The Ripple Effect of Passion

Why Canada Should Invest in Bottom-Up & Community Driven Organizations

Canada has recently stated loud and clear that it wants to be a world leader in innovation. Shortly after that statement, different ministers started engaging with Canadians on social media (#CndInnovation) asking for their ideas on how to achieve that goal. Similarly, almost 2 years ago, Montreal also engaged on social media (#JeVoisMtl, #JeFaisMtl) stating that it wants to be a world leader in smart cities. These are some ambitious claims. Being a Canadian living in Montreal, I’m glad to see that both my city and my country have a strong desire to provide me with a better future, a ‘world leading’ future, that is!

But… Why do I feel that the system it is building upon, is… kinda broken? Or at least, not optimal. (let’s not start on a negative note)

As an electrical engineer with a background in computer science now doing my PhD in visual neuroscience and psychophysics, teaching programming for undergraduate engineers, involved in the tech/entrepreneur ecosystem of Montreal and passionate (obsessed) about brain-related technology (i.e. NeuroTechnology), I’ve been involved in many activities related to ‘innovation’ and have seen good and bad things that I’d like to share and discuss.

#FutureIsNow

We live in an amazing time in history. Incredible stories and breakthroughs are multiplying themselves every week and it is now pretty much impossible to stay current with even just one field. Our Facebook & Twitter feeds are bombarded on a daily basis by exciting news about Self-Driving Cars, Artificial Intelligence, Nano / Bio / Neuro -technology, Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, etc.

I think we all agree that technology has forever changed the world we live in and keeps on changing it at increasing speed. This new technology era has opened a whole new world of opportunities and people are eager, more than ever before, to be part of this change. Whether you are seeking a massive impact or a massive paycheck, it’s all possible. And that is both very inspiring and very motivating. It is now possible to be among the richest men on earth, in only a couple of years with a website like Facebook. If that’s a good thing or a bad thing, I’ll let you judge, but one cannot deny that it did create an unprecedented thirst for success and made it ‘possible’ for pretty much anybody to aspire to it.

On the flip side tough, we’ve also become victims of the ‘opportunity’ dilemma; we are now faced with so many opportunities that we don’t know where to go, which one to take, we’re constantly dealing with the fear of missing out. It kinda always looks better elsewhere…

So, how can we, as a city, as a country and as a population, strive and not stall in this future full of opportunities?

Passion is underrated.

First, let’s start with why we get out of bed in the morning…

Passion and Inspiration are fuel for human beings. This is what keeps us going. This is what dictates where we put our time, energy and mind. We live in the most ‘inspirational’ time in human history, and yet we fail to properly catalyze that fuel. People are excited about the future, but they often don’t know where to go. Where to start. They don’t know how to put that inspiration to work. It’s not just about go to school and get a job anymore.

For the first time in history, inspiration is freely available on YouTube. If we don’t catalyze it and transform it into passion, motivation & actions, it’s like sitting on a gold mine, dreaming of someday becoming rich… #Fail.

Millennial Education

There is an undeniable shift in education. With information and knowledge now accessible online, at our fingertips, we could rethink and redesign the whole education system, but let us not do that just yet, because it seems to be a sensible subject, in a very old-fashioned and slow paced environment, so I won’t pick that fight today (but I will, in part 2).

Before grad school the system is, for old reasons, shaped around average. We all fit in the same category, we all learn the same stuff at the same pace, in the same room. Grades do have a ‘ceiling’ and a ‘floor’ so we are able to aim in the middle to make sure we don’t lose too many people in the process. There’s been many videos going viral about it like “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” or “RSA ANIMATE: Changing Education Paradigms” or “Hackschooling makes me happy” among many others.

“The way we learn today is just wrong.” — Peter Diamandis

The thing is, after high school, education becomes more of a tool than a necessity. You are now an adult and a “good citizen” (on paper, at least). But at this point you might not have the intellectual knowledge to contribute to higher challenges and as challenges are becoming harder and harder, we value more and more higher education.

(Note here the use of the word ‘knowledge’ and not ‘capacity’, because at that age a lot of people are crazy smart, but do have little knowledge.)

As a society aiming to become leader in innovation, the worse thing we can do (but currently do) is to limit that potential and not feed curious minds because of a ‘system’ — the education system. Or, we’ll just end up being ‘average’ innovators…

To better understand why the education system as we know it is not enough, let’s go back to passion.

— 
The actual system is based on the following:

Education -> Motivation -> Passion.

But, we got it all wrong…

The system should be based on:

(Inspiration ->) Passion -> Motivation -> Education.

What we learn should be driven by what we like and care about, not the other way around. The actual system feels more like: learn stuff and then you’ll find a problem to work on where you can apply what you’ve learned.

In the current system, the learning phase is suboptimal because most people don’t care enough, nor see the actual value in learning the specific things their curriculum is imposing on them. And then, the work phase is also suboptimal because people have to learn/relearn things that are now specific to their job. Don’t get me wrong, the system isn’t ‘that bad’, but when you want to become world leader, you need more than a good enough system. You need the best system. So, how can we improve it if we are not going to redesign it?

People are inspired. People want more.

and that has become obvious with things like hackathons and meetups.

