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The digital transformation of events, according to one expert

“You cannot translate a live event into a digital format,” says Microsoft’s Bob Bejan. “You must remake the event entirely.”

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One hallmark of this pandemic age?

Virtual events — and lots of them.

Since March, professional events like conferences, workshops, summits, and teambuilding meetings have flourished online — alongside everything from fitness classes and concerts, to mental health management and doctor visits. 

Another observation? This shift to virtual events was incredibly fast. 

The World Health Organization designated the COVID-19 outbreak as a pandemic on March 11. Just 12 days later on the 23rd, we published a guide to eight digital transformation events that had already shifted to a digital format. 

From the frontlines

One event expert we featured in our digital events write-up is Bob Bejan, Corporate VP of Global Events, Production Studios and Marketing Community for Microsoft.

In early March, Bejan published an insightful article on LinkedIn: Digital Transformation of Live events: Observations from the front line.

“It’s been a pretty intense few weeks for those of us working in events and experiential marketing,” he began, as he outlined what he and his team learned over the course of those first few weeks — many of which are still highly relevant for event producers. 

At the top? “Accept that there is no playbook.” Bejan emphasized empathy and understanding — towards both audiences and your team — and offered useful steps for organizations pivoting quickly to digital.  

The prevailing tone in March and of Bejan’s piece was that adapting and learning as you go was part of this “new normal.”

Where are we now? 

In May, Bejan followed up his March insights with a piece for Fast Company, 8 ways to rethink virtual events for the age of social distancing — published two weeks before the major event, Microsoft Build.

In the article, Bejan reflects back on the previous few months, collecting the biggest lessons him and his team learned in those initial months: “[Microsoft] Build for us, was the first acid test of the programming and production approach we developed as a result of a 14 show crash course in digital transformation. At that time, we didn’t know whether any of this was going to work.”

By the end of March, the Microsoft team had shifted 30 internal and external events to digital through June 2021, and by early May, they had produced 5 large-scale virtual events.

In late September Bejan was back with another update via LinkedIn, on the eve of the “flagship of the flagship” Microsoft event, Ignite. 

“Now, four months later, we believe that this kind of approach to events and experiences can work,” he writes, “and is rapidly becoming the center of gravity for our event strategy both in the short and longer term.”

Bejan shared plenty of great reflections on this digital transformation of live events, not to mention some pretty eye-opening data. At the top of the list:

“Virtual events are crazy effective!…At the highest level it’s about the scale. We are experiencing orders of magnitude growth in the number of people who are participating with us at our events….The mix of our audience has completely shifted. Historically, our events would breakdown to 80% US and 20% global; today that mix is 70/30 Global!”

He also shared insights on how digital events are more efficient (“we have been able to reduce our production cost dramatically”), and can — despite common pushback — foster community/create networking opportunities.

Finally, The Consumer Technology Association (CTA) announced that Microsoft will be the technology partner for CES 2021, which is transitioning to an all-digital event in mid-January. 

“Our past live events were theatrical, with dynamic speakers on stage commanding a rapt audience,” Bejan explains in a Microsoft write-up. “But the all-digital format requires something more cinematic. We now tailor our content to that format, and we have transformed from a live show production team, to a 24/7 television production network, complete with live anchors from around the world. This new direction required collaboration, hard work and a lot of humility.”

An all-digital CES will be a big step forward for both Bejan and the Microsoft events team and the nature of virtual live events in general. The pandemic isn’t going away any time soon, and organizations are waking up to the overall idea that digital events can balance both cost-effectiveness and high quality. 

It’ll be interesting to see the lessons learned from the digital transformation of such a massive event like CES, and how these can be incorporated into the future of live virtual events.

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WeaveSphere: 5 conference highlights

The WeaveSphere tech conference wove together ideas about AI, FinTech, STEM education, innovation in Canada, and more.

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For three days this November, innovation, collaboration, and a whole lot of big ideas were shared among “Weavers” during the WeaveSphere tech conference in Toronto.

“Today is an opportunity for greater connection between the scientific and tech industry, and academia,” said Marcellus Mindel of IBM Canada, opening the conference. With innovation the event’s core, Mindel added: “let’s define innovation, thinking of it as reframing that implements better outcomes.”

While lots happened over three days, here are five highlights and takeaways from the event:

1. Thought-provoking keynotes had attendees thinking big

Each day of WeaveSphere kicked off with a keynote, where three speakers brought their insightful ideas to attendees.

Gillian Hadfield shared ideas about AI and regulation

On Day 1, Gillian Hadfield, Professor of Law and director of the Schwartz Reisman Institute for Technology and Society at the University of Toronto, explained where we are today when it comes to regulating artificial intelligence (AI) — and where we need to go next. 

