ATHGO Global Innovation Forum: Day 1

I am participating in the ATHGO Global Innovation forum, hosted at the World Bank in DC from August 13-15. This short series is an account of what occurred; of reflections, and takeaways.

I arrived into DC this morning with less than 2 hours of sleep under my belt, having left for Toronto Pearson Airport at 3:20 AM and – through an inexorable tendency to underestimate packing time – turned in seemingly mere minutes before. I suppose a first reflection would be our amazing ability to adequately function on minute resources.

(Side note: one convenience present in Washington soon to come to Toronto is light rail interfacing the airport with the entire Metro system, releasing one from ever having to acquire the services of a taxi to travel to Pearson).

Walking through the more peripheral streets of Washington, en route to our venue from the nearest Metro station, one can’t help but notice an incredible assortment of world-recognized organizations. I would walk by the International Monetary Fund and marvel simply that I was nonchalantly striding by a group key to 20th century stability we so extensively discussed in History 12.

The World Bank was a bit of a pandora at first: what was it exactly? I reconstructed a fuzzy image from History class – was it a UN aid group? A political manipulation tool borne out of the cold war? A US agency? Eventual inquiry led my current understanding: it is a bank funded by the financially capable nations of the world, whose purpose is to lend money  – for the purposes of development  – to economically emerging nations in the interests of international stability (My, my – back to Keynes again). Yes, it was used as a Cold War political tool, and apparently had a dubious ethical track record at some point.

I soon learned one rarely enters a building in Washington without undergoing the common airport ritual of depleting pockets and person of all electric and metallic objects and submitting them to an XRAY machine;  yourself to a metal detector, and the World Bank went the extra mile to issue barcoded photo identification.

Inside, the complex was a for all purposes a habitat missing only sleeping quarters – it was a small city, with a vast, open indoor atrium and a formidable suite of cafés, restaurants, and a cafeteria. The restaurants were closed for the summer, though the ‘cafeteria’ more than made up for any perceived loss when it became apparent there were no less than 15 different genres of food portals, from, of course, all over the world. My notion of what a Cafeteria could be was certainly extended.

After checking in at the Preston Auditorium, I arrived in time for the 2:00 afternoon panel. Being somewhat of a last minute applicant, flight availability required that I miss the morning introduction and group discussion. After selecting a seat near what I suspected to be floor mounted power receptacles, an Australian student directly to my left greeted me and brought me up to cruising speed on the morning’s overview. The forum was constructed around three pillars, based on the research of Dr. Armed Orujyan, Athgo’s founder; Innovation, Network, and Resource. These pillars would play an important role throughout, as various concepts were explored in this context.

The first panel assembled, consisting of Mr. John White (CEERT), Mr. Paul Manson (Sea Breeze Power), and Mr. Jonathan Blitz (Utility Scale Solar) and moderated by Mr. Jeff Werner (Daimier) – they were to discuss solutions to problems in renewable energy.

Paul Manson and his wind power generation company happen to be based out of BC, with several installations on northern Vancouver Island and the central interior. They’ve installed BC’s first HVDC transmission line – connecting Vancouver Island with Washington State, opening up the Global Innovation Forum Day 1green energy to the US market. As of last month, the northern Vancouver Island farm is generating 98 MW of energy. He made some comments on entrepreneurship, considering perseverance to be the most important attribute of an entrepreneur and an incredible team the most important asset.

At the conclusion of the panel, approximately half an hour was slotted for informal discussion with additional presenters. I stood with the group surrounding Mr. Evan Bailyn of Good Media Co, who spoke extensively on organic search engine optimization and social media marketing strategies. Evan has created and sold several companies built from his ability to rise in search rankings, and recently wrote a book,  Outsmarting Google, that I plan to read if I ever get through my current book-backlog.

Five O’Clock marked the beginning of our first development session, where I met with our assigned team members to begin brainstorming ideas for the project we were to present in 48 hours time. We identify an area where there seems to be potential (designing for kids to encourage positive eco-behaviour, solving a specific problem, and making it fun), and with the framework in place proceed to the busses at six o’clock that will shuttle us to the finnish embassy for the evening’s reception.

