ICT Toronto, Five Years Later

by Joey deVilla on April 1, 2011

david miller ict toronto

Five years ago, an ambitious project called ICT Toronto was unveiled at the MaRS Centre with great fanfare to local press, policy wonks and businesspeople. ICT Toronto’s vision, which I’ve taken directly from the hundred-page document that they proudly handed out at the launch, was:

Our vision is that the Toronto Region will become, and be acknowledged globally, as one of the 5 most innovative, creative and productive locations in the world for ICT research, education, business and investment by 2011.

ict toronto documentThere were speeches, starting with well-meaning-but-poor-executing then-mayor David Miller (who bears a physical and psychological resemblance to Mayor Adam West from Family Guy), followed by a string of policy wonks who had never deployed a working piece of technology or tech training, either software or hardware. There were photo ops, business card exchanges, hors d’oeuvres and inexpensive champagne. What was in notably short supply were actual techies. As I wrote back in 2006:

It was easy to spot the DemoCamp gang — me, David, Jay, Sutha, Bryce, Mark — among the attendees, who numbered around 100. We were the only people there not in suits. It certainly looked as though we were there only people there who wrote code for a living. We made sure to mingle and found that most of the attendees seemed to be from the management side of various information and communications tech firms or from organizations that invested in them.

One worrisome thing about ICT Toronto was that in all the speeches given at their launch party, all they did was talk about inviting large international companies to set up in Toronto, and to invite American companies to open “nearshoring” operations here. I remember quipping that they should put up giant posters saying “Toronto: The Bangalore Next Door!” Nowhere was there any mention of boosting home-grown talent, innovations and startups; it was all about Toronto the Branch Office.

In April 2006, they launched with a single-page site, whose text was embedded into a single graphic, guaranteeing that it wouldn’t be properly indexed by search engines. Here’s a screenshot:

ict toronto site

Don’t bother visiting the site. It’s gone.

In September of that year, I wrote in an article titled ICT Toronto: I Know What You DIDN’T Do This Summer:

It’s almost five months later, and it appears that not much has happened. I haven’t seen a press release since the one for their launch party, and a Google News search for “ICT Toronto” ends up without any results.

In the meantime, Toronto’s techies, without any of the money or manpower earmarked for ICT Toronto have held 4 DemoCamps and a BarCamp, events which have gone a long way to fostering a sense of community and cooperation in the local tech scene. And of course, actually building information and communication technologies, something the suits seem to have completely overlooked.

This is hardly surprising. Silicon Valley was born of good circumstances coupled with the grassroots efforts of ambitious techies doing what they loved, not by government/business fiat. I’d call ICT Toronto a bunch of pointless martini-swilling stuffed shirts, but that’s an insult to martinis and dress shirts, both of which I happen to like.

ICT Toronto’s going to have to do better than produce a glossy report and a party with decent hors d’oeuvres. I hope I’m wrong, but I seriously doubt that they’re up to the task.

After getting smacked about in the blogosphere by me and other local techies, the folks at ICT Toronto reached out and invited us to a few breakfast meetings to discuss how they could better engage the tech community. Mark Kuznicki, probably this city’s best bridge between the local tech scene and government at all levels, reminded us that it was a government initiative run by “grey-haired folks” and unlike we Gen-Xers and Millenials who live in the “Web 2.0″ world, they don’t move in web time. That was fair, and in response, I wrote that they don’t have to move in web time; they just had to move. I held out hope that they’d get off their asses, but kept them on notice:

ict-toronto-on-notice

After a staff reshuffling, ICT Toronto’s outreach vanished, as did any sign that they were doing anything. The last time I bothered even mentioning them was back in February 2008, when I compared the way they saw the local tech scene to the way grandma sees the TV remote:

how grandma sees the remote

Quite fittingly, today is April Fool’s Day, 2011 – about three weeks shy of the five-year deadline set by ICT Toronto. The single-page placeholder site they set up five years ago has vanished without ever having been updated, anyone associated with the project has long since been reassigned, and I’ll bet that the subject of ICT Toronto hasn’t been brought up at any of the local tech gatherings in a good long while.

I don’t know where Toronto stands in the ranking of ICT cities today, but if it has any presence at all as a place to do high-tech work, it has nothing at all to do with ICT Toronto. The credit goes not to our policy makers, but to our techies. We’ve got a vibrant scene here, with techies doing what they do, whether they’re in small development and design shops or working at one of the multinationals (in the period since ICT Toronto got started, I’ve done both). We have events of all sizes, from regular meetups and user group meetings at pubs and lecture halls to independent conferences like Mesh, RubyFringe and FutureRuby to tech “camp” events to big corporate gatherings put on by the likes of the Canadian subsidiaries of IBM and Microsoft. We’ve got hackerspaces and the MaRS Centre. In my work as a developer evangelist for Microsoft, I’ve met many students at Toronto’s fine universities and colleges, and they’re eager to crank out the ‘wares, both hard and soft, and they’re bright as all get-out. We have a great community bound together by cooperation, a strong social media scene and good old-fashioned face-to-face meetings. We get stuff done, and the stuff we do travels far and wide.

We are the real ICT Toronto, not those municipal painted popinjays.

This article also appears in Global Nerdy.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Pete Forde April 1, 2011 at 2:16 am

Thanks for writing this, Joey. You said it far more eloquently than I could have.

I remember boiling with rage at the time. Wasted passion on my part!

Thanks to all of the *Camp organizers over the years! You guys and girl made my career possible.

Alex Sirota April 1, 2011 at 2:24 am

Of course you are the real ICT Toronto. No doubt! But riddle me this — next month at the mesh 11 conference — go and see how many government employees are there. You’d be surprised. Government is about 10 years behind the curve. IE8 is just being rolled out replacing IE6 in government all around the world. The thing is when government finally gets the religion they start innovating. Talk to these people — there’s some amazing stuff going on INSIDE of government. And as for Toronto being the next ICT haven? We don’t really need that. Being an economically and culturally diverse city ensures we never look like Detroit.

Joey deVilla April 1, 2011 at 8:03 am

Alex Sirota: I agree: as a national economic capital, Toronto shouldn’t put all its economic eggs in a single basket, but it should make sure that a key sector like ICT is a strength. You’re also right that once government “gets” something, then things happen, and ICT Toronto could’ve been so much more had they worked with the industry rather than decreeing some kind of Soviet-style five-year plan.

Danny V April 1, 2011 at 9:23 am

Thank you for this article. I didn’t even know this space (had) existed.

Definitely a good idea with poor execution 🙁

Mose April 1, 2011 at 10:41 am

Joey great article. I was retained by the city to write the marketing plan for ICT Toronto. It was not an ambitious nor expensive roll out plan. In fact the strategy was to have lots of flexibility. You could launch cheap or go all out. Was simply a decision for budgeters. I was given no budget to plan to so i put together a number of stages that could have started as simply as grass roots activities to a full scale launch. And even that was a modest amount

Simply it was never acted on. I did not work in a vaccuum and there were some great folks that contributed. You know them all well

The powers that be just never pulled the trigger

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