tried to build structures that allowed the brightest among us to solve problems in new ways. Go to Silicon Valley, or go to The Perimeter Institute, or go to UBC and TRIUMF, or walk over to General Fusion – we’ve set up a structure that allows people to take thought and invention to a level that’s never been seen before.

Not everyone is scrambling for their next meal, not everyone is a hunter-gatherer or a farmer. And so we’ve built an amazing structure but it’s unsustainable. And it’s built largely in the past 150 years on the back of burning fossil fuels. We need a better solution.

So every advanced society reins in their population growth, and the accelerated rate of the integration of technology into both India and into China is phenomenal. It’s unprecedented. This isn’t a slow historic change from agrarian to technological with not many outside influences, with people slowly moving into the cities. This is very different. This is fast. You can draw models based on statistics that will predict anything. I’d be very surprised if we went to 11 billion.

I’m not even sure we will, because of the self-imposed limits of the climate. The way we’re changing the way we feed people, the way we house them and clothe them is so energy wasteful and so polluting that I don’t think the planet is going to allow us to grow at that rate. I think it’s the less developed economies and the more fragile environmental parts of the world that are really going to be the canaries in the coal mine that are going to drive that decision-making.

I think it’s a slowly self-balancing system but we have to find alternate energy sources to fossil fuels. We need to continue to educate people to make informed decisions and more than anything we need to raise the standard of living for as many people as possible and make it sustainable.

You know, the best basketball player in the world has probably never held a basketball in their hands; the brightest mind in the world could be out somewhere digging for potatoes, because that’s the only opportunity they’ve ever been given.

If we truly want our species to thrive, we have to free up the natural talents that exist amongst our species to push themselves to the limit of capability. We’ve done that in part of our society but not throughout. To me, that’s got to be the objective: to raise the standard of living for as many people as possible, but make it sustainable. We need this particular wave to crash as gently as possible to get to some sort of steady sea that allows that to happen.

Originally published in BetaKit

Related: Commander Chris Hadfield at the B.C. Tech Forum

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

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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

REFLECTING ON 2014: THE BIG ISSUE, THE BIG IDEA, AND THE BIG WIN

Urthecast

Every Canadian technology startup that’s delighting and delivering value to its customers, while creating a meaningful workplace culture, is a story worth sharing. Every entrepreneur earning the opportunity to keep the lights on another day deserves a high-five.

I’m not big on picking favourites. So with a twist on the usual list-bait, here’s a look at the year that was by reflecting on the biggest issue, the biggest idea, and the biggest win.

These words are homeless without the internet. Despite being 25 years old, the promise of an open and free internet seems like a pipe dream. The architect of the world’s information network, Tim Berners-Lee, believes that “we need diversity of thought in the world to face the new challenges.” Yet the social value of today’s internet is being challenged and undermined everyday by the actions of deceitful of governments and plundering corporations. OpenMedia-11-of-17-1050x700

Former Google developer advocate Tim Bray has lent his voice to this biggest of issues, and his words resonate throughout: “It’s OK to be Pro-Privacy Without Being a Crook, Pervert, or Terrorist.

I imagine being with my kids and marvelling at the beauty of a rainbow revealing itself after the dark deluge of a winter storm blasts through, and it passes as our conversation about climate change. Talk about fleeting and borderline delusional thoughts. I do imagine a world where our relationship with fossil fuels isn’t driving the climate change debate.

Rather than just imagining how such a world will look, Dr. Michel Laberge and his General Fusion team is working towards delivering “the Promise of Clean Energy.” This is not only the biggest idea of 2014, but it’s possibly the most meaningful endeavour for our children I’ll never know.

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It was a shot in the dark, emailing info@ in the hopes in securing an interview with one of Vancouver’s more successful startup entrepreneurs. On the heels of raising $42 million in new funding for a business completely off my radar, I figured the odds of catching up with Stewart Butterfield to get the story of Slack was firmly entrenched between slim and negligible.

