Google’s parent Alphabet looks at ‘high-tech city’ for Canada

After decades of slumping back with a beer and relying on timber, hydroelectric power, mining and petroleum to keep its economy running, Canada has finally awoken to the need to jump on the innovation train.

The country whose best-known export (aside from Dudley Do-Right) was the pioneering but ill-fated Blackberry phone is now moving aggressively into tech.

And Google’s parent Alphabet is right there with them, reportedly.

Alphabet has applied to authorities in Toronto to develop a 12-acre strip into a techies’ wonderland, a number of media outlets have reported.

“The bid fits with the company’s ambition to create a connected, high-tech city or district from scratch,” according to Bloomberg.

“Last year, the company began talking openly about building a theoretical urban zone ‘from the internet up,’ with some of the same tools and principles that have fueled success at many tech companies.”

The project, if awarded to Alphabet, would see the company’s Sidewalk Labs urban-innovation unit aiming at goals that have not yet been disclosed, but might be inferred from the unit’s previous discussions.

“Sidewalk Labs has discussed creating an entire micro-city or district that could showcase the company’s ideas for urban planning,” according to Bloomberg.

Also, the unit’s CEO Dan Doctoroff “has spoken often about how technology like autonomous transit, high-speed internet, embedded sensors and ride-sharing services could transform urban life. He’s also hinted at tech’s ability to overhaul zoning rules and control housing costs,” Bloomberg reported.

Alphabet’s bid comes as Canada is rapidly building up its own technology industry, after watching some of its most innovative techies get snapped up by U.S. tech giants.

On May 8, Uber announced it would open a self-driving car lab in Toronto, its first “advanced technologies group” outside the U.S., the New York Times reported.

Also in May, Bloomberg called Vancouver “the new tech hub,” and noted that Microsoft and Amazon were setting up engineering operations in that west coast Canadian city.

“Facebook, Salesforce.com, and a bunch of startups with less familiar names have also been setting up shop in the city,” according to Bloomberg. “In addition to great views in a convenient time zone, Vancouver offers U.S. tech companies world-class talent, lower salaries, and few immigration headaches.”

Montreal has become an artificial intelligence hub, with Microsoft in January announcing it would expand its presence and invest heavily in its AI work in that city. Late last year, Google announced it would open an AI research group in Montreal.

Canada’s 2017 budget includes a $125 million “Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy,” according to Vice’s tech website Motherboard.

“Montreal, Edmonton, and Toronto-Waterloo are all vying for global investment in deep learning development,” according to Motherboard.

Toronto also has an innovation hub on the University of Toronto campus that already houses about 6,000 tech workers, at companies including Facebook, Paypal, AirBnB, Autodesk and Etsy, plus about 200 startups, according to The Atlantic.

And those in charge of the public-private hub project are looking to reap the benefits of immigration turmoil to the south, hoping to lure “highly skilled immigrants trying to avoid the impact of Trump’s policies,” the online news magazine reported.

The scale of any diversion of tech talent to Canada wouldn’t be apparent immediately, but Joshua Gans, a professor at the University of Toronto’s business school, told the New York Times he expected a noticeable change, down the line.

“If we look back 10 years from now, I’d be surprised if the Trump effect didn’t show up in the data,” Gans said.

Indeed, engineer Maxime Chevalier-Boisvert told the Times she’d moved back to Montreal after 15 months in the Bay Area working for Apple, in part because of Trump.

Now at an AI institute, she’s making only a third of what she raked in at Apple.

But her rent for a two-bedroom in Montreal is less than a third of what her one-bedroom cost her in Sunnyvale.

Not bad, eh?

 

Photo: Montreal Tower in Canada (Wikimedia Commons/Antonello)

 

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