An idea accelerator for greater understanding

Harnessing art, technology and data to tackle our most urgent social impact issues

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Gillian Nycum, Director of Strategic Initiatives at the recently founded Human Impact Lab, a non-profit based in Montréal. We’ve often crossed paths over the years through shared social circles but I was curious to learn more about her neo-generalist career path, having worked in a range of fields from law, to music management, to innovation and environmental issues.

We spoke about the Human Impact Lab’s ambitious goals to raise awareness of seismic social impact issues, such as climate change, rising sea levels and artificial intelligence, using a creative studio approach. She also shared insights on how her curiosity and ambition have shaped her career to date, never settling for roles where there wasn’t an opportunity to grow and continue to learn. Gill is a great example of someone who has succeeded in aligning her values with her work, which is always inspiring to me.

Here is an abridged version of our conversation.

Tell me about the Human Impact Lab.

The Human Impact Lab is a non-profit social impact organization founded by David Usher, working in partnership with Concordia as an independent entity. We build interactive tools and experiences to raise awareness around seismic shift social impact issues, particularly in areas where there is complexity or a lot of data that tends to be abstract and inaccessible. Our projects often address concerns where the public relationship to the issue doesn’t match its importance, from a scientific perspective.

The two areas that we’re primarily focusing on are climate change and AI in the Second Machine Age. We’ve built a tool called the Climate Clock which inserts the metric of time into the conversation around climate change, with the thinking that people don’t relate to temperature in the same way as they relate to time. It draws a line in the sand and shows that in this many years, we’re going to hit 1.5 and 2 degrees above pre-industrial global averages. These two lines are thought to be the places where the effects of climate change start to become irreversible. So if we tell someone that we’re going to hit these marks in 16 and 29 years respectively, then they’re more able to relate to that information than they would to the concept of degrees.

“People don’t relate to temperature in the same way as they relate to time.”

The clock is in its first iteration right now. We’re working on building an interactive climate clock which will probably live primarily online but will also hopefully be an installation as well. It would allow users to ask questions based on policy decisions and behaviour modifications, in other words, another way of conveying data that already exists. For example, you could ask “If everyone became a vegetarian tomorrow, how much time would we gain on the clock?” Or “How much time do we lose if we build Keystone?” or “How much time do we lose under Trump’s policies?” It’s essentially another way of conveying the information in terms of time.

“If everyone became a vegetarian tomorrow, how much time would we gain on the clock?”
Image: Human Impact Lab

We also have a project called Rising Seas — an interactive touch screen built in specific locations where users can toggle emissions levels and see the impact on sea level rise from a world, city, and street view in the location where they’re standing. It’s a partnership model where we work with local nonprofits or other organizations in areas that will be affected by sea level rise, so the installations are always tied to a locally relevant initiative. For example, we’re working with the Bay Institute in San Francisco where they have a campaign to restore the tidal marshes around the Bay area. Much of this land has been flooded over the years for salt flats and agricultural land. They want to restore these areas to their pre-industrial state of tidal marshes, which they believe will reduce the impact of storm surge wave heights by 50%. So we’re connecting the Rising Seas awareness-building project to a solutions-based project for San Francisco. The goal is for it to also eventually live online so that people can explore the impact of sea level rise in different locations, and learn not only about the impact but also see local solutions from around the world.

Tell me more about your AI projects.

We’re working on building a series of interactive installations to raise awareness around the underlying concepts of AI and machine learning, such as predictive algorithms, competitive algorithms, cooperative algorithms, algorithmic control, robotics and automation. We want people to be more aware of the fundamental principles underlying technology because it’s evolving so quickly — to be able to have a dialogue and an understanding of the basics.

What would an example of an AI awareness project look like?

Using existing machine learning software, we’re going to build an interactive installation in a public space, where the experience explains what’s happening behind the technology. The space would also feature a public projection in order to generate discussion and engagement. I can’t say too much about this project because it’s still in development, but it’s something we’re excited about launching.

