Editor’s Letter (March 2012): technology, innovation and the importance of making products of real value

Editor’s Letter (March 2012): technology, innovation and the importance of making products of real value

Five years ago, I was living in Brooklyn, where I was a member of a not-for-profit neighbourhood organization called Park Slope Parents. Park Slope is the epicentre of eco-liberal-neo-hippie parenting, and the group could be dogmatically, even oppressively, ideological. I didn’t attend many of its events, but I loved its website: a useful, multi-purpose resource with information on kids’ activities, pediatricians, caregivers and other services. It also had a fantastic classifieds section—a bit of mommy capitalism amid the virtuous parenting stuff.

Every day, the site posted a few dozen items for sale—strollers and high chairs and cribs, often the preposterously expensive kind, at quite reasonable prices. For me, it was a bonanza of gently used quality goods, available within a few blocks of my apartment. When I found something I liked, I’d walk to the seller’s house and schlep the loot home on foot.

When I returned to Toronto in 2007, I first settled near Trinity Bellwoods Park, and I assumed a similar type of parenting hub would exist there. I also expected to be able to buy and sell baby gear in the neighbourhood. Lord knows there was no shortage of fancy strollers along Queen West. Where were they all ending up? But I never did find the equivalent of Park Slope Parents. Instead, like all Torontonians, I resorted to Craigslist and Kijiji. And that’s how I ended up driving to Markham one afternoon to save $40 on a stroller. It wasn’t worth it. People live downtown to avoid being stuck in gridlock for hours at a time. Craigslist has limited use in a city as sprawling as Toronto. Eventually I gave up scouring the web for used goods and accepted my fate as a mall shopper.

So I was exceedingly pleased when I heard about a new iPhone app called Tradyo, which shows you second-hand stuff for sale in your area. Here’s how it works: people upload pictures of things they don’t want anymore, and since your phone’s GPS knows where you are at all times, the app arranges the items according to their distance from your location. Right now, there’s a Bose SoundDock I’m thinking of buying for just $125, exactly one kilometre from my house. Where has this app been all my life?

It turns out Tradyo was created last year by four undergrads in their early 20s who are enthusiastic about reusing stuff because it’s convenient, economical and good for the environment. These impressive students emerged from a new entrepreneur training program called the Next 36, which handpicks students from universities across the country, pairs them with mentors and—thanks to donations from prominent business­people like Galen Weston—funds the launch of their ideas.

Roger Martin, the Rotman business school director, believes that the world needs more Tradyos—companies that make products of value, real products, either material goods or innovative tech offerings that make life easier (or at least more fun). He worries that there are too many companies selling “financial service products,” as bankers say, that don’t ultimately yield the consumer anything tangible. Such modern-day snake oil sales can be blamed for the catastrophic financial collapse in America. And Canadians, Martin warns, aren’t as immune to a similar collapse as many of us tend to think.

His critique of capitalism is the subject of this month’s cover story (“Something Rotten on Bay Street,” page 32). It’s a sobering piece—essential reading—and it will ultimately make you feel glad that university students, despite all the challenges they face in this economy, are still staying awake all night cooking up cool ideas and planning to take the world by storm, one app at a time.

(Image: Nigel Dickson)