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World Affairs Conference focused on innovation-related issues

Upper Canada College hosted another successful World Affairs Conference (WAC) on Feb. 6 and 7, welcoming more than 675 students from 15 schools to learn about and discuss a range of issues under the theme of “The Innovation Game.”

UCC and Branksome Hall student organizers balanced their academic workloads and other extracurricular activities to research themes, find appropriate speakers and organize logistics. UCC English and theory of knowledge teacher, and WAC faculty adviser, Gregory McDonald estimates that those involved put in up to a combined 500 hours of work in preparation.

“For the organizers, it’s an opportunity to build collaboration and communication skills,” says UCC student Karman Cheema, who co-chaired WAC with Branksome Hall’s Katya Pollock. “You get to work with many people, at both UCC and Branksome Hall, and you’re in contact with leaders in Canadian and American industry.”

WAC 2017 student question

One of the many questions asked by students during WAC.

“As for the audience, almost every single one of the plenary speakers remarked — without my prompting — on the intelligent, perceptive questions they faced in the question and answer sessions which follow each plenary,” adds McDonald. “The real benefit, then, is in providing students with university-level-style sessions where world-leading experts speak on controversial topics that inspire, engage and challenge them.”

“The Innovation Game” theme focused on the beneficial, detrimental and disruptive implications of innovation, particularly in regard to emerging technology. Speakers also elaborated on the ethical and political challenges that coincide with technological and social innovation.

After the main theme is chosen, the WAC executive members narrow down a list of topics in which they’re interested. An online survey is then conducted and six key plenary topics are selected. Plenary leaders are assigned by choosing their top three topics on which to work, and the executive assigns one to a pair of students — one from Branksome Hall and one from UCC.

“The topics were decided merely on relevance, and speakers were chosen from a broad range of professions by our plenary heads,” says Cheema. “We had entrepreneurs, lawyers, writers and professors speak, and all have had considerable impacts in their respective fields.”

Dr. Aubrey de Grey gave the keynote address in Laidlaw Hall on the evening of Feb. 6. Members of the public were invited to hear him speak about the very near-term feasibility of radical life extension.

“His address included some of the most recent research on key findings on aging as a disease, along with remarks on the political, economic and social implications of having a healthier, significantly longer-living population,” says McDonald.

Aerospace engineering researcher Zachary Manchester gave an opening address on Feb. 7 that dealt with the democratization of space. Closing speaker Shawn Phelan of VICE Media addressed the phenomenon of fake news that’s becoming more ever-present with the growing impact and influence of social media.

WAC 2017 Tom Szaky

TerraCycle founder and Old Boy Tom Szaky ’01 talked about innovative environmental initiatives.

The six plenary topics were: artificial intelligence and the new world; the new age of medicine and bioinformatics; maintaining Canada’s global presence; future of warfare; technology in the developing world; and roadmap to a sustainable future.

“A lot of the work, planning, negotiating, organizing and executing of this student-led initiative is invisible to many people from the outside,” says McDonald. “From the student executive to the plenary leaders, security and registration teams, so many people work behind the scenes to make the day run well.

“I think it is also important to acknowledge that it takes a lot of support from student participants, UCC advancement, faculty, Old Boys and administration to make this kind of conference work. With everyone contributing in some way, it is a day which can put all of us in a learning mode and to think of important and controversial issues on a personal, academic and professional level.”

This year’s WAC featured participation from schools that haven’t historically attended. Cheema says the goal is for the event to grow and become more diverse.

“Continuing to make this an accessible and inclusive experience for all high school students wishing to attend is a priority.”

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