Toronto maps out plan to grow high-tech sector

The City of Toronto is trying to develop a strategy that raises the profile, competitiveness and collaborative capabilities of its high-tech companies, including major funding from all three levels of government and a number of business support services.

Mayor David Miller kicked off the publication of the ICT Toronto strategy late Wednesday afternoon at the Medical and Research Sciences (MaRS) building, along with a number of representatives from local businesses and academia. The 127-page strategy outlines 17 recommendations to maintain the city’s position as a key player in technology development and sales. The next step will be a request for proposal seeking an outside firm to develop a business plan around the strategy, although a number of working groups have already been established to work towards its goals.

Among other things, ICT Toronto hopes to establish at least one major research institution in the region, increase ICT sales and employment in the region by 20 per cent and attract five new multi-national firms, all within the next five years. The strategy also calls for an intergovernmental coordinating body and an internationally competitive public wireless Internet service. Based on a study it commissioned from ENB Research two years ago, the city said Toronto is the third largest ICT sector in the world after San Francisco in New York, with about 3,300 firms employing 148,000 people, and annual sales in the $30 to $35 billion range.

Toronto has seen a number of local organizations who have tried to promote the local IT sector such as Smart Toronto, but ICT Toronto gathered input from CIPS, ITAC and a number of other well-established trade groups.

“It’s not an association. We’re not competing with any other association,” said Alicia Bulwik, a project manager in the city’s department of economic development who is managing the strategy. “This is meant to operate as a forum, as a common place for business to exchange ideas, for associations to trade with other associations.”

Some of the working groups set up so far are working on a centre of excellence around software for the financial services sector, Bulwik said, as well as a set of business development services for small and medium-sized enterprises. The city contracted the Impact Group to work with more than 40 industry and academic representatives to produce the strategy.

“Toronto right now is well-positioned, but it’s being challenged with new, emerging economies,” said Bulwik, who recently attended a conference hosted by NASSCOM, India’s equivalent of ITAC. “Unless you have a program or a strategy it’s easy to rest on your laurels. In order to prevent that, the city is going to provide some initial helping hands to make the companies grow.”

The city is providing about 50 per cent of the funding for the ICT strategy, but the plan is to work with Ontario and the federal government to put the plan into action, said Frank Maw, former president of Motorola Canada and now a consultant who worked on the strategy.

“It will take a while, because we aren’t the only ones out there (asking for money),” Maw said. “Industry Canada has been involved and watching and verbally participating . . . It won’t be a standing start.”

Maw said the ICT Toronto strategy aims to retain and nurture business investments, in part to deal with some of the erosion that has taken place within the manufacturing sector. Ideally, the city wants to see more major firms set up shop downtown like SAS, which recently hosted a grand opening of its Toronto headquarters.

“They don’t necessarily have to be out in the ‘burbs,” Maw said. “We’re really focusing on all of Toronto – the 416 and the 905 – so we can all sing from one songsheet and go out to the world and say this is the place to be.”

The ICT Toronto strategy has a target to increase the annual formation of new high-tech firms – and their survival – by 10 per cent, and to create a marketing plan that will promote the city’s IT cluster achievements.

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