Friday, September 22, 2017

Elevate Toronto; It's Our Time

          By Brian Orlotti

It's not specifically a space conference, but the 1st Elevate Toronto Festival, a three day tech start-up extravaganza held in Toronto, ON last week, dealt with many of the same technological questions, business concerns and features some of the same players. As the global landscape undergoes its most profound political, economic and technological upheavals since World War II, Elevate Toronto even adopted a telling slogan: It’s Our Time.

Toronto Mayor John Tory at the Elevate Toronto Festival in Toronto on September 12th. Photo c/o Brian Orlotti.

The festival, created by returning Canadian expat Silicon Valley techies and backed by Canadian and American investors, struck a confident and uncharacteristically nationalist tone. Spread out over multiple venues, the festival featured speakers from the world’s biggest technology and venture capital firms as well as Toronto’s own vibrant tech startup community.

Divided into multiple tracks such as Elevate AI, Elevate Work, Elevate Health and Elevate FinTech and Blockchain, the festival focused on two main themes:
  • Harnessing Canada’s tech talent to strengthen its economy and global influence, thereby reducing its dependence on an increasingly hostile United States
  • Embracing disruptive new technologies to create new employment and long-term prosperity, rather than simply eliminating jobs for short-term profit

Key highlights from the festival include:
  • An eloquent and surprisingly frank speech from Toronto Mayor John Tory. Tory praised Toronto as a tolerant, safe city with high quality of life even while admitting its challenges with poverty, gridlock and infrastructure. Tory was quite blunt in his admission that Toronto’s government is both inefficient and technically behind the times, dubbing it "two generations behind" in tech practice compared to the business world. To address this, Tory unveiled Toronto’s new Civic Innovation Office, funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies. This new office will serve as the link between Toronto's government and it's tech industry. It's mandate will be to 'disrupt' City Hall via a series of new 'Civic Challenges' to be unveiled soon. 
  • Canadian Tech Titan Tony Lacavera gave an electrifying presentation in which he stated Canada must purge it's colonial mindset and build Canada's brand on the world stage if it is to stop the leaking of its economic value to foreign powers. Lacavera gave the example of the light bulb actually being a Canadian invention whose patent was purchased by US inventor Thomas Edison. He then put forth the question of why doesn't the Canadian govt hasn’t purchased any Canadian-made D Wave quantum computers (as Google and NASA did) and created an ecosystem around them? Lacavera ended with a slide showing the tagline, ‘It's time to go for the gold.’ Lacavera’s sentiments were greeted with thunderous applause.
  • Vinod Kosla, venture capitalist, co-founder of Sun Microsystems and co-creator of Java spoke about the challenges of fundraising as well as possible uses for artificial intelligence (AI). Kosla framed the current debate over the dangers of sentient AI as wrong, saying that the true danger is rather from non-sentient AI in the hands of "bad actor" nation states and criminals.
  • In a panel discussion entitled ‘Building an AI Ecosystem,’ panelists listed several Canadian advantages vis-a-vis the US in growing its global presence. As the US increasingly restricts  immigration laws to block the hiring of Muslims and other undesirables, Canada's more liberal policies will make it well placed to thrive in the new geopolitical order. In addition, Canada can leverage its advantage in centralized medical record and genetics databases as compared to the US where most such systems are scattered at the hospital and insurance level.
Elevate Toronto proved to be an energizing, patriotic and hopeful event. A welcome addition to Toronto’s array of cultural events, it may well be the crucible in which a great Canadian future is forged.
Brian Orlotti.

Brian Orlotti is a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.

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