Building a city of innovation

Toronto has the opportunity to excel globally as a leader in nurturing and scaling innovation. In this episode of Shift, guest Councillor Michelle Holland, Chief Advocate for the Innovation Economy for the City of Toronto, talks about the importance of building a city of innovation and the journey to do so, from joining forces with small and large organizations, to attracting talent and diversity, to the efforts to become a smart city.

Duration: 18:42


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Transcript: Building a city of innovation


Jon Finkelstein: Hi. Welcome to Shift, PwC Canada’s podcast series, and we’re digging into key digital trends and topics that can make your business transformation a reality. I’m your host, Jon Finkelstein, and I’m also the Creative Director of PwC Canada. Today, we’re talking about building a city of innovation with our special guest today, Councillor Michelle Holland.

You’re the Chief Advocate for the Innovation Economy of the city. That’s an amazing title. Tell me more about that.

Michelle Holland: Thanks. Well, I’m excited to be here, and thank you so much for inviting me. The first thing I’d like to say is that we’re a city that’s leading. What we found was that instead of being reactive, which is what happens with many governments, we wanted to be proactive. So now I’m leading the charge on different multifaceted fronts of the city.

Primarily, one of the areas that I’m covering is to be collaborative within the different areas of the ecosystem. We have the public institutions, we have private institutions, we have corporations, we have educational systems—also in terms of gender diversity, so we’re hearing a lot about women in tech. A lot of people talk about… how do you actually move the dial with women in tech? I also happen to work with Jodi Kovitz and her Move The Dial initiative. But in terms of the city, what can we actually do? What I’ve been doing is making sure that within our most important corporations, that we’re actually placing women onto those corporate boards.

Another area that I’ve been primarily focusing on is talent—so the attraction and the retention of talent within the city. When I first took over the role in a formal way, I put together an advisory panel. It’s actually an advisory panel full of people across the ecosystem, which is quite amazing. They provide me feedback on what the city should do and the actions the city should take in terms of the innovation economy.

So in terms of that, we’ve been advancing and making sure that we’re doing everything that we can do to attract and retain talent within the city.

Jon Finkelstein: There’s a lot of really exciting stuff going on in Toronto. We’re ...

Michelle Holland: We’re blowing up.

Jon Finkelstein: It’s almost like every day you read something new, whether it’s that Amazon’s coming in... There’s all sorts of excitement, I would say, around our city. I’d love to get your thoughts on, “Why Toronto?” What do you think it is about Toronto that’s so attractive to the tech industry?

Michelle Holland: Well, that’s a loaded question, and there’s a thousand reasons why I could say that Toronto is the place to be. First and foremost, what I’ve noticed over the past few years is, it’s our time. We’re absolutely exploding in terms of our tech and innovation ecosystem. There are multiple rankings. As you know, we read all the time about Toronto being the most livable city. The economists placed us number four out of 140.

We’re diverse, we’re inclusive—which you’re not finding as much in the U.S., so that’s another angle that we’ve been working on. Just sort of having a reverse brain drain, bringing everybody back to Toronto, even from the valley. We have a deep well of knowledge. That’s one of the main pivotal points that I found off of the advisory group and when we did a deep dive into our own ecosystem. We have eight fabulous education institutions right in Toronto, between our universities and our colleges. We have a deep well of talent because of that. They’re producing amazing and highly qualified and highly talented and educated people within the ecosystem, to draw from.

Jon Finkelstein: You’re planning a campaign to promote Toronto. Can you share a little bit about the themes?

Michelle Holland: So, what we found was the fact that Toronto was punching above its weight, but how do we tell that in a concise way to the world? How do we have an elevator pitch, or how does the mayor go abroad or I go abroad, and when we’re in these other cities, how do we give that pitch? What is the pitch? So we’re in collaboration to work together with Toronto Global and a number of other organizations to make sure that we are able to provide that brand and tell that narrative in the story.

Jon Finkelstein: Are you going to tell me the narrative? Can I hear it? I’m curious now.

Michelle Holland: It’s these pieces of Toronto being a livable city. It’s being the fact that we’re one of the least expensive places to set up your business in terms of, if we’re going to do the top rankings from the top cities in North America, it’s most affordable for the talent. You have a deep well of knowledge here, with the institutions. You have your financial sector based here. If you go to the valley or you go to Boston, that’s not the case.

