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Event Recap: True North 2018 – Tech For Good

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As a creative within the Fintech industry, I highly value conferences that offer a wide-range of speakers and topics that challenge my status quo and leave me with feelings of insightful inspiration and motivation. Communitech’s True North 2018 conference exceeded my expectations in every regard. Between May 29-31, myself and members of Interac’s Digital Products team joined over 2,000 attendees for the inaugural event held at Lot 42 in Waterloo, Ontario. “Tech For Good” was the theme of the conference with speakers from around the globe discussing their thoughts and perspectives on the topics of creativity without constraints, responsible A.I., and diversity and inclusion within the tech industry; just to name a few.

Creativity

Opening the conference to a standing-room-only crowd was Ed Catmull, President of Pixar and Walt Disney Studios, with his keynote appropriately titled, “What makes creative people tick?”. Ed was at the top of my list of speakers to hear from as I’ve been a huge Pixar fan since the first Toy Story movie. He opened his keynote with a profoundly unexpected statement which immediately grabbed my attention:

“We do not make movies for children. We forget that children live in an adult world and are wired to figure things out.”

Ed Catmull, President of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios

Ed Catmull, President of Pixar and Walt Disney Studios, presenting keynote “What makes creative people tick?” at True North 2018.
Ed Catmull, President of Pixar and Walt Disney Studios, presenting keynote “What makes creative people tick?” at True North 2018.

Intrigue naturally set in. It was fascinating to hear him speak about how making movies for adults naturally taps into their inner child. It’s this emotional touch that gives their movies their “special sauce” ultimately resulting in them being relatable to anyone and everyone regardless of age and gender.

Ed’s keynote was a treasure trove of insights as he spoke about the guiding principles that Pixar follows to give their employees the freedom to tap into their maximum creative potential. One of the keys to their success is removing the power structure from the room. Their creative process is peer to peer, filmmaker to filmmaker. Not boss to filmmaker or boss to employee.

He also touched upon how Pixar fosters a positive culture and environment where failure is embraced and welcomed during the creative process. Every movie that Pixar has ever released had “sucked” as some point during its creative process (his words, not mine!), most requiring an entire re-write of its script, and in some cases, several re-writes. By encouraging their employees to fail, they were able to ultimately release films that were box-office successes.

To bookend his keynote, he left the audience with another call to action that set the tone for the rest of the conference, “Please use your opportunity to make the world a better place. This is your chance.”

Ending the keynote with that simple ask was such a bold statement given the circumstances surrounding the recent exit of Pixar’s longtime Chief Creative Officer, John Lasseter. This statement, combined with their cultural and professional practices, showed me that Pixar was devoted to maintaining a culture where every employee is treated with equality and respect regardless of their position within the company. It’s this important quality that breeds success in every facet of their organization.

AI and Machine Learning

Talk on artificial intelligence at True North

When AI and robotics are portrayed in pop culture, they’re typically painted in a less than ideal light due to the unknowns that come along with them. Films such as I, Robot, the Matrix, and even Pixar’s Wall-E, have all depicted hypothetical scenarios in which the AI whose initial intentions were to be used for greater good, could theoretically become too intelligent to control with negative consequences if handled irresponsibly. To touch upon this subject, Communitech had various speakers share their stories and visions on the advancement of AI. The common thread within each speaker’s piece was that as the humans driving AI forward, we shouldn’t solely be romanticizing AI’s advancement within our tech community but to also be aware, empathetic, and ethical towards everyone outside of it as well. A few of my favourite quotes include:

“I ask you, how can you leverage these technologies to move your organizations forward? More importantly, how can you leverage these technologies so that your company is doing more good with all of its technology?”

Joseph Fung, CEO – Kiite

“When you take the human out of the AI, how does the AI learn? […] As these things progress further and further – where do we draw the line? Just like testing on animals?”

Suzanne Gildert, Founder and CEO – Sanctuary AI

“We don’t have to be like Silicon Valley. We can be better. We can be good. But that requires developing an ethos that thinks outside of the tech community… to the broader community, and the world. […] Ethics in the tech community may get in the way of innovation – but you must attend to them.”

Marcel O’Gorman, University Research Chair and Director of the Critical Media Lab – University of Waterloo

Social Movements

Social Movements are one of the hottest topics in today’s society and to speak on the topic of gender equality and inclusion in the tech space, Kitchener-based Vidyard CEO Michael Litt and Pando Founder and CEO, Sarah Lacy definitely brought the fire to the main stage! Communitech graciously invited them to speak about their first hand experiences dealing with “bro culture” and their own respective suggestions on how to eradicate this toxic behavioural culture to make sure organizations and the next generation of startups can do better without sacrificing their respective successes.

Sarah Lacy speaking on making change in the tech community.
Sarah Lacy speaking on making change in the tech community.

“The biggest thing that will change the next wave of companies is diversity. This is the easiest way to solve this. Diverse cultures not only financially perform better but they have more empathy, they get past blind spots.”

Sarah Lacy, Founder, Editor-in-Chief and CEO, PandoMedia

Michael Litt‘s recent article on “Bro Culture” for Fast Company: I Accidentally Built A Brogrammer Culture. Now We’re Undoing It.

Ending the keynote with that simple ask was such a bold statement given the circumstances surrounding the recent exit of Pixar’s longtime Chief Creative Officer, John Lasseter. This statement, combined with their cultural and professional practices, showed me that Pixar was devoted to maintaining a culture where every employee is treated with equality and respect regardless of their position within the company. It’s this important quality that breeds success in every facet of their organization.

As the inaugural True North 2018 came to a close, I found myself heading home with a slew of new and valuable insights. Insights that left me inspired and motivated to be a better creative and, most importantly, to be a better participant within the tech community. Overall, True North 2018 was a big success and set a pretty high bar to match for next year’s edition which is already in its planning stages. I’m not sure what Communitech has up their sleeves for 2019’s edition but I can’t wait to be back to find out!

Photo by Robert Penaloza on Unsplash.

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