Technology and the tech sector can solve social problems, not just commercial ones, “and that’s really exciting,” says Lisa Wolff, the director of policy and education for UNICEF Canada, speaking Tuesday at one of the opening events for True North, the Waterloo Region conference about harnessing “tech for good.”

The long-anticipated three-day conference, hosted by Communitech, soft-launched Tuesday with the rollout of several events, including the one attended by Wolff, a sold-out smart cities roundtable discussion for about 50 delegates held at the Tannery and hosted by The Region of Waterloo.

“[The Region of Waterloo] wants to really move the needle on certain outcomes,” said Wolff, whose organization has entered into a partnership with the Region.

“We don’t see governments doing this very often. That is pretty brave – bridging data to action.

“We hope it becomes a virtuous contagion.”

Lisa Wolff, Director of Policy and Education for UNICEF Canada, watching presentation

Lisa Wolff, Director of Policy and Education for UNICEF Canada.
(Communitech photo: Craig Daniels)

Other events on the True North schedule Tuesday included one at University of Waterloo called Beyond Impact, which showcased some of the technology and research under way there, and several True North festival-specific events unfolded, including the Why Waterloo Region Tour and the Data District Deco Party.

The official True North launch is set for Wednesday morning at the main event centre, Kitchener’s massive Lot42 complex. Opening remarks are scheduled for 9:30 and the event’s first speaker, Pixar Animation Studios President and co-founder, Ed Catmull, will deliver a talk titled “What makes creative people tick” at 10 a.m.

But Tuesday afternoon, the True North focus was on Waterloo Region and its Smart Waterloo Initiative. The region has applied to the federal government for $50 million under its Smart Cities Challenge, aiming to make a difference in several key areas: Early child development, mental health and high school graduation rates, the latter of which, said Matthew Chandy, the region’s Manager of Economic Development, are among the lowest in the province.

“We have this great tech community that continues to grow,” said Chandy. “We said we want to leverage the knowledge and expertise and talent that’s here.”

For the next 10 years, the region will become the benchmark community in Canada for child and youth wellbeing, as measured against UNICEF Canada’s Child and Youth Wellbeing Index.

“One thing UNICEF has been very good at is combining data in interesting ways to create insights about children and youth,” said Wolff.

“One of the toughest things we do is work to cross the divide between data and action – to mobilize action in response to the data that we have.”

The region submitted its Smart Cities Challenge application last April and is now awaiting word from the federal government about whether it will be included among the finalists.