While AI makes machines intelligent, Hadfield argued that it cannot, by definition, produce intelligent behaviour if it isn’t functioning appropriately and ethically. Machine learning is not the same as standard programming, since machines write the rules. As a result, machines can start solving problems in ways we don’t want them to, resulting in regulatory challenges. 

How to solve this? Hadfield presented two solutions:

  1. Establish compensation for harm
  2. Design incentives for meeting good and safe behaviour

Dr. William Barry discussed ethics with an AI co-presenter

On Day 2, professor, AI ethicist, and futurist Dr. William Barry talked about a particular problem: what ethical questions might arise when you program a robot? 

For starters, how do you determine what information to include or not? Where is the appropriate line? 

As a professor, Dr. Barry has been working with robots as teaching assistants in his classroom since 2015, and brought a digital version of Maria Bot (one of his AI assistants) to interact with the audience.

As Dr. Barry explained, he is very strategic when choosing the information from which his assistants learn. 

One place Maria won’t get access to? Twitter, says Dr. Barry, highlighting it’s too much of a risk for an “AI benign” to get access to misinformation. This would distort the ethical perspective that Maria is learning, he said. 

While he has programmed her to weed out and to not learn from toxic content — like racism and misogyny — Dr. Barry does work at exposing his AI beings to a wide range of diverse thought and lived experiences. In the end, how ethical an AI being is, is in the hands of the human controlling what they learn, he argued. As a result, they’ll ultimately be biased as a result of the specific data sets we provide for them. 

Marcel Mitran discussed technology for good

WeaveSphere’s Day 3 keynote took a slight turn away from AI. 

IBM Fellow, IBM Master Inventor, and CTO for Cloud Platform for zSystems and LinuxONE, Marcel Mitran took to the main stage for a keynote on responsible computing. At the heart of his talk was the argument that technologists need to take a step back and look at what’s being done to keep the world safe. 

For example, the opportunity for error and bias in the role of facial recognition in public safety, and the fact that our digital footprints — both on a personal level and for enterprise — have grown significantly even in the last year.

As Mitran explained, responsible computing is a systemic, holistic approach addressing current and future computing challenges like sustainability, ethics, and professionalism. It advances the “quadruple bottom line” of people, planet, prosperity, and participation. 

2. Insightful sessions had attendees thinking deep

Photo courtesy WeaveSphere

FinTech, cryptocurrency, AI, digital economies, Canada’s innovation landscape — there was a large cross-section of topics covered across a variety of workshops, paper presentation, and panel discussions. 

Some highlights include:

Chhavi Singh, co-founder of Flyte, asked the question: have you considered using AI to coach your sales staff? Elaborating on the opportunity AI presents to increase sales performance, Singh explained how AI can be used to help understand customer challenges and handle objections and concerns. 

COO of wealth management platform OneVest, Jakob Pizzera, outlined the three phases of FinTech. The first (1.0) was in-house sites for basic online banking. Version 2.0 was the “unbundling” of financial services, and the rise of standalone businesses. The last few years has brought FinTech 3.0, with embedded finance — for example making a purchase through Instagram.

WeaveSphere conference chair and R&D specialist Vio Onut answered the question of why we need to care about cyber security. For starters, the potentially very large costs to your organization, and because the massive skills gap of privacy and security experts has created vulnerabilities. 

Digital strategist Matt Everson explored what can go with emerging technologies like Web3 and the metaverse. Everson said developers should just start building and drawing on video game virtual markets as a model. He used popular online game EVE Online as an example of how virtual economy design can be translated to other markets.

Lijia Hou, Blockchain Systems Engineer with Draft Kings, explained that three key problems still exist when it comes to blockchain technology. First, investors want to understand how — in a volatile market — to mitigate risk. Second, developers from the traditional software side need a mindset shift when it comes to decentralization. And finally, the tools of decentralization are used differently, and this is not always evident for those unfamiliar with Web3.

3. There was a LOT of interest in STEM education

As part of WeaveSphere’s Education Day slate of programming, hundreds of high school and university students had the opportunity to workshop real-life problems from both school and work — all under the guidance of IBM’s Design Thinking experts

Photo courtesy WeaveSphere

This meeting of next-generation tech talent collaboratively explored Enterprise Design Thinking strategies like As-Is Scenario Mapping, Empathy Mapping, Hills (positioning statements), and Hopes and Fears. This approach to problem-solving works by framing the issue at hand in a human-centric way, centering the end-user in all decision-making. 

For Education Day, the problem at hand was helping fourth-year university students find their first job. 

Photo courtesy WeaveSphere

4. There were loads of networking and learning opportunities

One of the best parts of any conference is the opportunity to network and learn from fellow attendees.

In the conference’s Innovation Valley section, event sponsors were on-hand to discuss everything from their latest technologies to job opportunities, plus several graduate students were also there to present their research.