We want these projects to be able to tackle complicated concepts and really break them down: “What is a predictive algorithm really?” “How is a computer actually doing this?” Eventually, we also want to dive deeper into the ethics of artificial intelligence and the future of work through these installations. Asking questions like, “What is our society going to look like in twenty or fifty years?” “What do we want it to look like?” How do we have this conversation?

“What is our society going to look like in twenty or fifty years? What do we want it to look like?”

One of the ethical issues surrounding AI that concerns me is the perpetuation of today’s injustices and biases into future situations. For example, if you’re feeding a machine a data set, it will deduce first principles, then apply these principles to new sets of data (my own terminology). Unfortunately, much the context in which the data first evolved is stripped away, thereby perpetuating today’s social injustices into the future.

“When you move into a corporate context, who is in charge of having a critical eye on the data and the way algorithms read that data?”

Particularly when you move into a corporate context, who is in charge of having a critical eye on the data and the way algorithms read that data? When efficiency and profit are your driving motivations, someone needs to make sure that a computer is making decisions equivalent to those a person would have made in a similar role. Of course, there are many areas where AI is going to be mind-blowingly efficient and awesome in many ways, but there is also need for industry oversight and dialogue. In a business context without any regulation, for example, who is going to make sure that Amazon’s warehouse efficiency algorithms are human-centric? These are the kinds of questions that we want to be looking at, and that we want to make sure this industry is looking at.

It seems similar to the issue of data privacy. Unless it’s affecting you in a tangible way, people don’t feel like they’re losing anything, because they don’t feel like it’s something they ever possessed to begin with. So how do you make people feel that loss?

AI is already so pervasive, yet the average person has no idea which data is being collected, how it’s being used, or by whom. When things are happening that incrementally and behind closed doors, the call to regulate isn’t as loud because no one even knows it’s happening. It’s the same with climate change — people walk through their lives without realizing how important the biosphere is to their existence. It’s just part of the human condition, it’s actually something that’s got to be re-programmed.

In terms of positioning and objectives, how do you see the Human Impact Lab on a spectrum of activist non-profits, educational institutions, and lobby groups?

The distinction isn’t that significant if we have the same end goals, for example, we work with other climate organizations quite a bit, aiming to develop critical mass around ideas. We are a little different in that we identify as a creative studio working at the intersection of art, technology and data, and are often collaborating with artists and designers, in addition to developers and scientists. So our approach to storytelling and raising awareness might be different, but I don’t see ourselves in contrast to these other organizations, so much as working together to tell stories in new ways that create resonance.

Are you trying to affect change on more of an individual, institutional or governmental level? If so, are different approaches and projects required for each?

The approach depends on the tool, generally, we’re aiming to build a groundswell of awareness. We want the forces that feed into political decision-making to be well-informed. Whether it’s a human being, a voter or a journalist who sees the Climate Clock, we want to create an impact that will then be reflected in their actions.

We’re always aiming to scale our projects and make them accessible in a number of ways, such as the Climate Clock which is not only an event-based large-scale outdoor projection but also lives live on Facebook and embedded on our partner websites. We’re trying to stimulate dialogue around issues anywhere that conversations naturally take place, whether that’s at home in front of a computer screen with your family, or at an outdoor event where you may strike up a conversation with someone you didn’t know before.

With the recent news of Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate agreement, there seems to still be a tremendous amount of work to do to convince North Americans of the importance of climate change. Do you feel more of a sense of urgency around these issues than when the Human Impact Lab was founded?

“I’m hopeful that private industry and individuals will start to move towards renewable energies in spite of our political leadership.”

On a personal level, I may just be cautiously optimistic, but I’m hopeful that the impact of Trump’s recent decision is less significant for the environment than it is in terms of diplomacy. It’s clearly a dramatic decision politically and symbolically but remains to be seen what impact it will have on the environment. I’m hopeful that private industry and individuals will start to move towards renewable energies in spite of our political leadership.

In terms of your own career path, how did you learn everything that you needed to know in order to do what you’re doing now?

