What do the innovators of the first cellphone and a rental app for travel accommodations have in common? They're both centred on the core value of connecting people.
That was the main focus at The Innovators 2016, an event hosted by the Information and Communication Technologies Association of Manitoba (ICTAM) at the RBC Convention Centre Winnipeg on April 21, 2016—an event for which MTS was a platinum sponsor.
Toronto-based technology journalist Marc Saltzman moderated the lively on-stage conversation involving Martin Cooper, the originator of the first handheld cellular phone in 1973, and Aaron Zifkin, Director of North American Operations for Airbnb, the online marketplace for accommodations around the world.
Cooper's profile in technology is quite impressive as ICTAM highlighted, and his Winnipeg connection is close to heart as guest moderator, Saltzman, discusses into the evening.
"He contributed to every significant advancement in Wireless communications from the first car phones to the radio pager. He conceived and demonstrated the first portable cellular phone in 1973." - Saltzman
True Importance of "Innovation
Cooper stressed that innovation should not be akin to magically pulling a novel technology out of a hat, but should focus on solving real-world problems.
“Everything we do is an improvement,” Cooper said. “The challenge is not to create technology for the sake of technology. Technology should only improve people’s lives. If you try to create a technology that is too advanced, people are not going to use it.
“Good technology could be intuitive, better technology might be transparent, but the best technology is invisible. It solves your problem, it makes you more comfortable, it makes you more productive and you don’t event know it’s there. That’s where we’re going, but we’re a long way from there.”
The Winnipeg Connection
Cooper, who has a connection to Winnipeg as he moved to the city from Chicago in his childhood when his parents bought a North End grocery store, even brought a vintage 'brick' cell phone from from the early days of mobile telephony, much to the amusement of his cohorts on stage and the crowd of more than 360.
“(Cooper) has contributed to virtually every significant advancement in wireless communications, from the first car phones to the radio pager and modern-day cellular systems,” Saltzman said. “Not many people can literally say they changed the world. When you were working with Motorola in the early ’70s on the technology, I'm sure you weren't thinking that.”
How The Cell Phone Was Invented
“The only thing we were thinking about was winning the battle,” said Cooper, who worked for 29 years with Motorola.
Motorola was in a race with AT&T, the biggest company in the world at the time.
“They had invented a thing called cellular telephony … except their version was going to be a monopoly — you wouldn't even be able to buy a phone from them; you'd have to rent it,” Cooper said. “Secondly, their solution to cellular was car telephones. Just think about it — we had been trapped in our homes and our offices by this copper wire for a hundred years, and now they were going to trap us in our cars. We believed the time was ready for portables — handheld phones.”
Motorola, who was deep into the two-way radio business, had already seen how customers reacted to moving to handheld, highly mobile devices.
“When they got handheld (portable radios), it was like they were set free,” Cooper said. “So we knew that was the way to go. The mantra was, people are fundamentally, inherently mobile and like to move around.”
Cooper said there was no 'eureka' moment for him with the cell phone.
“I didn't do it by myself, many thousands of people contributed to this marvelous object,” Cooper said.
Cooper related the story of making the first public call on a cell phone (in front of a reporter in midtown Manhattan) by demonstrating with the actual phone he used in 1973 — a prototype that would become the Motorola DynaTAC 8000x.
“I wasn't thinking of a revolution or how I was going to change people's lives, I was thinking ‘I hope this damn thing works!’” he said.
Cooper made the call to his counterpart at competitor AT&T, Joel Engel.
“I said, ‘I'm calling you from a cell phone—a personal, handheld, portable cell phone,’” Cooper said. “There was silence on the other end and I was thinking he was gritting his teeth, but he was very polite, and to this day, Joel does not remember that phone call, and I don't blame him.”
Above all, Cooper stresses that tech development should not be about invention just for the sake of it, but should focus on creating efficiencies and remedying actual needs, something Airbnb’s Zifkin understands.
Airbnb & The Future of Tech Development
Airbnb's Aaron Zifkin spoke of his work as co-founder of the Kawartha Lakes Ski School, one of Ontario’s largest waterskiing and wake-boarding schools, and how it instilled in him the importance of social connection to business success.
“It’s the idea of growing a business through community and people,” said Zifkin, who, fittingly, was staying in Airbnb lodgings in Winnipeg, in a loft in the Exchange District.
Zifkin started with Airbnb two years ago, and was just recently promoted to his new job after working as Canadian Country Manager. “It had nothing to do with how good we were as instructors. It had everything to do with the type of experience the kids and parents were having. One of the most rewarding things was seeing that community building with the kids becoming friends with each other on the lake, and the next thing you know the parents are having cocktails with each other on the dock, then Christmas parties together in the off-season.”
Saltzman posed the question of whether innovation should focus more on pure invention or on developing improved iterations of existing technology.
“Airbnb is not new and it’s not innovative, what we did was to unlock trust at scale, that was the innovation.” - Zifkin
Zifkin continued, “Home-sharing was not innovative, it pre-dated the existence of hotels. Look at some of the technologies that had to be there before trust at scale could occur — Facebook removing anonymity from the web and eBay having a two-sided marketplace and a two-way review system. Airbnb wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for both of those.”
Founded in 2008, Airbnb is now in 191 countries, the most recent being Cuba. Zifkin said that while Airbnb is at first a way for people to monetize their lodgings, many continue to use it because of the social aspects.
“People really stick around because of the cultural exchanges,” Zifkin said. “You’re meeting people from all over the world.”
Even on the renters’ side, Zifkin argues that Airbnb’s continued popularity isn’t just about saving money.
“It’s about the experience and living in the culture and having those serendipitous experiences you just can’t have with a traditional provider,” he said. “I would go as far as saying we’re not a tech company. We’re a real-world, people company.”
Learning From Other Industries
Cooper attributes the growth and appeal of Airbnb to the fact it capitalized on an inefficiency.
“You’re taking this resource of empty rooms and making them available to society, and they improve people’s lives in one way or another,” Cooper said.
Cooper says innovation flourishes when knowledge ‘silos’ and hierarchies are broken down.
“When people start truly collaborating, and they can talk to each other and work together 24-7, the whole idea of an organizational hierarchy, where we name each step and confine people to only doing certain things, seems terribly inefficient,” Cooper said. “The most efficient ways of doing things are what I call 'self-organizing systems.' You create some rules and put a bunch of smart people together and let them interact following the rules with feedback.”
Cooper says he still leans on words of wisdom from Motorola’s founder Paul Galvin.
“Reach out and do not fear failure,” Cooper said. “Paul started three or four businesses before turning Motorola into a real powerhouse. Practically every successful person who has done really important things has had lots of failures. It’s about persistence, self-confidence and accepting failures as lessons to be learned.”
Platinum sponsors of The Innovators included MTS, the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) and BDO. Silver sponsors were the Manitoba Institute of Trades and Technology and Online Business Systems. Bronze sponsors included Imaginet, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, the Stu Clark Centre for Entrepreneurship at the Asper School of Business, the Eureka Project and TLG.