Together we share the dream of making Hamilton a successful technology city. But to truly succeed in realizing this dream we need leaders who understand the benefits of achieving it.
By Adrian Duyzer
Published February 06, 2014
The following is the text of a speech I gave at DemoCamp on February 4, 2014 at Mohawk College. The DemoCamp audience is mainly technologists (programmers, designers, etc.), so references to "all of you", "this audience" and so on should be read with that context. I have also made minor edits to make it more suitable for a reading audience.
It's a real pleasure to be speaking here at Mohawk College. Mohawk is a great example of the kind of institution you need if you want to build a "technology city".
I'll define what I mean by "technology city", in case it's not obvious.
Simply put, a technology city is a city that hosts a high concentration of technology companies and workers. A technology city is one that is built on innovation.
Turning Hamilton into a successful technology city is a goal that I think most of us here tonight share. Many of you probably agree with me that we have made progress towards this goal. Events like tonight are proof of that.
However, a lot of progress still needs to be made. Tonight I will argue that achieving this goal is in danger - not because we haven't done our part but because our city's political leadership are not doing their part.
Let me start with the situation right now.
There was a time when Hamilton was a hub of innovation. Then, like so many other industrial cities in the so-called Rust Belt, we entered a period of decline.
We are still dealing with many of the problems left from that loss of prosperity. However, Hamilton is growing again.
A major part of Hamilton's renewed fortunes is the growth of our creative industries, which include tech companies according to the City's official definition. Between 1991 and 2006, creative industry jobs grew at a greater pace than the rest of the local workforce. In 2011, the number of jobs in the creative industry in downtown Hamilton grew by 20%.
Anecdotally we can see that Hamilton has a vibrant and growing technology sector. There are many local companies creating high-tech software and hardware. These companies are having an important impact on our economy.
But making progress is not enough.
We are in a period of intense competition for talent and for dollars. Tech workers are highly mobile and there is worldwide demand for their skills. The products and services produced by local tech companies have to compete for dollars against the products and services offered by global tech companies.
As people employed in the field of design and technology, my coworkers and I know that it is not enough to be good at our jobs. We need to be great at our careers. That means, at a minimum, keeping up with the accelerating pace of technology.
Cities are also accelerating. Successful cities leverage efficiencies that are unique to urban centres, like economies of density and scale, in order to create expanding centres of innovation.
They make smart investments that are targeted not just at growing their technology sectors but also at improving the lives of all citizens by expanding public transit, improving walkability, maintaining their heritage and caring for their environment. These improvements to a city's liveability work together to attract and retain talent.
Our competitors are cities like Toronto and Waterloo, Seattle and Boston. These cities have made these decisions and investments and now generate international prestige, world-changing innovations, and tremendous amounts of revenue from their tech sectors.
We need to take a long, hard look at our competitors. They're doing a lot of things right and there's a lot we can learn from them.
Then we need to create a winning aspiration and set out to achieve it.
That doesn't mean aiming to become the world's most successful technology city. It means defining our playing field and then setting out to win on it. For example, setting out to become Canada's leading mid-sized technology city.
Our competitors would certainly include Waterloo. As such, we are clearly not winning even within that limited definition.
That's because winning this competition requires more than ingenuity, hard work and ambition from all of you. It also requires visionary and informed city leadership.
Consider Michael Bloomberg's strategy for turning New York City into a successful technology hub. During his tenure as mayor from 2001 to 2013, technology and information services became New York City's second largest economic sector, after financial services. According to the New York Times, New York now has 10 percent of the country's jobs in the Internet publishing industry, up from about 6 percent in 2007.
How did Bloomberg accomplish this feat? The same way you go about tackling anything difficult in business or government: first, get informed. Second, create a plan. Then act.
Bloomberg formed an advisory council, the Mayor's Council on Technology and Innovation, which he stacked with CEOs and founders of VC firms, start-ups and tech companies.
He established the role of Chief Digital Officer and filled it with Rachel Haot, the former CEO of a global crowdsourced news startup. Comprehensive plans for transforming New York into a technology hub were developed. These culminated in 2011 with the release of the Digital Roadmap (PDF).
This plan laid out New York's digital strategy. Its five main categories cover Access, Education, Open Government, Engagement and Industry.
It's an impressive blueprint for digital change, covering topics as diverse as providing free or low-cost Internet access to low income residents, digital literacy for high school students and Open Data.
The items in the Industry category are particularly relevant to this audience. The plan set out to:
Most importantly, Bloomberg and his administration acted. They moved aggressively by funding tech incubators, engaging in marketing campaigns and extending broadband internet access across the city. Their Open Data initiative has released more data than any other US city with more than 2000 datasets available. In 2011, Bloomberg announced that Cornell and Technion, the Israeli Institute of Technology, would create a 2.1 million square foot state-of-the-art campus for applied science and technology on Roosevelt Island.
