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leadership lab

President and vice-chancellor of Ontario Tech University in Oshawa, Ont.

Want to be a tech entrepreneur? The sage wisdom is to start by solving a problem.

That is what university students Hamayal Choudhry and Samin Khan did. Through their startup smartARM, they created a 3D-printed robotic prosthetic hand for amputees that costs less than $1,000. The smartARM team competed in and won the worldwide competition, Microsoft Imagine Cup, becoming the first team to bring the award to Canada. The bionic arm invention by smartARM is a great example of tech with a social conscience.

Traditionally, the primary goal of a business is to maximize wealth for shareholders. Those days are long gone. For a business to be sustainable, it has to retain its social licence and contribute positively to the community. As Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff said in a recent interview, tech companies need to shift from a money-centric world view to one that focuses on making a positive impact.

As we prepare students for the 21st century, we have a responsibility as higher education institutions to develop leaders who are driven to better the community, both locally and globally. Here are some guiding tips.

Equipping student entrepreneurs for the future

Student entrepreneurs have the potential to be great change-makers. Provided with the opportunities, tools and mentorship, they are a force not to be underestimated.

That is not to say that all will become serial entrepreneurs, but we need creative thinking in organizations in every sector of our economy. One great example is Ontario Tech University student Yasin Othman, who, while on a journey with friends in East Africa, realized the dire need for clean drinking water in the region. He used the trip to make a documentary film about this issue. With funding from Brilliant Catalyst, the university’s on-campus collaboration and idea collision space, and a crowdfunding campaign, Othman and his partners were able to establish their startup Rootworks. They are working to provide rural communities in Somalia and Ethiopia with access to clean drinking water by building sand dams. The really cool part is that they are doing so by applying their talents in filmmaking to crowdsource funding for an innovative take on a daunting social problem. In both Choudhry and Khan’s prosthetic arm and Othman’s film, these young minds used technology to address vexing social problems.

Addressing tech’s ethical implications

Today, we have a collective responsibility to explore and research the implications of tech, both positive and negative. That means asking the hard questions: What are the ethical implications of tech? How will it compromise our privacy? How do we address hate bias and extremism on the Web and in social media? What are the biases built into AI?

Answers to these questions will be found when we give under-represented scholars in the “tech” world, such as philosophers, educators and humanities and social scientists of all stripes, licence to consider themselves key voices in the discourse. Fewer people are now fixated on when the next iPhone is coming out, but people do have grave concerns over whether AI will take their jobs, and whether their privacy is being breached just because they carry a smartphone.

Influence industry to support tech with a conscience

The allure of the gadget or gizmo is not going to fade away easily. There will be profits to be made from early adopters of new technology.

But the tsunami of new tech is about how self-driving cars will keep our children and grandchildren safe. It is about how to ensure that the insatiable production and collection of data has safeguards and regulations.

Smart tech is tech that improves the human condition.

Collaborating with businesses on work-integrated-learning placements is a great opportunity for higher education institutions to influence businesses to have a positive impact. In particular, we send top-notch groups of students from interdisciplinary backgrounds (picture an engineer working with a political science major, a kinesiologist and a game developer) to approach problems in organizations in a manner where tech can be used for good.

Our students are digital natives – they don’t need to be told of the downsides of tech, and by supporting our students, we are dispatching agents of innovation and social change into the workplace. In return, students gain valuable hands-on experience while realizing their voice matters. It’s a win-win for both.

Building tech with a social conscience sometimes manifests itself through local outreach events, where students volunteer their time to teach kids how to code. Embedded in those coding lessons is “what are you trying to solve with the code in the first place?” Let’s stop talking about tech as though it’s always “progress.” Tech with a conscience requires a deliberate strategy and takes hard work.

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