A ground-breaking conversation about technology that began last year is set to emphatically resume Wednesday.

True North 2019, the sequel to Communitech’s show-stopping conference about “tech for good,” will welcome some 2,500 attendees from around the world for two days of transformative discussion about the intersection of technology and humanity at Lot42 in Kitchener.

“The idea is to tackle tech’s big questions and set tech back on its path of promise,” said Communitech CEO and President Iain Klugman. “We want to continue the momentum of the important work we began last year.”

The conference is a deliberate response to the cascade of stories over the past several years that have exposed a dark underbelly to the technology revolution. What appeared to be tech’s promise – new apps, new communication channels, new utility – was overshadowed by tools that amplify malevolence and undercut both civility and civil institutions: Fake news, weaponized data, surveillance capitalism, and more.

As part of an ongoing response, there are three major theme tracks to this year’s edition of True North:

The ‘Age of Relearning’ will discuss the need to equip employees to respond to the changing nature of work. ‘Living Digital’ will address the ways that technology impacts safety, privacy and physical and mental health. ‘Bridges Not Walls’ will explore ways that tech can build consensus and solutions.

“We got really excited last year about the tech-for-good theme and what that represented,” said Christine Robinson, Head of Human Resources for Manulife Canada.

Headshot of Christine Robinson, Head of Human Resources for Manulife Canada

Christine Robinson is Head of Human Resources for Manulife Canada.

Manulife, which maintains a corporate innovation lab at Communitech, is both a sponsor and a participant in this year’s edition of True North, particularly for the Age of Relearning theme. Manulife, which has 34,000 employees worldwide and 12,500 in Canada, will lead a Future of Work workshop on the conference’s opening day.

“We know that companies have to prepare their people for change, that technology progresses and drives workplace change and employers have to respond with a combination of education, training and skill development to future-proof their workforce,” said Robinson.

“Manulife is a 130-year-old company. We’ve been adapting over many years but recently we expanded our bold ambition to become one of the most digitally focused companies in our industry.

“What that really means for us is we’re significantly transforming the way we interact with our customers and technology. We’re not trying to keep pace with it, but be transformative about how we both skill our workforce and make sure we’re keeping pace with being proactive around the changing nature of work.”

Being proactive has meant taking part in something called The Future of Learning and Work Partnership, an initiative launched late last year. Manulife has partnered with scale-ups, startups, academia and organizations like Communitech to “brainstorm solutions that we believe will help us attract and retain employees.

“I think people have a much easier time accepting the world around them is changing if they see their organization stepping up, providing resources for them,” said Robinson.

The True North conference will pair with a region-wide festival featuring dance and music and good food, and will also be the stage for the rollout of the problem statement for something called The Leaders Prize at True North. The Leaders Prize is a national competition that will task teams to solve a major societal problem using artificial intelligence. A million dollars is available in prize money.

For Robinson, True North underpins all the goals her company has with regard to technology.

“As we continue our digital transformation journey, our sponsorship and participation allows us to strengthen connections with some of the brightest minds in Canada’s technology community,” she said.

“And of course folks from our existing innovation lab that’s in the Communitech space will be participating and deepening relationships and getting ready to move from our discovery conversation phase of this program to activation.

“We’re looking forward to finding the folks who are most keen to join us after True North to activate on some of these best ideas we’ve come up with.

“Manulife feels really privileged to be part of this.”