Toward the end of his engineering studies at the University of Waterloo, Paul Heidebrecht made one of those decisions that, in hindsight, changed the course of his life.

He decided to spend a co-op term in Bangladesh working on technology-related development projects with the non-profit Mennonite Central Committee (MCC).

Today, Heidebrecht is an expert in “peacetech” – the nexus between technology, peacebuilding, entrepreneurship and social innovation.

“That experience was the beginning of a journey that led me to grad studies and focusing on ethics and technology, and to think about bigger questions around technology,” says Heidebrecht, Director of the Kindred Credit Union Centre for Peace Advancement at the UW-affiliated Conrad Grebel University College.

As Canadians come together this week to remember those who sacrificed their lives in war and peacekeeping actions, it seems appropriate to also reflect on the notion of “tech for good” and the enormous potential for technology to improve people’s lives, encourage peace and protect the health of the planet.

Heidebrecht, who combines his background in engineering with graduate degrees in theology and ethics, thinks Waterloo Region has the ingredients to become a world-leader in peacetech.

“It strikes me that Waterloo is particularly well-placed to be a global epicentre for this kind of focus,” he says. “Just given the legacy and history and deep reservoir and passion around peace that we have in our community, coupled with what we’ve got on the tech side, we’re really well-placed to see that become an important niche in the tech-for-good agenda.”

Heidebrecht points to a number of initiatives and developments to underscore his point:

    • The hugely popular True North events organized by Communitech around the tech-for-good theme.
    • The work of individual tech leaders such as Ryan Gariepy, CTO for Waterloo Region-based Clearpath Robotics, who has advocated against the use of killer robots and autonomous weapons systems; and DarwinAI CEO Sheldon Fernandez, who regularly writes and talks about ethics and technology, and whose company worked with co-founder Alexander Wong’s UW lab to develop and open-source the COVID-Net artificial intelligence software earlier this year; and numerous others in the Waterloo Region tech ecosystem.
    • The innovative work of Conrad Grebel University College to build on its renowned peace programs by taking an interdisciplinary approach to integrating them with technology and social innovation.

A good example of the latter point is the Epp Peace Incubator, which was set up at Grebel to “support new ventures using tech to create a more peaceful and just world.”
“The vision for (the incubator),” says Heidebrecht, “is creating space for two things: one, for some conversation and interdisciplinary interaction around peace and technology; and two, to be creating a context of encouragement and potential for people to apply their creativity in interesting ways.”

One of the enterprises to emerge from the incubator is Demine Robotics. Co-founded by company CEO Richard Yim while he was a mechanical engineering student at UW, Demine creates robotic technology that clears landmines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

While Yim had the engineering skills to develop the technology, he needed a better understanding of how government and non-government agencies operate, since they would likely be his principal customers. Yim acquired those skills with help from the diverse group of partners that operate within the Epp Peace Incubator, such as Project Ploughshares, a research institute focused on disarmament and international security.

Yim himself addressed the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration in a talk at Communitech’s 2018 True North conference.

“The biggest lesson throughout the past two and a half years (creating Demine Robotics) is that in order to solve social problems with technology, it’s not just the technology, but it is the social and political sides that (also) need to come together,” he said.

Another venture to emerge from the Epp Peace Incubator is GeoMate, a mapping service that uses artificial intelligence to improve accessibility and safety for people traveling by foot or wheelchair.

The startup, which is a participant in the current cohort of the Autonomous Vehicle Integration Network (AVIN) at Communitech, was co-founded by CTO Nastaran Saberi, a research scientist at UW with expertise in artificial intelligence, and by CEO Amin Gharebaghi, a researcher whose work focuses on accessibility in urban areas.

“I think GeoMate is an interesting example in terms of social inclusion, as another important lens to bring,” says Heidebrecht. “If we are not a society or community in which all are included and feel like they can access our streets and our businesses and our schools in the same way, then we are not actually at peace.”

Heidebrecht also takes an interdisciplinary approach to his teaching. One of his courses, Engineering and Peace, attracts a mix of students from engineering programs and Conrad Grebel’s Peace and Conflict Studies program.

“We’re trying to bring together engineering students to understand, well, what is their role in efforts to advance peace? And to bring together peace and conflict students to think about, well, what is engineering, and what are ways that an engineering approach to solving problems could inject innovation into peacebuilding efforts?”

Like Heidebrecht, Sheldon Fernandez thinks it is important to foster a “tech for good” culture among engineering students.

“People like Paul do a wonderful job teaching the engineers of tomorrow to think dimensionally when it comes to these problems,” says Fernandez, CEO of Waterloo-based DarwinAI and a graduate of UW’s computer engineering program.

Like Heidebrecht, Fernandez says his interest in the ethical and humanitarian aspects of technology were fuelled by a visit to an impoverished part of the world. His parents were immigrants to Canada – his father from India, his mother from neighbouring Bangladesh

“I was a typical teenager who was engrossed in the world of computers but I had very wonderful parents… who brought a respect for human dignity and life,” he says. “It was probably when I went to India for the first time for a friend’s wedding and saw the poverty that they grew up in – that really ignited something in me. I came back and said, you know, my life just can’t be this metropolitan existence.”

Fernandez began volunteering with Big Brothers and earned a master’s degree in theology from the University of Toronto, all while working in the demanding world of technology startups.

Awarded the UW Faculty of Engineering Young Alumni Achievement Medal for his professional and humanitarian accomplishments, Fernandez speaks and writes regularly on a variety of topics, from artificial intelligence to the ethical use of technology.

He acknowledges that it’s difficult for companies in the startup and scaling stage to expand their focus and use limited resources to include more “tech for good,” given that they have investors and boards to answer to. But it can be done, he says, pointing to DarwinAI. Although the company is just three years old, it partnered with researchers in co-founder Alexander Wong’s UW lab earlier this year to leverage DarwinAI’s technology to improve COVID-19 screening, and then they open-sourced the entire project – COVID-Net – so that the international community could use it and adapt it further.

“Sometimes as an engineer you don’t think you can make an impact because you’re not on the front lines, but this was an example of us trying to give people who are on the frontlines, the heroes who are battling this pandemic, another tool they can leverage, and we’re quite proud of that.”

Heidebrecht says Waterloo Region is extremely fortunate to have tech leaders like Fernandez and Clearpath Robotics’ Ryan Gariepy.

About Fernandez, he says: “He’s not only has the tech chops but he’s got a master’s degree in (theology) and is thinking in a really big way about what is the role that AI can play constructively and what also do we need to be mindful of along the way.”

And about Gariepy: “Here we have a tech-sector leader bar none and yet he has chosen to prioritize this (concern about autonomous weapons) as an issue and invest significant time and energy to helping facilitate that agenda.”

While there’s always more work to be done, Heidebrecht says he is excited by how Waterloo Region’s tech and educational leaders are embracing the concepts of peacetech and tech for good.

“It seems like this is recognized increasingly as a competitive advantage, not a nice-to-do or a frill,” he says. “I think there is some potential for (Waterloo Region) to be a real destination and driver of this agenda in a much broader way. I might be getting ahead of myself in that regard, but I do think that the peacetech theme is something that has legs.”