This article first appeared in print in the January 2020 issue of Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine.
Where to start with Jean-Marc La Flamme? His greying wavy curls, a mashup of mad professor meets Kramer, are just the start of Jean-Marc’s permanently excited look. His wooden glasses, sourced from a Canadian frame-making startup, do little to tame his surprised, wide-eyed facial expression of someone who never leaves the roller coaster. He is the undisputed Revelstoke champion of loud retro polyester shirts and rocks up with a new one every day. He’s a walking exclamation mark, and that’s just his look alone, before he gets animated talking about the future and technology.
Meet Jean-Marc La Flamme, Revelstoke’s techno-future evangelist, an unavoidable figure if you’re putting out a magazine issue about hope for the future.
Watch: For this video supplemental to our feature on Jean-Marc La Flamme in the January 2020 issue of Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine, Aaron Orlando sat down with Jean-Marc for a video chat. Hear more from Jean-Marc here:
I don’t think I have room for a list of all the startups and technology initiatives he’s been involved with in the dozen years since he’s been in Revy. SeedUps was a crowdfunding for startups company. Jump On! Flyaways was a crowdsourcing startup for air travel: if enough people commit to a flight through the app, it flies. He was a StartUp Canada member, travelling to Ottawa for their meetings, and he went on to help found the local chapter, StartUp Revelstoke. His fingerprints are all over the makerspace that is under development in an office space above the tourism info centre. He actually had to explain to me what co-working spaces were before a group of us went on to found Mountain CoLab, the co-working and startup space above Dose Cafe downtown. He does marketing consulting for various non-tech companies and organizations, such as Kootenay Carshare Coop (where his Tesla is in the mix and he helped bring in new electric cars) and the Kaslo Jazz Festival. If you need to kill some time, just ask him what he’s working on these days.
His latest venture, Smart Villages, consults with local governments on ways to integrate technology into municipal operations. In particular, his focus is on democratizing decision-making processes with data, providing better connection between residents and local government, as he puts it, to take out the randomness in civic policy directions. In short, better connecting decision-makers with the desires of residents by informing government on what their focus should be on. For example, housing, not dog poo.
The floral polyester shirt industry owes Jean-Marc a lifetime achievement award. I once witnessed his entire collection of vintage shirts in one place, on a rack sheltered under plastic in an old barn south of Revelstoke. He was living in a tiny home on a property he was trying to develop into an eco techno-commune of some sort, one of at least two he’s tried to get going in recent years.
He never misses an opportunity to slip technology into the conversation. Here’s a typical exchange: Me: “I’m hungry. Wanna get a bite?” JM: “In the future, the cloud will sense our hunger and deliver hot food optimized to our biometrics by drone.” Me: “How about the Modern?” JM: “I’ll see if I can preorder using an app.”
Over the past decade, tech bro has emerged as a derogatory term for males working in tech-related fields. The word evokes an image of an amoral young man beavering away at code that turns billionaires into multi-billionaires and enables the bro to make a poor colour choice on a new Ferrari.
If you view Jean-Marc through this lens, you won’t get him. Although he’s always talking about scaling up and exponential growth, and potentially profits that come from that, his focus isn’t on the bottom line, as I’ve learned through hundreds of conversations with him over the years.
His underlying theme is always technology’s ability to change our society for the better, to replace old ways of doing things with better ones, giving us more time to slay powder or spend time with friends.
For our January 2020 future and hope, we connected with JM for a Q&A to hear his ideas and vision for a better Revelstoke in the coming decade:
Revelstoke Mountaineer/Aaron Orlando: Why did you choose to worship at the church of technology? Was there a triggering incident in your childhood, like the boy who wants to be a fireman because a fireman saved his house from burning down after it caught fire?
Jean-Marc La Flamme: I am half Swiss, so I was born into efficiency and innovation, naturally blending into modern technology. Truthfully the big tech for me didn’t materialize until the internet era when at the right place and helped build the Government of Canada’s first websites by hand. This paved the way to working at big companies like Yahoo!, WestJet and onwards to my own startups. In an era of exponential technologies like artificial intelligence, drones, robotics, quantum computing, autonomous vehicles, Big Data and more, now I am focused on how those technologies will impact us in mountain communities. That new realm is called Smart Cities.
