Democratising Technology – The Square Revolution with Jim McKelvey


CITY OF SYDNEY Visiting Entrepreneur Program
Lower Town Hall
22 May 2018


Good evening, I’m Mark Pesce, and I’m your MC this evening.

I would like to begin by acknowledging the Gadigal of the Eora nation –  the traditional custodians of this land – and pay my respects to Elders both past and present.

Welcome to “Democratising Technology – Jim McKelvey on the Square Revolution”.

This CityTalks Sydney is part of the Visiting Entrepreneur Programme, which is produced by the City of Sydney, and supported by the New South Wales Government.

It’s part of Sydney’s commitment to this diverse and thriving sector – creating an ecosystem where knowledge-based, innovation driven businesses can flourish.

Now for a bit of housekeeping.

In the unlikely case of an emergency, an announcement will be made. Please follow instructions from the venue staff.

Bathroom facilities are located in the North Colonnade.  The doors to the corridor are to your right.

And please, please keep your mobiles on silent.

This evening features a keynote by Visiting Entrepreneur Jim McKelvey, followed by a fireside chat between Jim and myself.

Then we’ll be joined by five other leaders in the startup community for a panel discussion.

During the panel, you’ll be able to pose your own questions, via Twitter and SMS.

Finally, we’ll take a look at game-changing Sydney startup Wattcost – and the panel will be invited to ask some questions of the founder.

For those of you using the social medias, the hashtag for tonight is #SydCityTalks.

We’ll be taking some photos to capture the event – and these may be used by the City of Sydney for its brochures, flyers and advertisements. Please raise your hand if you object to having your photo taken and we’ll sort out.

There’ll be a vodcast after tonight’s event – that will be available on the City of Sydney’s website from tomorrow morning.


Thank you to our leadership partner, the New South Wales Government, for their support of this event, and the Visiting Entrepreneur Programme.

Here’s a short video from the New South Wales Government:

( video runs )


Before I make my first introduction, I’d like to note that this room, in particular, has great significance for me. On the 4th of February, 2011, it’s where I became an Australian citizen — still one of the proudest days of my life.

It’s now my great pleasure to introduce the person who swore me in as a proud Aussie.  Please welcome the Lord Mayor of the City of Sydney, Clover Moore.

( Clover says her things for six minutes, give or take )


Chances are good you’ve run across a Square device at some point, especially if you’ve recently visited a food truck or mobile small business.

It’s a tiny piece of plastic that allows you to accept credit cards on your smartphone – and it’s is all over the US, launching in Australia a few years ago.  

It was with some surprise that I spotted a Square Reader in my analyst’s office a few months back – he’s laughably bad with technology, but felt entirely comfortable using it.

The company, co-founded by Jim McKelvey and Jack Dorsey (whom many of you may know as the co-founder of Twitter) has more than 2500 employees and is now valued at $20 billion.

In some circles, McKelvey is better known as a master glass artist and author, having written the world’s most widely read text on the subject, The Art Of Fire.

His industrial design work is part of the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art in NYC and The Smithsonian in Washington DC.

His glass studio, Third Degree Glass Factory in St. Louis, one of the United States’ main centers of glassblowing arts.

After founding Square, Jim created the nonprofit LaunchCode, making it possible for anyone to learn programming and land a full-time job in under six months–for free.  

LaunchCode is an open model that may be freely copied by anyone and aims to solve the worldwide shortage of programmers.


Jim’s most recent venture, Invisibly, gives people control of their online identities.

McKelvey was appointed as an Independent Director of the St. Louis Federal Reserve in January 2017.

(play video)

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Jim McKelvey…


Questions for Jim McKelvey:


Jim, I want to begin with a quote from William Gibson, which seems very on point in any discussion about ‘democratising technology’ –

“The street finds its own uses for things – uses the manufacturers never imagined.”

What did you learn as you democratised the tech of accepting credit cards? How were people using them in unimagined ways?


We’re in this weird week before the GDPR comes into force – even if that’s only in Europe it seems to be having a knock-on effect everywhere else.

Certainly my inbox is cluttered with services I never even remembered signing up for telling me that their privacy policies have changed.

And a lot of that can be traced back to the original sin of the Web, which was that it offered itself freely – because we became the product.

We’ve seen things like the Basic Attention Token and gosh, I’ve lost count of how many other projects, that are trying to fix the brokenness here – trying to get websites to stop having to need to profile you in order to have the analytics that advertisers demand for their CPMs.

Does Invisibly try to fix that? Or is it just trying to fix the revenue model?