There isn’t another city in North America that has it all like Toronto does. In one year, we’ve added over 21,000 jobs to the tech sector. We have over 200,000 jobs alone within the tech sector. And we’ve been ranked three out of ten as the best tech hub in the world. We have all of these accolades and these rankings and the city that’s the most livable, so we have to make sure that when we get that narrative going, that we have the ecosystem working together to shout out that brand in a cohesive way.

Jon Finkelstein: I have a question. So I was interviewing someone else, and I don’t know whether this is a good question or not, so see how it goes. It was more on the start-up funding side of things, right? So this particular individual, I think he said he takes 500 meetings a year ...

Michelle Holland: Right.

Jon Finkelstein: ... on new tech, start-up, this kind of stuff, which is a ton. And not every meeting leads to something, but one of the things that he said was he’d love to be able to see Canada help companies scale. He thinks that there’s a scale problem. So it’s a great place to innovate, it’s a great place to start, but he’s worried that unlike the U.S. or other parts of the world, we just can’t achieve scale out of Canada. What do you think about that?

Michelle Holland: That’s really interesting because that’s a dialogue that I’ve had numerous times with people. It was a concern, I would say, a few years ago, but it seems to be changing. We were getting a huge amount of accolades being a start-up city—start-up nation. Toronto was the place to do a start-up and, it was, you had that funding and that backing to create that. The problem was the selling out before it was a scaling up.

Now I think that that’s what’s changed. I’m actually hearing from a lot of companies from Hubba, to Shopify to EcoBee… we’ve actually done the work of identifying those companies that are scaling up. Whether they will sell before unicorn … there’s a lot of talk about the fact, there’s a belief that Toronto needs a unicorn in order to make and place our stamp in the world. Whether that’s true or not true, I mean that’s for the ecosystem to really provide and to generate, but in terms of scaling up, I think that Toronto has now become that city to scale up. So I think that was a good point a few years ago, but I do see that changing. And I think that moving forward, we’re going to see that more and more.

Jon Finkelstein: What are the top three things you’re most excited about in relation to innovation and disruption happening in our city?

Michelle Holland: There’s so many. There’s so many. I think what differentiates Toronto from the pack, the number one is obviously our diversity and inclusion, and I would put women in tech as part of that as well, or at least women in technology and innovation and scientists as well. We have a unique identifier with the city in terms of our ability to include and accept people from over 300 nations around the world. We have over 200 languages here in Toronto, so no matter where you come from in the world, you can make your place and space at home here in Toronto. So that would be one.

Number two, I would say the collaboration. Again, even a short few years ago it seemed that we were not as cohesive as what we are today. You see the ecosystem really coming together. There’s a number of key events that have happened, that are happening, that are in the works, to happen here in Toronto.

We’ve got major events from Elevate, we’ve got Collision coming to Toronto, and that’s a way for the ecosystem to come together. And I would just say that Toronto is where it’s at. This is our time. Where else can you go in the world, really, to be in a city that is exploding on the tech scene like Toronto?

The ability to come in here, into this city, and do things that you want to do and be able to start up or scale up your company, there’s nowhere else that you can do it where you have the financial access, that you have the financial sector here in Toronto and the VC backing that you can do it.

Jon Finkelstein: Absolutely. Yeah. Inclusion, collaboration and Toronto is where it’s at.

Michelle Holland: You got it.

Jon Finkelstein: TM.

Michelle Holland: You got it. You got it.

Jon Finkelstein: Amazing, yeah. So I’m wondering, this may be tangential, I don’t know, but I’m reading a lot about various cities across the world, smart cities, all that kind of stuff and I don’t know whether this is in your purview or not (so forgive me if it’s not), but do you see a lot of innovation that’s happening in our city translating to smart city and infrastructure and helping citizens get access and that kind of good stuff?

