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Tech Bosses: The Business of Dreaming

Interview: Allen Devine, Telus' First Chief Dreamer


In October, Vancouver’s first ever Doors Open to Technology brought 200 high school students into five of the top tech companies in the city—Microsoft, Telus, SAP, Intergalactic and ACL. The purpose: to provide a peek into the current state of the tech industry and its opportunities. While we were there, we pulled some of the city’s biggest tech bosses aside for a chat on the industry.

Daydreaming on the job isn’t generally encouraged. But for Allen Devine, it’s part of his job description.

In fact, since he’s been hired as Telus’ first Chief Dreamer, you might say he’s got  “dream” job. Tasked with innovating the tech industry and sparking inspiration for other entrepreneurs and future leaders, Allen holds an influential position in today’s tech-driven world.

While passing through TELUS Garden in Vancouver during the first ever Doors Open to Technology we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to dive into Allen’s world—the business of dreaming.

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How did you get into a position of being able to innovate Telus?

I started out with Telus 20-something years ago now. At that point we had just started up the internet, and I quickly moved through the ranks into engineering and planning where I was one of the service architects designing new services for Telus. From there, they said ‘You have a gift for more than just design,’ and they gave me the privilege to build our first innovation centre. Since then I built six across Canada, and then two and a half years ago they said ‘let’s evolve it again.’

So what I did then was build Canada’s first idea incubator, which is where we are now. This space is about influencing industry, not influencing individual companies. So where we can change the bigger idea or the bigger concept is what we focus on.

“Chief Dreamer”—how do you earn a title like that?

(laughs) So go back a few years when I was taking my MBA we, tongue in cheek, had to give a presentation, and during that time we realized the need for a dream. So often when we try to change things, we focus on ‘what we can do’ and we forget to ask the question ‘what should we do?’

At that point I realized that there was a need for a dreamer—and that person is a little different than a futurist. We’re not just looking at the technology and saying ‘Where is it gonna take us tomorrow?’, but rather ‘Where is society changing?’, and then technology fits into it. And so that’s the whole point of a dreamer: to find tomorrow’s dream and then build it.

I’ve never heard of a Chief Dreamer, it’s very fascinating.

There are very few of us. When I did a search I think there were about twelve Chief Dreamers out there… two of which work for a sleep study program (laughs). Lots of futurists out there. And there’s a subtle difference between being a futurist and a dreamer. The futurist will try to predict more based on current trends and analytics, but if you want to see a world that doesn’t have any current place in it, that requires a dream.

The second part of a dream that’s hugely important is the ability to rally people around a dream. And if we can rally around a dream then the current hurdles and roadblocks disappear, because we’ll find a way to get around them.

How do you go about pitching to a company that you they should hire you as a dreamer?

Our board of directors came in to see us about two years ago when we first started the pitch of healthcare, which is a video I created on my mom. And when we started to go down that path of saying ‘This is the inspiration, this is the part that’s required to unite a fragmented world around,’ they loved it. So it came right from the top.

As a Chief Dreamer, what do you do when you come to work? Do you feel some pressure with a name like that, of “what do I need to make sure I’m doing because I’m Chief Dreamer here”?

Yeah actually just the opposite. Once I became the Dreamer, it came with a bunch of freedom. And that was I guess an important step for a company like Telus, to actually find a role that we take away all the restrictions from. So, I’m enabled to disrupt Telus if I want to. I’m enabled to incubate Telus. I’m enabled to innovate Telus right across the board, which comes with a huge amount of freedoms.

What I’ve been able to do is actually build a dream team—so we have a volunteer army now that reports to me unofficially. They have their day jobs and they have their night jobs. And their night jobs, almost like a superhero, is to influence change, and so that’s what we work on. So, just the opposite: I feel freedom.

You must absolutely love what you do.

Oh yeah. How could you not? It has nothing to do with the space, I mean the space is beautiful, I had lots of fun building it, but it’s the program that gives me the freedom outside of it so I actually spend time in schools, universities, wherever I can. I bring it right down to high schools. The idea around having high schools create their own virtual reality content is totally inspiring and fun to see the kids open up to it, because they’re building tomorrow’s generation of industries.

Pie in the sky, in the next 30 years do you have a vision of where technology will take us?

Well, artificial intelligence is going to be the first step I think in everything. So as we start to look at everything we’re doing today, what I want to move the yardstick on is how the personal information you currently hold on yourself is so fragmented. We look at your healthcare—your doctor has one piece of the healthcare piece.  We look at your retail experience—they have a piece of the puzzle. What I want to do is move all that data back into an individual perspective, add artificial intelligence on top of that, then we get actual good decisions based for you, not by you.

In your own words, can you finish the sentence “Technology is…”?

Technology is an enablement of a dream.

For more from Adam, check out our video "A Minute of Wisdom" 

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Interviewed and written by Carly Walde

Interview: Allen Devine, Telus' First Chief Dreamer