Updated: ICT Toronto Strategy

The ICT Toronto strategy launch event at MaRS marked an important milestone in the development of a vibrant technology community in the city. It wasn’t exactly a barn-burner as far as these events go, but it was great to hear from Mayor David Miller. More of interest to policy wonks and strategy nerds like me than to a broad technology audience, the event brought out a selection of well-suited professionals along with the “dungarees”, i.e. the BarCamp crowd. David, Sutha, Joey, Jay, Bryce and I were noticeably underdressed (Tom always looks good). Joey does a good job summarizing the main elements of the ICT report on the Accordion Guy blog. [Updated]: Rob Hyndman posts some good points here.

The strengths of the Toronto ICT (that’s “Information & Communications Technology” for you non-policy wonks) cluster are formidable. Toronto is the third biggest cluster in North America, next to Silicon Valley and New York. Interestingly, Toronto also has the third biggest entertainment cluster in North America, as well as having a very strong Financial Services cluster. The combination of these assets have the potential to be much greater than the sum of their parts, but there are deep structural barriers to be overcome. During Q&A, I was glad to hear David Ticoll take on one of those structural barriers – the dominance of U.S. transplants in Toronto’s cluster in the context of the acquisition of innovative companies and talent by U.S.-based multinationals.

Retaining and repatriating top tier talent is a theme that keeps appearing in my work, and this to me appears to be one the biggest challenges to be overcome in achieving this strategy’s goals. Companies and talent will go to where the capital, quality of life and the appreciation of their work is. If sources of capital are not sufficiently knowledgeable about emerging technologies and business models, innovative businesses will direct their attention to where they can find that capital. It is natural for innovative firms to look south for the validation and resources they need to realize their commercialization plans. What can the city of Toronto do about this structural barrier? How will the financial community rise to the challenge? How can talent be so embedded into the community that it won’t want to leave?

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A Creative Renaissance?

Excuse my disconnected ramblings, but the many inspirational ideas floating around my mind these days have prompted more questions, and I don’t have the answers. So here they are, in raw form. I hope they spark a conversation.

Community is the framework. BarCamp is a platform. So are mesh, iSummit and NXNE. MaRS is a container. So is Artscape. There is a need for others.

What is the content? Why, it’s the people, of course!

How do these pieces come together? Is some kind of chaotic order emerging from the cacophony of individual voices and organizations with their diverse, and at times conflicting, creative aspirations?

Who will build the superstructure of the Creative City? What is the social infrastructure demanded by creative people of the places where creativity and innovation will arise? How can sustainable investments be made into that social infrastructure in a way that doesn’t try to “manage” these complex and dynamic social systems within a traditional mechanistic industrial- or social-policy approach?

Culture Plan Creativecity

There is a tremendous buzz and a creative vitality building around the city of Toronto. In the future, this period may be seen as the beginning of a renaissance that marked Toronto’s entry into the pantheon of world-class creative cities. Or it may be seen in retrospect as yet another missed opportunity.

Every creative professional owes it to themselves and their community to participate in this renaissance if it is to exist. Create art, teach, start a new business, launch a new product, invest in the creative potential of your community, pass on your wisdom to the next generation, help build something, enter new markets, celebrate our winners, embrace and learn from your failures.

Can we all become city-builders? Can we build our city while at the same time pursuing our individual dreams within it? What is the link between geographic communities and global communities in a World that [may be] Flat? Is creativity a human right? Is there a natural tension between “creativity-as-human-right” and copyright? Can a culture and a society learn to embrace the rebels and the rule-breakers without trying to tame them? Can the creative spark within all of us be looked upon as holy and deserving of respect?

What is the ROI on community-building? Can the economics of open-source software provide some clues?

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Toronto vs. Google

In a knowledge-based economy, the primary economic battleground is for top-tier talent. In the software space, the 800-pound Gorilla in terms of recruitment is Google. I watched Google’s recruiting video recently, and was struck by how Google positions itself and the types of programs that Google uses to attract the best and the brightest in the world.

How can innovative small to medium-sized companies compete in this global battle for talent? The ability to pay high salaries is important, of course, as is oft-cited but rarely delivered “quality of life”. Is every software company going to be able offer free gourmet organic meals, onsite daycare and 20% time for personal projects? No, not likely. But there are opportunities for groups or clusters of businesses to cooperate in partnership with their home-base communities to strategically provide the kind of quality of life benefits that highly mobile global talent is seeking.

Meanwhile, Canada’s job market is tightening, with recent employment figures showing unemployment at a 32-year low. Apparently, we can thank the high price of oil and Canada’s increasing status as a major petro-exporter as a driving force of this. (25,000 people migrated to oil-rich Alberta in the 4th quarter, a pace of migration not seen since 1980). This is good news for Canadians looking for work. But it is making life difficult for those companies that need to attract and retain the best and brightest talent around the world in order to stay competitive in a global marketplace.

