high tech low tech tech

This week, in the course of my duties at the Technology Innovation Centre, I was going through a progress report with one of my inventor clients.

This week, in the course of my duties at the Technology Innovation Centre, I was going through a progress report with one of my inventor clients. We were arranging for a visit to his rented shop space in McCrae, and I was looking to pin down his co-ordinates, there.

My client was getting ready to give me a verbal description of how to get there when I, without thinking much about it, scooted across the room in my wheeled chair, set my web browser to Google maps, satellite view, zoomed in on the McCrae area, and asked him to point to where his shop was.

With a slightly incredulous guffaw, my client pointed out the building and said, “Boy, you sure live in a different world than I do.”

My client is a very smart and capable guy – I wouldn’t be dealing with him at the Technology Centre, if I didn’t think so – but he exists, like a lot of smart and capable people, at the edge of what is often called (I think erroneously) as the digital divide.

I am not at liberty to say just what it is my client is inventing, but it involves the deployment of a wide range of mechanical and engineering skills that are well out of the range of my more computer-geeky skill set: metalwork, mechanics, vacuum dynamics and so on.

Had the shoe been on the other foot – had I been in his shop, watching him going about his professional business – I could easily have been me giving the incredulous guffaw and making the comment about different worlds.

Over the course of the past half dozen years, I have spent working at the Yukon Technology Innovation Centre, I have worked with a startlingly wide array of different kinds of people with wildly different skill sets, and really only one thing in common: inventive intelligence.

I should briefly explain that the Technology Innovation Centre is part of the Yukon Research Centre of Excellence at Yukon College, and that my job there is to provide local inventors with financial and other support as they get their prototypes or proof of concept items together, along with some guidance and assistance on getting their ideas into the marketplace.

Like all jobs, it has its challenges and frustrations, but overall it is a pretty sweet deal, with some major benefits – the most important of which is that it keeps me interested and keeps me humble.

The Technology Centre has been involved in everything from apps for iPods to specialized clutch weights for racing snowmobiles. We have even been involved (though, lamentably, the project fell through) in trying to help a local company send a Yukon-built, high tech drill on a Moon mission.

What I have learned, over this time, is that people too often confuse technology innovation with high technology – computer stuff, stuff using advanced materials or ornate electronics.

The reality is that a technology does not have to be “high” or advanced to be innovative and successful.

The invention being worked on by the client I just mentioned, for instance, is largely a matter of gears, wires, and a bit of vacuum power – nothing ground breaking in and of itself, but put to work in an ingenious way to address a problem in a potentially very profitable way.

The fellow working on it has only a marginal understanding of my world of computer networks and software applications. He is an educated farm boy who just uses e-mail, and does not own a cellphone.

He has the grand, old-fashioned skill sets of the Canadian farmer: He knows about dirt; he knows about welding and soldering and mechanics, and he is employing those skills in the great old Prairie tradition of working up a home-built fix to a problem – though this time with a view to coming up with a product that can be manufactured and sold commercially.

A majority of the successful projects I have seen over the past years, in fact, have been in the area of low technology, not computer programming or high-grade electronics.

The Yukon, in fact, though it has some pretty sophisticated programmers and technicians in it, lends itself most readily to innovations in the low technology area – primarily in easy to build, high value-added solutions to problems big, high-tech companies do not have on their entrepreneurial radar.

After almost two decades of involvement with computers and digital communications, I have developed a facility with digital work that might sometimes seem remarkable to someone outside of that environment.

On the other hand, I am continually rendered incredulous by the skill sets shown by people who wield wrenches, or do things with textiles, or come up with ways of putting one off-the-shelf product together with a couple of other off-the-shelf products to create a product nobody else ever thought of before.

Whether you are wielding a mouse, a wrench, or just a technical concept, all innovative technology gets its value and interest not from whether it is complex or simple, or high or low; its value comes from its being innovate, and useful.

So keep the low tech comin’, folks.

Rick Steele is a technology junkie who lives in Whitehorse.