Since WeaveSphere is a “meeting of the minds” between tech professionals and students, many undergrads from schools like York University and Mohawk College came to the conference full of questions, ready to absorb everything. 

5. WeaveSphere celebrated top tech talent

A big part of WeaveSphere was a celebration of some of the best tech minds in Canada. 

During a gala evening at the end of Day 2, the 2022 Developer 30 Under 30 and Tech Titans were awarded to the best of the best among young developers and digital transformation leaders in Canada. 

The winners were:

Developer 30 Under 30 winners

Photo courtesy WeaveSphere
  • Alexander Newman
  • Anakha Chellakudam
  • Anthony Langford
  • Arshdeep Saini
  • Aryaman Rastogi
  • Bohdan Senyshyn
  • Charlie Mackie
  • Charmi Chokshi
  • Colin Lee
  • Daniel Marantz
  • Francisco Hodge 
  • Hassan Djirdeh
  • Jerry Fengwei Zhang
  • Julia Paglia
  • Karandeep Bhardwaj
  • Kathryn Kodama
  • Khushbu Patel
  • Lianne Lardizabal
  • Lucas Giancola
  • Mathew Mozaffari
  • Maz Mandi
  • Oleksandr Kostrikov
  • Rishab Kumar
  • Samantha Lauer
  • Sarah Syed
  • Stan Petley
  • Tanmay Bakshi
  • Tim Romanski
  • Xiaole Zeng
  • Yash Kapadia

Tech Titans winners

Photo courtesy WeaveSphere
  • Andrew Dolinski
  • Ashish Agrawal
  • Chhavi Singh
  • Chris Dolinski
  • Dean Skurka
  • Demetrius Tsafaridis
  • Fay Arjomandi
  • Harish Pandian
  • Harpreet Gill
  • Iman Bashir
  • James Stewart
  • Len Covello
  • Manav Gupta
  • Marcel Mitran
  • Michelle Joliat
  • Dr. Mohamad Sawwaf
  • Omar A. Butt
  • Peter Zwicker
  • Ryan McDonald
  • Dr. William Cherniak

Finally, as WeaveSphere came to a close, the Pitch Stadium opened, hearing from a wide variety of startups. 

They came, they pitched, and in the end, Iman Bashir and Nicole Lytle of Craftly.AI, a copywriting assistant that uses AI to generate original content, took home the $50,000 prize to help grow their business.

Photo courtesy WeaveSphere

WeaveSphere was a uniquely collaborative, innovation-focused conference filled with engaging workshops, presentations, and networking opportunities.


DX Journal is an official media partner for WeaveSphere. Check out our series of articles from the lead-up to WeaveSphere.

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WeaveSphere’s goal? Make STEM education more accessible and inclusive

WeaveSphere technology conference offers high school students of all backgrounds the chance to an education pathways, scholarships, and funding opportunities available to students looking at STEM.

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We’re at a turning point.

Collectively, we face significant challenges to our well-being and overall future existence as a society — climate change, healthcare, liveable cities, transportation, finance — the list goes on.

But there are solutions on the horizon, and according to Kostas Kontogiannis, professor of electrical engineering and computer science at York University, it’s going to take an “all-hands-on-deck” approach. 

Specifically, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) education, and preparing younger generations to embrace these sectors.

“We are at the point where we have the capacity to share knowledge through the internet and publications where we can make significant advances,” says Kontogiannis. “We need technological advances to solve these challenges.”

According to Statistics Canada, more than 130,000 Canadians graduated with a STEM degree in 2019. Furthermore, a 2019 survey by Randstad found that 65% of Canadians between the ages of 45 and 67 would focus on a career in STEM if they were 18 again. 

“STEM is not only for crazy geeky people,” Kontogiannis says, laughing. “It’s for people that would like to make a contribution and provide solutions to the world’s biggest problems.” 

Kontogiannis spends his day job working in computer science and electrical engineering, but highlights that STEM careers include much more than sitting in front of a computer.

“With science, it could be developing materials that make the colour of your car stay shiny. With math, it could be optimizing the schedules of buses. With industrial processes, it might be about developing material that makes airplanes lighter so they consume less fuel.”

Canada’s innovation conference set to host STEM Day for high school students

You’ve probably seen plenty of toys and activities geared towards kids to help them get interested in STEM, from tricked-out Lego projects to DIY robot coding kits. And if you’re a parent who wants to get your kids thinking about these fields early in their lives, their interest can really start to take off in high school.

For students who want to get a taste of what a STEM education — and thus STEM career — might be like, the WeaveSphere technology and innovation conference is opening its doors to to people in grades 9-12 on what the event is calling “STEM Day.”

WeaveSphere brings together industry leaders, developers, and academics to “weave” together ideas that accelerate innovation. STEM Day takes place on November 17, the last of the three-day conference in downtown Toronto. Students from across Canada can also join parts of WeaveSphere STEM Day virtually by registering at the site.

