Discover Canadian innovation by staring deeply into your own navel and Mike Laziridis discusses manure (really) at the AAAS Fri., Feb. 17, 2012 afternoon events

It was an afternoon event (1:30 – 4:30 pm PST) at the American Association for the Advancement (AAAS) 2012 meeting in Vancouver, “Searching for the Right Space for Innovation.” I realized it was going to be a bunch of academics discussing their research about the Canadian scene; I just didn’t expect it to be so thoroughly self-involved. There was one moment of extreme excitement with everyone madly scribbling or keyboarding. David Wolfe from the University of Toronto mentioned that there is interest is funding risk science research and centres (apparently the Univ. of Toronto is about to open a risk science centre of its own). I’m pretty sure it was the smell of money that occasioned all the activity.

Given that this meeting attracts mainly US scientists and others from outside Canada, I was hoping for a more expansive view of Canadian innovation (the good, the bad, and the ugly). The relentless focus on the minutiae surprised me. I realize that for these academics what I perceive to be minutiae is vitally important. (That’s always true  if you are deeply involved in a topic. I feel much the same way about passive and active voices but the only people who care to discuss this topic at length [I mean 20 or more minutes; occasionally you meet someone who’s prepared to argue you {the writer} into the ground but they usually lose interest as the discussion continues] are other writers.)

Given that the AAAS meeting is attracting academics from many different disciplines and from jurisdictions outside Canada, I found this discussion disappointing in its provincialism.

This session was followed by the big event of the day, the plenary lecture by Mike Lazaridis billed as “The Power of Ideas.” One of the founders of Research in Motion (RIM), the company that produced the Blackberry, Lazaridis is well known as a successful technology innovator. He recently stepped down (or was pushed) from his position (with Jim Balsillie) as co-president and co-CEO of RIM after a very bad year (2011) for that company.

In technology circles, there’s a phenomenon where the people who founded the company can grow it to a certain point but no further. Lazaridis and Balsillie grew their company well past the point where most Canadian entrepreneurs have to quit. RIM is quite an extraordinary accomplishment by any standard internationally and I’m not sure why Lazaridis and/or his handlers feel they have to gild it past levels considered tasteful by baroque standards.

Lazaridis is a good speaker and I wish the material had been better. I’m referring specifically to the part where he posed a thought experiment (his term for it) whereby the Blackberry is sent back in time to some giants in the field electronics, Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell.Is there anyone who doesn’t realize that these 19th century geniuses would be hard put to understand the device?As for sending back some textbooks so they could read about the technology, unlike Lazaridis I’m not convinced that would be helpful. Apparently Lazaridis learned technology by reading the technical manuals first. Laziridis has a different starting point than either of these geniuses not least of which was a cultural context that allowed him to grapple with what was then a ‘new’ technology.

Lazaridis did announce that there will be a new centre opening, the Mike and Ophelia Lazaridis Quantum Nano Centre (QNC) at the University of Waterloo (Ontario, Canada). I gather the new opening date is later this year (2012);  it was supposed to open during summer 2011.

There were some charming bits to the talk (high school experiences) and he’s charismatic. As for the manure, this was mentioned in the context of the first urban planning meeting ever held in the 1890’s in New York City. Lazaridis set this up as a joke asking us what we thought the big problem of the 1890’s urban environment could be. I imagine it was meant as a launch point for something more germane to the ‘big ideas’ theme but I knew the punchline (I happened to see an episode of Nova where this information was featured), was tired, and Lazaridis does not appear to have a gift for delivering a comic line so I left. There you have it: day one.

5 thoughts on “Discover Canadian innovation by staring deeply into your own navel and Mike Laziridis discusses manure (really) at the AAAS Fri., Feb. 17, 2012 afternoon events

  1. Blindfolded Monkey

    There has never been a company in such complete denial as RIM. Their market dominance has steadily evaporated and they are still won’t acknowledge that their strategy was wrong the past few years. Promoting an insider to stay the course is probably the final nail in the coffin.

  2. BaxDoc

    I suspect Lazardis (and/or his handlers as you astutely point out) have zero understanding of their own cultural place, and the impact that living at a time when it’s axiomatic that ‘bigger is better’, has had on their own thinking/values. (So, it follows somehow that unless Blackberry becomes a humongous company larger than Apple it is a failure.)
    But we don’t like to think of scientific “truth” as being largely a social (and economic) construct. Or consider just how many novel ideas are dropped at the wayside as funding pushes scientific thought in a certain direction ….

  3. admin

    Hi Blindfolded Monkey! When you put it that way, it almost makes one wonder if they’re getting ready to sell the company while it still has some market value. Cheers, Maryse

  4. admin

    Hi BaxDoc! That sounds like a whole other posting or even a book. I’m just not sure it could be written as it would require access to a lot more information than I suspect Lazaridis or Balsillie or RIM’s current management team would care to reveal. Cheers, Maryse

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