Allen Devine was just nine years old when he tried launching his first rocket. He started with matchsticks; when those failed he used gunpowder.

His rocket eventually launched … just high enough to set fire to a blanket of dead leaves on the roof of his house.  An aspiring inventor and innovator growing up miles from Cape Canaveral, Devine’s daydreams of launching a rocket for NASA went up in smoke, but that didn’t stop him. Nothing has.

Today, Devine is Telus’ self-designated “Chief Dreamer” – a tech wizard with an unusual charm who, by turns, blows his bosses away and drives them crazy with off-the-wall ideas and adaptations that make impossible sense. Whether it’s taking a gaming device and turning it into a remote health sensor or equipping a door with a camera and TV screen to assist dementia patients, Devine sees possibilities in everyday objects that the average person does not.

Take his Sphero BB-8. Where most would see a Star Wars toy, Allen sees a device with the intelligence to map a room as it collides with solid objects. He envisions its potential to detect when an elderly person has fallen down and call for help. He sees more than a toy, he imagines something that could save lives.

“The beauty of Allen is that he pushes boundaries and is limitless in how he applies what he knows,” says Ibrahim Gideon, Telus’ Chief Technology Officer. “He’s the type of guy who goes out to get a sandwich and comes back with an idea about how to change the world.”

"I wanted to invent things"

A series of occurrences and circumstances shaped Devine’s destiny. He grew up with his mother, June, in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. His father lived in Florida, where Allen would spend his summers. When he was eight years old, he received an unexpected phone call: His dad had died. Allen had no inkling that he was even sick.

“I still remember getting the phone call and wondering why I didn’t know more, why I didn’t see him getting sick, why was it such a surprise,” Devine recalls. “I was so angry that I didn’t know how to stop it and I didn’t know how to fix it.”

His elementary school principal, Denis Maurice, noticed Allen struggling with his father’s death and took him under his wing. Maurice taught his protégé about computers and took Allen to audit programming classes he taught at a local community college. Soon after, the pair built a computer network at the school and Allen was teaching his teachers how to use it.

Maurice challenged Allen to look at things differently. He gave the boy his first journal, and in it Allen charted his inventions and intentions. He wanted to work for NASA or Disney, as an Imagineer, one day.

“I wanted to invent things,” Devine recalls. “I wanted to build robots; I wanted to build experiences; I wanted to build something that made things better.”

At age 11 Allen began volunteering with the March of Dimes and was partnered with a blind man in a care facility. The man would often complain that when he got home where he lived alone, the temperature was too cold. So Allen found an old fax machine and rigged a system so that someone from the care facility could call it to the trigger the printer motor and remotely crank up the thermostat.

“I got in trouble for that one,” Devine remembers. “He complained I turned it up too much.”

“He had a spark in him”

After graduating from high school in 1990, Allen fought his instincts and pursued law school. A few years later, however, the technology bug got the better of him once and for all, while working with his brother-in-law one summer setting up a small Internet Service Provider on Vancouver Island.

“It resolidified who I was,” he remembers. “I could just listen to a computer and know the difference between one that was working and one that wasn’t.”

In 1994, he took a two-week tech-support contract with BC Tel (which merged with Telus four years later) to help launch their dial-up Internet service in Western Canada.

It wasn’t long before Winnie Lai-Fong, an engineering manager who worked on the same floor, took notice of Allen and offered him a job on her technology strategy and planning team. Allen was the only non-engineer in her group.

“He had a passion for tech and he always had great ideas,” she says. “He had a spark in him.”

Lai-Fong offered Allen what he thought was his dream job, working on projects that helped architect the future of Telus. He recalls his team being asked in 1999 to figure out how to deliver a television signal over phone lines. (Fast-forward 16 years and Telus’ Optik TV has more than a million subscribers.)

In 2002, he led the development of HomeSitter: internet-connected cameras designed to remotely monitor homes or businesses. The product was a complete flop and, after attracting only 11,000 customers, was shelved. (Today, smart home monitoring is a booming business for companies like Google, who recently paid nearly $4 billion to acquire Nest and Dropcam.)