I’m very curious, open-minded, and I like new challenges. I also get bored easily. When I finished law school, I started my own business in music management. I loved working with my artists, but I hit a lot of career ceilings in the music business. I couldn’t grow to the point where I was facing new challenges. It was always the same type of work, and after eight years it started to get old, I felt like I needed to make a change.

I also wanted to work on fighting climate change, I felt like it was something that I couldn’t sit back and not do anything about. Not that I think I’m going to make a huge difference, but for my own well being, I feel like I had to try. So when I left the music business, I worked in academia for a year, then got a job on Parliament Hill with David Lametti, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of International Trade, who is now Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development. We created a proposal to build a national social innovation program for Canada with his riding as a pilot project. We also worked a lot on digital issues and rapid innovation — thinking about how the government could work on rapid innovation issues within a heavily siloed structure. Ministers may have a particular mandate, but innovation issues often cut across many departments, creating a challenge to respond collectively. Through this work, I became more knowledgeable and interested in environmental and innovation issues.

“Ministers may have a particular mandate, but innovation issues often cut across many departments, creating a challenge to respond collectively.”

After a year of this, it came to the point where I was looking for a job that would bring me back to Montréal because my three-year-old hated that I was in Ottawa so much. Around the same time, there was a lot of talk in Ottawa on environmental policy. I had the opportunity to sit in on a meeting between a delegation from Germany and the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Environment, and we got to have an awesome conversation about the German Energiewende environmental policy. It was passed in 2010 and includes objectives of reducing greenhouse gas emission by 80–95% (relative to 1990) and a renewable energy target of 60% by 2050. Although these are ambitious goals, according to their most recent Energy Monitoring Report, since 1990 they’ve succeeded in reducing greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 27.2%, while renewables are now Germany’s number-one source of electricity. We talked a lot about how Germany has been able to achieve these impressive targets so quickly. There are obviously some population density issues that work in Germany’s favour that aren’t equivalent in Canada, but one of the clear insights was that Germans are largely in favour of these policies. So I came out of that meeting thinking that you can’t just rely on government, you have to also build a groundswell of support for environmental change, which we don’t see as much of in Canada, or North America for that matter.

“You can’t just rely on government, you have to also build a groundswell of support for environmental change.”

Then this job posting came up at the Human Impact Lab in Montreal to build tools with the goal of raising awareness around climate change, and I thought, that’s serendipitous! So I was applied and was lucky enough to get it. It’s been a great opportunity where I get to make use of my diverse background, having worked in the cultural sphere, as an entrepreneur, then in innovation and technology. It’s a good fit, because there are so many opportunities for ongoing learning, whether it’s about AI or climate change. In order to tell a story in a new way, first, you have to learn the story. So with that in mind, I get to do a lot of reading and thinking about these issues. We also have many brainstorming sessions, so it’s definitely characterized by self-motivated learning, reading, and talking to people.

“In order to tell a story in a new way, first, you have to learn the story.”

From my own experiences working in the arts, you often have to have a goal in mind, but a flexible approach to getting there. It sounds like you’re bringing that creative mindset and background into a new environment, where they may not be used to working in that way.

“I feel like my career has been a long line of impostorism, pretending that I know what I’m doing until I figure it out.”

Structured work environments don’t suit me that well. I feel like my career has been a long line of impostorism, pretending that I know what I’m doing until I figure it out. And being lucky enough to have people trust me to do that. My current role at the Human Impact Lab involves continual learning within a startup-inspired context — taking creative methodologies and applying them to the world of ideas. Our founder David Usher wrote a book in this vein: Let the Elephants Run: Unlock Your Creativity and Change Everything, exploring the notion that creative processes are not unique to artists, but rather something that can be nurtured in anyone using a mix of freedom and structure. It’s an interesting mindset that’s been fun to work with, seeing how far it can help us realize our ambitious goals of creating awareness and social change.

e180 is a social business from Montreal that seeks to unlock human greatness by helping people learn from each other. We are the inventors of braindates — intentional knowledge sharing conversations between people, face-to-face. Since 2011, e180 has helped thousands of humans in harnessing the potential of the people around them, and we won’t stop until we reach millions.