We do seem to be at a bit of a watershed moment here. Last year I saw Sir Tim Berners-Lee have quite a mea culpa moment in a room of Web folks, as he noted some of the ways the Web has become an ‘ignorance amplifier’.

This is the other face of democratised technologies, isn’t it? That the street does find its own uses for things, and those uses may not be good.


It’s exciting to have someone along who’s an ‘Independent’ Director of the US Federal Reserve.

Most of us have never met a director of the US Federal Reserve before – even an independent one. What do you do?


Are you their resident tech expert? I was on a TV show here called The New Inventors, and whenever anything showed up with a chip inside of it, I got the call – is it similar for you?  Are you the Fed’s geek?


(story about M-Pesa and governor of the Central bank of Kenya)

We’re seeing a lot of fintech that could be enormously disruptive – not just just to finance, but to asset values, to the money supply – the whole ball game.

How does a central banker balance the need for innovation against the need for stability?

( more questions and stuff )

Ladies & gentlemen, let’s all thank Jim McKelvey.

(go to the podium)

19.20 PANEL

Now we’d like to invite our panelists to the stage – we’ll continue and broaden our discussion on democratising technology…

Our first panelist is Alex Gruszka, Chief Operating Officer of StartupAus – If you don’t know StartupAus are the organisation that works closely with government to transform the nation through technology entrepreneurship.

Legendary serial entrepreneur Gen George is Managing Director of tamme – making analytics hyperlocal – and prior to that, founded OneShift and skilled. Gen won the 2017 Telstra New South Wales Young Business Women’s Award.

Ben Wong is co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Academy Xi, providing courses and training programs in the areas of design and emerging technologies to working professionals – or companies looking to skill up.

Next is Liesl Yearsley, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of A*Kin, which is developing a new approach to general artificial intelligence able to autonomously solve complex problems – and form deep relationships with humans. (eyebrows) Which may be why Liesl is in Sydney setting up A*Kin’s first Ethical Artificial Intelligence Hub.

Say hello to Angie Abdilla, Trawlwoolway woman, and Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Old Ways, New. Angie’s work on Indigenous Knowledge Systems, Robotics and artificial intelligence created the foundations for her social enterprise working in service design and digital development, based on Indigenous Traditional Technologies.

[ Looking for roughly 2-minute answers from everyone ]

Liesl – You’ve been busy here both speaking at CeBIT and setting up the Centre for Ethical AI.

As more and more of the world becomes algorithmic, we find a critical need to foreground ethics in engineering.

But this isn’t a conversation that we’ve had before.

How do we change that? How do we democratise our ethics while we’re democratising the powerful technologies of artificial intelligence?


Angie, we clearly need ethics if we are going to manage a potent technology like AI at scale — how does Indigenous Knowledge offer approaches to a new discipline such as AI?


Ben, education is a foundational element for any democracy – whether political or technical – but it’s more than that, because (putting my futurist’s hat on) we’re rapidly heading into a world where we’ll spend as much time learning our next skills as we do practicing our current skills.

Are we preparing for that? Do we need to have a think about democratising education as we work toward democratising technology?


Alex, we have made great leaps in the startup ecosystem in Australia – a snapshot from three years ago and another today would blow most folks away.

Are we done?

At UTS they’re telling undergraduates that everyone is going to have to be an entrepreneur at least part of the time for part of their careers – and probably more than part.  Is this more than just democratising technology? Is this democratising entrepreneurship?


Gen, we can’t call anything democratic unless it’s fully representative and fully diverse. And tech has been notorious for its underrepresentation of anyone who isn’t a white male.

Now you decided to do something about that by founding an organisation I can only reveal by its initials – LMBDW.

(Folks, if you want to know what it means, I suggest you pull out your mobile and google it. LMBDW.)


Has it helped? What will it take to push through into a continuously expanding front of democracy in technology?





Now I’d like to invite David Souter, co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Sydney startup Wattcost, to the stage.

If you haven’t heard of Wattcost, here’s a short video that explains all…

( play video )

Ok panelists, questions for David about Wattcost?

(various questions)

Thank you, David.


[ closing thoughts ]

And thanks to all the panelists – Gen George, Ben Wong, Liesl Yearsley, Angie Abdilla and Alex Gruszka!

Thanks in particular to Jim McKelvey for sharing his insights with us this evening.

Thanks to Leadership Partner the New South Wales Government.

Thanks to our signers – CHEVOY and BETTINA.

And thanks to the City of Sydney and the Visiting Entrepreneur Program.

To find out more about the Visiting Entrepreneur Program, and provide feedback on the event, please see the details on the slide.

Thank you for coming along – and have a great evening.


About the Author: mpesce