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.

Update: Open Letter to the President’s Office

Several months ago I published “An Open Letter to the President’s Office” in response to a request for students to participate in the Student Engagement Survey. The survey request was sent at a time when I noticed a considerable amount of conversations related to improving how we learn occurring around me, and  the issue being one I am intensely interested in, I couldn’t bear the idea of these conversations ending in the hypothetical.

In a spur of naïve passion, I wrote to the president’s office offering to share some suggestions on how to improve learning – borne of these conversations – with President Hamdullahpur. This morning that conversation happened, with Sean Van Koughnett (Director of the Student Success Office), Bud Walker (Associate Provost, Student) and Feridun Hamdullahpur – the goal of the discussion was to cross-pollinate the ideas of students to improve learning with UW leadership’s vision and vice versa. I would argue the most important part of any conversation is listening, and this post aims to be a fruit of that endeavor – outlining commentary on the discussion’s themes: improving how we learn innovation, improving how we learn from each other, and improving how we learn from professors.

“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak. Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” – Winston Churchill

It seemed appropriate to stage the most intriguing questions that beset the students conversations to this group, and so the format generally followed a pattern of asking a question, everyone adding supporting content and their opinions, comparing with student consensus points, and finally segueing to an ‘actionable suggestion’ from student conversations. Like you might imagine, the ‘actionable suggestions’ are as they sound: a fairly concrete opinion on how to solve the problem brought to light in each discussion question, posed as one possible solution. In reality, frameworks for conversations are a last resort and rarely used. A healthy conversation will be very agile, with different people’s opinions bringing the current topic far from anything that could be planned, so please forgive the absence of commentary within some topics.

(Improving how we learn innovation) We talk a lot about the need for innovation in the workplace – its importance in transitioning Canada to a knowledge-based economy, in keeping Canada globally competitive – but specifically, what does innovative behavior look like?

The discussion begins with an illustration of the University’s founding ethos with respect to innovation. When the University was founded in 1957, it’s innovative genesis was in the unique opportunity it afforded motivated and intelligent individuals who could not necessarily otherwise afford to study at university without the Co-op program. The founding students were those intrinsically motivated to progress towards a better life, and possessed a certain motivation to make such happen. It reminds me of Keynes’s animal spirits.

The anecdote leads naturally into the role of motivation within learning, and strategies for teaching underlying behavior requisite to innovation. We mark the role of professors in this process, and discuss UW’s requirement of hiring professors who excel at both research and teaching. Dr. Hamdullahpur outlines a vision for exceptional researchers using classroom time for scenario based learning, inspiring students by linking what’s being taught to specific examples of application. MIT is brought up as an example of a university where ten years ago, the focus was extremely biased towards research. MIT and many other American universities today recognize the importance of placing equal priority on teaching and research, as does UW.

It’s an incredible direction. A direction that will admittedly take time – but the excitement in the room was tangible, and the vision contagious.

(Improving how we learn from professors) How do we kindle a motivation to teach within professors primarily concerned with research? Or a desire to improve within professors who have no reason to attempt to?

UW has some great researchers, and it’s hardly a secret that some professors much prefer their research to teaching. UW has a well regarded Centre for Teaching Excellence with many resources available to help professors become more comfortable and interactive with their classes, though as previous conversations with some of my professors indicated, the Centre tends to be of most value to those who are already good communicators wishing to improve. The real issue is one level deeper – it’s the motivation to improve – and how can we kindle motivation?

The actionable suggestion for this question was to to create a system of peer-mentorship for professors,  such that professors are cross-exposed to other styles of communicating and engaging with a class.

The system for student evaluations of courses and their professors is explained and ideas are brought up for where it could go in the future. Mr. Walker explores differences between teaching and learning, and comments how professors not comfortable in a “50-1″ learning environment may be exceptional one-to-one. This leads into a discussion on integrating research into undergraduate education, bringing the “learning is experience” mantra of Co-op full circle into the formal learning experience.

This is an exciting possibility for the future of UW: tightly integrating experiential learning into all facets of education. Once again the room was charged, and a twinkle adorned an eye or two.

How can we motivate students to take charge of their own learning and create an environment where there are opportunities to take risks and learn leadership?