STEM Day will outline the education pathways, scholarships, and funding opportunities available to students. This full workshop day will feature insights from industry leaders and academics, with plenty of opportunities for Q&As. 

What’s important to know is that it’s open to everyone. 

“In my opinion, the main thing we can do is to remove the stigma that STEM is only for men from specific backgrounds,” says Julia Rubin of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of British Columbia who is organizing STEM Day alongside Kontogiannis. “I grew up in the Soviet Union. People ask me why I chose STEM, and the simple answer is: nobody told me I wasn’t supposed to.”

While there has been a movement in higher-ed to open the doors of STEM education to women, Black people, Indigenous people, racialized and people of colour, those in the LGBTQIA+ community, and other marginalized groups, there is still a long way to go. 

But as Rubin explains, spreading the word is very important to creating change.

“One of my goals with the STEM event is actually to try to reach out to communities that don’t traditionally hear from us,” says Rubin.

Conference roots inspired by real-life collaboration

In its 32nd year, WeaveSphere is a collaboration between IBM Canada’s academic and research technology conference (previously called CASCON) and Evoke Canada’s industry-focused developer conference.

The event is widely known in technical academic circles, as IBM Canada has fostered a robust academic community in computer science and software engineering for more than 30 years.

Outside of the event, both Kontogiannis and Rubin (and their students) regularly collaborate with IBM Canada’s Advanced Studies team who help shape their research. Those partnerships are unlike anything else in the industry, Kontogiannis says, highlighting five key differentiators of what it’s like to work with IBM Canada’s Advanced Studies team:

  • They are committed to research (especially applied research).
  • Collaboration allows them to build systems that are more widely applicable to real-world use cases beyond simple problem solving.
  • They get access to a wider pool of provincial and federal funding, thanks to matching funds.
  • Researchers can tap into a broader audience and patent their work.
  • IBM Canada’s Advanced Studies team has a world-class reputation.

For Rubin, it’s also how Advanced Studies really cares about their fellows and students. 

Get the Advanced Studies experience at WeaveSphere

If you’re interested in getting a deeper look at the collaborative IBM experience, the WeaveSphere conference is where you want to be — especially for all high schoolers considering a career in the STEM fields. 

The conference’s STEM Day will include a full slate of activities and learning opportunities, including a look at current projects involving everything from the future of telecommunications to IoT to Quantum Computing, advances in STEM, and how research and work in STEM can help society in many different and unexpected ways.

One unique topic that will be discussed is how students from all backgrounds can fund their STEM education. 

“We don’t want students to believe that if they don’t have enough money, they cannot go to university,” says Rubin. “We want to highlight the requirements, the funding opportunities, and what is the next step to get there if you want.”

And for students who may feel intimidated, just remember this piece of advice from Kontogiannis:

“Set goals in your life, work hard to achieve them, and you will achieve them. Don’t think of STEM as something that is difficult. Don’t be afraid to set your goals and work.”


DX Journal is an official media partner for WeaveSphere. We will share updates leading up to the event, and we’ll be live on location from November 15-17,2022. Join us and get your tickets at weavesphere.co.

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Ukraine first lady appeals for IT workers’ help

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Olena Zelenska told thousands of investors, entrepreneurs and tech workers gathered for the annual Web Summit in Portugal that Russia 'puts technology at the service of terror'
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Ukraine’s first lady called on Tuesday for IT specialists to help her country by building technology that saves lives rather than ending them.

Olena Zelenska told thousands of investors, entrepreneurs and tech workers gathered for the annual Web Summit in Portugal that Russia “puts technology at the service of terror”.

She showed slides of the aftermath of drone attacks in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, and urged the delegates to use their skills to make a positive change instead.

Her husband, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, appeared as a hologram at several tech events earlier this year to directly appeal to companies to help rebuild his country with advanced tech infrastructure.

Zelenska, who has made in-person appearances at several events recently and addressed US Congress in July, said she would not make a detailed appeal.

Instead, the 44-year-old, a screenwriter by profession, highlighted the key role that technology was playing in the Russian invasion of her country.

She cited a Bellingcat report that alleged Russian IT workers were playing an active part in the war effort.

“Some IT specialists in Russia have made their choice to be aggressors and murderers,” she said, urging the audience to make the opposite choice.

“I believe that technology should be used to create, save and help people, not destroy them.”

Her 15-minute speech drew a standing ovation from the audience.

The organisers of the Web Summit had earlier become embroiled in a row over an invitation they had extended to people from Grayzone, a journalism website that regularly reflects pro-Russian conspiracy theories about the conflict.

The conference cancelled the invites, provoking a huge row on social media between users who said it was an infringement of free speech and those who supported the decision.

Some 70,000 people are expected to attend the Lisbon conference over the next three days.

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