For the second year, the Collision conference had to pivot from a live event to a virtual one, welcoming 38,039 attendees from 141 countries to its proprietary online platform.
For those not familiar with Collision, it’s a conference of short talks – five to 20 minutes – that explore technology and business topics. It’s also home to startups and more than 850 investors who want to help them.
Here are snippets from a few of the sessions that caught our attention.
Toronto mayor John Tory had a busy conference. He opened it along with conference co-founder Paddy Cosgrove. He had a press conference. He had a Q&A. And he participated in several other sessions in between, including a roundtable called Building a City for the 21st Century in which he interacted with entrepreneurs and other citizens to answer questions.
Tory was asked what support is being provided for entrepreneurs who want to start companies and thrive. He responded with a laundry list of the assets that make Toronto a great place to be, including the public higher education system (16 institutions), Toronto’s critical mass of AI expertise, an open immigration system, critical mass of industry (top 10 financial centre, top 3 tech centre) and more.
“Success begets success,” he said.
But that doesn’t stop him from travelling (virtually, these days) to promote Toronto and to try to persuade the 100,000 Canadians in Silicon Valley to come home.
“We created more technology ecosystem jobs in 2019 and early 2020 before the pandemic than New York City and San Francisco,” he said.
Tory also touched on the situation with Sidewalk Labs, explaining that what killed the deal was a disagreement about the price of the waterfront land.
“Yes, our commitment to technology and to using the technology necessary to produce a smart city is as ever, our commitment to the digital trust type mechanism we took a lot of pains to set up because of Sidewalk coming is still there, and we will use it,” he said. “But now we’re going to be reliant on other people.”
Designing inclusive technology for all abilities
Designing products and services that are accessible to all requires a change of mindset, said Jesús Gottiti, vice-president, digital design at the Royal Bank of Canada.
“It is easily said, not so easily done,” he noted while introducing the topic. “We will be successful if, after this panel, you understand a bit better what organizations need to think about to really design for inclusion, which is not as obvious as it seems.”
Panellists included RBC colleagues Joel Dembe, a former Paralympian for Canada in wheelchair tennis and now a member of RBC’s corporate communications team, and Kimberley Peter, director of design operations at RBC Digital, as well as Jutta Treviranus, director and founder of the Inclusive Design Research Centre.
“Wheelchair technology, I would say is emblematic of the tectonic shifts happening in accessibility right now,” Dembe observed. “The first wheelchair I got was a medical device in the early 90s. It was cumbersome, it was difficult to operate, difficult to lift. But over time, wheelchairs got sleeker. They got sexier.”
But we need to rethink the design process itself, said Treviranus.
“Our most impactful innovations have been motivated by a desire to address current barriers,” he said. “If we design with people who are currently excluded, we have lived experience of the unexplored design terrain, and not the complacent average customer that is like us, we will innovate and detect the weak signals of risks to come.”
Peter added that by taking a systems thinking approach, we can change orientation to understanding an individual’s point of view rather than looking at existing product.
Reaching out to VCs
Pitching investors as a startup is a daunting task. Attaching a file to an email can leave you feeling sick since you rarely know if someone is going to receive your note, and when you’re a scrappy startup looking to scale, time is valuable.
DocSend founder and CEO Russ Heddleston started his company back in 2013 to create a digital platform that shares and tracks sensitive documents.
His session at Collision this year focused on the current state of the fundraising environment.
One of the interesting takeaways from his session was about how much more time VCs had in 2020 compared to years prior, and that also meant that they were much more selective with the pitch decks in their inbox.
“VCs this year are spending a lot more time in their successful decks and a lot less time the decks that don’t raise money,” he said. “They’re being much more efficient with their time.”
He noted more than half of VCs over the year have increased time spent on the competitive landscape sections of pitch decks.
The spray and pray approach when it comes to contacting investors was also addressed. Heddleston said there’s not much of a correlation between the number of investors contacted and the amount raised, but he did encourage entrepreneurs to strive for “quality meetings” and not get discouraged if they don’t hear back after even dozens of outreach emails.
