Thanks to Doug Ford, most Torontonians know that we live in a very literate city –a city of the arts. We know that our city is home to literary giants like Margaret Atwood, one of the world’s great novelists. They’ve come to see that this isn’t merely of interest to some snobbish artistic elite. They have come to see that at the base of this boiling pot of creativity is economic engine brings that hundreds of millions of dollars into our city every year and creates thousands of jobs.
What many haven’t yet realized is that within this same city is another equally creative centre — one that attracts some of the greatest minds in technology — the third largest technology centre in North America.
Most don’t realize that when they are riding the subway or walking down Yonge street, they could be standing beside some of the giants of the tech industry. To take only one example, how many average Torontonians know their city is home to Mark Surman. Who is Mark Surman? For those who don’t know him, Mark is the Executive Director of the Mozilla Foundation, which, among many, many things brings us Firefox. You might not know Mark, but you would have to have been vacationing off the planet to not know what Firefox is. But did you know how it’s linked to our city? Probably not.
In fact, most Torontonians really do not know how much prosperity the tech sector brings to the city. How much prosperity?My friend and Allan Wilson and I were trying to guess how much this was. Over a glass of red, we did our “off the cuff” calculations. There are literally thousands of technology start-ups in this city. While some are tiny, a portion of these companies go on to be giants like RIM. Those “Cinderella” stories get a lot of attention. But for every RIM, there are many, many others who achieve a more modest footprint. We decided to be very conservative and peg that at the bottom level of 5 to 10 million in sales. This is not a huge sales figure for a moderately successful early-stage tech company. Here’s where it gets impressive. If only 100 of these companies reached those numbers, then they alone would account for a billion dollars of sales in the Toronto economy. A billion dollars. Without all the other spin-offs, even that would be impressive. As one politician once remarked, “a billion here, a billion there — soon you are talking real money!”
But the reason we don’t know about these companies is that for the most part they are heads down, hard at work, trying to survive and thrive in a hyper-competitive global economy. There’s not a lot of time for flag waving or even socializing.
That’s why events like Technicity are so important. For those who don’t know it, Technicity is a once a year event sponsored by a number of groups — including the City of Toronto and IT World Canada – publishers of CIO Canada and ITBusiness.ca and a number of corporate sponsors who support this great endeavour. The event brings together people from the technology community, business and government to step back for a moment and focus on the bigger picture. In the words of Mark Surman, we can look at how we can make the type of environment that will help Toronto’s technology community make “Toronto like Venice in the Renaissance”.
In all the recent doom and gloom of the past years. With all lost jobs, economic downturns and billion dollar bailouts — when was the last time that you heard a story about growth and vibrancy in an industry sector? When was the last time you heard of a home grown sector that was taking on the world? That’s what we heard in the audience. And it wasn’t just opinion. A series of presenters brought us the facts and figures that showed us the facts. They showed how important this industry was and what a promise it held for the future.
What a breath of fresh air. Not only that, but the organizers did a brilliant job of keeping the facts and figures that we needed into short, focused packets of info. That left time for a series of breakout sessions designed to facilitate dialogue and information exchange.
The energy, the interaction and the spirit literally poured out into the hallways. It permeated the conversations. It facilitated impromptu sessions that filled every nook and cranny as the participants talked, networked, debated and imagined new ideas and possibilities.
I watched as one of the organizers valiantly tried to get participants back into the main session so the next event could start somewhere within the scheduled time. Her job was tough — almost impossible — although somehow we did keep on schedule.
Keeping us organized was harder than you would think. One thing you have to know about the Toronto tech community is that it firmly resists structure. It’s a gloriously eclectic, creative, chaotic and at times almost anarchistic group. As a veteran facilitator of industry sessions, I can tell you that the tech sector in this city makes the Occupy movement look rigid by comparison. Even the fact that Technicity manages to bring this sector together once a year is an accomplishment. The fact that it also facilitates some discussion throughout the year is a triumph. The fact that they kept us on schedule is a miracle.
The entire event is a tribute to the organizers’ ability to, as I once heard it described, “herd butterflies”. This group – this industry — will not be contained. They choose where they will be, where they will meet and where they will live. When you realize this, you realize thatToronto’s leap into the world stage in technical innovation was not planned or created. It grew organically. Why? Well, in large part the tech sector is here for the same reason that Margaret Atwood or a host of artistic giants choose to be here. They come here by choice. The come here because this is a great city to live in. Things like funding and infrastructure are necessary — but they are not sufficient. On panel after panel you would hear the same thing — the best talent in the world comes here because it’s a great place to live and work, because it is a hive of activity and creativity.
I was struck by the parallels with the creation of the arts community in this city. There is a necessary amount of funding and infrastructure, much of it provided by governments of all levels. And there is the usual wringing of hands by those who decry this as a waste of funds. In the midst of all of what is great, they will find the tiniest extravagance, the silliest anomaly and tout it to the world as proof that government has wasted what it spends. There are those, to quote Oscar Wilde, who “know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
Others realize the potential. They see the amount of economic activity it generated. In that context, the amount of government investment is preposterously modest. In fact, in a world where governments are frantically trying to created 21st century jobs, where they will spend or risk millions and billions to save old world jobs — it’s hard to imagine anyone begrudging the modest support that this group has required.
In that context , supporting this industry is not always easy for governments. The benefits are not easy to quantify. Other sectors like the financial sector are huddle close to the city core in large towers. It’s hard to miss their presence and their impact.
