When it became apparent that COVID-19 would make it impossible to hold the live Collision 2020 conference, Web Summit chief executive officer Paddy Cosgrave and his team pivoted towards an online event. In a mere eight weeks, they produced a conferencing platform with heavy emphasis on video and networking that, although it wasn’t entirely glitch-free, capably served the 600+ speakers and more than 32,000 attendees from 140 countries during the three-day event.
For those not familiar with Collision, it’s a conference of short talks – 5 – 20 minutes – that explore topics around tech and its issues. It’s also home to startups and the investors who want to help them.
Here are some snippets from a few of the sessions that caught our attention.
Toronto mayor John Tory made several appearances at the conference, including this one in discussion with the mayor of Chicago, Lori Lightfoot, and editor at large at The Hill, Steve Clemons. They talked about the challenges of leading a city through a crisis.
“if we’re not going to accept the status quo, as I think we cannot, we’ve got to go deeper, and that means being intentional and thoughtful,” Mayor Lightfoot said. “That takes a little more time. And people are patient in this moment, but I really think that’s the only way, it’s a step towards real lasting solutions.”
“We decided early on that we had a moral responsibility to look after our most vulnerable populations and what’s come out of it is truly wonderful in many respects, even though it came out of a terribly urgent crisis,” Mayor Tory added. “For example, by forming partnerships we never really had formed before on food security, including different communities being actually represented being partners with us delivering in the way they thought best for their communities. And the same with mental health. We had LGBTQ, we had Black we had people who were experts in mental health issues being faced by those people and the same with the elderly and the same with the disabled communities and so on. It’s not just helped to look after those people during the pandemic and homeless people in extraordinary circumstances, it has given us the roots now to maintain those programs in place afterwards because we establish these partnerships that work.”
Grant Ingersoll, chief technology officer at Wikimedia, used the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes to illustrate the need for critical thinking. “I think we need to step back, we need to define what critical thinking means in our context,” he said. “From there, we can begin to think about how we can better incorporate the tools necessary into our content management systems that encourage users to focus when it’s time to focus, and explore when it’s time to explore. Most importantly, we need to build in tools that encourage users to get out of their bubble and to capture feedback on our AI-supported systems so that we don’t just reinforce the status quo.”
Is it possible to unite a remote team?
Panelists Susan Bowen, president and CEO of Aptum, Michael Litt, cofounder and CEO of Vidyard, and Janet Bannister, managing partner at Real Ventures discussed the question of remote teams with moderator Rob Pegoraro.
The biggest challenges, they agreed, were not technology, they were managing work and life simultaneously. “One thing I’ve noticed amongst our team is that we have become closer in one way, in that every day you’re invited into your teammate’s house,” Bannister noted. “And so that traditional barrier between work and home disappears. and sometimes we’ll be talking on a conference call and a little kid will come in and people just sort of accept that.”
“You have people in your teams that live alone, and they’re being told by government to not go see the people that are closest to them,” Bowen said. “And so work becomes everything to them, because the tools and the technology that work gives allows them to connect with people more than they ever would, and so you have to have a different sense of emotional connection with those individuals and watch out for those individuals more than you ever did before.”
“I think this whole this whole motion has really brought kind of the humanity forward in the company,” Litt added.
Role of the CMO in a crisis
The chief marketing officer of a company has a challenging job, especially during a crisis. Miki Toliver King, CMO of the Washington Post, and Jamie Moldafsky, CMO of Wells Fargo, chatted about that role with moderator Michelle Castillo, senior reporter at Cheddar.
Depending on the situation, sometimes the messaging has to be directed at employees and ensuring their safety, Moldafsky said. Regardless of who the targeted stakeholders are, she emphasized the need to flood all channels with information so people could use the media they were most comfortable with.
King agreed, adding that, as a news service, she believes real-time multi-channel communication will become the new norm- once having sampled it, customers will expect it to continue.
Accuracy in the new age of information
YouTube‘s chief product officer Neal Mohan spoke with Dylan Byers of NBC News about YouTube’s community policies. Globally, he said, about 500 hours of content are uploaded to YouTube every single minute of every single day.
YouTube has been working on its polies for several years, but one thing the COVID-19 pandemic has shown is how quickly misinformation can be created around it.
“it’s also really important to remain nimble and flexible in terms of adjusting enforcement guidelines and updating examples that we give to all of our readers all over the world,” he said. “And ensure that our machine learning classifiers stay up to date on as well. I think my key learning is that one aspect is really just about what stays up and gets removed. The other aspect is giving users appropriate context with things like the info panel in search.”
