Design Firms Do Conferences Differently: FITC Toronto 2015

This past Sunday, April 12 through Tuesday, April 14, Toronto hosted the 14th annual Future Innovation Technology Creativity (FITC) conference. Now in its 14th year, FITC caters to a more design-heavy technology group, featuring equal parts technical workshops, wild parties and inspirational talks. I was able to attend the event as an “official blogger,” or volunteer media personnel. I really enjoyed the introduction to the world of design and digital art–the people who make tech beautiful and easy to use.

Why was I there? I wanted to learn more about creative firms and the challenges they face, because I’d like to have creative agencies as clients one day. If I learned one thing, it’s that a traditional legal marketing approach (focusing on expertise, stuffy speeches and pinstripe suits) is completely foreign to people in the design community. The experiences they share are more raw and honest.

When I arrived at FITC, I noticed right away how different it was from an ordinary conference. The design-conscious organizers made the Hilton’s basement conference zone look like a rock concert. Party lighting brought some energy to the otherwise neutral hotel concourse. The dress code was casual but stylish. Mohawks were not uncommon. Attendees included coders, designers, artists, and entrepreneurs, and they were all friendly.

FITC’s 14 years of success showed. The event ran like clockwork, with large teams of volunteers registering, ushering, collecting feedback, and directing the day. In particular it was nice to see breakout rooms for sketching, dancing and creative pursuits. FITC isn’t all about sitting down and listening–it was more like a supportive community coming together to share lessons, jobs, tools, and good times.

As part of my role, I got to cover a few specific talks:

  • Gavin Strange, Bristol UK-based animator for Wallace & Grommet’s creator Aardman, talked about pushing boundaries with “one-nighter” projects and new media.
  • Shawn Pucknell, FITC’s CEO spoke candidly about bankruptcy, failure, and how to survive.
  • Kim Alpert, a creative strategist and artist, talked about breaking through limits and refusing to be defined by anyone’s expectations.
  • Finally, I learned about Flickr’s ongoing growth and transformation following its acquisition by Yahoo. It was a great story about shifting competitive landscapes and leadership.

For anyone interested in design, technology or startups, I highly recommend connecting with the FITC community. Ideally I’d like to attend next year as a volunteer again or a speaker. If I do, one thing is for sure: a standard legal precedent walk-through won’t cut it.

Finally, big thanks to the FITC organizers for inviting me as an official blogger this year, it was a great experience.

Technology and Innovation Events: Surprisingly, Still Analog

Digital media has made industry intelligence more accessible than ever: Twitter feeds, webcasts and shareable slide decks seem like they’ve made conferences obsolete. Yet in 2014, Las Vegas alone hosted 22,000 industry conventions with over five million delegates in attendance. The number has been growing annually and seems set to surpass peak pre-recession levels.

Why is that? Ask most people and they’ll say that not every experience can or even should be experienced digitally. Webcasts, online video, photographs, Slideshare and e-zines seem to augment live events more than they replace them. When given the choice, digital simply hasn’t caught up with the energy and excitement of in-person events. Maybe we’ll have to wait until both performers and audience members can attend as holograms or network between sessions in virtual reality.

What is it about digital experience that fails to replicate live events?

Surprisingly, the business, startup and technology event space has kept a similarly strong analog flavour. Yes, audience members at tech-savvy “unconferences” may follow events remotely via Twitter, but they seem to equally enjoy the chance to meet presenters and attendees in person. I’ve had the chance over the past few months to attend events that apply lean manufacturing principles to law, discuss crowd funding trends and opportunities in Canada, and most recently, the Internet of Things (IoT) and wearable technology. Each event was recorded and experienced online, but also featured rich in-person engagement that any digital observer would miss entirely.

What I’m saying isn’t novel or brand new. I only started to think more about the analog/digital interplay at conferences after my last event. I was there in person, but while tweeting about the event I started a conversation with someone in the room. Here’s what happened next:

Maybe that interaction was pretty rudimentary for folks who’ve used Twitter for a long time as a communication tool. For me it was next level.

During that presentation there was no opportunity to meet the people two seats to the left, right, in front or behind me–except in a virtual extension of the conference. For me that was made possible by Twitter. Yes, Twitter has its faults. It’s still largely text-based. It presents itself in a torrent that’s hard to make sense of without practice. It’s also still largely confined to static text and pictures. Despite those weaknesses, Twitter’s main benefit stands: people can absorb conference insights without taking a Thursday afternoon off work, or travelling to Toronto like I did.

