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The return of Circlesquare

When we launched FWD50 in 2017, we were thrilled with the calibre of speakers, depth of content, and support from the government community at home and abroad. But one of our goals for the following year was to offer more opportunities for interaction and engagement between speakers, attendees, and government officials.

The main stage for the first year, before we had our in-the-round epiphany.

That became a new format called Circlesquare. In the months leading up to the 2018 event, we realized it was hard to explain; but it was immediately understandable for all involved. Participants hailed it as an accessible, democratic way to have important, wide-ranging conversations quickly. One person described it as “Lazy Susan speed dating,” and several government departments announced plans to use the format for discussions with citizens.

Kicking off Circlesquare. Look closely and you can see the audio channels, topics, and domains.

We wrote the format up, along with the lessons we learned, in a post shortly after the event. And we vowed to repeat it, again tackling critical technologies and some of the domains most affected by digital change.

The format also changed the way we lay out the event, putting keynote speakers in the round—which made even the main-stage talks feel more intimate:

Melissa Hathaway takes the stage in 2018, in the round.

Circlesquare will be back in 2019.

This has become one of the defining events of FWD50 itself, a chance for interaction and discussion that’s often missing at traditional conferences. And if you’ve seen the other events the FWD50 team runs, well, you know we’re not comfortable with the constraints of convention.

But while we’re doubling down on the in-the-round stage and proven format, we’re changing some of the technologies and domains. This year, they’ll include:

Four critical technologies

1. AI and data science: Once, we wrote code and it produced data. Now, we feed data into algorithms, and they generate models. Data Science means training algorithms on data, then using them to make predictions and classifications, sometimes better than humans can — with inevitable ethical consequences.

2. Sensors and the Internet of Things: Using the Internet of Things (or Enterprise of Things) to create a mesh of ubiquitous computing that can assimilate, process, and act on information at scale. But how do we marry the promise of data collection with privacy and the “grey area” ambiguity on which modern society functions?

3. Cloud computing: Migrating to, and operating, on-demand elastic resources. From virtual infrastructure to software-as-a-service to containers, cloud computing represents a new paradigm for application delivery — and requires new approaches such as Devops, agile delivery, and continuous deployment.

4. Open compute, open source, open data: If you want application sovereignty, you need to be sure you can repatriate your computing resources. Can you modify your hardware? Edit your code? Own your data? What does a truly open computing stack look like, and when is it necessary?

Four domains ripe for disruption

1. Climate, disaster, and emergency: Disasters and emergencies are a fact of life. But rising oceans, refugees, wildfires, and more are happening at an increasing rate. How do we mitigate, detect, and react to such challenges — and what role can technology play in improving our resilience as a society?

2. Regulation and compliance: Government runs on laws and rules. Navigating those regulations can be complex, and technology can help. How do citizens, companies, and governments themselves balance well-regulated activity with freedom and agility?

3. Finance and spending: In the digital era, money is information. How do governments manage budgets and spending, leveraging the latest technologies for financial processes while ensuring accountability and transparency?

4. Records and Information Management: Gone (mostly) are endless warehouses of paper documentation. But simply stuffing records into a data lake makes information unusable. How should we manage the torrent of information that modern societies generate, making the most of data for the benefit of citizens and governments alike?

The four technologies, and four domains, we’ll tackle on November 6 at Lansdowne.

As we did last year, we’ll put a few “ringers” in each technology and domain to get the conversation started. But this is a participatory format, and our moderators work hard to make sure everyone has a voice during these discussions.

Here’s hoping we’ve rented enough headsets.



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Alistair Croll

Alistair Croll

Writer, speaker, accelerant. Intersection of tech & society. Strata, Startupfest, Bitnorth, FWD50. Lean Analytics, Tilt the Windmill, HBS, Just Evil Enough.