“We were too far ahead of the curve on that one,” Devine laments. “I can see tomorrow clearly, but I have a hard time seeing today.”

In 2004, Allen was tapped to create Telus’ first Innovation Centres: state-of-the-art showrooms that demoed the company’s most advanced technologies, existing and aspirational. One of his first playthings was “LISA” (short for location-independent service acquisition), a fridge with a content management system that could do everything from making dinner recommendations to providing users with remote access to their music collections from their cell phones. (This was three years before the launch of iTunes.)

When Allen took CEOs of big banks and energy companies on tours of the Innovation Centres, he would make them remove their ties and dress shoes and put on bunny slippers. Sometimes he’d dress up in Mr. Rogers-esque cardigans or a lab coat, all in an effort to get them out of their comfort zone.

“The purpose of the Innovation Centres, for me, was to inspire people to change their perspectives,” he says. “Here you had this phone company looking into things like nutrition management and cloud music. I really wanted people to stop and ask themselves what could be different in their businesses if they just looked at it through a different lens.”

“I was terrified”

Just after Allen opened his first Innovation Centre, his mother June developed a heart condition. She began frequently losing consciousness; at one point Allen had to administer CPR until paramedics arrived.

“I was terrified,” he says. He began devising how he could help his mother. Initially, he tried using the failed HomeSitter system to keep an eye on his mom. June wasn’t real fond of the idea; she’d place housecoats and frying pans over the cameras to block his view.

“Anything to get her privacy back,” he recalls.

Then one day over coffee, he had an epiphany: His mom was a creature of habit. So he put sensors around the house to build a picture of June’s daily life – what time she got up, when she opened the cabinet to take her medicine, when she turned on the coffee maker and when she made lunch. As he grew to know the patterns, he reasoned, he could determine subtle changes in her routine that might signal changes in her health.

“I could tell whether she was having a good day or feeling sick, without asking her,” he says.

Over time, Allen persuaded June to start using a heart-rate monitor, a blood-pressure monitor and other equipment that, when combined with his existing system, generated an extremely detailed picture of how she was feeling.

Eventually, he decided to partner with doctors to help make sense of the data from June’s sensors and wearable devices. His mom’s rheumatologist, Dr. Maziar Badii, was the first to sign on. It wasn’t long before he and Devine detected peculiar patterns in June’s behaviour.

Most days, for example, she’d walk around 400 steps. However, twice a month she’d spike at 1,500. After checking the GPS on her smartphone, they realized those were the days she went shopping. The energy she mustered to do it, Dr. Badii concluded, wasn’t from the thrill of the hunt, but from something called shopping-cart syndrome. When she leaned on the shopping cart as she strolled through the store, her spine was expanding and easing the pain in her nerves. The doctor would never have seen it in his office.

“The data has made a huge difference,” says Dr. Badii.

Today, June lives in the basement suite in Allen’s home, which he’s turned into a technology playground. There are smart lightbulbs that measure how long it takes her to walk down the hallway, to sensors in the bathtub that can trigger it to automatically drain, should she lose consciousness.

June’s children, grandchildren and Dr. Badii are also able to “beam” in to say hello via a robot. “Her mood went through the roof,” says Devine. “She’s feeling like people are there all the time. She uses the robot to play hide-and-seek with her grandkids.”

“But now I get in trouble for not visiting her enough,” he admits.

“This is the future of medicine”

Allen and his team have taken what they’ve learned from working with his mother and have begun to ideate on how June’s experience might transform healthcare in Canada.

Their first focus: dementia. Allen believes that subtle tracking of patients with Alzheimer’s at home can detect behaviour patterns that may indicate they are confused, have forgotten to take a medication or are at risk of wandering late at night. That door with the TV screen could instantly video conference in a family member to suggest going back to bed rather than outside at 2 a.m.