The personal reply from Butterfield caught my attention. More so, our conversation left an impression and no accompanying sense of shock when the news dropped he’s now leading Vancouver’s newest billion dollar company. Raising $120 million for this new communication platform counts as the biggest win, and confirms “This Guy’s No Slacker.

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Orange jumpsuits aren’t my idea of high fashion. I’m fond of suggesting good entrepreneurs have to be rule breakers, or makers of new rules. Just not breaking them to a felonious point. Being true to my word and breaking my editors rule, there’s a fourth Vancouver startup story that’s of the big “pie-in-sky” variety.

Actually, it’s a two big HD cameras in the sky story that caught my attention. Like our tenuous and tempestuous relationship with the internet or re-imaging the powering of our world, Urthecast is changing how we can see our planet. Maybe if we look at our world from a different point of view we’ll start treating it and ourselves better. Let’s move forward into 2015 taking action for good and being most mindful that “We’re All in This Together.”

This story was originally published in BetaKit

This Guy’s No Slacker: In Conversation with Slack’s Stewart Butterfield

Stewart Butterfield

 

 

Having recently raised $42.5 million in new funding Vancouver’s Slack is proving to be anything but a bunch of coffee-sipping West Coast slackers.

Slack is a communication platform, delivering real-time messaging, archiving and search.

President and cofounder Stewart Butterfield said the team often think of Slack as a search app disguised as a message app. “People might think they want messaging but the real value is getting all of your communications in one place and having it easily searchable. Think about the waves of change in general, dealing with the soaring amount of information is the one we’re most closely riding.”

“We’re designing for teams not the company. Individuals are kind of an atom, but teams are the atomic unit of any organization because they’re expected to be functioning together,” he added. “But the reality is that at big companies like when I worked at Yahoo, you see how the matrix type organization makes it more complicated for people.”

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The increasing volume of messages we receive are not just from other people but other computers. The stream of social media notifications alone increases the daily noise. Butterfield sees that managing all of this messaging is something providing more value than people realize.

He estimates that his team of 20 each get about 100 messages a day from other people. The business has between 5,000 to 15,000 messages coming in from things like tweets, help tickets, bug reports, sign-ups for the service, when new teams are created, every crash report, and on and on. It’s not uncommon for teams these days to use 15-20 different services, so getting all of these messages in one place he said is a “huge win.”

The model is about encouraging people to have conversations in public, instead of one to one. Even if they’re not people on your team, at least engineers can see what the marketing department is talking about and customer support can see what engineering is talking about. Butterfield believes in “creating an ambient awareness of what other people in the organization are doing. It’s about coordinating without having stand up meetings, and getting status updates.”

Slack has grown out of a late 80’s tool pre-dating todays internet. Butterfield’s team found that using IRC chat met their internal communications needs. “It was missing a bunch of features that we thought were important, like being to log and archive messages. Once we had the archives, we wanted to search them. There was no good iPhone client so we built an HTML5 front end to browse the archives, and once we had that we wanted to be able to post from it. We wanted announcements when people uploaded files to the file server, database alerts and more. Basically hack, after hack after hack got all of the communication flowing into one place. A side effect of this was the fact the company didn’t use email at all. It wasn’t a policy decision, it just happened that no one would email each other because it was better to do it in IRC.

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They rolled out a preview versus the less trustworthy sounding beta release in August 2013, and spent six months trying to make it easy for teams to switch over. Feeling it was good enough, they officially launched Slack in February 2014 and hit 20,000 paying customers.

Butterfield called it startup anthropology. What’s working for the Slack are good startup lessons to remember.

  • Do a lot of research. They talked with people about how they used it, and what their reactions were. Get as much feedback as possible.
  • They made sure all of their emails could be replied to
  • They encouraged people to send them tweets

With the better of 20 years of business and startup experience to draw upon Butterfield shared that “people over-attribute a lot of success particularly in startups to the skill, ability and talent of the people doing it. Whereas, a lot of it is luck. Hard work counts, but there’s also the zeitgeist and little factors like the name, colors you choose, and your decision making process.”