Michelle Holland: Absolutely. I just came back from Barcelona from the Smart Cities Summit and the Expo, so it was fabulous to be there and seeing what ways we’re advancing and also ways that we could be. We had recent Bloomberg funding and we set up a civic innovation office. And one of the areas that they’re looking at is 311. Obviously with 311, you’re going to eventually have AI and you’ll have disruption within that world, but how do we make sure that we’re upgrading our systems so residents can have access, and also that there’s a modernization within the system?

So there’s a few quick examples. Before you could not get your ferry tickets online and now, wow, you can get your ferry tickets online. I mean, these seem basic, but they’re ways in which the city is advancing.

With the civic innovation office, we’re also looking at procurement. Now that’s a major area that we’re looking at, not just the policy but how we can work with that policy framework in order to make sure that we’re working with companies that would not have had access prior. And they’re able to have that access into and apply to the city and we can work with them in a way that we’ve never done before.

So there’s a lot happening in the city, and that we’re doing, and that we’re evolving and growing. Smart cities is one aspect for sure.

Jon Finkelstein: I’m curious, do you find, within council, is there resistance on anybody’s part or is everybody super into it and they see it? Because we work with big organizations. We work both in private and public sector, and it’s a bit of a mixed bag in terms of how people look at innovation.

Michelle Holland: So historically, governments have been great at blocking innovation or at least tampering with it or slowing it down if need be. Now we’re in an era of the fourth Industrial Revolution. We’ve got an innovation economy where the velocity has changed. So governments can no longer be reactive. They have to be proactive in the sense of working and identifying what’s coming down the pipeline, and also be able to help that in a way that also helps citizens.

There’s been a lot of talk about disruption and the workforce. And we know there’s a large percentage that are going to be affected, so even 30%, 40% could be affected. Now we don’t know if that’s going to be deleted or if it’s just transformational, so governments have to prepare the workforce. I’m doing that, actually. I’ll give a shout out here to my Digital Literacy Day which will be happening in May.

That’s all about digital literacy and leaving nobody behind. The idea behind that was the fact that you have all this disruption coming. You have AI or you have all of these disruptors that are coming in. What can we do to make sure that we’re future-proofing or that we’re educating our residents and skilling up where we need to? And we’re providing a workforce for the future or, really, now. It’s a huge collaboration between our educational institutions with the corporate sector, with private sector, with our public workforce, in making sure that we’re preparing everybody for the future.

There’s so many areas that I could go into in terms of this disruption and making sure that we’re ready for it, but again, governments have to be leading the charge on that instead of trying to prevent it from happening.

Jon Finkelstein: Michelle, we’ve talked a lot about innovation in public and private on the small scale, but I’m curious, do you have any advice for large corporations who are in Toronto or in Canada that want to get on board this innovation-accelerated journey, if you will?

Michelle Holland: Well, I know that it’s harder for larger corporations as well. Just as we’re a large entity, these are slow-moving ships. We’re trying to right the Titanic here and turn things around. It’s hard to do, so I get that the agility and the ability for the large corporation, it’s not as fast. We know that from banks to even with PwC in the large corporations. They’re phenomenal and I think that they do phenomenal work within the ecosystem, but it’s harder for them to be as fluid and dynamic, I think.

But at the same time, I think that where they add value is even through CSR (corporate social responsibility) and other ways, they really do add to the ecosystem. I think they add a lot in terms of their innovation hubs and their innovation labs. Pretty much everybody has one, so I think that there’s opportunity there, and that that’s where they could go deeper into the ecosystem in that regard and play a larger role.

Jon Finkelstein: I think, if I may, a lot of the big companies are victims of their own success.

Michelle Holland: Right.

Jon Finkelstein: Because it’s like, why change it if it’s not broken. I think a lot of companies fall into this sort of fallacy that just because it’s good now means it will be good later. And I don’t think large organizations are doing a good enough of a job of using foresight or foreseeing different future possibilities where disruption can come to play and disrupt their own businesses. It’s tough because they’re successful, right?

So you bring in these innovation labs, you do these sort of side projects as potential ways to innovate or to come up with future things, but the core business isn’t at risk. And when it is, that’s when change happens, but quite often, it’s a little bit too late.

Michelle Holland: That’s right.