The tech sector, on the other hand, refuses to be bound by civic boundaries. While there are areas of focus, it is spread out from Markham to Spadina. In fact, if truth be told — it extends all the way to Kitchener/Waterloo. Civic pride might create the boundaries — but the tech community moves easily and seamlessly across the gridlock of the 401 to work, collaborate and create. They work in everything from lofts to warehouses. For many, work and home life bleed together. I heard one company talk about how the founder needed a bigger condo to house all their staff.
Some like it this way. For others, it is a necessity. Many startups just don’t have the money. Despite where they end up — almost all pass through very early stages where they are little more than great ideas, brilliant minds and energetic collaboration. Those that grow find that the journey from idea to revenue is a long one. The successful learn to conserve cash. Unless they need premises to make sales or to be near a customer — fancy offices are a luxury that few can afford.
It’s why many of us believe that Starbucks is the largest technology office space in Toronto. The coffee is expensive, but it’s cheaper than rent. There are tables to work on and the bandwidth is free. It’s not a joke. It’s also not always optimal. It’s a meeting place, but it’s not an infrastructure that you can use to develop a company. It doesn’t provide what so many of take for granted in other industries. Even at the rents they pay, even with the gridlock there are reasons why so many companies stay in the downtown core. One reason is the elaborate underground system that means that even in winter you can wander around and meet people in your “neighbourhood”. Chance meetings, networking and collaboration all happen in a “small town” within a huge city.
The tech industry, despite it’s anarchistic tendencies, craves something like this. Time after time I heard people looking for ways to meet, to work, to network and to build collaboratively. Let me be clear. Nobody that I talked to was looking for more structure. While they spoke with respect and even gratitude for the many “incubators” in the city, nobody seemed to be looking for another of these.
Not surprising for an industry that has grown up on the the web — what they wanted was not a fixed structure or organization. They wanted something useful, ubiquitous and transitory. They wanted something with the freedom of “open space” with the permanence to support them as needed. Fitting to an industry that is exists because they are imagining the future not predicting it — they wanted something that might not have been invented yet.
As I set my mind to thinking about how you plan something like this, an idea came to me. I thought about the idea of Grid computing. Remember that? To quote grid computing.com, “Grid aims at exploiting synergies that result from cooperation–ablity to share and agregrate distributed computational capabilities and deliver them as service”. Grid is also wonderfully anarchistic, collaborative. It’s also an idea that simply won’t go away. Whether the original concept was successful or not, I’m not sure. I do know that the immense power of the huge cloud networks – Amazon, Google and others — would not have been possible without it.
I wondered if that was more the model of support that our tech sector needs. Could we have a “support network” on that same model? Could it not be highly structured, but instead fit the needs of the players, regardless of size? Could it be done not by adding new resources, but by using the the unused, the temporary surplus — resources that had a negligible incremental cost but tremendous value. If you think of the average corporation, most have to be structured handle peak volumes and demands. From bandwidth to premises, like the computers on our desks, we often have excess capacity. For most of the time that extra capacity is unused and wasted. So in the same way that the Grid computing movement sought to use wasted computer capacity – could we find a way to use other capacity in the system?
What would that be? One obvious would be space – companies often need that, at least temporarily. Another might be bandwidth. These are the obvious. The potential is enormous and goes beyond space and bandwidth. Once our ears were attuned to a new concept, we will hear and see more and more needs that one could try to imagine in this new way. One company talked about the need for graphic design. Another talked about the need for management expertise. Once you start having the conversation in these terms, our own innate desire to innovate takes over and the possibilities are endless.
Once my mind started to embrace the concept, my healthy skepticism raised its head. Questions arose. Okay, it’s fine to think about sharing, but how would you make that practical. If you take the idea that corporate resources are like nodes on a network, each with some spare capacity — you have to figure out how to traverse the inevitable “firewalls”. After all, these are businesses. They don’t let just anyone in.
Another thought. Is this all about taking? Do we have to totally depend on a sense of altruism or civic mindedness so that companies would offer these “surplus” resources? Isn’t there the possibility that these new and budding companies could be more symbiotic? Wouldn’t they have things to offer — even if that were only a fresh spirit of innovation and new ideas?
How would we manage this — both the security and the “value exchange”? How would we implement this in an industry that resists the old “command and control” necessary to build a formal structure?
This will require some real out of the box thinking. But again, the paradigm of the network comes to mind. We have structures in place that trade ideas and information for services. Hundreds of free services require us to trade time, information and sometimes attention for infrastructure. Our digital identification is enabled by a number of structures from tokens to cookies to “open id” structures that let others know we are safe to deal with and even to store value from the exchanges. There are literally hundreds and maybe thousands of examples of this — one of the largest is Gmail. We happily trade information and attention, we sign up for ids on the this system. In return, we get not just free email, but a host of collaborative applications. There’s enough to run a business and it’s there for the taking.
From Google’s point of view, it’s certainly profitable. More than that, the bigger it gets, the cheaper it is to add one more person. The marginal cost keeps going down and down in response to volume and Moore’s law. The value keeps going up, responding to volume and Metcalfe’s law.
So I ask the question. Could we create something that filled the needs of the tech community based on this idea of a network. Could we create a token an identification — a passport to innovation? If we did, what would it look like?
I’d love to to have your comments and ideas on this. Drop me a note on the blog or via linked in or twitter. You can reach me at @therealjimlove