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[L to R] Sarah Fulford, editor-in-chief of Maclean’s, Olivia Chow, Mayor of The City of Toronto; and Jason Maghanoy, publisher, Maclean’s at the Maclean’s Ideas Summit: Powerhouse Salon at Bar Ardo. Photography by George Pimentel

What went down at the 2024 Maclean’s Ideas Summit

A discussion about Canada’s future
Srivindhya Kolluru

April 19, 2024

Maclean’s Ideas Summit returned for its third iteration in February. This year, the Summit kicked off with the Maclean’s Salon at Bar ARDO on Tuesday, February 27, followed by a panel discussion with thought leaders in tech, science, and public policy about Canada’s future on Wednesday, February 28. Uber Canada was the presenting sponsor of The Summit, which was also supported by Microsoft Canada, Amazon Canada and Fitzrovia.  

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Guests in conversation at the Maclean’s Ideas Summit: Powerhouse Salon at Bar Ardo.

On the evening of Wednesday, February 28, guests and speakers trickled into StartWell’s Event Studio on West Queen West for a night of thought-provoking conversations on mega-narratives in the country, such as artificial intelligence and immigration.

John Weigelt, Microsoft Canada’s national technology officer, kicked things off at the event’s Fireside Chat on one of the most pressing and hot-button topics as of late: AI. “I’m a glass half-full person,” said Weigelt, adding that he looks to technologies and tools like AI for applications in areas like healthcare and carbon sequestering. 

“I think in the immediate term, we’re going to see Canadian organizations start to use more AI as embedded into different solutions,” said Weigelt. “But we have no time to waste to adopt AI. Canada is slow in adopting AI compared to peers around the world — we’re adopting it at about 50 percent of the pace of the U.S.”

He emphasized the need for Canada to build on innovations pioneered by University of Toronto professor Geoffrey Hinton and Canadian computer scientist Yoshua Bengio, both of whom are regarded as some of the world’s leading experts on AI.

“We need to be learning all the time around how these technologies get used and to be proactive about them,” said Weigelt. “We can put in principles-based guardrails at the beginning to help guide the evolution of these tools.”

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Roberto Marotta and Jacqueline Nicosia co-founders of Bar Ardo, with Sarah Fulford, editor-in-chief of Maclean’s; and Jason Maghanoy, publisher, Maclean’s.

Panel


Five thinkers from four industries discussed Canada’s future for the evening’s main event, a marquee panel. Laura Miller, head of public policy at Uber in Canada, Dr. Teresa Chan, founding dean of Toronto Metropolitan University School of Medicine, Phil De Luna, chief carbon scientist and head of engineering at Deep Sky, Magda Grace, head of Prime Video, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and Clement Virgo, a leading Canadian film director, joined Jason Maghanoy, group publisher at SJC Media, on stage.

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[L to R] Dr. Teresa M. Chan, founding dean of TMU’s School of Medicine and vice-president, medical affairs; Magda Grace, head of Prime Video, Canada, Australia and New Zealand; John Weigelt, national technology officer at Microsoft Canada; Phil De Luna, chief carbon scientist and head of engineering, Deep Sky; Laura Miller, public policy and communications leader, Uber Canada; Clement Virgo, a leading Canadian film director; Jason Maghanoy, publisher, Maclean’s; and Sarah Fulford, editor-in-chief of Maclean’s.
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Olivia Chow, mayor of Toronto, giving the keynote address at the Maclean’s Ideas Summit: Year Ahead.

Science of sustainability

To start, Maghanoy brought up the science of sustainability and record-breaking heat levels worldwide. With temperatures 1.48°C above preindustrial levels, 2023 was the hottest year on record. In response, de Luna said reducing emissions alone isn’t enough to cool temperatures.

“Now, we have to start thinking about how we can remove emissions from the atmosphere. How can we reverse the trend?” said de Luna, a leading expert on carbon removal technology.

Deep Sky, where de Luna is head of engineering, removes carbon from the ground and extracts energy from it. The carbon pricing plan — implemented as either a fee on corporations or tax on individuals in certain provinces — is one of the solutions the federal government has introduced in an effort to lower emissions.

“One of the biggest tragedies and genius poise of marketing is putting the onus of emission reduction on you and me on a carbon footprint,” said de Luna. “We should be taxing our corporations for not reducing the emissions and not doing business in a way that’s sustainable.”

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John Weigelt, Microsoft Canada’s national technology officer, during his fireside chat hosted by Jason Maghanoy

Urban mobility

It will come as little surprise to commuters in the city that Toronto has a traffic problem. According to TomTom’s most recent annual traffic index, Toronto ranked third worst in the world for time spent stuck in traffic, with the average Torontonian spending an average of 29 minutes to travel 10 kilometres. 

“I was stuck on Bay once for an hour — I traveled 100 meters in an hour [by car],” said Maghanoy. “And as the city gets denser, it’s just harder to get through it. So what is Uber doing about it?” 

“The reality is our entire mobility system is broken in the city,” said Miller, who leads public policy and communications efforts for Uber in Canada. “We have done a terrible job as Torontonians in having a mobility system that encourages you to take the TTC, to take a bike, to have e-scooters, to take a rideshare or to get electric vehicles because we don’t have sufficient charging infrastructure.”

Referencing an ad campaign by Uber that found rideshares contribute to 3.3 per cent of Toronto’s congestion, Miller said ridesharing can also be a part of the solution to the city’s traffic woes. She pointed to how investments in robust cycling infrastructure and public transit in certain European jurisdictions improved congestion. For instance, in 2022, a plan to overhaul mobility in Brussels’s city centre reduced car traffic by 27 per cent.