With Slack’s early trajectory, Butterfield’s decision-making process is looking pretty spot on.

This story was first published in BetaKit.

NoteworthyOctober 31, 2015 Slack announces raising $120 million with post funding valuation equaling $1.2 billion

Taking Social Further: Exclusive Conversation With Hootsuite CEO Ryan Holmes

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June 2009 doesn’t seem that long ago. Still etched in memory is seeing that life size owl mascot for the first time working a room full of Vancouver startup folks. I thought 140  characters of micro-blogging was a bastardization of the English language, so why does the world need a dashboard for it.

In this case eating humble pie didn’t taste so bad. Turns out that early Summer night, the early stage startup Hootsuite walked away with the “Peoples Choice” award. My tune about Twitter also changed less than 6 months later as a co-founder of the visualization application Mentionmapp. Seemed like Twitter and Hootsuite might turn out to be something afterall.

Since closing a $165 million Series B financing the past 14 months has seen Hootsuite on a tear. With last weeks news of having raised $60 million in new private equity and debt funding their total outside financing is $250 million. Add in the most recent acquisitions of startups BrightKit and Zeetl, founder and CEO Ryan Holmes is guiding the company towards realizing his long time commitment to building a Vancouver company that’s making a big impact on the local ecosystem, and beyond. Plus he’s been unwavering in about creating a $1 billion (plus) Canadian tech company.

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With a rare stop over these days in Vancouver, and even rarer 20 minute window of time in his schedule, I was fortunate to share an exclusive conversation with Holmes.

“It’s been a great week, and great month and really good year. We’re excited to share that the company has doubled revenue, doubled valuation, over 10 million users, including 744 of the Fortune 1000 as clients,” he highlighted. With their existing investors joining this latest round, and a new Boston based investor (he didn’t comment on the Wall Street Journal reporting it being Fidelity Investments, nor the IPO rumours) Holmes thinks “it also validates their excitement for the business.”

The acquisitions are all about “building out the social suite.” Holmes sees the Hootsuite platform akin to what “Microsoft Office or Google Apps does for office productivity. We’re creating a suite of tools to help our clients manage social.”

Being on this aggressive fundraising journey, and experiencing the subsequent rocket like growth trajectory I asked him how tight he’s keeping the seat belt buckled.  “It’s been a real blessing to be able to participate in the huge evolution of the social business. It’s fantastic to be creating a great Canadian tech company and story.” He touched on his excitement for attracting some of this country’s best and brightest here working with the team and the product. Just as importantly according to Holmes is “seeing people have experiences that will last throughout their careers.”

As well, he talked about the notion of creating the ‘MapleSyrup Mafia’ saying “some of the folks from Hootsuite may go out and create their own product, or maybe even be acquired by us or others. Hopefully they’ll go on to create other Hootsuites throughout the country and really help build an even more vibrant tech community.”

Asked if he sees a societal relevance of social beyond being simply the marketers best friend, Holmes replied with an unequivocal “absolutely. It’s so relevant, I think that conversation thankfully for the most part has died. As we’ve seen Twitter and Facebook IPO for instance, I have little doubt that social media is here to stay.”

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Channeling my inner Marshall McLuhan, I pressed that beyond the medium being the message can social media be a medium of mobilization? “I think we’ve already seen this, with it being a spark of revolutions and contributing to the toppling of governments,” he said. “We’ve seen how much it can transform society. It’s not just a marketing tool, it’s a way we’re reorganizing and communicating societally. It’s a channel everybody’s paying attention to.”

Holmes added that “with both governments and protesters using our platform, we have an interesting and unique perspective to see how people communicate. get messages out, and bring dialogue to leadership and democracy around the world.”

Looking into the crystal ball, I asked him what he’s seeing in the future for social media. He mentioned how social commerce and social advertising two interesting trends. Furthermore he suggested, “just like search has become a blend of organic and paid, I think we’re going to see the same trend with social. There will be a blend of paid social, and organic social.” Holmes pointed out the Hootsuite is currently powering 5 million organic messages a day.

