The futurist tech evangelizers from Singularity University have run into a problem: Too many people want to drink from the well of its elite educational programs.
Singularity preaches that technologies such as artificial intelligence, gene editing and autonomous vehicles are going to upend existing structures at an "exponential" pace – far quicker than previous technological shifts. The Silicon Valley organization, which is part school, part public-benefit corporation, part conference-marketing business, recently announced that 5,000 people had applied for its intense nine-week Global Solutions summer residency program in Mountain View, Calif. Only 80 slots are available.
Singularity holds several satellite events and conferences, but the cost to attend can range from $1,000 (U.S.) to more than $14,000. This relatively limited access to Singularity's ideas and educational sessions is in conflict with the organization's message that rapid, broad-based change is already under way and needs to be understood and adapted to at all levels of society.
To address that tension, a group of executives at some of Canada's largest companies, in financial services, energy and technology, have gotten together to start building a Canadian version of the Singularity academy.
"I've been to probably 10 Singularity sessions over the past four, five years. Two and a half years ago I brought Singularity up for a one-day Canada impact session, where we had 50 execs getting educated on some of the exponential [technologies]," says Terry Stuart, chief innovation officer at Deloitte & Touche LLP. "We got phenomenal feedback on that. What we want is to increase that focus and scale it so we can have a much broader reach."
In April, Deloitte joined with 11 other founding sponsors – including the country's largest banks as well as Google Inc.'s Canadian division, Rogers Communications Inc. and the Government of Ontario – to announce a two-day Singularity Summit in Toronto, starting Oct. 11. Tickets will cost $2,700 (Canadian) each, but the sponsors are donating about a quarter of the 1,000 seats so that a selection of students, NGOs, entrepreneurs and members of marginalized communities will be able to attend for free.
"We want to make sure it's not turning into an exclusive, closed club, that only corporate Canada and [senior vice-presidents] will get access to," says Oren Berkovich, who was seconded from his employer, Deloitte, to serve as the co-founder and chief executive officer of the SingularityU Canada Summit. "We're really trying to expose many more Canadians to this … we have to not be dependent on flying people to the Valley."
But the summit is just the beginning of the plan. The next phase involves more regular programming across Canada involving Canadian experts. The group has not revealed many details, but points to the example of national chapters of Singularity University in Denmark and the Netherlands.
"This needs to be not just a single summit or an annual summit, but ongoing," says Mr. Stuart. "Summits are nice, but that's not what influences the broader change in the economy."
Diederick Croese, the co-founder and CEO of SingularityU Netherlands, says his chapter also started with a country summit in 2013. By 2014, the mayor of Eindhoven had begun talks to create a physical campus for SingularityU, which opened in 2016.
In addition to the physical hub, which invites visitors to experience drone, virtual reality and other new technologies, Mr. Croese says his chapter has a special event about once a month. Some are large-scale summits: There's one multiday boot camp for 30 to 50 people; in some cases there are industry-specific seminars, as well as TEDx-like free talks. "We should have a Tesla S and a Model 3 [in terms of pricing] events," says Mr. Croese. "If we make any profits, we can't pay that as a dividend … we discuss where to invest it to realize innovation in the local community."
The timing may be right for a new sort of think tank focused on innovation, given that Canada's federal innovation strategy includes an open call for applications to create "superclusters" of technologies.
"I think it could be a useful … I don't think there's a silver bullet in how do we ensure the long-term prosperity of Canada," says Iain Klugman, CEO of Waterloo's Communitech startup hub. Mr. Klugman and his organization have been pushing in the same direction as many of the innovation-friendly policies the federal government has adopted.
"The power of the Singularity model is it's jarring," he says.
"I would love to see a Canadian exponential thinking one-week program that we can send people to and they will come back with different coloured hair."