Over the last couples of years, the number of hackathons sky-rocketed. In various domains and for different demographics. However, I feel like we’ve never stepped back and asked ourselves why is there a hackathon-bubble? Why this sudden gain in popularity? Why did we decided to throw hackathon-this and hackthon-that? Because it’s trendy? Because other fields have done it? Because if we’re being honest, when we look at the “output” of a hackathon in term of product, it is, most of the time, not that great. Don’t get me wrong, I am, by all mean in favour of hackathons and these are great events to learn, meet people, challenge yourself, etc. but I’d like for us to go further and ask ourselves, why are they popular? What is the underlying factor driving this trend.

I think it shows that something is missing in the ecosystem allowing them to try new things and fail in a safe environment. In a friendly, but yet challenging, environment. Businesses don’t give you that. Startups don’t give you that. Schools don’t give you that (aside from student clubs and extracurricular activities).

We have playgrounds for kids so that they can run, jump, fall, play with with others, in a safe, but not too bubbled, environment. Yet, there are not enough emerging tech playgrounds for enthusiasts and curious minds, aside from very few hackerspaces and makerspaces with very limited resources.

What undergraduate and graduate students need from Montreal & Canada is a strong ecosystem, knowing that even if they are not at MIT or Stanford, they are part of one of the strongest ecosystem on the planet for them to grow in and dream big. They need to know that they are at the right place at the right time for their prime years. Otherwise, they’ll just leave.

Education has changed. The framework around it should too…

I’m using “undergrad and grad students” to highlight the demographic I’m mainly talking about, but I’m referring to all the “enthusiasts”, “futurists”, “hackers”, “DIYers”, etc. Simply put: curious minds eager to learn and explore, with either specific goals (e.g. research, business), or just for fun.

Universities play a very central role in education and should continue to do so, but that’s not it. Higher Education is not ‘only’ about traditional universities anymore. More ‘agile’ platforms also need to exist to complement them.

“Show us what you can do — even if you didn’t learn it in school”.

-Google Recruiter.

Ecosystem

There are many initiatives for K-12 (never enough), there are a lot of programs for research, there are more and more programs for startups, but not so much “inspirational” programs for undergrad and grad students excited about the future ahead, but without a clear path, just yet, facing too many opportunities (and uncertainties).

As mentioned earlier, a lot of undergrad and grad students in STEM are watching futuristic-ish videos, tweeting about them, sharing them on Facebook, being in “awe” about them, and then, going back to doing other things. #Fail.

Brain-Computer Interface (source: Nature)

I was one of them, being amazed by neurotechnology and the potential of the field. Thinking: “but I’m just an undergrad in electrical engineering from Montreal, I don’t know anyone in the field, I’m not at MIT, I don’t have experience in healthcare. Can I really have an impact in such a field? Where can I start? Where can I meet people in the field? Where can I experiment with the technology?”

The answers to these ‘where can I …’ questions were rather disappointing and that should change.

The computer revolution benefited from its democratization, dissemination and accessibility. The fact that all you needed to learn the field was a computer and an Internet connection changed everything. You were able to learn the how to program by you self, in your basement. The fact that so many people spent so many hours exploring things, just for fun most of the time, allowed a massive pool of individuals to develop skills in programming that bigger companies could then hire from. Then, we also started seeing startup emerging from garages and the rest is history.

Ask any (good) software dev. if they would credit school for their programming skills, or countless hours working on projects and experimenting?

Computer science didn’t start with smartphones, cloud computing, Node.js, Pokemon Go, or anything fancy. It was pure old HTML, Basic, Assembly, etc. What you could do with it was incredibly limited. But, they didn’t wait for Internet and computers to be ubiquitous and in everyone’s home, they made it happen. The Homebrew Computer Club is a good example of a passion-driven community that is often credited to have had a major impact in the Silicon Valley. Steve Wozniak even gives credit to the club for the inspiration behind Apple computers.

Invitation to the First Homebrew Computer Club meeting (source: wikipedia)

It is easy to guess that the same ‘revolution’ will happen with AI, VR/AR, Biotech, Neurotech, Nanotech, Robotics, and many other ‘game changer’ fields. The only question is when and how. We need to lay the foundations for this future now, not when it’s obvious and omnipresent, or we will still try to catch up with the next [insert here] Valley.

Invest in Passion

So, Canada, if you are serious about becoming a leader in innovation, please invest in inspiration & passion; motivation will come and actions be taken providing the best ROI. Support Bottom-Up & Community Driven Organizations. Those living and breathing innovation.

Put water in the soil, not on the leafs. -Ilias Benjelloun, MTL NewTech

Invest in community driven initiatives that explore new fields showing promising potential, but are not yet mature. Invest in communities promoting dissemination, collaboration, that accelerate and increase the ‘collective IQ’ in specific verticals. Invest in communities that are multidisciplinary and build bridges across disciplines. Invest in communities that challenge status quo. Invest in communities that provide a friendly and challenging environment for experimenting, failing and learning. Invest in communities that engage in discussions about the future & science-fiction becoming a reality. That inspire people to develop their skills and contribute to this amazing future we are building, all together.

There is no such thing as overnight success. To become a world leader in innovation we need to understand the impact of

The Ripple Effect of Passion…

I’m proud to be part of this inflection curve in human history, and to know that when future generations will look back in time to pinpoint this technological-shift, they’ll point to this very moment in time. Our generation(s).

Disclaimer: This is my own personal opinion and I’m writing this as a Canadian citizen and as a graduate student involved in the tech-entrepreneur scene of Montreal and it might not reflect the opinion of institutions and organisations I am affiliated with.