RM: Most Revelstokians can reminisce about their first skis, snowboard, or mountain bike. (Gnu Antigravity and late ’80s Norco Bigfoot for me.) Is there a piece of technology from your childhood that you regard in the same way?
JML: As a kid I got my pilot’s licence at age 16. So the Cessna, although 1960s tech was my go-to in the late ’80s, and to this day that aircraft tech is still being used. How is that for long-lasting tech! You ditch your pocket supercomputer AKA smartphone almost every other year on average. 100 years later, the basic aircraft is about due for a replacement by electric aircraft over.
RM: You and I had the opportunity to see futurist Ray Kurzweil speak in Vancouver a few years ago. I have never seen you so excited. Why does technology and the future excite you so much?
JML: Ray is a mentor to me alongside his partner Peter Diamandis and their Singularity University. Here are five of my fave quotes from Ray:
-“What we spend our time on is probably the most important decision we make.”
-“Our intuition about the future is linear. But the reality of information technology is exponential, and that makes a profound difference. If I take 30 steps linearly, I get to 30. If I take 30 steps exponentially, I get to a billion.”
-“No matter what problem you encounter, whether it’s a grand challenge for humanity or a personal problem of your own, there’s an idea out there that can overcome it. And you can find that idea.”
-“By 2029, computers will have emotional intelligence and be convincing as people.”
-“Biology is a software process. Our bodies are made up of trillions of cells, each governed by this process. You and I are walking around with outdated software running in our bodies, which evolved in a very different era.”
As humans we have created a new being called Artificial Intelligence, and it will lead us to the path of singularity where we get to upload ourselves to the machine. The same is done with our evolutionary human bodies when we feel the need to procreate and have humans teach others. Every time you engage with your smartphone or right here online you are interfacing and teaching AI. Here are some of Ray’s predictions.
The coolest thing is that much of the tech is here today. We are just not getting to it fast enough despite fibre internet. It’s exciting and frustrating to understand that our abundant future is here, that we could save the earth from climate crisis, but the only thing preventing us from this is ourselves. But we are caught in a web of production and inability to move status quo for affordable living (housing, food, transportation), but where there is a will, there is a way! #SmartCities
RM: Is it true you want to upload your brain to the cloud? Why would anyone want to do that?
JML: To live forever in a new dimension. We feel the need to do the same with having children. It’s evolution.
RM: Which technology do you feel will be the most transformative for Revelstoke in the next decade, and why?
JML: Autonomous vehicles. Revelstoke was named after Lord Revelstoke who financed the completion of the railway and created Canada with this ultimate transportation. That is about to be eclipsed. Also those helicopters will be drones over the next decade.
Robotics. Wood production is already half robot.
3D printing: Everything we import today can be made right here.
Exponential technologies are those which are rapidly accelerating and shaping major industries and all aspects of our lives. Exponential technologies include artificial intelligence (AI), augmented and virtual reality (AR, VR), data science, digital biology and biotech, medicine, nanotech and digital fabrication, networks and computing systems, robotics, and autonomous vehicles. We techies believe that the solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges lie at the intersection of these exponential technologies. That is, when two or more of these technologies are used in combination to attack a persistent challenge, the possibility of developing a sustainable solution becomes much more likely.
For example, consider a potential healthcare solution that leverages machine learning, public health records, and individual genetic profiles to help prevent heart disease. That’s something we can all get behind. Or, consider another solution that might use personal health records, a new biosensor, and the data from smartphones and locally based Cronometer to predict the presence of cancer. These are the types of solutions we are trying to enable through the innovation and learning platform that Smart Cities bring.
RM: Let’s talk future utopias and dystopias. Ten years from now, what does a utopian Revelstoke look like? What about a dystopian Revelstoke 10 years into the future? Importantly, how does technology play a part in steering towards one or the other?
JML: 10 years from now we hopefully would have set goals like a good business does. Climate action goals, affordable housing goals, food security goals, shared mobility goals. The only way to set those goals is using online collaboration and citizen engagement tools. Not sitting behind closed doors with a select few and expecting our elected representatives to understand us.
If we manage to do this we will have achieved some great traction versus our big city peers who have a lot of money behind them — potentially saving the earth from catastrophe. Achieving affordable living would also allow us to be part of programming artificial intelligence (our evolution like it or not) instead of the corporations and big governments.
