With the consequences of unchecked technology development in the spotlight, more than 100 representatives of Canada’s tech community and associated organizations have signed a public promise to better design products for the benefit of society.
The Tech for Good Declaration was unveiled Thursday at the True North technology conference in Kitchener, Ont., by former governor-general David Johnston, a former University of Waterloo president who has long championed the Kitchener-Waterloo region’s innovation community. “In this digital age, ‘innovation for good’ needs to be more firmly and deeply fixed amongst all Canadian industries and organizations,” he told the crowd in a keynote address.
The document requires signatories to ensure transparency in the collection of personal information, and in communicating how that data is used; to ensure that people whose jobs are lost to technology are re-educated for new positions; to be as inclusive as possible when developing new tech, so that disadvantaged groups can benefit from it; and to communicate and collaborate more to ensure each of these goals are reached.
Representatives of organizations ranging from prominent Kitchener-Waterloo companies such as D2L Corp. and Thalmic Labs Inc., to IBM Canada and Reddit, to local universities, were among the individuals who designed and signed the declaration.
It stops short of reporting requirements that would force its signatories to adhere to its tenets. But Steve Currie, chief innovation officer of Communitech, the Kitchener-Waterloo startup hub that put on the conference, said in an interview that the declaration is intended to be a high-concept first step to preface engaging the technology community, and communities affected by their work, with room to adapt as necessary.
“We recognize that this is a high-level statement, but we really want to look at the implementation layer after it,” Mr. Currie said. “And we see the next few months as an opportunity to do that, after gathering feedback from a broader audience.”
The “living” document is designed to grow and shift over time to accommodate new changes to, and threats from, technology; the Rideau Hall Foundation, a charitable organization started by Mr. Johnston, will be responsible for its upkeep.
Tech companies are facing increasing public scrutiny following several high-profile incidents in recent months. This includes Facebook‘s revelation that the data of 87 million users was shared with now-defunct firm Cambridge Analytica, and the death of a pedestrian struck by an autonomous car operated by Uber in Arizona.
“I hope the declaration will help restore the public’s faith in tech – and, frankly, capitalism,” said Marc Castel, chief executive of Fiix Inc., a 90-employee Toronto company that digitizes processes to make traditional blue-collar industries more efficient. “When you do tech and capitalism well, it’s one of the most powerful ideas and inventions of humankind.”
Some of the Tech for Good declaration’s signatories are already concerned about its effectiveness, however, including Patricia Herdman, chief executive of the early-stage computer-malfunction-protection startup, GlitchTrax, and author of When Cars Decide to Kill.
“It’s a powerful start,” she said Thursday, “but I’m disappointed at the fact that stronger language wasn’t used in some cases.” Consumer privacy rights need strong, guaranteed protections, Ms. Herdman continued, as do careers. “I want it more strongly stated that there’s an accountability to the people whose jobs we’re robbing.”
Other signatories cautioned that the document, the product of two days of discussion, was just in its early, aspirational stages. “These things are good to get people aligned around the issue,” said Jeremy Auger, chief strategy officer of D2L, the learning-management platform. As an education-focused executive, he said taking part was simple: the declaration aligned with his company’s social mission. “Our whole core business is about having an impact for the purposes of good.”
Former governor-general Mr. Johnston is now an executive adviser at Deloitte Canada, which sponsored the conference and conducted research, along with Ipsos Canada, that served as the backbone of the declaration. Ipsos surveyed 2,000 Canadians before the conference, finding that six in 10 Canadians feared, among other things, the “mass unemployment” that could arise as technology disrupts new industries.