Ethical and responsible AI
A quartet of panellists from Northeastern University took on the knotty issue of ethical AI. Research professor Ricardo Baeza-Yates of the Institute for Experiential AI, professor Tina Eliassi-Rad, associate professor Christo Wilson, and Usama Fayyad, executive director and chairman at Northeastern University and Open Insights, addressed two big questions: approaching the field responsibly and detecting when something is wrong, and dealing with it responsibly.
Eliassi-Rad kicked things off by stressing the importance of supplying technologists with knowledge about civics and ethics.
“If technology is going to be used in our society, especially in high stakes, life-altering situations such as criminal justice, law enforcement, employment decisions, credit scoring, health care, public eligibility, assessment and school assignment, then we need to teach our technologists about society. civics and ethics,” she said. “Leaving them to their own devices or having ethics committees or boards on the side as an afterthought is destined to fail.”
Wilson agreed, stating a world that is using AI and machine learning ethically requires regular independent oversight.
“Ethics is like privacy,” said Baeza-Yates. “It’s individual, but also depends on the ethics of your providers and depends on the ethics or your clients. You’re not alone.
“There can’t be AI ethics if we don’t have ethics.”
Yet, Wilson noted, he’s concerned about companies that claim to conduct AI audits, because it’s unclear what the baselines are. “To me, the ideal outcome is something that’s very transparent,” he said. “You have statements that you’ve made about how a system should be functioning, and then those statements are being verified in a very broad sense, both socio technically, but also deeply technically, like looking at the code, looking at the data. And then all of that needs to be made more or less public, to build confidence that what you said is true, and that the audit is believable.”
We should also hold technologists legally and financially accountable for the harm their technologies cause, said Said Eliassi-Rad. “And we should change the culture among the technologists. Just because you can build it doesn’t mean you should.”
How to future-proof your business with a generalist mindset
The description of this session quoted David Epstein, author of Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, who said, “In a wicked world, relying upon experience from a single domain is not only limiting, it can be disastrous.”
Fiona Carter, the first-ever chief marketing officer at Goldman Sachs, is fully on side with him.
“Quite often, you’ll find that in marketing you get very, very deep, specialized, but siloed experts,” she said. “I think what is one of the most crucial needs these days is the connector.”
What’s required is a hybrid thinker who can look across the areas of specialization and see insights, she noted, and there are not many of them these days.
“For me, that’s an expertise on its own and I might even call it the CEO of an ever-expanding marketing ecosystem,” she said. “Someone who can go deep enough to be dangerous enough in each of the specialties, but then can rise up, is never narrow in their thinking, but is always thinking expansively across the entire spectrum of the team.”
She believes that teams with diverse backgrounds and experiences and perspectives is a business imperative.
“Really, there’s only one way to be set up for success,” she said. “You can forward plan or you can scenario plan all you like, but actually agility in the moment and an ability to think around problems and to reframe opportunities is really, really crucial.”
Responsible tech in an era of hostile tech
Responsible tech is an umbrella term for doing the right thing, said Dr. Rebecca Parsons, chief technology officer at Thoughtworks.
“I think that we sometimes give ourselves a little too much leeway in the decision-making that we choose with respect to the technology that we create,” she said. “You’re not going to convince me that whoever the engineering team was at Volkswagen that chose to doctor the software so that it would read and perform differently when it was under test that they didn’t know that there was something wrong with that.”
Hostile tech, on the other hand, isn’t just malware. It can describe things that aren’t necessarily malicious. For example, some people are content being surveilled online if it means they get personalized ads, while others believe that surveillance is wrong. Sometimes, she noted, the hostility is intentional. But in other cases, such as image recognition that does a poor job recognizing blacks women, there was no malicious intent, just poor data.
“When we think about designing a digital product, or some other technology choice, we have a particular stakeholder group in mind. We are trying to bring this product to address this segment of the market. But what we don’t often think about is what is the impact of that product, not just on our target group, but other stakeholders.”
She pointed out that one training run of a complex model has the same carbon impact as 125 flights between New York and Beijing, and that access to online education and other technologies touching our lives is not equal for all.
“We need to think about this from the perspective of people as citizens, as simply humans in the world, employees, organizations,” she said. “And think about what are the intended consequences and what can we do to mitigate any unintended consequences, so that we can be responsible technologists, even in an era of hostile technology.”
