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Communitech modelling festival after Austin’s South by Southwest

Article via The Record 

WATERLOO REGION — For the first time, Communitech’s annual technology conference will include a budding downtown festival that organizers want to grow into a Canadian version of Austin’s South by Southwest.

For the past 10 years, the tech organization’s Tech Leadership Conference was held at Bingemans and attracted thousands of people and guest speakers from around the world.

It is now rebranded as True North Waterloo and will be based in a renovated industrial building called Lot42 on Ardelt Place. It runs from May 29 to 31. The downtown festivities will include live music, art installations and tours that highlight the growing impact of technology companies big and small on the city core.

They will be centred around the Walper Hotel, the Tannery building and city hall, and include a wrap-up party at THEMUSEUM on May 31. There will also be a street party in Hall’s Lane. All of this will coincide with the first two days of the Open Ears Festival of New Music and Creative Sound.

This year also marks a change in philosophy for the annual gathering. Silicon Valley is facing what the The New Yorker calls “a moral reckoning” in the wake of the rise of fake news, propaganda bots and the misuse and exploitation of personal data from 50 million Facebook accounts by Cambridge Analytica.

A major theme for True North Waterloo is about bringing Canadian values to technology, said Iain Klugman, Communitech’s chief executive officer. “The things that have made us great as a nation, the things that others have mocked us about, things like being nice and polite and honest, are all of a sudden pretty important traits,” he said.

“We are ready as global tech community to host a big conversation,” said Klugman. “It is time for us to begin building principled businesses, and for people to feel a sense of accountability.”

Those conversations have to include how tech companies treat women, minorities and customers’ data, he said. “I look at a company like Facebook and I think: ‘God knows where it is going now. It is in trouble. It is in real trouble.’ ”

 The scandal around Cambridge Analytica, and its manipulation of personal data from Facebook users to influence the last U.S. presidential election, the Brexit vote in England and elections in Nigeria, has sparked a massive conversation that will continue at True North, he said. “I think the conversations are going to change everything,” he said.
Since Communitech moved into the Tannery building in downtown Kitchener in 2010, scores of startups that were incubated there have moved into offices in renovated buildings in and around the city core. The burgeoning startup scene, the arrival of light rail transit and the move of Google’s Canadian engineering headquarters into a former rubber factory on Breithaupt Street have helped give the region’s tech sector an urban look and feel.

So it was time for Communitech’s annual conference to be more urban and to include a festival that is open to anyone free of charge, said Klugman.

“The objective in the next few years is that we really want this thing to be truly region wide, and we want to go from targeting 2,500 people this year to targeting 10,000 in the future,” he said. “We want this all to be big.” The South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin started in 1987 when 700 people attended the music festival. It expanded to include interactive technology and film. It runs for about 10 days now in mid-March every year.

Klugman said he does not want to wait 30 years for the True North festival to have a global impact.

“We are very excited about next year because we know that’s when the lid is going to come off,” he said. “We will have LRT rolling and we are going to be looking at venues up and down the LRT spine.”

This year the conference has one venue, and the festival will be in one downtown.

“Next year we are looking at multiple venues in multiple downtowns because we really want this to be an urban conference,” said Klugman. “The festival is all going to be free. We want this to be a community gathering.”

The downtown festival is supported by the City of Kitchener, Perimeter Development Corp., the Waterloo Economic Development Corp. and THEMUSEUM.

“I feel the arts community and the tech community are really starting to come together,” said David Marskell, chief executive officer of the THEMUSEUM. “That’s awesome for our community.”

Craig Beattie, one of the principals and founders at Perimeter Development, has invested heavily in both the downtown and the tech scene. His company bought and restored several old buildings in the core, and leased space to big and small technology firms. The Lokal bar in the Walper Hotel, which Perimeter restored two years ago, will be a central gathering place for the festival.

“The tech scene growth over the past few years has been very urban driven, so for a big event like this to dovetail an urban festival is super important,” said Beattie.

Kitchener Mayor Berry Vrbanovic said the festival is a great opportunity to showcase the city and that can only help tech companies attract new talent. There will be a free concert in the public square in front of city hall, and a robot workshop as part of the festival.

“This region is becoming a real powerhouse in tech, innovation and digital media,” said Vrbanovic. “We have lots to show.”