Thinking years ahead, we’ll likely see more in-depth ways to experience and live events like conferences or lectures. Right now human beings are manually punching words and photos into handheld devices to record them online. An archive of the event is then available by hash-tag for later review. The problem is that relying on humans to live-tweet everything means we miss out on the uniquely attention-grabbing perspectives and conversations. Everything that pulls people’s eyes off their phones: networking, handshakes, meetings and “wow” moments–escapes digital archiving because we’re living the moment.

However, if we had devices that were auto-recording or capturing events, capturing themes automatically in “hash-tags” (or live chat-rooms) both attendees and non-attendees could experience the event from a drone’s view, for example, while reviewing live commentary from experts and enthusiasts. Combined with virtual reality, this experience could be extended to sounds and movement–the event itself could be paused or rewound to make more time for in-depth analysis or discussion.

I think one day I could be meeting new people at a conference “face to face” while we’re both watching a presentation from other sides of the auditorium. Or, I could broadcast my live experience to friends, family or coworkers to have company while attending alone.

I’m not sure that experience will ever be “better” than attending events live in real-time (with all its unexpected meetings and events, like my meeting above). Chances are that technology will just continue augmenting live events’ excitement and energy. Only time will tell.

TEAMwork: Interdisciplinary Learning at its Finest

April 1st 2013 marks the end of my eight-month experience in the Technology Engineering And Management (TEAM) course at Queen’s University.

Every law school should have a course like TEAM.  It allows law students to work with engineering and management students, and trains legal minds to look for ways they can add value in real-world projects.

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What is TEAM?

TEAM is an interdisciplinary project course.  Senior students enrol in the course from chemical engineering, commerce, and law.  Each student begins the term by bidding on projects proposed by industry partners across Canada and the United States.

Students are matched to projects based on their interest and experience.  Teams of 3-5 students are formed for each project.  The TEAM class runs anywhere from 18 to 20 projects a year.

Former projects have included the retrofit of a manufacturing plant, innovative carbon capture processes, feasibility of a new oil pipeline upgrader design, geothermal energy production, and environmentally friendly oil sands worker housing.

How did TEAM start?

The TEAM course was designed by Barrie Jackson , an ex-Shell employee and Queen’s Adjunct Associate Professor, in 1995.  He realized that engineers never work in isolation, and should learn the business and legal side of their work.

TEAM’s great work continues thanks to the tireless efforts of Dave Mody, an Adjunct Lecturer and “Engineer in Residence” at the Chemical Engineering Faculty at Queen’s.  Dave meets with student teams weekly to guide and mentor student groups, and to share his 17 years of engineering and design process experience.

What was my experience like?

I was lucky to be matched with a fantastic client known in the energy industry worldwide.  Their head office in Canada is in Calgary, so our team was flown out to get briefed on our project in November 2012.  Next week, on April 2nd we’ll present our final presentation and report.

Our project is a concept design for an environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable remote housing unit for resource development workers.  We had a few different personality types and learning styles on our team.  It was a great leadership experience.

Have you ever had an interdisciplinary project that inspired you, or taught you things you didn’t expect?  Post it in the comments.

The legal angle of my project was on the aboriginal consultation requirements, and the environmental-regulatory requirements for an energy development project.  The nature of the project touched many areas of law, and it’s an experience I’ll never forget.


The Innovative Advocate: Canada’s Legal Future

The way legal services are delivered in Canada is changing.  Increased competition and a demand for lower prices has pressured law firms to slow hiring and deliver their services more efficiently.  After finishing my first year at Queen’s Law I started thinking about how law students can help firms meet the demand.  It starts with an open-eyes look at where our industry is moving.

Lawyer blended with a computer and USB port

The reality is that corporate in-house clients are demanding routine process work be done for less, putting pressure on law firms to deliver their services faster with less overhead.  2012 also marked the first year that non-lawyers are allowed to own law firms in the UK, dramatically expanding the capital available for those firms’ investment and growth.

Here at home, lawyer-only firm ownership still reigns in Canada, but mergers with international players push our largest firms into ever-greater levels of competition.  Lawyers-turned-entrepreneurs in Canada are in turn growing their shares in the consumer market by launching online legal services.

