Robot at True North 2019

Highlights from True North 2019

Collaboration, a Declaration & a Problem

True North is an annual tech conference held in Kitchener – Waterloo. This is a Canadian technology corridor that is among the top 20 in the world. Communitech curated the June 2019 conference.

I attended the conference with ET Group (ETG) to explore the state of tech and expand on the following three highlights of interest below.

  1. Barriers to Organizational Collaboration
  2. The Tech for Good Declaration
  3. The Technology Business Model Problem

Barriers to Collaboration – Legacy Systems & Culture 

The conference kicked off with Manulife’s CEO, Roy Gori. He stated that transformation is possible when purpose, capability and passion exist. Unfortunately, barriers to change exist as well.

True North ConferenceWe agree with Roy that major barriers to change are due to legacy systems and culture. Legacy systems are often not customer centric.  Further, they are rarely designed to keep pace with the digital revolution. Culture can be a larger barrier because it is human nature to resist change.  People believe that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, thus losing out on successful collaboration.

At ETG, we have an up close look of legacy technological systems and culture in the organizations we serve.  Both systems and culture limit organizational collaboration. Often, organizations invest in technology, thinking that new tech will solve all problems.  Then comes the surprise. Tech adoption is minimal, rendering a low return on the tech investment.

User adoption of technology is dependent on culture, human mindsets and behaviours.   Organizations lose opportunities when they fail to focus on these human aspects. Investing in people and culture  yields better collaboration, higher productivity, innovation and engagement. Thus, purpose, capability and passion are key on any technology project intended to improve organizational collaboration as well.

The Tech for Good Declaration

I participated in the working session on Canada’s Tech for Good Declaration when it launched at True North in May 2018. As of today, 58 Canadian companies & 56 individuals signed it. It includes six major commitments about:

  • trust & respect,
  • transparency & choice,
  • re-skilling,
  • leaving no one behind,
  • inclusion and
  • collaborative governance.

Tech For Good DeclarationThis popular phrase, Tech for Good, means different things to different stakeholders.  The Declaration has its own version as articulated in the six commitments above. Others say that it is “a community of people, making tech that addresses social, economic and environmental challenges. Further,  building that tech in a collaborative, user-led way with an end result that’s ethically right-on.” (Joe Roberson, Tech for Good, Medium, May 17, 2018)

ETG is a signatory to the Tech for Good Declaration. Further, we have contributed perspectives on Tech for Good for the University of Waterloo study, “Cultivating Ethos in the Tech Sector”.  The results will foster dialogue between business, government and users. The goal of this study is to overcome ethical challenges posed by technological innovation. The study will also inform knowledge exchange on ethics, inclusion and equity in the tech sector.

Tarot Cards of Tech at True North 2019

Tarot Cards of TechAt True North 2019, conference participants shared feedback on the latest Declaration. We utilized the  Tarot Cards of Tech.   The cards are a set of provocations designed to help reflect on important questions:

  • Are we considering the full impact of technology?
  • Do we see the unintended consequences of the tech we recommend, design or implement?
  • What opportunities for positive change does this technology create?
  • Are we applying human centred design to build technology solutions?

At ETG, cross-functional, inclusive, human centred design is front and centre.  It is exciting to introduce the Tarot Cards of Tech on the next project. The cards will enable holistic dialogue about collaboration technology in the workplace.

A Problematic Technology Business Model

Signatories to the Declaration make six commitments (noted above).  This is all well and good. Yet, there is a glaring omission in this Declaration around company business models.  I agree with the findings of the Center for Humane Technology. Many technology companies make money on the extraction of our attention.  Our attention provides data to fuel their profits.

Shoshana Zuboff also exposes the problematic tech business model in her book, The Age of Surveillance Capital also reveals this problem. Companies want to automate humans for profit.

Surveillance capitalism,” she writes, “unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioural data. Although some of these data are applied to service improvement, the rest are declared as a proprietary behavioural surplus, fed into advanced manufacturing processes known as ‘machine intelligence’, and fabricated into prediction products that anticipate what you will do now, soon, and later. Finally, these prediction products are traded in a new kind of marketplace that I call behavioural futures markets. Surveillance capitalists have grown immensely wealthy from these trading operations, for many companies are willing to lay bets on our future behaviour.”

Thus, the Canadian Declaration must include a seventh commitment on the business model.  Signatories should promise value creation for consumers and society as a whole. Attention extraction, which serves only investors, must be left behind.

True North ConferenceThe problematic technology business model was also mentioned by Kara Swisher, renowned journalist and editor of Recode. She stated that all problems link to the race to capture human attention by tech giants.  Kara detailed these problems during her summary the state of technology in the context of the following topics:

  • AI: Anything that can be digitized will be digitized
  • The robots are not killers (they don’t have to kill us to win)
  • There is still no privacy
  • The never-ending revolution (populism, lack of unity, social issues, etc.)
  • No one is responsible (for breaking rules)

The day ended at the Shopify happy hour in the original barrel storage area for Seagram’s Whiskey.