The True North Mission: Slow Down and Fix Things

Last year’s True North conference, launched by Communitech CEO Iain Klugman (above left) produced the Tech for Good Declaration to ensure that organizations aspire to build solutions that benefit people and the planet. Sara Jalali, Communitech photo


The first wave of the Fourth Industrial Revolution has introduced extraordinary innovations, connectivity and progress. It has also put the power of technology into the hands of players who do not necessarily prioritize the collective good. Communitech’s Iain Klugman has taken a leadership role in fashioning solutions to some of the most wicked problems generated in the past two decades.


Iain Klugman 

Remember when the power and promise of technology, the internet and digital tools to connect people and harness civic good seemed to herald a human renaissance? The traditional gatekeepers of thought and opinion were suddenly forced to give way to a new, vibrant, democratic platform—the web. The marginal suddenly had a voice. Facebook and social media connected people, helping give rise to movements like the Arab Spring in 2011. We marvelled at the power and utility that new, connected devices placed in our pockets. We happily adopted new apps, new payment methods, new entertainment options, new communication channels. A better world appeared to be at hand. 

Today we live in what seems to be an increasingly divisive, polarized, and even mean-spirited world. Instead of civic good, digital tools have been used to harness and amplify malevolence and undermine democratic and scientific pillars. We’ve watched the rise of anti-vaxxers, a war on immigrants, the entrenchment of fake news, conspiracy theories and the alt-right. We’ve seen a growing populist wave fuelled by anger and exclusion. We’ve watched data become weaponized. And we’ve all grown increasingly uneasy with the emergence of “surveillance capitalism” as practised by tech’s big players.

Does the good of tech outweigh the bad? Can we harness the genius of the collective to reverse what’s been unleashed? Can the internet be saved? We think it’s time we had a conversation about just that. Welcome to the rationale behind True North 2019, June 19-20 in Waterloo Region. It’s the second incarnation of a conference and community festival that Communitech launched last May. The idea was, and remains, to tackle tech’s big questions, to engineer an opportunity to surface the important issues that exist at the intersection of humanity and technology and set tech back on its path of promise. As we said in the days leading up to the inaugural True North conference, it’s time to eschew the tech-bred mantra of “moving fast and breaking things,” in order to slow down and fix things.

To quote Sir Tim Berners-Lee, best known as the inventor of the World Wide Web and a keynote speaker at True North 2019, “It would be defeatist and unimaginative to assume that the web as we know it can’t be changed for the better.” For the past 22 years, our mission at Communitech has been to help companies start, grow and succeed, knowing that the prosperity of our communities and our country depends on entrepreneurs and innovators seeking out and shaping the future, tapping emerging markets, creating new markets, and competing among the world’s best. But if tech’s success means rending the fabric of our society as a by-product, then it’s time to redefine that success. Consumers won’t buy a product that they fear. Society won’t adapt to change that causes harm. Profit at the expense of people, and the planet, is ephemeral. There’s no better time for that conversation than now. Concern about privacy, artificial intelligence and lost jobs is not diminishing, it’s growing. So, too, are income disparity, extreme weather due to global warming, and anti-immigrant populism.

Among the legacies of last year’s True North conference was the creation of a Tech for Good Declaration, a living document that set out to guide the industry as it grappled with ethical concerns around artificial intelligence and to ensure that organizations aspired to build solutions that benefited people and the planet.

It’s important that we build on that momentum, expand the conversation and deliver insights that lead to solutions. In that regard, this year we’ve laid out three key themes that we believe are in need of urgent exploration, themes that broadly align with technology concerns that have been laid out in the popular media, among civic thinkers and by political and corporate leadership.

The first is titled The Age of Relearning, recognizing that as technology disrupts the job market, we must equip our workforce with the tools necessary to rapidly respond, and that government, learning institutions and industry must partner to achieve that goal. We need to figure out how to invest in humanity to future-proof ourselves, our communities and our organizations. 

We’ll also be taking a deep dive into a theme we’re calling Living Digital, recognizing that as technology makes us more productive and connected, it also impacts our safety, our privacy and our physical and mental health and well-being. Living Digital will tackle the ways that technological change continuously alters our lives —our homes, our commute and our relationships with one another and the planet.

Finally, we’ll be exploring an idea we’re calling Bridges, Not Walls, rooted in a belief that a united society is stronger than a divided one; that measures can be implemented to curb tech-bred hate and that technology itself can be a solution and can help make our communities smarter, safer, and more prosperous.

No community I know of is better at building bridges than Waterloo Region. It has a barn-raising ethos hard-wired from generations of Mennonite values centred on co-operation and generosity. It’s the place where the smartphone was born. And it’s now one of the world’s most dynamic technology clusters.

Canada, too, has a history of bridge-building, first among French and English-speaking peoples, lately welcoming refugees and immigrants from the world over, knowing that diversity and inclusiveness strengthen and enrich a society, and that problems are solved by working together. Successful technologists always begin with a problem that needs solving. That, we have laid out plainly before us. Now it’s time for solutions.

It’s time to roll up our sleeves and work together, to bridge the gulf between technology’s heralded promise and the problems that confront us. It’s time to, as we say, slow down and fix things.

We can. And we must.  

Iain Klugman is President & CEO of Communitech, based in Waterloo Region.