I tend to far underestimate timelines when planning content for discussions or presentations, and on suspicion I verbally noted I wanted to be When you teach you learnmindful of everyone’s time, as I was not sure how much had passed. We had indeed fared well beyond the 1/2 hr tentatively booked, and it is only a testament to the politeness of the group that no one had mentioned it.

There seemed to be an interest in this topic, however, and we agreed to take a couple minutes to wrap up with discussing the actionable suggestion of creating a formal system of peer-learning, where students would teach each other. Such a system would not only partially meet the challenge of the first question mentioned (on developing skills requisite to innovation, such as risk-management and the ability to think across silos) but encourage leadership and develop communication skills. In order to teach something well, you have to understand it at a deeper level than pure memorization. To this end, peer-teaching encourages mastery of material as opposed to regurgitation.

It is a subtle area of passion for me, and I was surprised to hear Mr. Van Koughnett talk of the concept being within the realizable vision of Office of Student Success, and how UW’s living / learning communities are a step towards such a direction. Dr. Hamdullahpur followed with a story of such practices being employed in a trial at his previous institution, where the class rose by seventeen percent.

Within a supported context that ensures students experience success in teaching others, there is significant potential for students to develop confidence in themselves and their abilities. I believe there is compelling reason t0 correlate confidence in one’s abilities with the ability to further one’s abilities.

“When you teach, you learn” – Helen Suzman

The conversation left me excited for UW’s future –  I have substantial confidence in the the administration to execute a vision to bring the university to an experiential, research intensive, student focused learning environment of tomorrow.

 

The Story of 50 Sheets of Paper

The following is an instruction given by a teacher to a class working on a project in a school Library:

“OK grade nines – listen carefully. There’s about five minutes to the bell, and you’re not going to have enough time to finish. We’ll work on it again on Monday – save you’re work to a USB key or save it to My Documents if you don’t have one. Make sure you print off a copy as there’s no guarantee it will be here on Monday. Are you listening? Make sure…”

The end result was at lease 50 sheets of paper (not to mention ink) consumed as each Grade 9 student printed off their multi-page-in-progress essays. The problem here lies not in the teacher’s actions. The teacher is responding to a set of circumstances which have forced her to recommend printing hard copies of work – namely, the lack of a secure place provided for each student to store work. Students cannot be expected to remember to bring USB memory drives to class each day.

If we hope to one day reduce our reliance on physical copies of digital documents, I would argue a school is the first place to start entrenching these values.

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.

Animoto beat me to it

Animoto

Being quite involved with video production, (mamicmedia) I have thought for years about the implications of “self-editing” video software which would analyze the music and content to determine “cuts” and appropriate transitions, effects, titles, etc.

Naturally, my inclination was to spec out what a service would look like, and save it in my “innovations” notebook for future development. Understandably, I am in no position to undertake such a venture in the immediate future, though it appears someone else was.

Animoto has created what appears to be the world’s first self video-editing solution – and they even morphed it into “Software as a Service.” That’s just showing off, if anyone were ask my opinion… though the industry is certainly headed that way it seems, and they (Animoto) pulled off an incredible feat.

Here’s what Animoto has to say:

Animoto Productions is a bunch of techies and film/tv producers who decided to lock themselves in a room together and nerd out.

Their first release is Animoto, a web application that automatically generates professionally produced videos using their own patent-pending technology and high-end motion design. Each video is a fully customized orchestration of user-selected images and music. Produced on a widescreen format, Animoto videos have the visual energy of a music video and the emotional impact of a movie trailer.

The heart of Animoto is its newly developed Cinematic Artificial Intelligence technology that thinks like an actual director and editor. It analyzes and combines user-selected images and music with the same sophisticated post-production skills and techniques that are used in television & film.

Based in New York City with an office in San Francisco, the founders of Animoto include veterans of the entertainment industry and have produced shows for MTV, Comedy Central, & ABC, studied music in London, and played in indie rock bands in Seattle. They continue to innovate in the field of creative artificial intelligence. They plan to acquire Google next year.

Kudos for your accomplishments Animoto, I look forward to using your service in the future for my own projects.