The worst scenario is that we miss the boat and professionals move to other small cities that are more progressive and have cheaper living. We could miss an opportunity to be a pioneer as an economically and environmentally sustainable city, thereby setting an example and coaching others to really be part of climate action.
RM: You often single out municipal government for tech-related criticism. What do you feel is wrong, and how would you fix it?
JML: This is not a Revelstoke issue, it’s a rural issue, and most governments around the world, big or small, especially those going through growth periods, are suffering from old systems failure (aka house on fire) and barely keeping up to the pace of new technological opportunities. The best thing is that we have a healthy population of friends, family and skilled professionals who care deeply for the city’s welfare. We are working as a country under the Smart Cities umbrella to help facilitate the change with the best solutions in the world.
RM: In the past few years, the conversation has shifted to how technology has made us worse off and ways we can better manage technology for health and mental wellness. Using social media use in Revelstoke as an example, conversations about community issues often devolve into name-calling. The hottest heads rise to the top. Reasonable people see it for what it is and opt out, but that leads to an absence of reasonable voices in many public conversations. How has this new tech skepticism affected your tech evangelism?
JML: Let’s be clear, tech is everywhere. The first tech was fire, and before that we had to eat raw meat! Social media is the 100 trillionth version of technology and we relied heavily on it for communication recently using the super computers in our pockets. The owners of the social media giants kept on pumping us with their addictive qualities and they took over most of our communication and our data. As they say, data is the new oil and we gave all that away to the Americans and are now clawing it back for the next generation. These tech giants don’t want to change too much because they are reaping the rewards of amazing revenues, and so despite the need for humanity to accelerate forwards with new communication and collaboration tools — we tend to stay on the big guys, since that is what was most convenient, and that is why you hate it now. It takes quite a few years for the masses to understand how this impacts human health. The same can be said with fossil fuel vehicles, expensive housing, and food from around the world. We have amazing new Canadian and local products that can be used, but we switch it alone. We need to pledge our support as a community to reach these goals together. Just like competing in Bike to Work Week or banning plastics as a city — we can do the same in collaboration with ourselves and by setting goals with other communities. This is especially important with, technologies in our most critical categories of communication, housing, food and transportation.
RM: The connected tech boom emerged during our late capitalist era and has been defined by it. Once you take money from venture capitalists or the finance market, you’re in hoc to your new masters. It’s easy to dunk on Mark Zuckerberg’s morally vacuous testimony before U.S. government committees, but really, the underlying message is he’s trying to work on the issues but has to fulfill the prime directive first — returns for his shareholders. Corrosion of democracy and genocide are just unintended by-products to be regretted. Why won’t the next decade just be more of the same?
JML: These things: Canadian tech, sustainability goals, open source, open data, citizen engagement, smart cities.
The beautiful part of technology as you describe the current version is that it cost millions of dollars to develop 10 years ago, now anyone can develop using exponential technologies for thousands of dollars, and with hundreds of thousands of open source developers and entrepreneurs like Elon Musk sharing these technologies openly we can realistically make everything we have ever wanted in Revelstoke. We just need to plug into the matrix.
RM: What about over here at the Mountaineer? What tech stories should we be writing about in the coming decade?
JML: In 2020 we will be having many more tech and innovation events that include regular citizens and how they can seize the moment. I’m excited with where we can go offline in our hack-a-thons and the Mountaineer can be the centrepiece of extending this online, with citizen engagement, open data and prioritized storytelling including a visual detail that our new creative professionals can bring forward. They can explain solutions with design thinking and in colour. This is the real opportunity to capitalize for our local media and creatives.
RM: What initiatives are you working on these days?
JML: Two years of studying Smart Cities design, and almost 10 years working with civic tech and open government. I am now consulting with Canadian communities as Smart Villages in mainly the following: citizen engagement platforms; circular economy structure; smart building devices; economic data marketplace; data for good; smart city transportation; shared mobility programs; autonomous electric vehicles; blockchain business models; distributed energy generation; greenhouse food technology; and micro housing developments.
Open Smart Cities is where residents, civil society, academics, and the private sector collaborate with administrators to mobilize data and technologies when warranted in an ethical, accountable and transparent way to govern the city as a fair, viable and livable commons and balance economic development, social progress and environmental responsibility.