The first, and most important, attraction for top creative and technical talent is working on something truly remarkable. Business needs to offer talent the opportunity to create meaning by providing supportive creative environments and smart business models that can leverage the creative energy of the best and brightest. (i.e. Don’t bother paying big bucks to attract star talent if your product is crap.) If you want to understand how to position your business to attract this kind of talent, I highly recommend Richard Florida’s “Rise of the Creative Class“, where he describes the personal and professional preferences of creative talent, as well as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s “Good Business: Leadership, Flow and the Making of Meaning” which describes the psychology of creativity at work.

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Toronto web-buzz generates migration talk?

Stowe Boyd, a well-recognized visionary and “industry maven” in web-ville, was in Toronto recently and is coming back for mesh. With all the buzz Toronto’s getting right now, our reputation as a place for creative, leading-edge thinking and work is being enhanced. This is the kind of thing that proves out Richard Florida’s thesis.

I welcome Stowe’s half-serious emigration ponderings. I, for one, would be happy to help unload some boxes from the moving van. My preferred beer is Steam Whistle. While in Toronto for the mesh conference, we’d be happy to provide a tour of Liberty Village and the Distillery District. Maybe somebody can hook the man up with Lord of the Rings tickets.

Stowe, when it comes to relocating your new venture, “advisory capital” company “A Working Model”, Toronto’s DemoCamp community will welcome you with open arms. In fact, we’ve got some interesting ideas brewing for the next stage of community-building. I invite you to sign-up for BarCampToronto 2.0 the weekend prior to mesh and we’ll talk massively parallel innovation pipelines.

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ICT Toronto Cluster Development Strategy: April 19th

I am going to this event at (where else?) MaRS on April 19th. (ICT is “Information & Communications Technology”, for you non-policy wonks out there). It should be of interest if you care about the entrepreneurial and economic vitality of Toronto’s technology community. Or it might just be another good opportunity to schmooze in the atrium at MaRS.

I believe that the three levels of government that developed this strategy need to hear from and see the emerging community that is self-organizing around TorCamp and other communities of practice in ICT and related clusters. ICT is not just big metal, telecom and enterprise software. It is also the web, digital entertainment and social media. These different poles of such a diverse industry spectrum have very different needs, and my hope is that any development strategy reflects that diversity.

If not, well then there is no better opportunity than this strategy launch event for the community to engage with the political, academic and policy folks. Get heard.

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Ontario Budget: Cities, Creativity & Innovation

The interesting times continue in the technology and creative industries in Ontario and the Toronto region. I thought I would post a summary of today’s Ontario provincial budget speech, as it relates to research and innovation, the technology and creative industries and creative communities.

The big theme here is that cities, creativity and innovation are becoming major areas of government attention and investment. This is necessary to help transform the Ontario economy from it’s industrial present to its knowledge and creativity-driven future. Livable cities, cultural vitality and social inclusion of disenfranchised communities are central to achieving these goals. (See Richard Florida)

Given the macroeconomic context and the nature of global competitiveness, I expect that future budgets and governments will continue to invest in these areas. This is not a momentary blip or flavour of the month, but the beginning of a steady march of change. This transition marks a historical opportunity for creative professionals, innovators, community builders and social entrepreneurs to step up and carve out a place for themselves in this future.

A long-ish overview of some key areas that won’t be extensively covered in mainstream media follows, along with my thoughts and perspective on the underlying issues. After the jump…

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Toronto Hydro MuniFi Disruption redux

If you’ve been living under a rock, you may not have heard about Toronto Hydro Telecom getting into the community wifi broadband business. I for one was surprised to find out that Toronto Hydro had a telecom subsidiary. It turns out, they’re not the only ones.

Here is a nice overview of community wifi projects around North America from the Globe & Mail. Hanna’s asking the right questions over at Wireless Toronto:

Also (curiously) absent from any coverage of this plan is mention of UTC Canada, “a trade association focused on addressing the critical telecommunications issues for utilities and energy companies in Canada and the providers of telecommunications infrastructure or information technology services.�

Remember, these are electrical utilities. A picture is presenting itself of a dormant fibre optic network that has the potential to access almost every telephone pole and/or lamp-post in Southern Ontario. Forgive me for getting myself excited over the prospect of clusters of municipal wifi mesh networks all over the place, but consultant-bloggers need to get out of the house more often.

Is it time to start thinking of broadband as a utility?

It is clear that it is in the public interest to have ubiquitous broadband, and wireless offers a low cost alternative for delivering that last mile. We are long overdue for a proper debate on the topic of the “digital divide”, and this development provides an opening. In disenfranchised communities both inside and outside the city people – kids – do not have access to the single most important technology that is the platform for the knowledge-based economy of the future. I would love to see a GIS map of the city showing the correlation between broadband penetration and average income. Any Regent Park bloggers out there? Arm kids with broadband, inexpensive laptops and provide them with access to video/audio gear and watch a flowering of creative and economic vitality in this city in the years that follow.

And don’t get me started on gun violence and its connection to social and economic exclusion.

Rogers, Telus & Bell may not like this idea, but where is the consensus in the public interest? Telecom is ripe for serious disruption, IMHO.
Thti Utel-8.5X11-2

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