ICT Toronto progress?

ICT Toronto is (for now) a two-year project funded by the City of Toronto to develop the information and communications technology industry as a key sector in the Toronto region, with the following vision:

Toronto will become, and be acknowledged globally, as one of the 5 most innovative, creative and productive locations in the world for ICT research, education, business and investment by 2011.

As Joey noted today, judging from the web site and news presence not much has happened since the announcement in April:

It’s almost five months later, and it appears that not much has happened. I haven’t seen a press release since the one for their launch party, and a Google News search for “ICT Toronto” ends up without any results.

Joey goes on to lay it on the line:

In the meantime, Toronto’s techies, without any of the money or manpower earmarked for ICT Toronto have held 4 DemoCamps and a BarCamp, events which have gone a long way to fostering a sense of community and cooperation in the local tech scene. And of course, actually building information and communication technologies, something the suits seem to have completely overlooked.

This is hardly surprising. Silicon Valley was born of good circumstances coupled with the grassroots efforts of ambitious techies doing what they loved, not by government/business fiat. I’d call ICT Toronto a bunch of pointless martini-swilling stuffed shirts, but that’s an insult to martinis and dress shirts, both of which I happen to like.

David, Jay and I were invited to join ICT Toronto as “members” (really an ad-hoc advisory committee) back in June, which I blogged about here. Well, I attended my second breakfast meeting (no martinis, just mediocre coffee and croissants) yesterday sitting on behalf of Toronto’s BarCamp community, and wanted to share some progress, my thoughts and possible future directions. After the jump…

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Reality Checks:

First of all, as with any government initiative, things definitely do not move in web time. Reality check for all unconference attending, blogging, Web 2.0, tagging, social media consuming Gen-X geeks and Millennials…. the grey-haired folks we know we need (for their experience, investment and wisdom) don’t live in our world. Have you tried explaining to your dad what BarCamp is? How’d that go?

Also, I have to say that Alicia Bulwik, the City’s economic development point person on the project, and several others in attendance do understand that they need the community: the young, the creative, the innovators.

What’s missing is that as a group they don’t have the policy “hooks” for community. This is not surprising, as the question of how government can engage with diffused communities of interest, communities of practice and ethnic and geographic communities is a difficult problem to solve. The aspirations are huge, but resources are limited for now. But the problem is solvable and inexpensive, thanks in part to the BarCamp ethos and social media practices.

What’s being done?

  • Benchmarking Study (where does Toronto rank in the world)
  • Marketing Program development (Toronto as preferred location for large companies)
  • ICT Toronto Business Plan development (what is ICT Toronto, it’s role and how will it achieve its stated goals)

The Benchmarking Study is important, because the vision is for Toronto to be #5 in the world, but we don’t know where we rank today. The Marketing Program is expected and unremarkable, focused as it is on attracting technology companies to locate in the region – just like every other economic development department in every major city in the world. And yes, a real web site is part of the plan. They are also looking to set up an “Ambassadors” program to enable people who can volunteer a small amount of their time and attention while traveling around the world to make the case for Toronto as a place to locate. The boldest idea is to have an “ICT festival”, which could be great or a great disappointment, depending on how it’s done. A series of coordinated and exciting technology events around the region is an interesting idea, but it needs content in order to prevent it from just being lame. This is where culture and community have important roles to play.

In addition there was a presentation by Bill Hutchison, Chair of the i-Waterfront Advisory Council, on plans for ultra-broadband (1-10 GB/s) communities and a major digital media industry hub in the waterfront redevelopment zone.

ICT Toronto Business Plan:

The consultants developing the Business Plan, TSI Inc., presented a preliminary framework for a business plan. What is ICT Toronto? It is not another industry association, it shouldn’t duplicate anything already existing. It is heading toward a private-public partnership funded by government and industry, eventually with a CEO and staff working towards the stated vision. The consultants were looking for input into the plan. What should be its priority activities? What would demonstrate a quick success? What is the preferred startup mode? What would allow ICT Toronto to gain the financial and in-kind support from the private sector it needs to make a real impact?