With offices open in London (UK), Singapore, and now looking at one in Latin America, and expanding Vancouver operations, Hootsuite continues to soar. On the strength of that overstuffed owl mascots tiny wings, Holmes and his team have carried themselves well beyond what many people probably imagined this past five plus years.

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.

 

General Fusion Wants to Deliver on the Promise of Clean Energy

john
When we talk tech moonshots, it’s likely Google X , or maybe Elon Musk’s Hyperloop will jump to mind.
But tucked away in a nondescript Burnaby, BC business park is a project of massive global implications. General Fusion is in the race to transform the world’s energy supply. (Though you really can’t call this a moonshot because they’re building a fusion reactor that’s essentially harnessing the Sun’s fuel.)

Imagine a world with abundant and clean energy with no pollution or greenhouse gas emissions. The team of 65 people at General Fusion can.

john1Recently the Telus Science World Equity Giving Committee invited some of BC’s tech community leaders to share an evening with Dr Michel Laberge, founder and chief scientist for General Fusion as well as a TED2014 presenter. This event also represented an evening of educational alignment between today’s leaders who care about helping foster the development of tomorrow’s technologists and scientists.

It’s important noting that Science World is a non-profit organization playing an important role in the growth of the technology sector, by engaging youth at an early age. They’re inspiring a love of science, and showing them that sciences, engineering and technology offer an exciting and rewarding future. Science World is about helping generate the talent that will invent, innovate and lead companies in the future.

The Equity Program is working with British Columbian technology and health science companies and their principals – professionals who know the pivotal role that science and technology play in developing the province – the program allows for individuals and their companies to either donate securities or to grant stock options to Science World.

It’s been a journey about finding a solution to global melting because of our fossil fuel dependence that made Dr. Laberge a great fit for the evening. As well, having PhD from UBC in plasma physics, and using the mid-life crisis moment of turning 40 as a good reason to leave his position as a senior physicist and principal engineer at Creo Inc, adds to his story too.

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In terms of startup stories and basement science experiments (actually an old garage on Bowen Island, BC), it doesn’t get much better than this. Laberge shared how he started it all with a seed round from family, friends and the federal government, to build the first prototype.

It was about the size of your kitchen stove. The key thing was that he managed to make something happen with the plasma reactions, as “the sensors detected excess neutrons, suggesting at least a few hydrogen atoms had fused.”

He only somewhat jokingly called them “my marketing neutrons.”

This is a David versus Goliath story too, as Laberge pointed out a variety of other Fusion projects are being worked on around the globe. Those projects also have considerably more money behind them, but a boatload of cash doesn’t always buy a winner, as Maple Leaf fans only know too well.

The challenge with fusion power, and the reason we don’t yet have it, is rooted in creating a system where less energy goes in than the amount of energy it generates. The science aside, there’s also the business considerations of building such a reactor to scale, and getting the energy onto the grid to actually power our neighborhoods. It’s about transcending scientific theory into reality, and delivering a clean energy solution that’s only pennies per kilowatt-hour.

I’ve toured General Fusion and seen the prototype reactor. Needless to say, very complex engineering is needed to solve a very complicated science experiment. Rather that trying to describe how the technology works, it best to watch Dr. Laberge’s TED talk, or read Michael McCullough’s feature in Canadian Business.

To date they’ve raised in the neighborhood of $50 million. It’s worth noting Amazon founder Jeff Bezos venture capital group, Bezos Expeditions, is an investor. I was told that Bezos has a keen personal interest in the company.

There was nothing “pie-in-the-sky” about Laberge’s vision of the future. Progress is being made, but the day our cities will be powered by the sun’s fuel is still at least 10 years and billions of dollars away.

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*Disclaimer – I serve as a member of the Telus Science World Equity Giving Committee.

This article originally appeared in BetaKit

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