September 16, 2004 in Business

Noted futurist likes city’s technology potential

By The Spokesman-Review

Jaron Lanier, the guy who’s credited with coining the term “virtual reality,” has heard plenty about Spokane’s downtown wireless “hot zone.” He’ll be here next week to discuss how cities like Spokane can use cutting-edge ideas to create a stronger economy.

A dreadlocked free thinker who’s also been called “everyone’s favorite futurist,” Lanier will be one of two keynote speakers at the Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce annual meeting next week in the Spokane Ag Trade Center.

He believes cities the size of Spokane can pioneer and accelerate the use of breakthrough technology, like the Wi-Fi zone downtown — 100 square blocks that provide free wireless connectivity.

Even more intriguing, he added, is the zone’s connection to the area’s medical centers, which opens the door to developing combinations of wireless technology with innovative health-care programs.

“The way technology spreads is through identifying niches. The way Amazon and Microsoft went out and found their niches, that’s what cities can do,” Lanier said.

No one 30 years ago could have predicted Microsoft’s success. The same challenge presents itself when people try to visualize how a free wireless zone in the urban core can advance a community’s health and prosperity, Lanier continued.

“These things have to be discovered experimentally in the marketplace,” he said, adding that a government-private collaboration is usually the fastest way to make big things happen. “Just look at the Internet; that’s the result of private and government cooperation,” he said.

In Spokane’s case, the first major applications to take advantage of the downtown hot zone are coming from the city and county, which will use the broadband service to improve public utility work and public safety.

Lanier said those uses are great, but he hopes other commercially valuable uses are also in the pipeline.

“Spokane’s super well-positioned to be home to these experiments,” he said, since it’s a mid-sized city and can bring together academic, private and medical resources within a fairly well defined area.

“You couldn’t do this same thing in a city the size of Los Angeles or Seattle,” said Lanier, who divides his time between working at the International Computer Science Institute, at Berkeley, Calif., and teaching as an adjunct professor at Dartmouth University.

One possible future development might be equipping some high-risk residents with real-time health monitors, he suggested. The technology could track patients’ vital signs so that any issues could be instantly identified and treated rapidly, Lanier said.

“This might be one way to control costs (of health care) because the more fine-grained the information the system collects, the more efficient the system tends to become,” he said.

But even if a medical application doesn’t evolve from Spokane’s Wi-Fi zone, Lanier would second any efforts to simply duplicate the development of the municipal services the city and county are undertaking here.

The worst thing, he added, would be if Spokane doesn’t spawn some great experiments, combining the wireless networks here and the area’s growing colony of technology companies.

“It’s cheaper to have a failed experiment than to fail to experiment enough,” he said.

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