At the conclusion of his two-day digital innovation summit on June 13 at the posh Algonquin hotel in Saint Andrews, McKenna challenged about 50 invited business owners and executives, prominent academics and government officials to follow John F. Kennedy’s example and aim for the moon.
“I’d say to all of you here, we’ve really been set up for a big moon shot [with] the new, emerging, exciting technologies, so let’s embrace them and let’s win,” he said. “Full speed ahead, go, go, go!”
McKenna was referring to the announcement a few minutes before that the University of New Brunswick would be setting up a Data Science and Artificial Intelligence Institute to support interdisciplinary research on digital information technologies.
UNB President Paul Mazerolle said the new institute would provide shared resources for university researchers already using data analytics and artificial intelligence in such fields as biology, environmental science and computer science.
“Importantly it will allow us to better confront what I call the grand challenges that we see across our society,” Mazerolle said.
“Our university’s already fixated and focused on grand challenges, applying our skills, our knowledge, our expertise to these issues whether they’re in health, whether they’re in human cybersecurity, environmental systems, in water systems and importantly, future energy.”
Warktimes may have been the only media outlet invited to McKenna’s digital innovation summit.
The former premier extended the invitation after I asked to cover former U.S. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton who was scheduled to deliver the keynote speech this summer at his annual networking summit in Fox Harbour, Nova Scotia.
“The event is totally private and our guest speakers know that Chatham House Rules prevail,” McKenna responded in an e-mail.
“Many of our guests would not be comfortable being in the public spotlight.”
However, he suggested that instead, I might be interested in his invitation-only digital innovation summit in Saint Andrews sponsored by the McKenna Institute at UNB.
A few days later, I received a formal invitation from Erin Hatfield, UNB’s director of communications.
“Again, this year, the sitting rooms and conference rooms will be packed with the who’s who of the business community talking about how digital innovations will help grow the province’s economy in all sectors of the economy – from software development to food production,” Hatfield said in an e-mail.
“There will also be breakout sessions on innovation hosted by top experts and business leaders,” she wrote.
“We’re only inviting those who will understand it’s worth investing the time to make the trip.”
Hatfield’s invitation was for the second-day only with sessions from 8 a.m. to noon.
However, shortly after my arrival on June 13, she said I would not be allowed to attend the three breakout sessions from 9 to 11 where invited guests would discuss New Brunswick’s path to digital transformation.
UNB President Mazerolle explained later that the rules guaranteed anonymity to speakers at the breakout sessions.
He said it was only the second such summit and maybe there would be room for more public engagement at future ones.
“When we started this, we wanted to get the right business leaders in the room, the right government officials and the right academicians and build a Chatham House Rule approach where there can be full and frank discussions,” he said.
Mazerolle’s reference to Chatham House reminded me of McKenna’s e-mail about his closed annual networking sessions in Nova Scotia.
Mount Allison University Politics Professor Geoff Martin, who was not invited to the Saint Andrews summit, says exclusive, closed-door gatherings like that are known in political science as tools for elite recruitment and socialization.
“You have to find new people who will come into the economic and political elite and you also have to then shape their views,” he says.
“I think particularly too in this neo-liberal era of the last 40 years, these events tend to be secret events because the views they’re expressing are often unpopular,” Martin adds.
“You’re in a long game, you’re chipping away little by little on major public policy goals, privatization, deregulation, maintaining the domination of the oil and gas sector, protecting the national banking system and the privileges of the chartered banks.
“These are the kinds of things that are not really all that popular and the popularity I think is declining over time, but that’s really what I think that event is all about.”
Martin was speaking specifically about McKenna’s networking event in Nova Scotia while the digital innovation summit in Saint Andrews seemed more narrowly focused on persuading key leaders to embrace the digital economy.
‘Play at the top of our game’
During an interview after the summit, I asked McKenna what he thought the big “take-away” from it was.
“It’s just the transformational power of technology,” he replied.
“In a place like New Brunswick, even though we think of ourselves as small and rural, we still have to play at the top of our game in terms of innovation and competitiveness — whether it’s the way we grow potatoes or the way we grow blueberries or whether it’s our health care offerings. It could be any one of a number of things. It could even be our tourism product. We still have to use the most advanced technology in the world if we want to be competitive.”
McKenna added that governments are also learning that by analyzing massive amounts of data, they can improve the quality of health care while reducing its costs.
“It’s not often you get a chance to get a two-bagger,” he said with a smile.
Note: Mark Leger, UNB’s managing editor of strategic communications and marketing, did get to attend one of the closed breakout sessions. To read his report, click here.
To listen to my CHMA radio report on McKenna’s digital innovation summit, click here.