Iain Klugman is CEO of Communitech. Kevin Lynch is an economist, former clerk of the Privy Council and sits on the Communitech board of directors.
It’s time to have a conversation. And maybe help save the world in the process.
It wasn’t so long ago that the fourth industrial revolution – marked by breakthroughs in areas such as robotics, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, the internet of things and nanotechnology – heralded the promise of a new paradigm, a rewired, freer, more open society.
In the past year that narrative has been subsumed by one best described as disturbing, even sinister.
Fake news. Robots that will put humans out of work, or worse, take over. Chronic gender and race issues at tech firms large and small. Enormous pools of capital and influence controlled by a handful of ever-larger technology firms. Data misused and privacy breached, capped by the recent revelations surrounding Cambridge Analytica and Facebook.
Particularly with respect to the latter, these issues cut to the heart of the very institutions that elect our leaders, govern discourse and underpin civil society. Change plainly needs to take place. How can we start such a conversation?
Communitech, the organization with which we are affiliated, is hosting a three-day conference called True North, which will take place in Canada’s technology heartland, in Ontario’s Waterloo Region, beginning May 29. The focus is on “tech for good.” And tech for good is not a question. At least we think it should not be.
The conference has been designed to be a conversation – an opportunity for thought leaders from government, academia and industry to pause, come together and discuss ways to reharness technology’s promise and begin to map out solutions to the serious issues that have emerged in recent months.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg famously used to say: Move fast and break things. Perhaps now, more than ever, it’s time to slow down and fix things.
But how? How do we build a bridge to better?
Let’s start by acknowledging that we’ve faced moments like this before. We’ve solved them with bold, big-tent partnerships – recognizing that we solve big problems by including, not abandoning, people.
At the end of the Second World War, Canada was faced with an enormous challenge: the repatriation of hundreds of thousands of soldiers. How would they be retrained? How would they reintegrate into daily life? The federal government of the day enacted a brave policy called the Veterans Charter, which provided veterans with educational opportunities and land grants for farming and business loans. Tens of thousands enrolled in universities. Thousands more were hired by federal-government departments. Businesses were launched. Homes and cars were purchased.
The result was a period of sustained economic growth, which funded, in turn, sweeping social initiatives such as medicare and old-age pensions. In short, a looming problem was transformed into an opportunity that made our society better.
Likewise, today, we face the prospect of massive disruption and job dislocation, all of it due to unfold with a thunderclap, caused by robots, artificial intelligence, self-driving vehicles and the like. People are frightened. What will be our answer?
Governments, industries and individuals must work collaboratively, just as they did to reintegrate all those soldiers. Governments must additionally align the decision-making process with the speed of technological change. It’s difficult to steer using a rear-view mirror.
“Regulators must continuously adapt to a new, fast-changing environment, reinventing themselves so they can truly understand what it is they are regulating,” writes Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, in an essay on these very issues. “To do so, governments and regulatory agencies will need to collaborate closely with business and civil society.”
Indeed, Canada would seem an ideal venue for such a collaboration. It is one of the world’s most progressive and welcoming countries, a place that has long sought solutions that walked a middle road between Europe’s instinct to regulate (regardless of the cost) and the United States’ devotion to unfettered markets (at any price). Canada is a place that embraces openness, the rule of law, diversity, equality, as well as dynamic markets.
Waterloo Region, meanwhile, is home to Canada’s most concentrated community of innovators, with a thriving new-era economy and a community in the fullest sense, one with a long-established barn-raising ethic.
The theme of True North is “tech for good.” It’s time to make 2018 the year that technology delivers, honestly, forthrightly, on its promise to make lives better, in addition to driving our economy into the future. It’s time for that conversation. It’s a conversation Canada can host. It’s time to help save the world.