The embassy was not an incredibly new building, yet was LEED Gold certified. A metal exoskeleton separated by 3 feet from the structure itself composing of interwoven vines shielded the building from direct sunlight, and automatic systems controlled window shades to optimize HVAC. Of course, the typical security ritual is performed flawlessly as all hundred-plus of us march through screening. We are greeted with booklets of information on Finland gracing a table, and I take one.  My Australian friend pointed out that the opening paragraph contained an explicit reference to Knowledge Integration being of vital importance to Finland’s current and future green economy – this being the first time I’ve heard the specific term be referenced outside the context of the KI program at UW, I rounded up another copy to bring back to CKI for posterity. The reception offered the opportunity to talk at length with Paul Manson, where we exchanged stories and he explained more of Sea Breeze’s operations.

In a day of such pace – in a day where effort is required simply to keep abreast of the the current happenings (certainly not aided by a lack of sleep) – it can be difficult or near impossible to maintain a reflective perspective; to consider the implications of the past while processing the moment.

It would seem there are two subtle purposes underpinning such events as Athgo’s Global Innovation Forum: primarily, it’s to allow us the opportunity to develop a net-benefit peer and mentor network. Like Shad (though to a decidedly lesser extent, three days versus a month), the forum brings together students of similar passions and exposes them to each other. Second, it allows us to exercise the brainstorming-to-product process, refining and improving with each iteration.

Moving from Prototype to Production

Why do projects rarely turn into products?

Living at VeloCity for the past term, and being involved with a few side projects myself (for the record, inflo is not a side project, it’s a startup), I’ve noticed a general trend: lots of stuff gets built, very little is ever used.

Projects often remain just that – projects – built for the joy and satisfaction of building something. Which is fine – I can say with confidence, at least in my experience, that the most effective way to learn something is often to dive in and immerse yourself – to get in way under your head, and then crawl your way back to the surface with the support of others. If learning is the objective, it’s a great approach. If building something useful is the objective, it’s backwards.

The mentality is multi-fold:

  • To build something useful requires you  to solve a problem people actually care about. It’s fairly unlikely that this is the case if you never consulted your target audience in designing the prototype, as hypothesis of what people want are almost never entirely correct. Projects are often spawned out of people wanting to build stuff for their own use.
  • Turning prototype code into production code is hard and boring. Sure, building something that works is one thing. Building something that’s secure, bug-free, looks nice, and will scale well is entirely something else, and  just isn’t glamorous. Features and flashy are much more exciting.
  • “Patience is a virtue, posses it if you can. Seldom found in women, and never found in man.” Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was Facebook or Google. Just because something doesn’t gain traction in a few days doesn’t mean it’s time to move onto the next thing. Sure, iteration is key, but give the thing a chance at life by at least spending as much time buzz-generating and blogging as building.

I am most interested in building things to solve real world problems – to bring something valuable to others. To do so requires a 180 degree shift in the way we typically approach building things: it starts with the customer.

Work Experience: Week 7

Last week at REDACTED I continued learning the Solidworks Engineering modelling program while I waited for REDACTED and theREDACTED to create the REDACTED I designed.Learning Is Experience

This week I began creating the documentation for the project. This REDACTED‘ will touch on everything from a high-level project description to REDACTED. I anticipate this will take me several days to complete and will consume the majority of my time until REDACTED arrive.

Work Experience: Week 5

When I arrived at REDACTED on Friday, REDACTED recommended I shift my immediate focus to the wall-mount case that would hold REDACTEDand the REDACTED,Learning Is Experience as the time required to get the expenses surrounding this item and fabrication lead time would be the restricting factor.  So I put REDACTED on hold and proceeded to calculate the minute dimensional details involved with designingREDACTED. The distance between every component must be accounted for; the framework must adequately support the mass of the finished product as well as individual components; mounting points and fasteners must be accounted for. It’s detail work…and I love it. On Monday I will be meeting with someone who can take my REDACTED and turn it intoREDACTED using Solid Works – this will allow the fabricator to load the file onto his / her computer, outputting the design directly to a robotic CNC machine.

