“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

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Andrew Reid’s Vision Critical: Not Your Dad’s Idea of Market Research

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Andrew Reid is self-admittedly the bad kid who did everything wrong. His mom saw him on the path to jail. She didn’t see the other logical path leading him to become president, founder and chief product officer of Vancouver’s Vision Critical. And while Seth Godin deservedly gets a lot of credit for positing the notion of tribes into marketing’s lexicon, Reid starting building a technology company around the concept well before the 2008 release of “Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us.

A call from Dad (Angus, who founded his market research company in 1979) in 1999 to rebuild the company website proved to be this bad kid’s real ah-ha moment. Reid said “the realization comes from seeing that the rest of the marketing & communications world is on this technology escalator moving up, and market research has been at a standstill. The way you ask a question hadn’t really changed since 1930. Reports and how you visualize data hadn’t changed either.”

He launched Vision Critical in 2000 around the idea of virtual reality. By simulating the experience of a consumer going into a store and purchasing products, big brands could test things package design, pricing, and self placement.

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In 2002 Reebok asked them to build a threaded conversation around a community of 350 women runners. According to Reid this project “was the inflection point for the company. Six months later, we said this is a community, we can ask them questions, monitor them, filter their responses, and segment them based on their responses. We saw the opportunity to move market research from being reactive to being more proactive. It was the beginning of this whole world of insight communities.”

For others in the marketing community he’s often asked, “how do you monetize them? Send them offers, line them up with products they need, sell them to someone else?” Reid’s answer is always the same, “no. It’s about genuinely understanding people’s attitudes and opinions. It’s about resisting the temptation to over-market to them. There are two tenants vitally important to what we’re doing, the first is trust, and the second is science. There’s enough science involved in our technology that we can deliver really meaningful insights that decisions can be made from.”

It’s also interesting that they’re working at building a bridge, from asking people questions to looking at social credentials to marry up the stated self with the actual behaviour. He suggested “this is a powerful thing, because the whole world of online sentiment is very archaic and cavemanish. What people say versus what they do are often two different things. We need to get to a point where we get more value out of that data.”

This research and discovery is key to understanding more about the key emerging market trend around the sharing and collaborative economy, with the likes of AirBnB leading the way. Going through their report, “Sharing is the New Buying: How to Win in the Collaborative Economy” it’s interesting to note the seismic changes starting to happen in people’s attitudes towards stuff.

  • Rather than buying new goods from big brands . . . customers buy pre-owned goods from each other on eBay.

  • Rather than hiring a moving company . . . customers get moving help on TaskRabbit.

  • Rather than owning a car . . . customers share cars on demand via Car2Go.

  • Rather than staying at hotels . . . customers stay in homes through Airbnb.

  • Rather than getting a loan from a bank . . . customers borrow from each other through Lending Club.

While Reid’s focused roles of on social and location, he’s also looking seriously at the quantified self. He thinks when you marry up the FitBit’s, Fuels, and Recon Instruments of the world with the questions you can ask people, “it gets really interesting. You can really learn a lot about people when you combine the devices you wear that track what you do with the questions you answer, and your social behaviour.” He thinks there’s a huge opportunity to transform this information into the creation and delivery of more meaningful, and personalized content.

The company has 16 global offices and more than 650 employees across the globe. Reid has led Vision Critical from a $1 business to over $100 million, and it’s an example of the potential to build a successful global technology company in Vancouver. Yet, the city’s own capital climate is still a barrier to others following his path. He said “unfortunately we don’t exactly have a brilliant venture capital community. OMERS Ventures, who did our last deal, has the bulk of their money tied up in Vancouver on some big bets that any of these guys in Vancouver could have made, but shied away from.”

I asked Reid to comment on being included in the recent story of OMERS Ventures’ John Ruffalo saying that several Canadian technology companies could be going public soon. He shared “we’re a good size company now, and it’s exciting. We’re also at the point where those are things you contemplate. There’s a bunch of financial outcomes you have to think about. I don’t particularly want to sell this company, because we want to make it as successful as we can. It’s an option on the table that we’re actively looking at, but we’re not ready to push the button on anything.”