“So the question is, how do you bring people together so you can build an entire ecosystem to help people become multimodal, to make it easier so there are fewer cars on the road?” said Miller. 

Immigration

Immigrants fuelled much of Canada’s population growth in 2023. That growth shows no signs of slowing down: Canada expects to welcome almost 1.5 million new permanent residents by 2026 as part of ambitious immigration targets set by the federal government.  

Miller said she’s excited that Canada is welcoming more immigrants but thinks that Canada could do a better job of supporting newcomers.

“I do think that government needs to do a better job of connecting the dots when it comes to all of the programs across the board,” said Miller, referencing the gap between the education levels of immigrants and the equivalent experience required for them to practice in their field in Canada. According to Miller, the solution forward is for companies to work with the government to “modernize the labour framework to make sure that people are not being left behind."

She added that 62 percent of drivers and couriers have joined the Uber platform in the last few years because they cannot make ends meet. In 2023, almost half a million Canadians worked through a digital platform or app that also paid them for their work, per Statistics Canada data

 Miller said people turn to these platforms for extra money as a safety net during difficult times, such as the peak of the pandemic and “now when the affordability crisis is at an all-time high.”  “We know that flexible work is here, and it’s here to stay,” she added. 

The next pandemic

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. Schools and businesses shuttered, and doctors, nurses, and healthcare workers rushed to the front lines to treat patients infected by the virus. While the pandemic has waned, subvariants of COVID-19 continue to emerge. In January, an Omicron subvariant of SARS-CoV-2 known as JN.1 became the dominant strain across Canada. 

“Pandemics are supposed to happen every century or so,” said Dr. Chan, who will be at the helm of Canada’s newest medical school in Brampton. “But I think with globalization, increased transport and number of people, I don’t know that that rule of thumb is going to hold true.”

Yet, Chan is optimistic that Canada will be prepared in the event of another pandemic. “We’ve harnessed AI to find targets for immunization, linked data sets to be able to harmonize data and we’ve been sharing information across borders at unprecedented levels,” said Chan. “We learned so much from this last pandemic.” 

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Guests at the Maclean’s Ideas Summit: Year Ahead.

“I don’t know that we can ever be fully ready, but I talked yesterday night when we were at the Salon about the idea of preparedness being a necessary component of bravery,” she added. One of the lessons Chan reflects on from this pandemic is watching how public health measures interface with individual cultural values. A large percentage of South Asian immigrants and essential workers in the GTA reside in Brampton, and research has found that more contagious variants of the virus especially hard hit those living in the region. 

On this point, Chan, who is also a practicing emergency physician, spoke to the type of curriculum she is eager to introduce at the medical school. “We’re baking in that consultation with communities. There’s been 20,000 plus touch points with both the TMU community, but also Brampton and Peel communities to understand what their needs are.” 

She also envisions a more holistic medical education that will include courses on personal development, self-care and wellness and health systems. 

On the future of healthcare in Canada, Chan is eager to see more investments from the federal government. During the height of the pandemic, Chan was donning PPE while at work, isolated from her husband in fear that she could make him ill. She recalls high levels of burnout among her colleagues but that there was a lot of resilience involved in taking care of patients. 

“We are being successful at making sure that our parents are surviving. And when we are successful at that, it means that we’re going to need to take care of people in a more complex manner,” said Chan. She added that this means the government needs to invest more money into the healthcare system, one that is riddled with aging technology like fax machines and pagers. Rather, Chan suggests investments in long-term care through smart innovations, such as an app that helps with hospital scheduling or an AI assistant. 

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Guests at the Maclean’s Ideas Summit: Year Ahead.

Fostering creative talent in Canada

The artists who tell Canada’s stories — whether in the books we read or on TV screens — are an essential part of what makes Canada, Canada. “How are artists telling Canada’s story?” asked Maghanoy. “What are you interested in terms of exploring your art in Canada?”

“I’m glad that the doctor is optimistic because from the side of the filmmaker artists — AI has completely scared the shit out of me,” said Virgo, who runs the production company Conquering Lion Pictures.

Virgo is concerned that AI will take over creative jobs in the industry and that a whole sector of jobs will disappear as a result of the evolving technology. Last year, the Writers Guild of America — representing over 11,000 screenwriters — went on strike over a number of concerns, including wages and guidelines around the use of AI.  The strike, one of the longest in recent memory, stalled production on hit shows like “Stranger Things” and “The Last of Us.”

“It’s not inconceivable that we’ll see films done by AI in the next year to two years.” As someone who has been in the industry for over 20 years, Virgo said he is far more optimistic about the type of content filmmakers are working on, particularly in terms of diversity. 

While AI is a concern for some creatives, companies like Prime Video are building a foundation in Canada to create jobs. In 2016, Amazon expanded its Prime video streaming service to about 200 markets, including Canada. “Over the past few years, we’ve created over 40 films and TV shows in Canada, and that’s putting crews and talent on the ground,” said Grace, who heads Prime Video in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. 

Earlier this year, Amazon MGM Studios struck a deal to open a production hub at Pinewood Toronto Studios, a major production studio in the city, to continue to support and create Canadian TV shows. Grace adds that the Prime team meets with small production companies, creators, authors and writers to tell their stories. “One of the challenges — and a critical component of having a successful industry — is ensuring that you’re investing in training and development,” said Grace.