By Jocelyne Daw
Friday January 20th was the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States. Many greet the ceremony with concern about what his leadership will bring over the next four years. But the comments Bill Gates made after his meeting with Trump in late 2016 provide a ray of hope. Gates stated, “President-elect Donald Trump has an opportunity to establish American leadership through innovation.”
“A lot of his message” explained Gates, “has been about … where he sees things not as good as he’d like. But in the same way President Kennedy talked about the space mission and got the country behind that,” he continued, “I think whether it’s education or stopping epidemics … [or] in this energy space, there can be a very upbeat message that [Trump’s] administration [is] going to organize things, get rid of regulatory barriers, and have American leadership through innovation.”
Trump’s Innovation Journey
Every innovation journey starts with a small step and Trump’s innovation journey started with a
strong Canadian connection – to ice and skating no less! The year was 1986 (30 years before his election victory) and from his penthouse apartment in New York City, Trump, along with his fellow New Yorkers, watched with horror at the out-of-control renovations and refurbishments of the much beloved public jewel, the Wollman Skating Rink. Located in the southeaster corner of Central Park, it is among the largest public skating rinks in North America.
The renovation had been started by the city in 1980 and was a planned 2½-year, $4.7 million (U.S.) project. Six years later in May 1986, the work already at $11 million was stopped. The city announced plans to scrap all previous efforts and start over from scratch. At the time, Donald Trump was a little known developer with a proposal to the then Mayor of NYC, Ed Koch. He would personally direct and bankroll the reconstruction efforts and have it up and running within six months for only $3 million.
Trump understood that with no background in ice rink construction he would have look at things differently and innovate. As he states, “Since I myself knew absolutely nothing about building rinks, I set out to find the best skating-rink builder I could. Logic suggested the best place to look was Canada.”
Advisors recommended he meet with a 75-year Toronto-based company CIMCO that at the time was responsible for the ice at the Maple Leaf Gardens and the Montreal Forum. Upon looking at the ice rink, the firm quickly diagnosed Wollman’s problem. Most artificial ice uses ammonium as the primary refrigerant. But since it had been banned in New York the city had opted to use Liquid Freon instead, a more energy efficient but less reliable system.
The Canadian experts proposed a simple fix – swap Freon for a brine solution – essentially salt and water and put it through plastic piping rather than the proposed copper pipes – a more expensive but far more dependable way of creating ice. Trump watched the construction through a high-powered telescope from his near-by penthouse. Within four months and coming in $750,000 under budget, the work was completed and beautiful perfectly ice formed on the long-awaited reconstruction.
Donald Trump’s “ice” innovation was the beginning of his focus on eradicating government
mismanagement, organizing things to maximize efficiency, getting rid of regulatory barriers, and focusing on innovation. Over the past thirty years, this early work has taken him from developer to the White House. So what can we learn for Canada’s own innovation journey?
1. Innovation starts by understanding the challenge
Too often innovators are focused on finding the solution before they understand the problem – deeply. By understanding that Freon was the problem, the CIMCO team could look for a better, more dependable way of creating ice.
2. Innovation is a process not an ideology
Innovation is defined simply as a “new idea, device, or method”. It is viewed as the application of better solutions that meet new requirements, unarticulated needs, or existing market needs. Many people talk about innovation as a theory or ideal when in fact it is a practice and process that requires action. Practical Canadian action lead to ice and President Trump’s initial success.
3. Innovation can be small change(s) that make a big difference
Innovation often occurs as small shifts in approach that can make a big difference. Regularly innovation is seen as requiring big transformational change, when in fact, as we saw from the CIMCO approach, often tweaks or new ways of looking at the problem will provide cost-effective and simple to implement changes that can be transformational.
Canada’s Innovation Challenge
As we celebrate our 150th anniversary as a country, Canada is well positioned in a world with many crisis and challenges, to attract the best and brightest and to give our young people the knowledge and experience to be the innovators the world needs! The Perimeter Institute based in Waterloo, Ontario will lead an Innovation150. It is an interactive celebration of Canadian ingenuity that will offer opportunities for youth, families, and communities across the country to experience innovation first-hand.