True North: An Opportunity To Slow Down And Fix Things

Iain Klugman

April 12, 2018

Move fast and break things.

That mantra, long promoted by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, has inspired countless startup entrepreneurs to go out and change the world over the past decade.

The spirit behind it is admirable – you can’t change the world by clinging to old ways of doing things. But, as we’ve all been reminded recently, moving fast can lead to unintended consequences, and the wrong things can get broken – not just old monopolies and business models, but things like public trust, civic discourse and, some would say, democracy itself.

There’s a growing sense that it’s time to take a pause from “move fast and break things,” and slow down and fix things.

This is the thinking behind True North, the big, new, annual conference and community festival that we at Communitech will host for the first time this May 29-31.

After 21 years of helping tech companies start, grow and succeed, we feel now is the time for the tech community to stop and consider the broader implications of its work, and to talk about what real success should look like in a fast-changing, hyperconnected and increasingly polarized world.

Let’s be clear: Helping entrepreneurs to build profitable, impactful technology companies is, and always will be, at the heart of Communitech’s mission. The prosperity of our community and our country depend on the ability of our innovators to anticipate the future, continually adapt and tap into markets where they can compete among the world’s best.

But our definition of success can’t be confined to the balance sheet. Our bottom line also needs to account for the impact of what we do on society, not just our immediate employees, shareholders and investors.

In other words, if we’re going to change the world, let’s make sure we’re changing it for the better, for as many people as possible.

True North, as the name suggests, is a chance to focus on exactly that – to come together, have frank discussions about tech’s role in the world, and make sure our compasses are calibrated in the right direction.

Why now? Because tech entrepreneurs have never had more opportunity to solve meaningful problems, or more powerful tools to help them do it, than they do right now.

Entire industries long considered untouchable are suddenly up for grabs and vulnerable to disruption. Artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles and connected devices are poised to rewire the rhythms of daily life, not within decades, but within years. Human health is taking leaps forward thanks to faster computers, richer data and wearable devices.

At the same time, some of humanity’s biggest challenges continue to outpace our ability, if not our willingness, to tackle them: From extreme storms due to climate change and plastic pollution in our oceans, to rising income inequality, discrimination, and an increase in political extremism fuelled by “fake news” and propaganda.

Technology can and should play a role in meeting these challenges, but we must also acknowledge that tech can, despite our best intentions, play a role in creating them, too. Remember the Arab Spring of 2011, when Facebook and other social platforms were hailed as forces of freedom for millions of people living under oppressive regimes in the Middle East? Today, those same platforms stand accused of undermining Western democracy by facilitating voter manipulation through abuse of user data, and of spreading fake news.

Further, tech companies are increasingly being cited for falling short in fostering diversity and inclusion within their ranks, and for allowing self-reinforcing “brogrammer culture” to inject bias into product design and development.

(Communitech photo: Sara Jalali)

If we truly believe in tech as a force for good, we owe it not only to ourselves, but to our broader communities, to address these issues in an open and constructive way. That’s what True North is designed to do.

But why here? Because, quite simply, this is Canada’s time to lead the world on values, and because Waterloo Region, more than any other place I know, understands the importance of community. And speaking of community, True North is not just about technology – it includes an urban festival packed with free events, open to everyone.

A few short years ago, it was typical for Canadian tech entrepreneurs visiting Silicon Valley to be told to act “less Canadian” if they wanted to succeed. They were “too nice,” or “not aggressive enough.” They were seen as collaborative, humble, loyal and honest to a fault.

Today, as some of the Valley’s most aggressive companies struggle to evolve their practices and, in some cases, restore tarnished reputations, Canadian values suddenly don’t seem so quaint any more. If anything, they’ve taken on fresh currency as Western democracies – roiled by polarized politics, trade protectionism and hardened social attitudes – work to chart a positive path forward.

In short, values matter as much as valuations do.

That much is clear from the roster of speakers we’ve invited to dig into the issues at True North, at the stunning, newly re-adapted Lot 42 Global Flex Campus. The venue, a former steel plant, epitomizes the industrious foundations on which Waterloo Region was built, as well as the community’s ongoing evolution to meet the demands of the future.

I hope you’ll join us on May 29-31.

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