It’s impossible to fully predict when disaster will strike. Lighting can ignite a forest-consuming wildfire in a flash, flood waters can wash over the landscape with little warning, and earthquakes can level cities in seconds.
But what if, instead of merely predicting when a disaster will occur, the systems that run our cities and infrastructure were designed to respond and adapt in real time? That’s exactly what’s about to play out on a projection screen inside the Santa Clara Convention Center at the 2019 Internet of Things World conference, in the heart of Silicon Valley.
Preparing for the ‘Big One’
A real-time, synthetic simulation takes convention-goers, who represent some of the world’s leading technology companies, through the initial seconds and minutes after a 6.7-magnitude earthquake strikes the area.
“In today’s world, it’s more important than ever to be prepared,” says Marina Donovan, the Itron executive leading the presentation last May. Itron is an American company that uses smart networks to help cities and companies manage energy and water utilities. For this simulation, they’re using technology developed almost 2,500 kilometres north, by Edmonton’s RUNWITHIT Synthetics, or RWI.
As the simulation begins, a map of Santa Clara fills the screen with layers of data represented by coloured icons. There’s green dots for people, yellow lightning bolts for electricity meters, red and purple power poles showing titled and downed lines, while green flames—240 in total—pinpoint the location of methane leaks from disrupted gas mains.
The biggest concentration of flames is next to Mission College and its population of 10,000 students. That’s when air quality sensors kick in, this time showing the location of fires. The smoke precipitates the movement of masses of green dots, human beings, who have just received evacuation alerts on their smartphones.
Fire is a major risk to human life after such a disaster; more than 400 fires burned in the aftermath of the 1994 quake that hit Northridge, Calif.—one of the largest natural disasters in U.S. history (and an inspiration for the simulation). More recently, wildfires caused by poorly maintained power lines have charred huge swaths of California, including the 2018 Camp Fire that incinerated the town of Paradise and killed 86.
There are no mass casualties in this simulation, however. By drilling deeper into the data, Donovan can identify the age and health status of every person in the area—even gender, which is useful because men and women react differently in emergencies. Within 15 “minutes,” 87 per cent have found safe shelter to wait until help arrives.
“With tools like these, cities and utilities can run and model these different scenarios and … hopefully be prepared for the unpredictable, mitigate that risk and, ultimately, save lives,” Donovan says to conclude the simulation.
The ‘SimCity’ of data modelling
Though she wasn’t on stage during the mock disaster, no one played a larger role in its successful outcome than RWI CEO Myrna Bittner, ’93 MBA, ’91 BA, who co-founded the company with her husband Dean Bittner, ’88 BEd.
RWI uses data and machine learning to run simulations that help businesses understand complex systems, from the movement of goods and people in cities and on roadways, to energy grids, to the health impacts of poor air quality. By layering in demographic, behavioural and other data, they can account for the human element. That’s one of the most unpredictable parts, Bittner explains, because individual choices “really mess things up” in the world of data modelling. The final result is more than a model. It’s a true synthetic reality.
“It’s like SIMCity, except for real,” she says.
The “realness” of their models is why RWI embraces the term “synthetic.” They run countless simulations like the Santa Clara earthquake for their clients—about 12 trillion “synthetic hours” so far this year alone. The keynote was the culmination of working around the clock for three and a half weeks, Bittner says.
“It was extraordinary,” she says. “To hear the room gasp when our synthetic Silicon Valley came up was a moment we couldn’t have imagined.”
RWI doesn’t just aim to replicate a system; they create something that looks and behaves like the real thing. It’s the difference between a man-made diamond, which is identical down to the molecule, versus cubic zirconia. RWI’s clients, who span the health, utility, municipal, oil and gas, and clean-tech sectors, don’t want a data model that just looks fancy.
“To the people making decisions based on our synthetic models, it’s not a joke,” Bittner says. “There's health and safety, there’s legal issues, there’s massive amounts of dollars involved.”
RWI CEO Myrna Bittner outside her office in Edmonton’s historic Alberta Block Building.
An unlikely path to pioneering tech CEO
While her husband looks after RWI’s technology, Bittner’s role is on business development, which requires her to travel and meet with clients in cities around the world, including the global tech capital, Silicon Valley. And yet her life and experiences leading a tech startup are about as far removed from that of a typical Silicon Valley CEO—and not just because of geography.
Bittner didn’t study computing science, nor did she develop an early affinity for coding. Her undergrad was English, and she also excelled in sociology and psychology. When she made the leap and started her MBA in the early 1990s, the culture shift was “quite a shock.” She had no idea about how to be an entrepreneur and the internet was still something of a mystery, barely a year old. “I had no idea, really, about technology,” she remembers.
What she did understand, in the era of AOL and online chat rooms, was that the world wide web and technology offered new ways to solve communications problems. With the help of Dean, they launched their first startup, making commercial internet groupware that allowed real-time remote communications.