Three years later, the City announced that all 40 initiatives in the Digital Roadmap were complete.
These efforts have paid off with a technology boom that has benefited all five boroughs and, importantly, the city's minority populations. Since 2010, the number of African-Americans working in the sector has increased by almost 20 percent. The number of Hispanics has increased by more than 25 percent.
And the tech companies certified as "Made In New York" have now grown to over 1,000 strong.
How does this compare to Hamilton?
Hamilton's mayor has some work to do. For starters, he needs to be better informed.
A little-known fact is that the mayor is the only member of Council who receives a budget designated to hire people for policy creation. However, Mayor Bratina's office does not contain any advisors on matters of science and technology. He has no technology advisory council to guide his decisions or create policies.
In fact, Mayor Bratina is fond of pointing out that he has saved taxpayers hundreds of thousands because he doesn't use all of the budget available to his office for hiring staffers. In 2012 he said, "My office has saved $500,000 or about half of the Council-approved budget for the Mayor, including all staff salaries and expenses."
When I asked Mayor Bratina if he has anyone to advise him on science and technology, he replied that hiring this person would cost "well over $100,000 in wages and benefits".
Now, I know what it is like trying to hire a know-it-all with wildly unrealistic salary expectations. After all, I have to hire programmers. But when I hire people I use a simple metric: is this person going to generate a profit? If so, they're worth it.
This leads to a basic question: would having a technology advisor on the Mayor's team create benefits in excess of $100,000 per year? Could that person provide the guidance and create the policy that would generate a substantial return on that investment?
I believe they would. If I'm right, not having that person is costing us a lot more than $100,000 per year.
Mayor Bratina's public comments about the Internet also concern me. In response to a CBC story about unfavourable Google autocomplete results for Hamilton, he said, "That little world of the internet and tweets and comments...it is what it is. You don't tend to find busy industrious people making comments like that."
Comments like these bother me because I think that online civic engagement is largely beneficial to our democracy. I believe it's something to be embraced, not feared or discouraged.
I'm concerned that these comments betray a lack of understanding about Hamilton's online community and the broader Internet and what it's actually all about.
Open Data is another good area to examine because it is an important part of a city's technology strategy and because it's obvious whether a city is succeeding or not. Either we've got the data or we don't.
The City's Open Data page lists 48 datasets. Of these, 47 are GIS files that detail the location of various features like roads, rivers and rec centres. These are really the same dataset separated into different categories. Let's call it the GIS dataset.
The second distinct dataset is an HSR transit feed.
This means that if you want to build a map or make a transit app, you're in luck. If you're interested in restaurant inspections, crime reports, air quality measurements, or any of the hundreds of other things that the City is recording data on, too bad.
A year ago, Mayor Bratina wrote a blog post entitled, "Open Data? APPS-olutely". In it, he wrote that, "the City continues to languish in the past in one very important area because of our reluctance to communicate with our citizens through available technologies." He promised that "Before this current term of Council is over, it is my intention to see that significant movement is made toward a smarter, faster, and cheaper way of doing business for our residents and businesses through the use of technology."
I have to say that he really won me over by using a pun in his official communication. So I felt bad about checking into just how much progress on Open Data has been made since he took office in 2010.
According to the Internet Archive, around that time there was a single open dataset available: the HSR transit feed. There are now two datasets available, the HSR feed and the GIS dataset. Given the massive trove of data at City Hall that is locked up right now, I question whether that really constitutes "significant movement" towards open data.
It's also important to note that creating a successful technology city requires more than just policies and actions related to technology. It also requires the right environment to attract and retain creative and technically skilled individuals.
These people value walkability, plenty of transit options, dense and vibrant urban neighbourhoods and cycling paths. They want to be able to walk to work without having to scamper across five lanes of high-speed, one-way traffic. They want their cities to actually build light-rail transit instead of just talking about it.
They want their cities to act boldly in the interest of liveability because they understand that liveable cities aren't just good for attracting and nurturing technology companies, they're good for everyone. They want their cities to value heritage because as Jane Jacobs wrote, "New ideas require old buildings." They want their leaders to value their engagement instead of dismissing them as activists.
Now, I recognize that not everyone shares my views. I'd like to consider some possible objections to my argument.
Some people may not believe that turning Hamilton into a successful technology city is a goal we should pursue. They may not see the benefits or they may not believe it is doable.
I assume that I don't need to convince all of you about the benefits, given that we're here tonight to celebrate local technology.
But is achieving this goal doable?
If we collectively commit to it and then start making the right decisions, yes. Of course, that's a big “if". But that's something within our power as a community. There is no law of physics preventing Hamilton from becoming successful.
Another potential objection is whether it is fair to compare Hamilton with New York City.