New entrants to the market still haven’t quenched the demand for lower legal costs. Canadians face serious access to justice issues, and even middle-class litigants find themselves increasingly forced to represent themselves in court.

How are law students responding to these challenges?  Traditional not-for-profit work in legal clinics like Queen’s Legal Aid and Pro-Bono Students Canada is popular while in law school, but how many students continue their pro-bono efforts post graduation?  How does this solve the problem for clients who aren’t poor but still can’t afford legal advice?

I believe the change starts with how legal services are delivered.  I believe it starts by getting students thinking about innovative ways to bring the law to Canadians.

Law-students for Technology and Innovation (LFTI) is a student-run organization Nikolas Sopow and I created this year at Queen’s Law.  We’re passionate about finding better ways to deliver legal services.  We’re law students, but we’re not afraid of the changes coming to the Canadian legal scene.  Within three weeks we recruited four more executives to our team, and we’re still growing.  By 2015 we plan to have LFTI clubs at every law school in Canada.

Our projects this year are as diverse as our leadership team.  We’re hosting a speakers’ panel in Winter 2013 titled Technology on the Legal Frontier: Current and Future Ways to Practice Law.  We’re fundraising for computer literacy skills in Kingston by hosting a LAN party for video-game enthusiasts.  We’re blogging on the latest legal tech to hit app store shelves.  And we’re letting everyone know how the delivery of legal services is changing, so our classmates are prepared when they graduate.

Needless to say I’m excited at what LFTI has set out to accomplish this year.  Being prepared for the changing legal environment in Canada is about more than making a living as a lawyer.  It’s about making legal counsel affordable, providing greater access to justice, and ensuring Canadian firms remain competitive in the global market for legal services.

What areas of legal service delivery do you think could be improved?  How does legal education need to change in order to keep up?  Be creative, and ask tough questions. The innovative advocate is Canada’s legal future.

  • Ivan

Note that this article was published concurrently on

Start Up or Join Up?

Recent graduates from post-secondary schools across Canada have an interesting choice to make: should they start up a new enterprise or accept an offer to join an established one?

The student start-up dream has been immortalized by wild success stories.  Legends abound of university drop-outs like Mike Lazaridis (creator of the BlackBerry) and Bill Gates, as well as graduates like Larry Page, Sergey Brin and Mark Zuckerburg – all students who left university to pursue technology start-ups that changed the world.

Intelligent and creative students across the country are faced with a choice when they graduate.  They may have innovative and ambitious ideas for new businesses, but are inundated with offers from businesses that need the best and brightest new graduates to survive. When faced with the choice between working for an established enterprise like Research In Motion (RIM), Google or Facebook, and starting their own venture, how should a student decide?

The price of failure – risk – is often the largest deterrent for anyone considering an entrepreneurial venture.  Students who finance their education with student loans (about 26% of Canadian students according to StatsCan – I think it’s closer to 50%) might have no choice but to accept an offer of steady income that helps pay down their debt.  Even for those rare few students that manage to graduate debt-free, sometimes a steady paycheque is too tempting to resist.  When you graduated university/college, wasn’t money your largest concern?

Students might also be concerned about missing the opportunities for networking, training and resume building that a large enterprise might offer them.  There’s no doubt about it, yesterday’s start-ups are now large firms with fixed budgets that have attractive perks for new hires.  The trade-offs are similar to the differences between working for a small company vs. big company – only with added risk and potential reward. So what’s stopping young entrepreneurs from getting hired?

A new wave of student organizations have started promoting youth entrepreneurship, encouraging students in high school, college and university to pursue their innovative ideas. Impact, UBC’s Enterprize Canada and EPIC Tech are three examples of student run not for profit organizations that are fostering a new community of student entrepreneurs that aren’t afraid to innovate.  These organizations are supported by venture capital and consulting firms looking to foster a new generation of clientele, as well as government agencies that (like the rest of us) would like to see more jobs created on Canadian soil.

Universities are catching on.

The University of Waterloo has created an entrepreneurship-based student residence called VeloCity, where students form teams that develop actual mobile media businesses over the course of the academic year.   This business community holds seminars and information sessions about starting a successful venture, and acts as a gateway into venture support networks in the wider community, like the Accelerator Centre.  This is a trend that is sure to continue.

Now when asked the question, “start up or join up” what would you do?