What Should ICT Toronto Become?

I made as impassioned a plea as I could muster for the need for ICT Toronto to define itself as a convening body for the various communities of practice, interest and geography that make up the technology scene in the Toronto region. Developing an organizational and governance structure, hiring a CEO, getting funding in place are all important in the long run. But activity cannot wait for that infrastructure if ICT Toronto wants to achieve its goals in its stated timeframe…it will simply be too late.

Meanwhile, various communities of practice like BarCamp and others are doing great things on a daily basis around the region that create excitement, exchange knowledge and connect innovators to experience, talent and capital. These communities are important partners and strategic levers that can support the achievement of the vision. ICT Toronto needs to tap into them, support them and bring them together.

What is a Quick Win?

The best way to startup such an undertaking and create some excitement that draws in the various stakeholders to a collective project is to convene the communities and companies in a major forum, using Open Space or unconference methods to allow the passionate citizens of the community to participate, set priorities and pool resources. ICT Toronto cannot set a top-down direction without bottom-up legitimacy and support. Bringing everybody together is a first step towards a coherent strategy and plans for the future.

How Can ICT Toronto be Resourced?

ICT Toronto needs to define its value proposition to the large companies and government partners that can bring financial support and to the communities that can provide legitimacy, excitement, new ideas and in-kind support. In order to do this, mapping the value exchanges between the various actors in the ecosystem would be a good start to define that value proposition. Convening the companies and communities in a major forum offers the opportunity to articulate that value proposition. ICT Toronto should not be a charity, it needs to worth investing in and have a business case to support itself.

Future Directions:

One of the committee members is looking for volunteers to help define the content of the ICT Toronto web site. A group will be coming together on October 19th to do a workshop on the Business Plan, and I plan to contribute to that. The next meeting of the ad-hoc ICT Toronto committee will be November 30th, post the municipal election.

One of my recommendations for right now is for ICT Toronto to invite members of the Toronto technology blogging community together to learn more about what is underway, engage their creative energy and create an ongoing line of communication that can further engage the communities that follow these influential bloggers:

Joey deVilla, David Crow, Jay Goldman, Mark Evans, Rob Hyndman, Mathew Ingram, Michael McDerment, Robert Oulette, Stuart MacDonald, Tom Purves, Rick Segal, Bryce Johnson

It is by embracing the emerging and established leaders of the Toronto technology community and their energy that ICT Toronto will be able to do something that is worth talking about. Otherwise, it risks becoming irrelevant in a very competitive world, where cities around the world are attempting similar strategies in this sector.

15 thoughts on “ICT Toronto progress?”

  1. I think Joey’s stuffed-shirt martini-swilling golf buddies slam is on the mark. Of course their business-plan consultants think it should be a public-private partnership: government ponies up the cash, and these people get to blow it. What could be more fun?

    Their focus on getting large tech companies to relocate to Toronto points out how completely bogus this exercise is. Innovation comes from small companies on a Mission From God. Large companies, from Microsoft to ATI to CGI can locate in Toronto or on on the moon, and it will make a very marginal difference on the *Campers and the people ICT claim to be trying to reach out to. This sounds like an insincere effort to package and pitch Toronto, rather than (say) a sincere effort to make it a genuinely appealing place to live.

    I run a small company, and here’s what I would absolutely *love* to have in this city. (1) A made-in-Toronto version of Paul Graham’s Y-combinator. (2) An inexpensive, tech-centered business development incubator with cheap office space, shared semi-public space for the techies to interact, located somewhere interesting and cool.

    I’m aware of the City-funded Toronto BDC at Sudbury and King. It’s great. It’s also impossible to get into. I’ve also looked at space in MARS. Hard to see through all the bureaucracy, but it looks equally impossible to get in.

  2. Stephen, ICT Toronto’s strategy report does recognize the importance of incubators and the need to improve beyond what we already have here. And David Crow and others have done some initial work on Innovation Commons, which looks promising. Hopefully those efforts result in some of the things you’re hoping for.

