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.