True North: Tech for a Good 7/10

Originally Published on Medium - June 1, 2018

After riding to the conference hall in what typically serves as a luxury bus, I took my seat awaiting the start of True North, a new tech conference hosted by Communitech in Kitchener, Ontario.

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Five…Epic countdown video…Four...Growing music…Three…Fog machine…Two…Attention captured…One…Surprise DJ.Lights.Dancers. True North 2018 starts, and Silicon Valley has arrived to Canada.

Or at least, that was my initial impression. In the lead up to the conference, I was quite skeptical. A friend of mine who decided not to go told me “If I wanted to experience Silicon Valley, I would go to Silicon Valley,” and I had similar fears. Having spent one week there in 2015 , I knew I had no interest in spending any longer than that.

I am happy to report that I was pleasantly surprised by True North. I think they hit all of the right notes, and are laying wonderful groundwork to help turn Kitchener-Waterloo into the world class city it is slowly becoming.

Tech for Good was the central theme of the conference, and it was definitely felt throughout. Despite some very unnecessary spending ($50 RFID name tags used almost exclusively for gimmick), the conference did a very good job of establishing that while KW is interested in becoming Silicon Valley North, it will do so with a Canadian, social conscience twist.

The opening ceremonies were pleasant, and set a fairly decent tone for the days affairs. Iain Klugman and Talia Sanhewe were both good, but not particularly memorable. It was a contrast to the first speaker of the day, Pixar executive Ed Catmull.

Ed was supposed to speak on what makes creative people tick, but instead simply shared some stories from his experiences with Pixar, and working with the Disney creative team as well. While there were some useful lessons to be learned in the talk, they could have been compressed from the 60 minutes down to 15. His Q&A centered around Steve Jobs, and was purely fascinating. This was a common thread for some of the speakers.

The AI and Machine Learning sessions were far more interesting, and a great basis for the rest of the conversations that would be had. We were presented with 6 wide ranging views on what AI will mean, where it is coming, and how soon it will be here. It was a pleasure to hear from many of these leading figures, and it immediately hit me that these are the conversations we need to be having. When I say we, I mean all of us; society, politicians, citizens. But that is another long post all in itself.

Digital Red Tape was the next segment I attended; it was much less consistent in topic, and thus feels quite fragmented in my mind. The highlight was Craig Silverman from Buzzfeed talking about how fake the fake news truly is (and showing us how easy it is to purchase likes). The lowlight was Ted Livingston seeming to gloat about how successful Kik is in one breath, and complaining that Russell Verbeeten kept talking first in the next. My head was in my hand so much during this discussion the gentlemen next to me asked if I was ill.

I decided to skip all of the diversity and inclusivity(not a recognized word by Google Chrome) sessions for various reasons, but particularly because I believe it is time to stop the talk and start the action, but again, another post.

The days sessions ended with Rana el Kaliouby showing an extremely fascinating demo of her Emotional AI technology, which captivated everyone. Some closing remarks and one Happy Hour later (use #2 of the RFID) and the day was over as quickly as it had started.

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I left with a sense of amazing exhaustion from the conversations I had, and the sessions I attended. After a quick nap to recover, I made my way to downtown Kitchener for the #TNDTK festival event and The Beaches concert.

While my thoughts at this point had some assistance in their flow, I began to truly appreciate what I had just experienced, and what I was then experiencing . True North had done a fantastic job of establishing that this is a community focused conference, and I hope they continue to hold onto that. It would be easy enough to host closed events for the attendees only, but a key thing of being different than Silicon Valley is to remember to put the current citizens of Kitchener first.

It really sunk into me at that concert that True North, and the Region of Waterloo as a whole, are hitting all of the right notes, and I am going to start to pay attention to the great transition the Tri-Cities will undergo in the coming decades. The Beaches were fantastic, the rain started at the perfect moment, and everyone had a blast. Day 1 was a solid 8/10, and I was pumped for Day 2.

Day 2 started off superbly strong. Former Governor General David Johnston joined us for a truly inspiring speech, and unveiled the Tech for Good guidelines, that I sincerely hope become an international standard for the future of tech. We need to not only start educating people about the technology, but we need to start ensuring it is created for good. That is what the conference was about, and it was delivered expertly.

The next speaker was Bozoma Saint John, absolutely the highlight of the conference. Now the Chief Brand Officer at Uber, she talked on the answer to the question of Tech for Good: people. She spoke eloquently and with amazing charisma about how her focus on people alone has brought her success, and why that path is so important. The room was captivated the entire time. She also covered the issue of diversity as perfectly as it could be, and called it out as secondary to her performance and her capabilities.

Perhaps it was the peak of Bozoma, or simply the high from Day 1 wearing off, but the rest of Day 2 was slightly disappointing. The Tech for Good program, while fascinating, was mostly anecdotal. Anne Connelly and Sonny Kohli did have an interesting discussion, and Loren Padelford from Shopify made a good case for the entrepreneur, and how tech is the superpower we can provide to them.

I was most excited for the remaining sessions, but I believe they missed the mark. Robyn Doolitte spoke about her incredible investigation into “Unfounded” rape cases, but failed to focus on Tech for most of the speech. While the panel on facts had interesting panelists, they seemed to mostly talk about the atmosphere as it is, and I failed to get any sense of actual solutions from them. Everyone knows there is a problem in the current climate, and except for Harleen Kaur believing she has the solution, not much ground was covered.

The final session had star power, with Director Spike Jonze and Black Mirror’s Charlie Booker being joined by Kate Darling and Mark Sakamoto. The most interesting piece was discussing the role media has to play in shaping our future interactions with technology. Spike and Kate disagreed, and made for a good discussion. This panel teetered on the edge of being incredible, but remained on the side of fascinating rather than transformational.

And that is also my assessment of True North 2018. It could have been incredible and transformational; I believe it simply ended up being very fascinating.

I still think it was a massive success. For the first iteration of a conference to be so close to transformative is an amazing accomplishment. I am impressed with what Communitech accomplished, and their goals. I am very excited to see what next year brings, and to be a part of this conference being a lightning rod for the KW tech community.

I hope they leverage their wisdom, and remain open to the criticisms and feedback the conference will get, rather than taking the easier path of focusing purely on the praise. I hope they continue to work in partnership with the community, the people, as that is the only important thing fundamentally. And I hope they continue to drive the important discussions that tech needs to have, because those are the conversations everyone needs to have.

Finally, I hope that they find a way to bring in the larger audience, to bring in the community and society as a whole. While it is great that those in tech know what is happening and what is coming, it is no longer okay to work from the fringes. Bozoma communicated very well that people are the key, and the people need to know what is coming for them. Tech in the next 10 years will be nothing short of revolutionary, we need the people to be involved to make sure that revolution is for Good.

Day 2: 6/10.

Overall: 7/10. Fascinating, fantastic, nearly transformative.

David BirnbaumKW, Technology, Startup