    As for their main focus on large tech companies, I think that will not change because their goal (top 5 in the world) seems very much to be based on the number of local tech industry employees. We definitely need to continue to impress upon them is that they should remember all of the smaller companies that make up the ‘long tail’ when you’re just counting the number of employees.

    Anyway, what I think is that ICT Toronto may eventually have something to offer the TorCamp community, but what the TorCamp folks do among ourselves in the meantime can potentially be far more fruitful.

  3. I’m with Stephen. We don’t need any studies or marketing plans or business plans, no matter how well intentioned. If ICT wants actual results (frankly I’m a bit skeptical that it does, given that such organizations usually think plans are results), it should put in place the infrastructure that people like Stephen are looking for.

    Imagine ICT-created workspace(s) in good location(s) where very small tech businesses could operate and share ideas and egg each other on, including the single-person outfits who currently have to work in isolation at home or in coffee shops. They could even be called Innovation Commons, per http://www.InnovationCommons.ca . Obvious locations are the King/Spadina new-media zone and Liberty Village (perhaps starting with the latter, where there is reasonably cheap space available quickly).

    If ICT did that, it would gain instant credibility, appreciation, and importance in the community. And not only would it move Toronto toward ICT’s ultimate goals, but it would automatically create a dialogue space between ICT and the “community” where ICT could get quick feedback on its ideas and activities, instead of creating plans and waiting years to find out whether they were any good.

    How about it, ICT? Are you willing to do something instead of talking about it?

    (By the way, Mark, there are actually a few of us with grey hair in the community. Not many though. I think it’s mostly just lack of interest, but unfortunately a cult of youth does also exist. There’s a reason that I don’t usually tell people how old I am.)

  4. I neglected above to address Stephen’s comment about the size of enterprise that ICT is trying to attract.

    If ICT is only about attracting large companies to locate here (just like every other city of our size), it may be pointless for any of us in the community to try to influence them, because all we can promise is an organic growth model rather than any big wins like an announcement from Giga Corporation that it will build an R&D centre employing 1000 people. But Mark’s observations about ICT suggest that at least some of those involved are sincerely interested in the community of small companies. I would suggest a two-track approach that addresses the needs of the small separately from those of the large. I don’t think we can hope to stop ICT from going down the road of Bigco Bliss, but perhaps we can push for a second, separate, initiative to address the community of the small. We can emphasize that one advantage of doing so is to give ICT some early accomplishments to point to, while it simultaneously meanders down the road of the multi-year planning that it thinks “really matters”.

  5. I have been involved with the advisory group from the beginning (when they did the initial RFP for to pick the consulting company to develop the overall strategy). Being my first involvement in a government initiative, I was and continue to be amazed at the slow progress. But putting that aside, at least there is a target date by the end of the year to develop a business plan. This will hopefully put a stake in the ground and allow things to move forward.

    The biggest issue with ICT Toronto is there is going to be a very diverse audience it needs to cater to in order to achieve its goal of making Toronto a top 5 ICT cluster. i.e.

    ICT workers
    Toronto is a vibrant ICT hub with a robust job market with lots of companies working on leading edge technologies

    Students
    The ICT field offers an interesting career with good job prospects & Toronto has universities that are world renowned in the ICT field

    Entrepreneurs
    Toronto has a strong ICT hub to support emerging companies in terms of university linkages, talent, funding, and a marketplace

    CEOs
    Toronto has a strong ICT hub to support corporate R&D and product development centers

    Investors
    Toronto offers good deal-flow of start-up companies seeking investment

    General public
    The Toronto ICT hub is an important contributor to the region / economy & ICT companies in Toronto have produced new technologies that have improved our standard of living

    Politicians
    Importance of the ICT hub in terms of tax base, job creation

    Associations
    ICT Toronto can complement the activities of your association and make the ICT sector stronger through a unified voice

    Educational institutions
    Toronto offers a strong ICT hub to support the commercialization of academic research

    Each of these areas has existing people, groups, organizations doing good work. There is no need to try replicate or subsume them under umbrella of ICT Toronto. Nor is there a need to try “micro-manage” them as they will all rightfully have different agendas, interests that ICT Toronto may not care about. What is required is an lighweight overall organization that can be the focal point.

