JWR Articles: Commentary - CityAge 2015 - Build the Future (Featured speaker: Kevin Lynch) - October 12, 2015

CityAge 2015 - Build the Future

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Whose future shall we build? – Part 1

This installment of the fascinating CityAge series (cross-reference below), got off to an interesting start after it became clear that the speakers (without benefit of “knowing” each other’s comments ahead of time, one assumes) were bringing decidedly different points of view around the same subject matter. Hopefully the proponents of the disparate solutions will have a chance to face off head-to-head before the final curtain falls.

Entitled “Build the Future,” it fell to conference MC Ralph Benmergui to establish the framework and then keep the trains running on time. He succeeded admirably on both counts.

After citing a report in The Globe and Mail that stated two-thirds of Canadians now live in the suburbs, that table was deftly set for the overarching topic of establishing the Oshawa-Toronto-GTA-Hamilton-Waterloo (and about an hour later including Niagara) “corridor” as a world-class, largely digital, innovation-driven supercluster that would unleash impressive growth and greatly improve Canada’s place within the global economy.

The official welcome was most appropriately offered by Ilse Treurnicht, CEO, MaRS Discovery District (MaRS being the venue for the two-day event). As others would echo, she broke the ice by congratulating Torontonians for their “recovery from a mayoral adventure”—even out of office, the Rob Ford “effect” continues.

Treurnicht went on to succinctly explain the mission of MaRS: “We build capacity by giving innovators tools…and break down barriers [for them to reach markets].” In her view, now is the time for cities to more formally link their innovation activities, become a “Petri dish to tackle complex challenges,” and strengthen local capacity with a view to amplifying their presence on the global stage.

Next up was a presentation by David Wolfe, Co-Director, Innovation Policy Lab, University of Toronto, who continued the theme of “all for one” by extolling the virtues of “City-Regions,” and the importance of grouping “ourselves as a set of cities.” The aforementioned corridor currently has a combined population of eight million. For Wolfe, silos are no more welcome on the much-needed voyage to increased GDP. Happily, he reminded the delegates of the important value of the cultural-creative sector in terms of attracting “talent” who are just as interested in their off hours endeavours as their work.

No doubt In concert with the view of the next speaker, Lynch touted the financial services sector as a key driver for digital products (in part to ward off the perceived challenges posed by the “FinTech Revolution,” which keeps many traditional bankers up all night). What’s the biggest hurdle to overcome? There is no regional brand: “We failed miserably [with 1999 amalgamation]…[and are] not viewed in the world as one region [we’re] still too fragmented.”

Having heard all of that, Benmergui (now living in Hamilton) opined that bigger may not be better for the average citizen as that could lead to the “surrender of ‘place’ identity.”

Strongly reinforcing the importance of Canada’s place in the global market, Kevin Lynch, Vice-Chair, BMO Financial Group, warned of the dangers of doing nothing when (a) the rate of change is unprecedented and (b) simultaneously the global growth rate is slowing: “Ignoring global trends is not a choice…. Are we ready to be a global disrupter?”

He also bemoaned Canada’s poor showing amongst other countries in many arenas (e.g., Canada’s productivity is 30% less than the U.S.). More than ever before, he explained, “We need pioneers and frontier firms” in order to raise the innovation bar and take our place alongside Silicon Valley. “Canada being in the top 25 clusters worldwide is not good enough; we need to be in the top 5.”

To this point, the future looked relatively bleak: we seem to lack the will to work together across boundaries, we don’t boast enough (Canada’s recent Nobel laureate—Arthur B. MacDonald sharing the Physics Prize with Japan’s Takaaki Kajita—was cited as wonderful example), we have no talent/investment-enticing brand and we are lagging behind other countries, many of which are smaller than our own.

Hopefully, the ensuing session, “Building a Global Supercluster,” would offer a roadmap to success. JWR

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Featured speaker - Kevin Lynch
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