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Monday, October 16, 2006

ICT Toronto - and Toronto's mayor

I blogged earlier about an upcoming meeting with ICT Toronto, an organization which wants to be “the forum where [Information and Communications Technologies] organizations, firms and other stakeholders come together to advance the interest of the Toronto region ICT industry cluster”. Although a bunch of us with blogs were there, including some who had made somewhat inflammatory comments about ICT Toronto, since the meeting only two attendees have posted about it (I’m the third, and it’s been 11 days already): Joey deVilla gave a quick summary of the meeting, and David Crow wrote about a specific thing that had emerged at the meeting, namely the need for a new organization.

I think our lack of energy around this is interesting in itself. Have the firebrands let off steam and lost their energy, or have we been assimilated, or have we just admitted defeat?

Yesterday I was at a lunch event with Toronto’s Mayor David Miller, at the invitation of the organizer who is a friend of mine. I sat at the same table as the organizer and the mayor (no, I didn’t crash it; there was a placecard with my name on it) and during some discussion took the opportunity to mention ICT Toronto and Toronto’s lack of prominence in the tech world, including our poor showing relative to the nearby small city of Waterloo. My rant was met with a nearly complete lack of interest on the part of my five tablemates. The only reaction was this from one person: “But Waterloo’s a one-trick pony, isn’t it?” I replied “Yes, but it’s a big trick”, which elicited no further comment.

There was an additional minor outcome when the mayor gave his speech: he mentioned a bunch of areas in which Toronto can excel and included “ICT”. Since nobody in the audience would have had any clue what “ICT” referred to, other than me, I’m sure he said this only out of politeness toward me. More interesting was that he mentioned this recent achievement of the city: the opening in Toronto’s downtown of the Canadian headquarters of SAS, which he explained is the world’s largest privately held software company. The key point was that SAS wanted to locate where its employees want to live, in the central city and not out in the suburbs, i.e. good news for Toronto which has been losing businesses to its neighbouring suburbs where land is cheaper and municipal taxes are lower. Now, SAS is in the ICT sector but you would never have known it. Clearly all that mattered was that it was big enough to put up a building in downtown Toronto.

I conclude that in places like Silicon Valley and Waterloo there is a lot of awareness of the importance of the tech industry, because it represents a significant percentage of the local economy. Here in Toronto tech is just another sector. Never mind that it’s large: what matters is its percentage share, which is low, and hence its mindshare.

One of the questions the mayor took from the audience was from writer and strategic-communications consultant Pauline Couture, who expressed her shock at Torontonians’ passivity in accepting whatever minimal funding the federal and provincial governments feel like doling out to us. She explained that she was from Montréal where the local elite are quite active on representing their city’s interests. I’m from Montréal myself and am similarly mystified despite having lived in Toronto for over 20 years, so after the mayor’s speech I collared him and asked him more about how to counter this problem. He doesn’t think getting mad will work and that we just have to keep pushing for what we want. I suppose he’s right — I guess Torontonians are just spineless. (Now watch people prove me wrong by threatening me for saying that.) This doesn’t augur well for ICT Toronto, which really needs some fire behind it. Anyway, I got back to the subject of ICT Toronto with Mayor Miller, and mentioned my frustration at the meeting with the lack of a sense of urgency. He tensed up a bit and I’d clearly connected with his own general frustration at trying to accomplish things as mayor (Toronto currently has a “weak mayor” system though that’s about to change somewhat): I forget his exact comment but it amounted to “That is not adequate; we need to GET THINGS DONE!” (He was speaking, but I could hear the capitals.)

My gut feeling is that even if ICT Toronto becomes more energetic it will still have its work cut out for it: Torontonians just don’t really care about the tech industry, just like the rest of Canada doesn’t really care about Toronto (other than as a place to throw insults at). What I think is worth putting our energies into is the new organization that we need to create. Comments welcome.

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