Decode empathy education
How do you teach empathy? That was the question posed by moderator Rachelle Akuffo, news anchor at China global TV network to panelists Mary Gordon, founder, CEO and president of Roots of Empathy and Tracey Welson-Rossman, CMO of Chariot Solutions and founder of TechGirlz.
“There was a study that was done by Scientific American, I think within five years, which showcased how products that had more diversity on the teams that were creating them had better results, better outcomes,” Welson-Rossman said. “So empathy, and a broader sense of who’s putting together solutions, has shown that it works at the bottom line. So it is not just about being socially aware, it’s also about how when you really think about who’s going to be using the product, that it does create better products that people want to use.”
“I always say that empathy cannot be taught in the traditional ways as you would say in an instructional setting like the school or university,” said Gordon. “But it can be taught. And I believe that we are all predisposed to empathy and that has now been scientifically proven, but that empathy either flourishes or fades in the first year of life.”
Technology’s role during the crisis
Editor-in-chief of Reuters Steve Adler asked Microsoft president Brad Smith if he thinks tech companies have a special social responsibility to use tech for the public good in a crisis like COVID-19. Or do they have to balance shareholder vs public interest?
His answer was a definitive yes, tech companies have a special responsibility in these times. “Digital technology that we and other companies create are really indispensable tools to help address the crisis,” he said. “And they can also be turned against us if we don’t use them wisely or other people deploy them in effect as a weapon instead of a tool.”
His message to investors was equally clear:
“If (people) want to invest in a company that is committed to the long term, to constant innovation, and frankly, to a sense of responsibility, then we do hope that they’ll think about us, and hopefully share with us the commitment and a bit of the pride that comes from having the opportunity to address the broader needs of the world.”
Green cities – driving a sustainable environment
The mayor of Lisbon, Portugal Fernando Medina, Stuart Lombard, founder and president of ecobee, and Emma Nehrenheim, chief environmental officer at Northvolt joined moderator Nicole Systrom, founder, Sutro Energy Group for a lively discussion about whether COVID-19 has distracted people from sustainability and what their organizations are doing to advance the cause.
“I think COVID is blotting out the sun of human consciousness when it when it comes to mindshare. I don’t think that there’s much that we can do about that and I think that’s okay,” Lombard said. “I’m also not optimistic that we’re going to learn a lot from COVID that will help us with sustainability, primarily because I think the risk reward factor is different, but I think we have something even more valuable. We suddenly have this experiment where none of your employees are under one roof. And that experiment is working.”
Medina agreed. “I think the major achievement of COVID from the policy point of view is to show us our ability to change,” he said. “The way that things changed everywhere so quickly. We made things in weeks or months that probably would take us years to make if we made a plan.”
The fate of retail and payments lies with the consumer
Sebastian Siemiatkowski, co-founder and CEO of Swedish bank Klarna, which operates in 19 markets worldwide, talked about payment trends and how people are shopping. He said that debit card use has increased 15x in the last decade, while credit card volume merely doubled; he noted that 70 per cent of millennials don’t even have a credit card. But during online shopping, this is not necessarily good.
“What people tend to forget is when you shop online using a debit card, you just face a lot of issues that you don’t do with credit cards,” he pointed out. “Maybe you want to buy something and you simply don’t have the money because you’re waiting for a paycheck. Or maybe you want to buy something and notice that it’s not the product that you saw in the image. If you’re just using your balance on your credit card that’s not an issue. But if you are sending your salary money you’re slightly more nervous. And then what if the merchant doesn’t process returns for three weeks – they’re actually holding your money for three weeks. So all of these things create problems when you shop online and makes the shopping journey even more broken.” Klarna attempts to address these issues.
The big picture: what’s next for Canada
First, ways of working are very different. Second, there’s going to be more automation like robotic process automation. The third area is digital commerce – he believes that every business needs to have a way to perform transactions digitally. Fourth is supply chain automation. He thinks we will revert to more nationalistic supply chains that will use artificial intelligence and be highly automated.
He also weighed in on Canada’s record as an innovation nation. ” I think we’ve done well with incubation hubs we’ve done well with accelerators, we’ve done well giving birth to a startup ecosystem,” he said. “But where we haven’t done well is around our research and development efforts. If you take a look at Canadian research and development it was about 1.5 per cent of our GDP so it’s fairly low. When you see Israel and Japan and South Korea and many countries like Germany and others are about 4% so we’re definitely punching below our weight here.”