Jon Finkelstein: A lot of big organizations, if you use a highway analogy, they’re in the slow lane and the more agile businesses are in the fast lane. I’m not very good at math but I’m sure there’s some equation that says, “If Michelle is travelling 110 kilometers and so-and-so is travelling 50, what’s the difference?” Right?

Michelle Holland: Right.

Jon Finkelstein: It makes no sense, but you know what I mean.

Michelle Holland: I get it. There’s the feeling that they’re not ahead of the curve. They want to maintain status quo because that’s what’s worked historically. It’s worked and that’s what’s produced the big bucks, so why change that? I think it’s leadership at the top. You really need to… every entity has to make sure that leadership at the top is identifying what’s coming down the track. That’s why I was saying with government, it’s the same thing.

You cannot be reactive. You cannot live in this new economy and be reactive. You just cannot do that anymore. So for all of those that are not ahead of the curve or seeing what could be or being agile and dynamic, I think that they will suffer the repercussions.

Jon Finkelstein: Yup. I like to go on record as saying, “Difficult is worth doing.”

Michelle Holland: Right. I like that.

Jon Finkelstein: A lot of stuff is really hard. To do this stuff, it’s hard.

Michelle Holland: That’s right.

Jon Finkelstein: It takes resources, it takes effort, it takes commitment.

Michelle Holland: Well, it takes risk.

Jon Finkelstein: And it takes money.

Michelle Holland: True. Yeah. It has that, I’m going to say “fear factor,” because it’s all about risk, and most of these companies are about risk mitigation and how can we not, or how can we alleviate that or not do it, instead of really putting yourself out there. And governments are the worst for it.

Jon Finkelstein: Glad you said that.

Michelle Holland: I’m going to say it again: historically, we have been the worst at it. For example, we would start a pilot project, and no government wants to admit they were wrong, and so all those pilot projects, guess what happens? They become reality and they roll out and they may suffer long, but they stay there because no bureaucrat or politician wants to admit, “Oh, we used public funds, we used taxpayer money, we did a pilot and guess what? It didn’t work.”

So a bit of that is educating the public to say, we’re in a new economy and we need to be able to hive off money in order to say, “There is going to be some money spent, whether it be a pilot or whether it’s for this change, and guess what? It may not work, but that’s what we need to do because we need to be able to fail in certain areas, and we need to be able to cut off pilots that don’t work and able to admit that they didn’t work.”

That is a bit, again, “risky,” and there’s a lot of fear around that because historically there’s no politician that wants to go out and say, “It didn’t work.” But I’m the first to say that; I think we need to do that. We need to educate the public on that, so I’m leading the charge in that area as well, and saying we have to be able to fail. We have to be able to do things that may not work. We have to be able to roll out pilots that may or may not work because that’s the only way to innovate and change.

Jon Finkelstein: We talk a lot about it in terms of test and learn or we use failure as an opportunity to iterate.

Michelle Holland: That’s right.

Jon Finkelstein: Because you’re never going to get it right the first time.

This was super fun.

Michelle Holland: Okay, good.

Jon Finkelstein: I learned a lot. I hope our listeners learned a lot too. So thank you so much, Michelle, for spending time with us here, giving us your insights, telling us what’s going on, what’s exciting you about Toronto as a tech hub and what we’re doing.

Michelle Holland: Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, Toronto is where it’s at. It’s absolutely… it’s exploding. This is the city. So if you’re out there, this is where you need to be. I’m so excited and happy to be part of it, really, and honoured to have this role in the city, especially at this time. This is really Toronto’s time and I’m excited to be here at PwC and be a part of this conversation. Because in a year from now, or a year and a half from now, you and I will get back together and we can look back and say, “Wow.”

Jon Finkelstein: We’ll be holograms by then.

Michelle Holland: We will be. We could be.

Jon Finkelstein: Cyborgs.

Michelle Holland: Yeah. Delivered by drones.

Jon Finkelstein: That’s right. Thanks for listening to this episode of Shift. You can get more details at . If you enjoyed this episode and want to hear more, subscribe to our podcast series. You can find us on iTunes, Google Play or your preferred podcast platform. Just so you know, this podcast has been prepared by PricewaterhouseCoopers, LLP, an Ontario limited liability partnership, for general guidance on matters of interest only and does not constitute professional advice. Until next time.

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