Toronto Tech Week helps spread the word

Canada's information and communication technology (ICT) sector doesn't get the respect it deserves after contributing billions of dollars to the economy every year and creating thousands of jobs, says the organizers of a week-long series of events that wrapped up June 1 in Toronto.

"If you stopped people on the street and asked, they probably wouldn't realize Toronto has the third-largest ICT cluster in North America, behind San Francisco and New York," said Dave Forde, the co-chair of Toronto Tech Week. "Technology is vitally important to this city and the country."

A 2004 report funded by the federal, provincial and city governments found the Toronto region's ICT sector was made up of about 3,300 firms and about 148,000 employees.

Total annual sales from the companies were estimated at $30 to $35 billion, including exports of about $6 billion. The government-funded report also said how the industry "contributes substantially to the region's tax base."

But threats to this success are looming. Adapting to increasing foreign investment from the private sector, "offshoring" of manufacturing and services, changing markets and a series of other factors need to be monitored carefully, the report added.

During a followup meeting to the report in May 2006, industry leaders noted several groups and associations existed in Toronto that represented different parts of the ICT industry.

"We needed an event that brought everyone together at the same time," says Forde. "The film industry has the Toronto International Film Festival; the fashion industry has its own Fashion Week; we needed a Tech Week."

The 2004 report noted the Toronto region "suffers from a distinct lack of cohesion within the ICT community; its industrial diversity and geographic spread make this difficult to achieve."

Participants at the meeting were impressed with Forde's ideas so much, they made him the event co-chair, he says.

John Reid, president of the Ottawa-based Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance (CATA), said the branding around Toronto Tech Week is important. Other Canadian cities could hold similar events and develop their own regional messaging.

"This isn't about saying who's bigger. Each city and each province has their own individual strengths. I think Canada is doing a fairly poor job in branding this country as a technology centre," he said.

"If you're not involved in the industry, you have to look at it as the next job for your son or daughter. There is a high-tech aspect to almost every business out there. We tend to mystify high tech when it's everything we do."

One of the major events during Tech Week was the inaugural Canadian Municipal Wireless Conference, organized by the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC).

Delegates to the two-day conference looked at how North American communities have established wireless networks and what impact they had on the local economies.

Other Tech Week activities included a breakfast for "technology innovators" at the Toronto Board of Trade facilities and workshops on everything from setting up a website to getting listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

Mike Williams, senior vice-president of investment attraction for the Toronto Region Research Alliance (TRRA), gave one of the opening speeches for Tech Week on benchmarking the city's efforts against the rest of the world.

In an interview before his speech, Williams said he wasn't satisfied with being the third- largest ICT cluster.

"Torontonians tend to be typically Canadian in underplaying our efforts and being meek and mild," he said. "We need to promote this region even more. We need to continue to strengthen it every chance we get."

But most of the region's technology industry headlines haven't been coming from Toronto over the past month. The spotlight has been on the southwestern Ontario city of Waterloo, home of Research In Motion, creator of the BlackBerry.

Williams was in New York City late last month with municipal officials from around the world when Waterloo was named worldwide Intelligent Community of the Year by the New York City-based Intelligent Communities Forum.

Waterloo, with a population of about 115,000, replaced last year's winner, which was Taipei.

"It was a real boost for us. We were really happy to hear that," says Williams. "Getting the award is a real honour for Waterloo and the entire Toronto region."

Waterloo Mayor Brenda Halloran was in New York to receive the award along with the city's chief administrative officer and a council representative.

The selection committee noted that the city established a group led by Research In Motion chair Jim Balsillie and University of Waterloo president David Johnston to encourage business leaders, academics and local residents at every opportunity.

The day before the Intelligent Communities award was announced, Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited Waterloo and urged business leaders across the country to invest more in technology research and development to ensure Canada wouldn't become a "second-rate economy."

To emphasize the point, Harper announced details of the Conservative government's Mobilizing Science and Technology to Canada's Advantage and how the program would distribute the $9.2 billion set aside in the 2007-08 federal budget.

He chose the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of Waterloo, which has already received $50 million in funding from the Conservatives, to make the announcement.

Harper said he is concerned about Canada's shrinking labour and investment pool, saying enrolment in mathematics and computer science dropped 13 per cent between 2000 and 2005.

He said the new program will boost funding for scholarships to encourage students to pursue their education and careers in research and development.

(David Hatton can be reached at