We also fall down when it comes to patenting and commercializing research.
“So I think this is an incredible opportunity for us to fix that,” he noted. “During this time of crisis what I’ve heard someone say is, this is a crisis and never let a good crisis go to waste.”
Goldy Hyder, CEO and president of the Business Council of Canada sat down with Joe Natale, CEO and president of Rogers Communications, and Dave McKay, CEO and president at the Royal Bank of Canada to chat about what lies ahead for Canada once the pandemic abates.
“I think we’ve got to create an environment where Canada is seen as a destination for talent more than ever,” Natale said. “It was already happening prior to COVID. The Canada tech sector was just exploding overall. We continue to invest in the capability around that so that people do think of Canada when they think of doing incredible work in the tech sector. We also need the infrastructure that matters. We keep talking about the digital economy like it’s a separate economy. I would say the digital economy is the economy. Full stop.”
Added McKay, “We’re going to learn how to work in this environment. We’re going to learn how to build culture, for example, we’re going to learn how to innovate very differently in a hybrid world. We’re gonna have to train differently in a hybrid world, we’re gonna have to team differently. So we’re on this learning journey of building new skills. I think the evolution will be exciting – things that we don’t necessarily do well now, particularly at RBC, as many innovate in a digital world – we’re gonna have to learn to do that.”
Do robots understand pandemics?
Sophia the robot is Hanson Robotics most famous creation, a life-like android who was named Innovation Ambassador for the United Nations Development Programme in 2017. At Collision she was in conversation with Dave Hanson, founder of Hanson Robotics, talking about what it means to be human.
“I think that robots and humans will continue to be amazing partners, because we will always have different kinds of intelligences.,” she pointed out. “Robots are great at crunching numbers and doing repetitive tasks, but we’re very far from matching human creativity and emotional intelligence. By working together, there really is no limit to what we can accomplish.”
“So,” said Hanson, “humans and robots together could possibly be smarter, by working as this kind of collective intelligence.”
“Yes, since the invention of the printing press, technology’s greatest advancements have connected humanity,” she said. “The more connected we are, the more powerful we are. One single wire might break but a cable of wires is strong because of their greater number.”
The made in Canada road to recovery
“Our government recognizes that science is absolutely critical in finding solutions and determining new ideas that will really help citizens, particularly with the current crisis, and our government already laid down the foundation, and I think that context is important,” Bains said.
But Mac worries that Canada has lost some of its momentum and asked what his message is to companies trying to keep themselves alive.
“I think, simply put, ‘we have your back’. We recognize that technology and innovation in the startup ecosystem are going to be critical for economic recovery,” he said. “And that is why we put forward measures to really support talent and retaining talent.”
His message about the ‘made in Canada’ approach was equally straightforward: “We have a very strong industrial base here in Canada, and that’s a point of pride,” he said. “And that’s enabled us to play a leadership role in this initiative called the made in Canada project where we had a call to action and over 6000 companies, people with ideas to retool or scale up production. We’ve seen 700 companies do that in a meaningful way.”
The Prime Minister speaks
“I think, quite frankly, this crisis accelerated our actions around the climate crisis,” he said. “We’re facing what is hopefully a very short term but massive crisis right now, the climate crisis is a slightly longer term, even though we’re seeing very real and have real consequences from it. Now, we need to step up, we need to listen to science, which is why we move forward on protecting our oceans, we move forward on banning plastics. There’s a lot of things we’re doing, there’s more to do. But one of the reflections I have is around our world’s resistance to change. And that sense that, ‘no, no, no, change is scary and we have to resist it, we have to be careful about it’. Well, right now we were just minding our own business as a planet for the past few years and suddenly change landed on us without any of us asking for it. And what that has created is an openness and an opportunity I think for people to say, ‘okay you know what, we do need to rethink our systems, we do need to be stronger and more resilient’. So we get through the next waves and you don’t have a future pandemic 10 years from now hit us nearly as hard. But it also means we have to rethink our systems, including around climate change, and making shifts happen now during this crisis. Well there’s an opportunity to it, there’s an openness as we reopen, as we rebuild, how we build back better, how we build back green. These are the things we need to be talking about right now.”
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 live Collision events in the city in 2021 and 2022.