    It needs a visible leader that can identify & lead a limited set of top issues that we agree should be tackled (i.e. the ideas of the world class conference or immigration issues that were mentioned at the meeting). This person/group can then look to tap into/mobilize all of the various other entities that can contribute/help pull this together. The other entities can collectively contribute to this so for these top few issues we feel strongly about, we have a coordinated effort. However, they still actively pursue their own goals/objectives to provide value to the own stakeholders.

    So my personal approach on this is to wait for them to sort out their business plan / pick a leader. After that it will be a lot easier to understand/influence the direction. For the areas where there is synergy ICT Toronto can be tapped into to help complement initiatives that each entity is working on.

  6. simple POC to see where this ICT is heading is to ask them to sponsor the next years BarCampEarth event in Toronto. Can and will they step up to the plate ?? After all , its budget time and can easily do this -correct ??

    I wonder who hard it will be for them ICT, to get a small little fund allocation to sponsor an event which is not run by any company, any individual or where the responsibility is shared by the community.

    Joey, is spot on with his comments.

    Having had experiences within working and policy groups at the directorate level with the government, all I can say is , be rest assured- when their budgets are completed and no more funds available or someone at city hall feels like throwing the entity under the bus, the entity will be closed down. That’s the nature of the beast !!

    Sincere advise, take the advise of Joey and Rohan !! :)-

    ‘nuf said

  7. Hi, Mark ..

    Great summary of the issues and challenges with ICT. I want to echo Deborah’s comment — women need to be involved in this initiative and in your suggested list of bloggers. Leesa Barnes, Sandy Kemsley, Jen Nolan, Malgosia Green, Estelle Havva, Julia West, Sacha Chua, Jen Schachter.

    Following on the heels of the recent “Future of Web Apps” in San Francisco, a conf where all the speakers were men and all but one were white, Chris Messina wrote a great post about why men must be concerned about diversity. It is available at http://factoryjoe.com/blog/2006/09/15/the-future-of-white-boy-clubs/

    If Toronto has any hope of being the top 5 anything in the world, we must ensure that there are a diversity of voices and perspectives collaborating on these initiatives.

    Cheers … Kate

  8. As much as I agree that female bloggers should be included as part of the “influential” list that Mark mentions, I feel compelled to point something out: Silicon Valley, the main target of Chris Messina’s white-male-domination comments, is not only top-5 but is #1 in the world, and by a long way. Diversity is evidently not a requirement for success in “ICT”.

    To me, this suggests that we can instead view diversity as one of Toronto’s competitive edges – and if the goal is to “compete” with other cities so that we’re in the top 5 while some other city isn’t, surely any competitive edges we have should be exploited to the fullest. For instance, as I’ve commented elsewhere, we can produce multilingual applications where the Valley might just produce English. As the Web becomes less and less English, we could accomplish a lot in the global marketplace (and the insular Valley might not even notice).

  9. Wow…great comments. Thank you for demonstrating exactly why ICT Toronto needs to engage this community.

    On Diversity:

    I agree with the comments here about the need for diversity and diversity as a source of strength and differentiation for Toronto. Women are part of our community, as are people from very diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Immigrant Canadians provide a powerful link to global markets.

    Good Ideas, Worth Pursuing: Y-Combinator, early stage investment; Sponsorship for BarCampEarth; Innovation Commons space

    I could envision Innovation Commons hubs of shared workspace, cafe and social gathering space across the Toronto region, located in or close to existing technology clusters. Innovation Commons provides space where entrepreneurs come to meet and where the garage startup can get out of the garage; space where people working at established companies come to hang out and pursue their next thing; space where the community comes together on a daily basis and at regular events to exchange knowledge; space where ideas meet talent, knowledge and capital.

    I will forward these comments to Alicia Bulwik and see if there is any interest in convening a meeting with the Toronto technology bloggers listed above.

    Keep the conversation going…

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