SDG Impact Icons: Jeffery Dungen

“Today’s entrepreneurs should focus on activities that generate value, and those who support them should work to change the game so that we celebrate impact over financial outcomes.”

In partnership with Employment and Social Development Canada, each month, Startup Canada is celebrating and putting the spotlight on a leading Canadian social innovator driving change in one of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Startup Canada was pleased to sit down with Jeff Dungen, Co-founder & CEO of reelyActive to learn about their impact on SDG 11—Sustainable Cities and Communities.

Jeffrey is a computer engineer with over fifteen years of experience in hardware and geolocation startups. His current challenge is to build a successful business around an open Internet of Things. As a practical idealist, he believes there is always a clever means to advance technology in the public interest with benefits extending to all stakeholders. Jeffrey is a proud native Montrealer and studied at the University of Waterloo and École Polytechnique Montréal. He has been immersed in startup culture throughout his career.

SC: In one sentence, what does reelyActive do?

JD: We’re making physical spaces as searchable as the web.

SC: How does your work advance SDG 11—Sustainable Cities and Communities?

JD: By doing more with less. Imagine if computers were able to make sense of the dynamics of physical spaces and their occupants—both people and assets—in real-time. This enables the exchange of time-and-location-sensitive information, fostering optimal decision making at an unprecedented scale for the benefit of all.  

Our best hope to meet ambitious sustainability goals is by reducing unnecessary waste and maximizing the efficiency of our activities in our cities and communities. Developing accessible technology that can make sense of those activities is a critical first step.

SC: Can you give us an example of how searching a physical environment can make a city or community more sustainable?

JD: Let’s take the example of a project called Montréal en Histoires. They have a bunch of sites distributed around the city of Montreal, and in each of those sites, people can visit and activate a projection on a neighbouring building that tells a story about the history of the site. The challenge that they had was knowing—are people really using this? Are people passing by and ignoring it? Did we get our spots right? Are we reaching people correctly?

SC: So someone sees a piece of signage on one of these sites and then accesses the interactive experience from their phone?

JD: Yeah, exactly—and once you’ve done one, you’ll recognize opportunities to do more. 

Data can help to continuously improve the experience of citizens. By searching and monitoring the physical space, we can create efficiencies, drive sustainability and improve citizen experience. 

Another use case we have is a connected bus shelter with Quartier de l’Innovation. They have a bus shelter that they’ve put indoors in their exhibit space and we kitted it out with a bunch of our little devices that can detect the presence of people through their smartphones or wearables. It also has a couple of sensors for temperature and humidity to detect human presence. 

A bus shelter is a public good. It allows people to have mobility in their city. Places like Montreal get really cold in the winter. It allows you to know if people are using the bus shelter that becomes a source of analytics—how many pedestrians are passing by versus how many people actually use the bus system?

If physical spaces can recognize their occupants in real-time, then you can have a hypothesis and say—are we doing a good job of public transit? Are we doing a good job of culture? Essentially, it’s A/B testing for the real world.

SC: Wow. So, what motivated you to build reelyActive?

JD: Smart parking. We were looking for a business case to kick off reelyActive in earnest, and in 2012, we found a client in Silicon Valley developing the “Airbnb of parking” in need of a technology to automatically identify the vehicles of their users on their lots. 

By doing business with them, we were able to develop the core of our application-agnostic technology platform which has gone on to serve use cases for all physical spaces, not just parking spaces!

SC: What impact are you most proud of? 

JD: I’m most proud of the unconventional avenues we’ve successfully explored to create awareness and encourage critical thinking about the benefits and risks of our technology and the Internet of Things at large. We’ve collaborated to create pieces of art based on our technology and to date—nothing has had a more profound impact than an individual who lives a visceral experience through one of our installations.

SC: What inspires you to keep going? 

JD: Spontaneous positive user feedback. There are many other things that inspire me to keep going, but at this stage—there’s nothing as powerful as unsolicited encouragement from people who actually use what we’re creating. 

I now make a point to provide such feedback to the entrepreneurs whose products and services I use, and recommend anyone reading this to do the same!

SC: What is the next mountain you are climbing and what is left undone?

JD: Now that we’ve established product-market-fit—which is both a challenge and test of endurance in an emerging market—we’re in the throes of scaling our business. We’re constantly adjusting the pace of growth to match the market demand and availability of funding. And in parallel, we continue to develop and advance the product toward our big vision. There’s still so much left to be done!

SC: What’s been your biggest learning along the way?

JD: I’ve learned that when your values, your products, and your actions are good for people—they’re good for business over the long term, which is what really counts. 

You can be B2B or B2C but at the end of the day, it’s still people who buy and use your product. You can build a team based on target profiles, but your team dynamic and productivity stems from the individual people that make up your team. Your competitors may have more money and resources than you, but their success—like yours—is predicated on the motivation and wellness of their people.

SC: How has being impact-driven helped you to persevere and thrive?

JD: Being impact-driven provides an outstanding story to tell. It’s a story that helps to attract and retain talent. It’s a story that helps to make a headline, to be invited on stage, and to win a competition. It’s a story that clients can get behind and evangelize both within, and beyond their organizations. 

We’ve stayed true to the story we wanted to tell since day one, and it may well be the principal reason reelyActive is still really active today.

SC: What advice do you have for Canadian entrepreneurs looking to advance the Sustainable Development Goals with their businesses?

JD: Have a powerful story to tell—one that compels your audience to share it. Be the protagonist and embrace the trials and tribulations which must be overcome to achieve your lofty goals. That’s the stuff of a great story, as is an unpredictable ending, so be sure to be flexible in the latter. Some stories need a sequel…

SC: Where can people go to learn more about your journey and organization?

JD: Appreciating the importance of the story, I’ve been prolific on the reelyActive blog, and for our five-year anniversary created a history page on our website. There are also eight years of videos on our YouTube channel where you can learn more about the journey of both reelyActive and my hairstyles (both facial and head)!

SC: What is your big vision for Canada and the World over the next 20 years?

JD: In two words; efficient humanity. 

Just about everything is technically in place for the global community to transition to a system that discards productivity as a metric in favour of efficiency and wellness. We ourselves, the citizens of the world, are in fact the greatest blocker as we resist change and emergence. 

I would like to see Canada lead the way in global sustainability by investing in its citizens who affect change starting at a small scale and clearing a path for the most promising initiatives to scale. Revolutions are bottom-up, not top-down.

SC: What do you think today’s entrepreneurs should be focused on for a better, brighter future?

JD: Startups are too often celebrated for financial milestones: how much money they raised, how big an exit they achieved. A better, brighter future is one where we celebrate how much value is created for the enjoyment of all humanity rather than the redistribution of wealth among a tiny minority. Today’s entrepreneurs should focus on activities that generate value, and those who support them should work to change the game so that we celebrate impact over financial outcomes.

Are you ready to celebrate your impact? Join the Startup Canada Social Impact Network to gain access to social enterprise programming online and on-the-ground.

Micah Rakoff Bellman
Micah Rakoff Bellman

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