Talking about innovation and technology

David Johnston

Discussions about the effects of innovation and technology on society can draw sharply contrasting reactions, depending on the context.

For every example of promise of helping people’s lives there is a tale of peril, often resulting from unintended consequences.

I recently heard a cybersecurity expert warn that unless proper controls are put in place for appliances connected by the internet of things, hackers may one day use your toaster for an electronic attack.

In the information technology world, the dominance of a handful of companies means that “never before have we been confronted with megalithic corporations owning so much of our daily experience,” says Loren Padelford of e-commerce firm Shopify.

At the same time, Shopify boasts that its platform can enable entrepreneurs, even in places as remote as Fogo Island, N.L., to operate businesses that sell goods far afield. Technology is becoming a superpower for entrepreneurs, Padelford says.

That “superpower” helps small firms get their messages out as easily as the mega-corporations and increase diversity among the sellers. Shopify’s fastest-growing segment is businesses started by women over the age of 50, he says.

Great new innovations are rarely complex. Apple didn’t invent the smart phone, but they gained dominance in that business by making the devices easier to use.

As South African entrepreneur Siyabulela Xuza points out, “Innovation is not rocket science. Innovation is all about simplicity.”

Our cover story on the Talking Books used in MEDA’s GROW project in Ghana shows how inexpensive communications technology can be an effective way to share valuable training information with illiterate farmers.

The September issue of The Marketplace will have other stories about how existing technologies are being used at MEDA projects to improve the lives and businesses of our clients.

In this issue, you can read about how Nigerian entrepreneur Jerry Doubles has used a Facebook page to develop a successful business, marketing products made in Jos. There’s also a story about Siya Xuza’s plan to provide clean, inexpensive and accessible power to hundreds of millions of people in southern Africa.

The Communitech technology association, along with the Rideau Hall Foundation, publicly launched a Tech for Good campaign at their True North 2018 conference in Kitchener this spring.

Here are the principles behind the Tech for Good movement:

• Build trust and respect your data.

• Be transparent and give choice.

• Reskill the future of work.

• Leave no one behind.

• Think inclusively at every stage.

• Actively participate in collaborative governance.

You can read more about the campaign, and get involved, at this website:

Author and former Canadian governor general David Johnston talked about the campaign, and the fundamental qualities of innovation, in a speech at the True North conference, which was attended by more than 2,000 tech leaders and influencers.

Innovation is rarely an invention, rather it almost always combines existing elements of something, he said. Innovation must be useful, as a valuable user experience is its defining characteristic.

The best innovations are even more than useful, he suggested. “Put simply, they are good.”

Johnston challenged the tech sector to create a culture of obligation to innovate for good.

The time has come to slow down and fix things, he said to an audience that works in a sector known for disrupting, upending and transforming industries.

“We know our happiness comes, not from the goods we have, but the good we do together,” he said, borrowing a quote from the late US politician Robert F. Kennedy.


A Roadside stand item in the May issue about Eastern Mennonite University’s new solar power expansion lost a word en route to publication and may have left readers with an incorrect understanding. The project, which will install a 41-kilowatt solar array on a campus office building, could produce 56,000 kilowatt hours of power per year, not 56,000 kilowatts of power annually. The student-initiated project has passed its fundraising goal. Thanks to eagle-eyed reader Karl Dick of Waterloo for catching and pointing out the error. -MS

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