Founder, Wicked Ideas
What are you most proud of professionally? And who or why?
My words. On my best days they move people to think, to feel and to act.
What's your vision for Atlantic Canada in 10 years? What’s our biggest opportunity now?
My vision for Atlantic Canada in 10 years is to have one. A vision. A plan. Because let me assure you, right now we don't have one. I've spent the past 15 years writing and talking about the fact that we are living in an age of uncertainty, brought about by deep economic, ecological and social change – much of it caused by massive technological change. The methods, theories and processes we have depended on in the past are not going to work where we are going.
Why? Because networked technologies are creating connections between people, regions and businesses that are upending traditional models. For instance, consider how we produce, transmit and purchase energy. Right now we are using a model in which energy flows in one direction: from the source of that energy into your house or your business. But that is changing. New technologies, be they solar, wind, geothermal or batteries, are making it possible for each of us to create enough energy for our personal use. We are already seeing this with net-zero homes. Now imagine in 10 years, a whole bunch of us are able to create our own power - yay us, saving money and reducing emissions while we're at it. Now imagine on some days we are producing more power than we need. Maybe on a really sunny day in July or in February. Can we sell that to our neighbour? To a local company with greater power needs then us? Or can we sell it to people in the Yukon? That's what is happening right now between our electrical utilities and major industrial users. They are buying and selling power from each other. That's a two-way system – a network.
Now imagine if all of us can become a part of that network. Buying and selling energy, just like we buy and sell our old stuff on Kijiji. And imagine those batteries Elon Musk is working on become inexpensive enough for all of us to buy and install in our basements and garages. So that excess power we generated on that sunny day in July can be stored and either we use it or sell it at later date, such as a stormy November day, when we need it or we can get a better price because demand is higher. All of a sudden we are no longer passive users of energy; we are active producers, sellers and consumers. That model is not a theory; it is already being created. It is coming for us. How are we getting ready to receive it and use it to our best advantage? What will it mean for our traditional power utilities? How are they getting ready to enable the free flow of energy across our already overburdened transmission systems?
Think about that the next time a hurricane or ice storm knocks out your power. Think about what kinds of investments we should be making. That's why we need a plan.
We need to determine where we want to be in 10 years and map out a plan. For energy. For urban spaces. For retail. For education. For health care. For transportation. We need plans for everything. Yay us! I am so excited to get started - who's with me?
What was your greatest stage of growth? What made it a shift for you?
I am just emerging from an extended period of growth thanks to my life-changing, collaborative relationship with Dr. John McLaughlin that began 15 years ago while he was president of UNB. Way back in 2003, he thought he was hiring a writer and I thought I was going on a two-year research and writing project at UNB. Instead, he started to see in me someone who unknowingly saw the world through a systems and networked lens. So he started to coach and mentor me.
John started out as a survey engineer and in the late 1960s/early 1970s was among the first in the world to link network theory to land surveying, to see the natural extension of how the then-new telecommunications networks could be applied to survey engineering to help map and understand the earth and the way we all live within it. That early thinking by John and others at UNB and around the world laid the groundwork for geomatics engineering which, among other things is the backbone of the location services in all our smartphones, drones and any other mapping software. The key difference John noted was the need for these spatially-based networks to take into account the specific requirements of local communities.
Fast forward a few decades to 2003. He's newly installed as president of UNB. He can see the massive changes networked technologies are having on local economies and societies and he is thinking specifically about New Brunswick and Atlantic Canada, which is already struggling to adapt and change. He knows this problem is too big for just a small leadership group to ponder. This is all hands on deck, we need as many New Brunswickers thinking about this as we can. So how do you do that? You find someone who knows how to communicate to a broad audience so you can get the ideas out and into the hands and heads of as many people as possible. So he called me.
At the time I wrote a popular public affairs column for the Telegraph-Journal. The task he asked me to do was to elevate the profile and understanding of some of the big ideas being developed at UNB, combine it with other big thinkers in the region and the world and turn it into stories that could be shared and understood by a broad audience. As a journalist, I was very familiar with Statistics Canada and that was one of the main data sources I used. I like to visual information – my writing is often quite visual because I find that people can understand big concepts better when you paint them a picture. So that's what I did in my office at UNB Saint John. I stuck up a map of New Brunswick, got some coloured pins and I plotted out the province's population change between the 1996 and 2001 censuses. I discovered 12 of the 16 communities that had experienced growth were located along the newly-opened TransCanada Highway. To me it was just my way of understanding data. But John saw something different.
So he did what all great mentors do: he took me under his wing and began introducing me to people and concepts that challenged and widened my perspective. Then in the spring of 2011 he called me and said technology had caught up to us – digital media was exploding – and we need to give it another go. But this time it was my turn to lead. That moment is so clear in my head. I'm on the phone in the kitchen and all of a sudden he’s handing me this baton.
That's how Wicked Ideas began in 2012. And so I added learning how to run a business and to be a leader to my lesson plan and much like my intellectual growth, this professional growth has had taken a lot of dips, wandered off course and crested a few inclines. In the last couple of months all of it has converged so that I feel ready to start out on a new adventure. I'm ready to step out and up.
What's your favourite or most read book or podcast? Now or at each of your greatest stages of growth?
I don't have a favourite book. My favourite author right now is Louise Penny and her Inspector Armand Gamache novels. He is a fallable leader working at fixing a broken justice system. He finds his peaceful centre in the little village of Three Pines, in Quebec's Eastern Townships. I love sinking into Penny's novels. Better than a spa day.
Favourite podcast is NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour. Witty and delightful. Nicely aligns with my own thoughts on culture, art and entertainment.
What's your deepest learning from this past year? How did/will you apply it?
Follow your internal compass, it'll get you where you want to go.
Who's inspired you, directly or indirectly? How have they inspired you?
You do. That's the universal 'you'. I get my inspiration from observing, listening and interacting with people. When I write I imagine people I know and write in response to conversations I have had and things I have observed.
What would you have done differently?
What were your priorities and how did they help you overcome some of the struggles you've faced? What motivated you to make the choices you've made? What are the principles you live by?
I am motivated by the thrill of discovery and the adrenaline of the hunt. The Romans were on to something when they made Athena goddess of knowledge and hunting. It activates the same senses.
How have you recovered from fractured professional relationships? What uncomfortable truths have you learned about yourself in those experiences)?
I focus on nurturing and building deep relationships with people I admire, trust and enjoy. That's who is going to pick you up and nurse you back to health when something in your life gets broken. When you are being an idiot, they will tell you. That's why you want them in your life. To hold up the mirror and make you see what's really there. Guarantee you'll come out better than before.
Writer, Journalist, Social innovator, Newly-minted filmmaker, Speaker, Advisor