He summed things up nicely, saying that in this software space, “if you’re not moving fast, you’re not going anywhere.”

The article originally appeared in BetaKit

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

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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

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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.”

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

A Big Nerd Talking Data. Meet DataHero’s Chris Neumann

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There’s no escaping the fact that data is a hot topic and big business. However, so much of the buzz about data is usually prefaced with the word “Big” these days. Somehow, the conversation has moved from the fact there’s this huge proliferation of data and the fact there’s potential gold attached to mining it, to the size matters story.

There’s also no escaping it: Chris Neumann, founder of Vancouver’s DataHero is a really big nerd. With almost a ten year lens on the business, Neumann can talk about data in the sense of size really not mattering.

His data lineage goes back to being employee number one with AsterData (acquired by Teradata in 2011 for $263 million)  and saying “I’d argue that Aster Data had the single strongest overall teamever in the data world.  To-date, Aster Data alum have raised over $300 million for companies they subsequently founded, including Nutanix, Instart Logic, ThoughtSpot, and ClearStory Data. That network has remained extremely tight, with many of us helping each other out over the years in a wide variety of ways as we navigated our post-Aster Data endeavours.”

dashboardLooking back on his experience he said, “in 2005, we knew that volumes of data were growing and were on the verge of exploding.  The problem was, databases couldn’t handle such large volumes of data, and the larger data warehouse software that existed was designed for relatively basic workloads (figuring out simple metrics, aggregates, etc.).  Companies large and small were starting to hit up against the limits of existing products and were forced to choose between complex analytics on insufficient amounts of data or insufficient analytics on larger volumes of data.”

It isn’t only big companies generating large volumes of data. Even small internet companies are generating significant amounts of data. The business challenge is making sense of it. So much of today’s focus is on “Big Data,” and figuring out how to keep pace with the increasing amounts of centralized data being generated by a relatively small number of companies.

“What almost no one is talking about is the fact that at the same time centralized data is increasing in volume, enterprise data overall is becoming decentralized as services move to the cloud,” said Neumann. “This has the potential to be an even more significant shift in how enterprise data is managed.”

“My experiences at Aster Data had a significant impact on how DataHero has evolved from its earliest days,” he added. Seeing firsthand the increasing demand for answers to data questions from people outside of the traditional data organizations, and how those departments were quickly becoming a major bottleneck to enterprise efficiency has led him to get past the size conversation. “Those experiences helped me to appreciate how important access to data is to business users and how much need there is for tools to empower users of all technical levels to be able to work with data.”

Entirely new groups of people are working with data. Until now, you had to be a data analyst, a statistician, or a data scientist to be able to get insights from data. Neumann’s all about the democratization of data, and that anyone who has access to data and wants to ask questions of that data should be able to without having to rely on someone else for help.

He shared that “the biggest challenge in building a product designed to empower everyone in an organization is walking the tightrope of having all of the features people need to answer their data questions, while keeping it easy to use and accessible to the largest possible group of users. Data products have historically been designed for technical users, so we’re really focused on the capabilities we’re trying to bring to business users.”

DataHero meetup

This democratizing access to data is about pulling, processing, and analyzing it from SaaS services, cloud storage drives, online spreadsheets, or even files on a laptop.  Neumann said DataHero has expanded its partnerships to include:

  • Pardot
  • Highrise
  • Zendesk
  • Zuora
  • Recurly
  • Mixpanel
  • Keen IO

For marketing, sales, customer service, and software development professionals, there’s less and less friction to working with data today than ever before. It’s about redefining our relationship to the speed of business. Having data in context it’s now more possible for insightful and impactful decisions to be made. and proving ultimately that the size really doesn’t matter.

Top photo by BusinessNewsDaily

Story originally featured in BetaKit

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.

john2

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.

john4

*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