Allen is also working with the BC Children’s Hospital in developing a program to monitor at-risk newborns and their families. The project, aimed at easing the strain on parents and the healthcare system alike, is near and dear to Allen’s heart. All three of his children were born prematurely – the first of them didn’t make it. When his second child was born, he and his wife spent eight weeks at her side in the neonatal intensive-care unit.

Allen has been collaborating on the project with Dr. Guy Dumont, a professor at the University of British Columbia. The two have devised a complex system that monitors nearly every aspect of a newborn’s environment – including parents’ sleep and stress levels – and can alert hospital staff to any warning signs of a health risk to the baby. Allen’s vision: every newborn in Canada is sent home with a kit to monitor their health for the first 90 days while they receive hospital- grade care.

“Patients’ bedrooms are the hospital rooms of tomorrow,” says Dumont. “We’re trying to do more and more monitoring in the home setting, whether it’s for infants, the elderly or the chronically ill. This is the future of medicine.”

Josh Blair, Executive Vice-President of Telus’ health division, believes people like Allen are essential when innovation and vision are fundamental to success. Technology, he says, is fast-moving and ever-changing and “if you’re not ahead of it you’re behind it.”

Blair says the healthcare industry has been relatively slow to embrace technological change, but the opportunities to help vault it into a new, more advanced and cost-effective age are plentiful. He believes Devine’s work will help people stay out of the hospital and spend more time at home; enriching their quality of life and lowering public healthcare costs.

Not all of Allen’s ideas have been winners. A robot he designed to perform simple tasks around the hospital caused a revolt among the nurses’ union and the idea was stopped in its tracks. Blair’s not convinced that Devine’s video door will have mass-market appeal, but he believes that a forward-thinking company has to be willing to invest in nine failed ideas for every one that pays off.

Devine’s ideas may occasionally drive execs crazy, “but that’s why we love him,” says Blair. “There’s definitely some mad scientist in Allen but we realize that comes with the territory.”

“Let’s dream the future we want”

Today, Allen’s embarking on the next phase of his career and putting the finishing touches on his 5,400 square-foot next-generation Innovation Centre in the brand-new Telus Garden in downtown Vancouver. He’s no longer giving tours, instead focussing on things like hackathons and college engineering competitions. He’s built a living lab that he hopes will inspire innovation and invention, and become a hub for Vancouver’s tech community; devoting nearly half the space to an “incubation zone” where students and startups can set up shop and work on their ideas with Telus. His dream is to expand this model to Telus offices across Canada and build an ecosystem of like-minded visionaries to tackle some of society’s biggest challenges.

It’s a lofty dream, Devine admits, but insists that the moniker of “Chief Dreamer” doesn’t mean his head is in the clouds.

“For me, it’s a person who sees the future without inhibitions and restrictions,” he says. “When you dream, you live in a world where even physics doesn’t apply. So when I look at the future, I try not to bring in limitations and rules first. I bring those in afterwards.”

“So let’s dream the future we want, and then figure out how to reverse-engineer it into reality. If we can see a world that’s better than the one we have today, then we have all the inspiration we need to make change.” Whether his ideas spark discussion or dissention, in his 22 years at Telus he has proven time and again that the value of change is greater than the value of staying the same – even if things don’t always work out as planned.

“Ninety per cent of the work I do with Allen is covering his ass,” jokes CTO Gideon. “But if we don’t screw up, we’re not innovating.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Stephen Thorne

Freelance journalist | author

Stephen Thorne is an award-winning journalist with more than 30 years of experience as a writer, photographer, editor and broadcaster. His stories and photographs have been published worldwide and his Afghanistan work anchored a major exhibition at the Canadian War Museum. His honours in journalism include three National Newspaper Awards, four RTNDA broadcast awards, two Canadian Press Stories of the Year and the first-ever Ross Munro Media Award for excellence in defence reporting. Stephen resides in Ottawa and, outside of journalism, is an avid wildlife and fashion photographer and licensed pilot who relishes getting lost on country roads aboard his custom Harley.