Opinion: Vancouver's elected officials need to help grow the tech industry

Oct 12 2022, 1:02 am

Written for Daily Hive Urbanized by Dan Burgar and Kassandra Linklater, who are the leaders of the Frontier Collective. The group is a coalition of entrepreneurs and business leaders advocating to further strengthen Vancouver’s tech and innovation sector.

Cities are meant to be a place of hope that enable the best of human innovation and livable communities.

Vancouver has had its moments over the last several decades where it got close to this ideal: a place of art, technology, culture, and home-grown innovation. But that dream has long been gone, and we are left with an affordability crisis, an unsafe city, racial divisions and for a generation of millennials — no hope that there is a future in this place we call home.

Until now; while the world stayed at home during COVID lockdowns, Vancouver blossomed into one of the global leaders in frontier technologies.

Frontier technology is changing how we experience reality, interact with others, and live our daily lives. They encompass everything from artificial intelligence (AI), Web3, Metaverse and virtual/augmented reality (AR/VR) to climate and biotech; they are multi-disciplinary, well-researched, but minimally commercialized industries on the brink of mass adoption.

As we enter this new paradigm, these fundamental technologies will horizontally revolutionize practically all industries, and we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be a true global leader.

Frontier technologies are thriving in BC. Vancouver has the following industry-leading strengths:

  • Second largest VR/AR/Metaverse industry globally
  • Second largest AI industry nationally
  • Second largest cleantech industry nationally
  • A world-leading cluster of film, television, gaming, VFX, and animation firms including Disney, Microsoft, Electronic Arts (EA), Sony Pictures, and Imageworks.
  • We’re home to the global Web3/NFT leader Dapper Labs and LayerZero Labs, the global biotech antibody leader Abcellera, and we’re producing exponentially more frontier tech “unicorns” (companies with billion dollar valuations) every year.

But Vancouver’s tech and innovation scene has historically struggled with a uniquely Canadian problem: despite all of our homegrown success stories, we politely continue to fail at shouting them from the rooftops, or more importantly on the world stage.

We’ve been here before: throughout the 1980s and 1990s we had the boom of Sierra Wireless, Electronic Arts, and Creo (later acquired by Kodak) to name a few. Then came innovation in BC’s alternative energy, entertainment, gaming, and life sciences sectors.

By the 2000s, Vancouver had an established tech presence, and in the 2010s the big players like Amazon and Microsoft had set up shop.

Historically accustom to playing second-fiddle to Toronto or Seattle, something has shifted in the minds of Vancouverites and BC-technophiles who, post-pandemic, are deciding to shape the conversation around something we all know to be true: “Tech is no longer a sector — it’s every sector,” said Tiff Macklem, the governor of the Bank of Canada.

If Vancouver wants to be a part of the future economy within this new wave of computing, it needs to act now to ensure that Canada’s largest frontier technology innovation hub gets built in our own backyard. While “the strength of any regional technology ecosystem relies on the correlation between knowledge, people, and capital, and it takes time to build all three,” Vancouver’s more than four decades of time-in-the-game has allowed the city to be ready to take on some big visions including the Frontier Collective’s mission in making and sustaining Vancouver as a world leader in frontier tech.

Frontier Collective

Frontier Collective

Our mission at the Frontier Collective is clear: we are advocating for the future of Vancouver; we’re at the precipice of a technological revolution and our industries are young, diverse, and at the cusp of mainstream adoption. The Frontier Collective is building an inclusive and sustainable future of innovation in the Vancouver area to capitalize on this opportunity. We’re a non-traditional organization of leaders in innovation, culture, and community who support the development of the fastest-growing industries (frontier tech) related to innovation in the region, including Web3, Metaverse, VR/AR (Virtual and Augmented Reality), climate tech, AI, robotics etc.

We also believe that rising tides can raise all ships and we want the city of Vancouver to address the wider issues that will ensure a sustainable and equitable city for all. If we are to see a vibrant future, we need to consider these challenges first:

  • The housing crisis and affordability
  • The Downtown Eastside mental health and homelessness issues
  • Livability and the safety/security of residents with rising crime rates
  • Not enough embrace of arts/culture, and the lack of support for small business/establishments

As advocates for our region’s tech industries, and as citizens of Vancouver, we believe that major change needs to happen. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Without support, we’ll lose it.

Without the right environment, resources and support, we will lose out on the immense opportunity to lead the world in frontier tech and usher in a new wave of transformation, economic prosperity, and high-paying jobs. We believe that there needs to be bold action to change the region’s culture and ensure we have the foundation to thrive as an ecosystem. The Frontier Collective is made up of the change-agents that will foster innovation and bring it to the forefront, helping solidify Vancouver’s position on the global stage within these burgeoning industries.

This why during this important municipal election, we are challenging all candidates to support our manifesto for the future of innovation in Vancouver:

1. Establish a tech council

We need to commit to championing the needs of our technology and innovation sectors, a key driver of our local economy, by establishing a tech council with the mandate to foster innovation in the city.

This is accomplished by supporting both local and global advocacy to elevate visibility, and working with the federal and provincial governments to establish greater support for  tech acquisition, small businesses, R&D, and tech innovation.

2. Create a 150,000 sq ft physical innovation hub space

We need to support the Frontier Collective’s vision of the creation of an innovation hub — a 150,000+ sq ft physical space to be a centre of gravity in the city for innovation. It would connect innovators to industries, help new companies scale, blend technology and art in groundbreaking new mediums, support cutting-edge R&D, and cultivate a vibrant community.

A physical hub is a critically missing piece in Vancouver’s innovation landscape. It could house hundreds of homegrown companies and propel us to global leadership in next-generation tech. The Hub will ultimately support local frontier tech development and entrepreneurship, industry connections, artistic tech, and greater investment into the region.

3. Grow economic and investment attraction agencies

As part of the focus on driving economic development within the region, we challenge candidates to explore ways to leverage our strengths in frontier technology, to attract world-class talent and investments into the region in collaboration with the province and municipal economic development agencies.

Ultimately, the city needs to take critical steps towards growing support for municipal economic agencies, championing the region’s needs to the provincial government to increase innovation funding, and recognize this key opportunity.

4. Involve stakeholders

Seek opportunities for impactful groups dedicated to advancing the needs of key local industries like the Frontier The Collective and wider tech/innovation community. They need to be seated at the table to help identify key policy shifts and bring overall support to industries that will grow at an exponential pace, ensuring a nuanced, fresh, and diverse perspective at the City of Vancouver.

Allowing the Collective to contribute to policy and comment on economic priorities would permit the City to get action-items done and policy implemented more effectively. We need to double down on our future drivers to our economy.

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