Wood to could to can

Normally when governments make announcements on a Friday, the news is bad or, at the very least, somewhat embarrassing and something elected officials would rather not speak to.

The news last Friday from jobs minister Shirley Bond, Prince George-Mackenzie MLA Mike Morris and Mayor Lyn Hall wasn't good news, it was great news, the kind of development that could be looked back on years from now as a stroke of genius.

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The news was that the Emily Carr University of Art and Design, based in Vancouver, would be taking the last available rooms of the new Wood Innovation and Design Centre and implementing academic programs for students that would tie in with what the UNBC wood engineering students will be doing there.

I've harshly criticized WIDC in past editorials for being an outrageously expensive building for a few dozen students and faculty, made worse by the fact that the students and faculty will be in exile downtown, rather than up on the main campus. The history of innovation certainly has tales of talented inventors working in isolation but those stories are rare, which is what makes them so interesting. The reality, as Walter Isaacson points out in The Innovators, his history of the development of the Digital Age, is that innovation is the combination of individual talent and collaboration. Universities have known this for centuries, which is why academics and students across many disciplines are brought together in one place.

The setting at WIDC is particularly exciting because of the blend of designers and engineers. Isaacson makes a compelling argument in his book that it is this kind of combination of talent that is largely responsible for the computer and all of its related developments. The story dates back to 1843, when Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron, the legendary British poet, published her notes on Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine, the first attempt at a multi-purpose calculatiing machine. Babbage had the technical ingenuity to sketch out such a device (he was never able to build it, settling for the less complex and powerful Difference Engine) but it was Lovelace who had the foresight about what such a device could do. Her artistic vision allowed her to imagine a machine that could not only calculate numbers but could process all forms of information, even colours, words and sounds, into data.

She literally was ahead by a century.

The best comparison to the potential of Emily Carr designers and UNBC engineers working together can be found in Bell Labs, which Isaacson calls "a cauldron of innovation." The American Telephone and Telegraph Company, better known today as AT&T, formed its research division in the early 20th century to solve the significant technical challenges around delivering telephone service to the entire United States, bringing together engineers (the builders) with mathematicians and physicists (the creative thinkers).

It was at Bell Labs in 1937 where Claude Shannon became a pioneer of information theory,coming up with the idea of relays, having a series of electrical circuits conducting logical operations in sequential order, the on/off, and/either/or decisions essential to modern computing. Ten years later, Bell Labs made modern computers, electronic devices and communications possible when it unveiled the transistor, a transformative invention AT&T was forced to give away for peanuts under American anti-trust laws in order to keep its telephone business.

The combination of Emily Carr design and UNBC wood engineering programs at WIDC brings together people with two different but essential mindsets. Engineers see the present and what is, designers see the future and what could be. Engineers are the ones to say that something is technically impossible and designers are the ones to ask "yes, but what would happen if you did it this way?"

Fortunately, UNBC has a commerce program because innovation doesn't change the world until someone with an entrepreneurial spirit has the business savvy to recognize the potential of a great invention and the smarts to deliver it to the marketplace.

Put it all together and WIDC could become Prince George's "cauldron of innovation," a place where a wealth of ideas could benefit the entire region and change the world.

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