How can tech regain our trust
Trust in tech has dropped in 17 of the 27 countries surveyed for Edelman’s Trust Barometer, due to the spread of misinformation, rising privacy alarm, and bias in artificial intelligence. In this panel, moderator Ginella Massa, journalist at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, asked panellists Mitchell Barker, chairwoman and CEO at Mozilla, and Katherine Maher, CEO at Wikipedia, why this is happening, and how tech can regain our trust.
“We need to build trustworthy technology with greater transparency and understanding in it,” said Baker. “And we also have to figure out the long-term impact of this powerful new technology on the human psyche, which I think is a longer and actually more interesting, in many ways question but harder to plan out.”
“I think that one of the challenges that we see is that tech often seems at odds with the institutions that we rely on as citizens,” added Maher. “And it’s not really clear to us about how those institutions are going to continue to serve our needs in this increasingly digital era. And so that creates a significant gap between what people need and what’s being delivered today.”
Yet, Massa pointed out, despite the lack of trust, people continue to hand over their information on their various devices. Why the gap?
Baker suggested that we’re experiencing both the best (access to information) and the worst (lack of accountability) of tech, at both the company and individual levels. “We need policies, but also builders who want to do something different,” she said.
“We trust our devices, we just tend not to necessarily trust the institutions that govern them,” Maher added. “And that’s often because we feel like those institutions are capricious, or we don’t have accountability from those institutions or representation in the decision making of those institutions. And so it’s not really tech that we have a problem with, it’s really thinking about governance of structures that are outside of the bounds of our control as citizens.” She’d like to see legislation and economic incentives that help industries and markets self-regulate. And, she said, “I’d love to see the software engineering profession take on a degree of self-accountability with the products that it produces, in the way that it really thinks about educating and advancing its own cohort.”
“I think that the actual remedies are hard,” Baker said. “I find when I think about what is the right answer that becomes law with all of its consequences even among what I’ll call tech activists and policy activists the one answer that we all agree on that we’re sure has the right positive consequence – I don’t think we have a shared understanding.”
Making Canada an innovation-focused economy
François-Philippe Champagne, Canada’s Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry sat down for a virtual chat with Yahoo Finance Canada’s Alicja Siekierska to discuss Canadian innovation post-pandemic.
“Things are not going to be exactly the same after the pandemic. And I think it’s a good thing for humanity,” he said. He enumerated some of Canada’s accomplishments in artificial intelligence and investments in the supercluster, and pointed out that the only quantum computer available to small and medium-sized businesses in North America is in Vancouver, and is accessible through the cloud.
His priorities are many. “I think green technologies are going to be providing the solutions, the answers to a lot of the challenges we’re facing,” he said. “And when I think about innovation, our investment in artificial intelligence, quantum computing are going to be really leading these innovations that are going to be serving to drive the economy of tomorrow. I think we’re facing a world where the switch has been turned on now. We’re going to a greener economy, a more resilient economy, a more inclusive economy.”
He went on, “When I look at Canada and the United States, it’s always been, how can we innovate more together? How can we build more together? And how can we sell more together to the rest of the world? And I’m really confident in this generation to bring us the breakthrough technologies to allow us to do that.”
A time of turbulent change calls for new thought leadership. During the event, Web Summit named Nathan Hubbard, previously chief executive officer of Ticketmaster, as its first ever external board member.
By becoming a Web Summit’s director, Hubbard will assist in growing its live event presence with an increased focus on software.
Hubbard was a senior executive at Live Nation and was the CEO of Ticketmaster between 2006 and 2013. He then joined Twitter as the head of commerce before leaving in 2016 to found his own company, Rival. Hubbard is also on the board of directors for Gibson Guitar.
“Human beings are hardware to want to be together,” said Nathan Hubbard in a release. “The absence of that opportunity has hurt people all over the world. One of the many wonderful things that we do at Web Summit is we bring people together to have those in-person interactions to feel human; feel part of something bigger.”
Next year, in Toronto
The original three-year agreement to hold Collision in Toronto in 2019, 2020, and 2021 has been amended, so if circumstances permit, we will see a live Collision event in the city in 2022.
Pre-registration is now open for the live event, June 20 – 23, 2022. No, it won’t be free as the virtual event has been. But as an incentive to jump in early, there’s currently a 2 for 1 deal on offer.