Well, keep in mind that Hamilton is a corporation with a billion dollars in annual revenue. That is not small by any measure and it is certainly far, far larger than the company I work for. And we, of course, do have a Chief Technology Officer. This person does spend a lot of time defining, measuring and acting on plans for ensuring that technology is a key part of our company's success.
Lastly, some people will also disagree with my assessment of our current political leadership. They are correct that there are certainly positives.
Although we haven't made much progress towards Open Data it is refreshing that it's something we're discussing and I appreciate Mayor Bratina's stated support for it. The City has embarked on a major, much-needed project to revamp its website. The Innovation Factory receives funding from the City, and of course the City has strong partnerships with educational institutions like Mohawk and McMaster.
The City's Department of Economic Development has produced a comprehensive economic development plan that prioritizes six clusters, including creative industries. This department has a great track record and I know that these clusters will see substantial benefits.
This department and City agencies like the Small Business Enterprise Center work closely with organizations like the Innovation Factory to help tech startups and established businesses. Their hard work is to be commended.
However, these activities do not compare to the informed, sustained and vigorous action that other cities - led by their mayor - have undertaken to specifically nurture their technology sectors. Bloomberg's initiatives in New York City are a useful benchmark here. Few of us would, in my opinion, suggest that we're engaged in anything at that level.
If we're falling short, what should we, the technology community, do about it?
Here's a couple of ideas.
First, we need to speak up and put pressure on our local politicians to act. This is often extraordinarily effective, since there's nothing that motivates a politician more than hearing from a couple of thousand irate citizens.
That's a lesson that I first learned in 2010, when the TigerCats blindsided Hamilton by announcing they would not play football at the West Harbour. They insisted on a greenfield location on the East Mountain instead, which served none of the city-building objectives that made spending sixty million dollars in taxpayer dollars worthwhile.
To combat this, we started a grassroots campaign called Our City, Our Future and we fought a millionaire sports team owner and his well funded counter-campaign to a draw. We didn't get the West Harbour but the Ticats didn't get the East Mountain either.
Encouraged by this success we redesigned the Hamilton Light Rail website along similar lines. Unfortunately, given the lack of a political champion for that city-building initiative that campaign has not flourished as we'd hoped.
But then along came Yes We Cannon!, the campaign to have a physically separated, two-way cycle path added to Cannon Street by 2015. A colleague and I volunteered our time to create the online tools the organizers needed to run the campaign. City Council voted unanimously in favour of that initiative last year.
Another idea is to create a formal association of technology companies, along the lines of the Hamilton Halton Homebuilders' Association. Now there's an organization that knows how to bend a municipality to its will!
For example, consider that in Hamilton, homebuilders only have to pay 60% of the infrastructure cost required for new developments. Websites have infrastructure costs too, by the way. If the city offered to pay 40% of my infrastructure costs, I think I'd take them up on the offer.
Clearly, there are benefits in coming together and agreeing on common needs.
I'm sure that many of you have other ideas. This is the year to start voicing them. We've got an election coming up in the fall and if we want things to change, now's the time.
Because if anyone can create change, it's us.
One of the most important lessons I've learned by participating in various civic campaigns is what an incredible difference good design and powerful technology can make. I recognize that few of you would view setting up an email newsletter as something revolutionary, but you might be surprised at just how difficult things like that are for the average person.
This means your skills at design, development, marketing and communications can have a huge impact. They can make the difference between a well-meaning but incompetent campaign and one that operates with a high degree of sophistication.
Given this, just think of what we could accomplish if we combined the skills, talent and experience in this room tonight in pursuit of a common goal.
Because I believe that we do, in fact, have a common goal: together we share the dream of making Hamilton a successful technology city.
It's true that we've worked hard to make that dream a reality. Our hard work has led to many achievements, some of which you will see tonight.
But to truly succeed in realizing this dream we need leaders who understand the benefits of achieving it. We need leaders who are willing to learn from the example of other successful cities. We need leaders who are willing to ask for help and advice from people like us.
We need those leaders to act, boldly and with vision, to create a new reality for all of Hamilton's citizens, including the poor and marginalized. We need those leaders to act now, because right now we have an extraordinary opportunity.
We could create an informed and visionary plan.
We could put the time, work and dollars into executing it.
We could become Canada's leading mid-sized technology city.
If you believe, as I do, that this goal is within reach, then let's work together to make it happen. Let's ensure our city hears from us, whether they think we're just the "little world of the Internet" or not. Let's disrupt the way politics are done. Let's fill the leadership vacuum at City Hall.
In the words of a Chinese proverb, “The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The next best time is now."
In the interest of full disclosure: my frustration with the current state of affairs is one reason I'm volunteering on Councillor Brian McHattie's 2014 mayoral campaign.
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