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Vancouver tech firms draw crowd at Economic Forecast Breakfast

By , Columbian staff writer

Technology will continue to change the way we work and live, but it won’t change the need for people.

That was the main thread of a sweeping four-person panel discussion at The Columbian’s Economic Forecast Breakfast on Thursday, held at the Hilton Vancouver Washington.

Speakers from Vancouver technology companies RealWear Inc., Blokable, Webfor and Simplexity Product Development were tasked with untangling the internet’s assimilation into everything from education to housing to work.

“Technology is only limited by your imagination,” Simplexity CEO Dorota Shortell told the 420 people in attendance. “I dream of the time when I’m coming home and just voice-command my kitchen to start cooking dinner for me so by the time I get home it’s prepped. That’s not there yet, but it will be.”

Internet access and smartphone compatibility are being built into nearly every modern household appliance. Sensors collect data on everything from online shopping habits to traffic patterns, making data analysis an industry unto itself.

There were 8.4 billion internet-connected devices around the world last year, according to Connecticut-based research firm Gartner. That is up 31 percent from the year before. The firm projects there will be 20.4 billion devices by 2020.

So what is in store for a society becoming so reliant on technology, asked moderator Mei Wu, managing director of SmartRG.

Security was one concern. If computers can be hacked, can’t modern household appliances? Is anyone listening when people talk to voice-driven devices like Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri? Shortell said that when it comes to technology, sometimes it is best to be patient.

“Products come out faster than regulations,” she said. “You have to be a little bit wary and hesitant, but they’re bound to catch up. (Lawmakers are) already working on how to create the right regulations.”

Technology advances will disrupt jobs over time, but they won’t necessarily replace people. Automation may make some manual labor obsolete, but it will also open doors for newer skills, said Aaron Holm, CEO of Blokable.

Blokable aims to create more affordable housing — in the form of slim, modular homes called “bloks” — by automating construction and selling to developers and organizations. It’s a relatively new idea, but it leverages existing technology, Holm said.

“That’s the opportunity: people understanding how we need to use systems to create better processes,” he said. “In the same way I think everybody in our company needs technical fluency, they also need creative problem-solving to be able to identify opportunities to implement technology to make improvements.”

RealWear CEO Andy Lowery, whose company makes a head-mounted tablet designed for hard-hat industries, said companies take a step back if they ask younger, tech-savvy workers to adapt to old practices.

“We’re taking young adults like my son who is 20, my daughter who is 19, and we’re saying ‘Welcome. You’ve lived your whole life with a computer in your left hand, put that down. Here’s some paper, here are some pencils. Here’s a stack of manuals that I want you to read to learn how to run this refinery,’ ” he said.

The biggest change on the horizon, according to Holm, is faster delivery of products and services. Troves of data today means companies have greater insights with which to make decisions. Holm said his company is one that uses high-powered data to zero in on where affordable housing is most needed.

13 Photos
Moderator Mei Wu, from left, joins panelists Andy Lowery of RealWear, Kevin Getch of Webfor, Dorota Shortell of Simplexity Product Development and Aaron Holm of Blokable Inc. during the 2018 Economic Forecast Breakfast at the Hilton Hotel in downtown Vancouver, Thursday morning January 18, 2018.
2018 Economic Forecast Breakfast Photo Gallery

“If there’s a change in the demographics of a certain area, that has an impact on housing. If there’s a big group of graduates who suddenly hit the workforce, that’s a change in housing,” he said.

The panelists talked about some of the cutting-edge predictions, floating ideas like online retailers predicting what you want and delivering the goods before you order.

While change may be unnerving to some, Kevin Getch, founder of the digital marketing company Webfor, compared it with the ways the Industrial Revolution and machine manufacturing scared workers generations ago.

“When people looked at the Industrial Revolution and they were in it, they were very scared because there’s change,” he said. “We’re in that same phase right now. We’re looking at it and going ‘It’s scary, there’s going to be a lot of change.’ And there is, we have some right to fear aspects of it. We need to get to a point where we’re choosing our direction with a vision, as opposed to letting the technology drive us.”


 Aaron Holm — CEO of Blokable, a manufacturer of slim housing units called bloks, designed to provide more affordable homes.

 Andy Lowery — CEO of RealWear Inc., a manufacturer of a head-mounted tablet to increase communication and productivity of laborers.

 Dorota Shortell — CEO of Simplexity Product Development, a firm that designs and develops an array of high-tech products.

 Kevin Getch — Founder of Webfor, a digital marketing agency aimed at helping businesses grow and navigate changes in technology.

Coming Sunday

• State of the Clark County economy

• “The Internet of Everything” 2018 Economic Forecast special section

Columbian staff writer