Work Experience: Week 2

This week  @REDACTED:

I’ve begun research into the design and requirements of a ‘Test Bench System’.Learning Is Experience

The Problem:

Currently, when testing new software onREDACTED products, employees must assemble a test setup from a daunting pile of components and mangled wire. There is an no organization and a better-than-average chance of self-electrocution (well..electrocution is perhaps a bit of embellishment).

The Solution:

A Test Bench would integrateREDACTED multipleREDACTED products in an organized manner with the various components  required for testing and programming. A patch board and control panel would be responsible for powering and selecting devices for interconnection and connection with the computer.

The Scope:

I am responsible for creating a design proposal that will meet the requirements set byREDACTED. Should the design be approved, I will then proceed to procuring parts and manufacturing the final product.

More details to come in following weeks.

Work Experience

As a part of the Grade 12 Work Experience Course I’m taking at KCS, I’m required to keep a log of activity. Learning Is ExperienceNormally this comes in the form of an email to the school guidance counselor responsible for Work Experience…but why not embrace media 2.0 for such a task?

REDACTEDoffers a complete end-to-end solution for REDACTED. Their products enableREDACTED while simultaneously REDACTEDThey are the only company to design, manufacture, and sell all of these features in one integrated package – and they’re located inREDACTED

My weekly activity logs will be all kept in the Work Experience  category.

Killing Innovation Made Easy

“Bureaucracies, task forces, org charts, and formal processes do not breed innovation. They kill it.”

Jeff Jarvis, from his excellent book What Would Google Do? (p. 112, 113) This quotation is unfair to the purpose of the book, as the above statement is a mere subset of the overarching theme regarding the paradigm shift in marketing  thought we are undergoing largely as a result of the internet and social media. Highly recommended reading.

It’s against our policy

I’ve come across this statement several times recently when interacting with the sales departments of larger companies. This string of words does not work towards the common goal of both parties involved in the transaction – that being a negotiated deal. In my most recent case, I was speaking with a woefully uninterested sales rep from buydomains.com, a company in the business of domain speculation. My question was if I could trade an appraised domain that I owned for one of similar value that they had listed on their website. Not even before I had finished my sentence were my words abruptly overruled by a snappy “It’s against our policy,” resulting in an awkward silence after which the only course of action I could think of was to thank the lovely young woman for her time and end the conversation. No room was left for negotiation. No offer was made to go through a review process (as they normally would do when they ‘buy’ domains). No suggestion emerged that I should submit the domain to their acquisitions department. We both lost. Needless to say the domain I was planning to offer for trade was appraised higher than the domain I was seeking – and also happens to contain the name of the world’s largest corporation, Exxon Mobil. The domain was exxon.me.

That single statement, “It’s against our policy,” effectively shifts the responsibility to a mysterious executive deep within the bowels of this monster-company through which one must machete a near endless wall of red tape to plead one’s cause. It further builds the facade of a faceless company, the art having been mastered by the likes of Microsoft and telecom companies. It does nothing for customer satisfaction and does nothing to remotely suggest the company has an interest in the customers’ situation or problem. It epitomizes everything consumers hate about large companies.

Now, there is an obvious need for policy in companies – large and small. There is no denying this. Policy is important to ensure the goals of the company are being followed by every department and every employee. But even though you, Mr. / Ms. customer support rep may be thinking, “It’s against our policy,” that’s not what the customer wants to hear. Just like your boss, we the customers want to hear creative solutions, not problems. If there is no alternative path to supplying the customer with his / her needs without breaking company policy, then don’t use the “policy” word. Don’t lump the responsibility onto some obscure entity that is “policy.” Explain that the company or manager has decided not to pursue that area of business.

Through overuse as a catch-all “get out of jail free” card for anyone dealing with customers, the word “policy” has left a bad taste in our society. If nothing else find a synonym. Better still offer a solution.