Like many shoe-string startups, they ran the business out of the basement of their home in Ardrossan, just east of Edmonton, where they would do everything—product design, development and testing, focus groups, packaging, sales and shipping. They eventually signed distribution agreements across the U.S, and counted NASA among their customers. Eventually, they captured the attention of some well-heeled investors, including an Australian billionaire, who wanted their help with neural net research, which eventually incorporated 3-D visualization and set them down the road to AI.
The Bittners formed RWI in 2014 after they had developed a sizeable amount of technology and intellectual property, and saw an opportunity to remove barriers between complex real-world systems.
Through it all, they’ve moved together “in lock-step,” says Bittner of her former high school sweetheart. “[Dean] enhances what I can do in the business end of technology. I can enhance the direction that technology can take.”
Bridging the gender gap
During one of her most recent trips to Silicon Valley, Bittner was invited to present at an event aimed at introducing early-stage tech startups with investors. When she looked out across the audience, she realized she wasn’t just the lone female presenter, she was the only woman in the room. This complete disregard for diversity epitomizes everything that’s wrong with the tech sector, she says.
“When you look at what’s going on in Silicon Valley … it is sick.” The data backs her up. Fewer than five per cent of CEOs in the Valley are women, only 11 per cent hold executive roles and women-led companies attract just two per cent of venture capital. Canada fares no better; a 2018 report by Salesforce found that only 13 per cent of small tech startups were founded by women.
Bittner hasn’t experienced the same discomfort in Mexico, Asia or Europe, where gender bias is not as entrenched. “I can stand in front of those audiences and be heard and feel like there is absolutely no difference for me,” she says. “Yet I come back here and it’s incredibly challenging, even in the local meetup groups. It’s something we’re going to have to face.”
Bittner is doing her part to tackle the problem, with a workforce that’s 70 per cent female. She’s also mentoring young women considering careers in tech and startup spaces. After a quarter century in the industry, the issue remains her last “rebel yell,” a battle cry warning the disciples of Silicon Valley of a change that’s long overdue.
“I’m trying to say to women, ‘This can be done. You don’t have to be a special person. I had an idea, I got lucky and I worked really hard.’”
Edmonton-based RWI Synthetics was founded by U of A alumni Myrna and Dean Bittner in 2014.
A (quiet) Edmonton success story
Setting up shop in Edmonton has allowed the Bittners to stay close to their family roots (the couple has two adult children). It’s also allowed RWI to tap into an established talent hub with world-leading expertise in AI. But one of Edmonton’s greatest advantages, she says, lies in what it’s not. Alberta’s capital may share some of the same characteristics as Silicon Valley, but the pressure to conform isn’t one of them. Nor is RWI overwhelmed with regulatory hurdles and certification requirements like companies face in Europe, for instance.
“The best part of Edmonton is that you can do things like we’re doing completely under the radar,” she says. In that respect, RWI is an unqualified success. The company has built relationships with local and international clients like Drivewyze, AXTEL, Alestra, and AT&T, was named a finalist for a prestigious Manning Innovation Award, and Bittner herself was honoured with a 2019 Emergent Innovator Award from Alberta Women Entrepreneurs. But RWI Synthetics remains an Edmonton success story few Edmontonians have likely heard of.
“Local people don't even really know about what we do,” Bittner laughs.
That could change as new local projects roll out, such as the creation of Synthetic Edmonton, which will explore the city’s energy grid as it faces a future of electric vehicles, photovoltaics, battery storage, climate change and new technologies. The project is a partnership with the University of Alberta’s Hao Liang, Canada Research Chair in Intelligent Energy Systems.
Meeting the needs of the future
If there are any challenges with making Edmonton home base, it’s not the distance from Silicon Valley and its vast riches of venture capital (although, Bittner laughs, she’d “love to” partner with a wealthy benefactor on the scale of Elon Musk or the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation). It’s more to do with the absence of important and complex climate-related questions that occupy the attention of clients in countries around the world.
Singapore, for instance, is doggedly seeking to future-proof its island city from the effects of an expected 2°C increase in temperature. (RWI has been accepted into a Canadian cleantech and smart cities accelerator based in the city, and climate change is a potential growth area for the company).
“They want to make sure that they have all of the infrastructure, all of the water, all of the energy, everything they need to prevent floods, to respond to drought, heat—everything in place,” Bittner says, noting every eventuality is built into the final cost of design.
In Canada, cost is a deal-breaker, she says, a regressive way of thinking that carries long-term costs. “It’s more expensive to pretend the wall isn’t there and run into it than actually look at the wall and try to figure out different ways to slow down, jump over or break down the wall—whatever is needed.”
Therein lies the power of synthetics. Everything RWI does is about helping clients prepare for the future by experiencing it and adapting to the twists and turns that masses of datasets can predict.
“These problems are solvable. They just require some concerted effort and understanding.”