A new name. A new concept. A new venue – as in, not just one venue, but many.

After rave reviews in the wake of two consecutively successful events, Communitech’s True North Conference is rebranding as the True North Festival, promising to be more expansive, more inclusive and radically redesigned.

The key to it all, as Communitech CEO and President Iain Klugman explained in a sit-down with Communitech News, is the LRT – Waterloo Region’s new light rapid transit line, called Ion – which has allowed True North to deliver on its originally intended vision: instead of the two-day event of the past two years, True North will now be a week-long festival slated to kick off June 1, running the length of Kitchener and Waterloo and easily accessible along the Ion’s route.

The main venue – Centre Stage, as it will be known, and this piece will be Communitech-run – will be at Kitchener’s event centre, Centre In The Square. Other venues will include the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics and the Kitchener Public Library. Partner events like Fluxible, Canada’s user-experience conference, will take place under the collective True North tent. So, too, will the Open Ears music festival. And Startup Open House.

There will be presentations and the announcement of the $1-million Leaders Prize winner. There will be summits on corporate innovation, the future of work, data and advanced technologies, and the continuation of the banner theme of the previous two years, Tech for Good.

In effect, think big, think region-wide, think impact.

Klugman explains:


Q – So, some significant changes for True North. Help us understand the why.

A – Well, the vision from the beginning, and this is going back five years,  was to do a South by Southwest-type festival, a large urban conference here in Waterloo Region that would ride on the spine of the LRT. 

The thinking at the time was that we had (a) earned the right to convene one of these gatherings and (b) we wanted it to be thoughtful. We didn't want this to be just another innovation conference. We thought it should be reflective of the values of this community, this organization, and our country. We wanted to be thoughtful and serious and tackle big issues. We wanted it to be playful and fun – a great big party.

Q – But …

A – The challenge, however, was that the LRT wasn’t yet complete. So we deferred for a year and then we ran the original True North Conference in 2018 as a kind of Plan B. And it was a very different kind of event than the one we were originally considering. We had to pivot to something that was location-specific and big enough to house a whole bunch of people. The upside was that it allowed us to test ourselves and our ability to be able to execute on a world-class event. And we did that in spades. The people who were fortunate enough to participate came away saying, 'This is amazing. This is not just a great gathering, but we also have an opportunity to talk about important issues,' that we called Tech for Good. And you know, TechCrunch wrote a story after last year’s conference saying there's only one place that this big conversation is happening, legitimately happening in the world, and it's here. And so we learned a lot from that.

Q – So, True North gained some important credibility. And now the region has the LRT. But there were other considerations, yes?

A – Yes. There was only ever going to be so much money that we'd be able to raise in the community to support a big conference. The only way that we would be able to take this to 10,000 and 20,000 people is to go back to the original vision of a large urban festival – and that it's got to be a collaborative. This notion of collaboration is something that we point to as being the secret ingredient that has led to much of the success in this community, whether it's the founding of the University of Waterloo, or the founding of an organization like Communitech.

Collaboratives are how we have been able to compete and achieve such ambitious goals over our 200-year history – we like to say we’re a community of barn raisers and we pull together and we reinvent ourselves during structural and cyclical economic change. We're too small as a country and a region to really compete unless we can pull together, unless we can collaborate on these big threats and these big opportunities.

In the same vein, we're saying True North needs to be a collaborative if it's going to grow. And that means that we can build a big umbrella. We've got to encourage every organization in the community that's interested in being part of this. And so we start thinking about who might those organizations be?

Q – It’s early, but what has the buy-in been like throughout the community?

A – We’ve had an amazing response. We’ve had organizations move the timing of their conferences so they can be part of True North. Fluxible, for instance, and Open Ears.

And we want more. We want the Waterloo Region Police Service to be involved. We want the hospitals. We're talking to universities and colleges. We want to talk to the libraries. We want to talk to the counselling organizations in town.

We’re saying to all of them: Under this banner of True North, a conference that is about Canadian values as applied to our future, and with the theme of tech for good, what kind of gathering would you want to have?

It might be a small spotlight of a single talk with 30 people. It might be a meetup, in order to have a conversation about an important issue. That conversation might be about data, it might be about medtech and healthcare. It might be about tech for good as it’s applied to policing and crime prevention. It might be tech for good and as it’s applied to the issues facing people in the workforce from a mental health perspective. 

We want to encourage people to think about what is authentic for them. And we want it to be wide open, and the more the merrier. This collaborative idea is one we really feel that we have landed on as the next big tool for us as a community. People talk about it in terms of, ‘We’re better together.’ It's really as simple as that.

Q – And what is all this going to mean? What will the week look like?

A – Well, there’s going to be the overarching umbrella called True North. There's going to be a set of events called Centre Stage that will be operated by Communitech, and those will happen at Centre In The Square. There will be meetups, some very high-profile speakers, and the final leg of the journey for the $1-million Leaders Prize, which will be awarded to a group using artificial intelligence to solve the global problem of fake news. 

Communitech will also be running a series of summits over the course of the week. There will be a summit for scaling companies. There'll be a summit on corporate innovation. There will be one on data, advanced technologies and, of course, Tech for Good.

So again, the idea of the summit is people coming together and having an opportunity to participate in a dialogue working towards understanding and effecting change.

And then on top of that there's going to be all the nighttime stuff happening  up and down King Street in Kitchener and Waterloo, a whole series of activities happening at night.

Q – So, some big, interesting changes, including a change in name from “conference” to “festival.” Why was the name change important?

A – The notion of the festival is that we're trying to build a bigger tent. We're trying to make this less about one specific event at one specific location and more about a week-long series of events, daytime, nighttime, important conversations, fun music and good food.

Q – Safe to say the changes mark an important milestone in the evolution of True North ...

A – You know, we're very proud of what we were able to achieve in the last two years, particularly in the absence of LRT. We demonstrated to the world we're what we're capable of doing. We're able to have important conversations about the critical issues we're facing the world right now. We've brought some really interesting partners to the table. 

We're getting a really strong sense that the community is eager to be part of this. They want this. The timing is right. And the more that we have people coming from all corners of the community to participate, the better.