Canada’s narwhals skewer Silicon Valley’s unicorns

Toronto and the hall that stretches west to Kitchener and Waterloo is already Canada’s capital of finance and know-how—and naturally, the area’s leaders wish to set an instance for the remainder of the world. That’s a part of the rationale why in 2017, municipal organizations in Toronto tapped Google’s sister firm Sidewalk Labs to redevelop a disused waterfront industrial district as a high-tech prototype for the “smarter, greener, extra inclusive cities” of tomorrow. However inside three years the deal had collapsed, a sufferer of conflicting visions, public considerations over privateness and surveillance, and (to listen to Sidewalk Labs inform it) pandemic-era financial change.

Journalist Brian Barth, who skilled in city planning and spent seven years residing and dealing and Toronto earlier than returning to the US this summer season, says the Sidewalk fiasco additionally symbolizes a bigger distinction: the distinction between Silicon Valley’s hard-charging, individualist, libertarian ethos and a Canadian enterprise type that emphasizes collaboration, respect, and social accountability. On this version of Deep Tech, Barth talks concerning the tensions that led to Sidewalk Labs’ departure and the methods Canadian CEOs are following to construct a extra open and inclusive tech sector.

Present Notes and Hyperlinks

Toronto would like to be seen as the nice person’s Silicon Valley, if that’s not too much trouble, June 17, 2020

Activists are suing Canada over plans to build a smart city in Toronto, April 18, 2019

Toronto is the center of new technology jobs in North America, July 24, 2018

Facebook heads to Canada for next big AI breakthrough, September 17, 2017

Full Episode Transcript

Wade Roush: Is Toronto like Silicon Valley for good folks? 

Brian Barth: Is that this only a good concept, that Canadian enterprise persons are not as cutthroat, or is there actually reality to that?

Wade Roush: On the floor, US tradition and Canadian tradition can look nearly an identical. However within the July problem of Expertise Evaluate, journalist Brian Barth takes a take a look at the delicate variations in outlook that will clarify why Canadian tech corporations are rather less aggressive and a bit extra humane than their Silicon Valley counterparts.

Brian Barth: And other people usually felt that there was reality to that. Some folks felt that they wished Canadian enterprise folks may very well be extra cutthroat, so that they’d be extra profitable.

Wade Roush: At the moment on the present, a take a look at Canadian values and the way they’ve led Canadian tech corporations down a really completely different path. I’m Wade Roush, and that is Deep Tech.

[Deep Tech theme] 

Wade Roush: What sort of stamp do nationwide tradition and nationwide character placed on innovation and entrepreneurship? Canada has a status as an rising chief in synthetic intelligence and quantum computing. And but the nation hasn’t produced a Fb or a Google with visions of conquering the world by know-how. That simply doesn’t appear to be the Canadian means. And in reality, when American tech corporations like Google do attempt to export US-style innovation to Canada, the tradition conflict could be extreme. 

Brian Barth is an American journalist who spent years residing and writing in Toronto. His function article within the July problem of Expertise Evaluate known as “Enter the Narwhal,” and it’s constructed round a thought experiment. If Silicon Valley had developed in Canada reasonably than California, what sorts of tech corporations and merchandise can be popping out of it now?

Wade Roush: So let’s speak about Sidewalk Labs, as a result of that complete story appears considerably emblematic to me of the variations between how enterprise and entrepreneurship and innovation work in Canada as in comparison with the US. Inform us what Sidewalk Labs was speculated to be within the first place.

Brian Barth: Sure. So it is a New York-based firm based in 2015 with the thought of integrating extra know-how into city programs. Primarily the last word IoT firm, proper, as a result of it is about bringing know-how not simply into your private home and your stuff, however into public house, buildings, sidewalks, trashcans, streetlights, roads, bridges, governance as effectively.

Wade Roush: Brian explains that in 2017 an company referred to as Waterfront Toronto chosen Sidewalk Labs, which is a subsidiary of Google’s father or mother firm Alphabet, to take a 12-acre industrial district referred to as Quayside and redevelop it as a type of high-tech metropolis of the longer term.

Brian Barth: They pulled out all of the bells and whistles. So there may be this enormous press occasion to make the announcement with the prime minister, the premier of Ontario, the mayor of Toronto. VIP is from Google. They forged it as, that is essentially the most bold, good metropolis mission that has ever been undertaken.

Justin Trudeau [from a video recording of the 2017 Sidewalk Labs announcement]: Thanks very a lot. I am happy to announce that Waterfront Toronto has discovered a particularly promising companion in Sidewalk Labs, a world chief in city innovation. Sidewalk Labs will create a testbed for brand spanking new applied sciences in Quayside. Applied sciences that may assist us construct smarter, greener, extra inclusive cities, which we hope to see scaled throughout Toronto’s japanese waterfront and finally in different elements of Canada and world wide.

Brian Barth: They’d all these simply unimaginable renderings and concepts of so many various applied sciences from issues like pavement that’s embedded with LED lights as a substitute of lane markings, and so you’ll be able to type of modulate the lane markings to regulate for visitors movement in actual time in coordination with autonomous car know-how. All kinds of fancy programs to ship issues. Fairly than supply vehicles clogging up the streets, it is all gonna be underground in these tunnels with robots. After which there’s going to be different robots that haul away trash and recycling in those self same tunnels. They’d this very far out factor about what they referred to as constructing raincoats, which had been type of like these huge umbrellas, like clear, I suppose, plastic buildings that might spring out from a constructing relying on the climate, so as to make the house across the constructing extra liveable in snow and rain.

Wade Roush: And it feels like this was a real Kumbaya second, like, there was enthusiasm and pleasure on each side, for some time anyway. After which the welcome mat sooner or later obtained pulled out from beneath Sidewalk, proper?

Brian Barth: Yeah, it began, I might say, the very minute that Justin Trudeau took the stage and made this announcement, as a result of there have been already folks in the neighborhood that had been hip to this problem and important of the tech trade’s  privateness practices and that form of factor and ethics typically. In order that group in Toronto was instantly galvanized. They had been already centered on these points, however all of the sudden they’ve this elephant of their yard.

Wade Roush: The elephant, in fact, was Sidewalk’s relationship to Alphabet and Google, an organization that constructed a trillion-dollar enterprise by hoovering up knowledge about person habits to be used in its focused promoting applications.

Brian Barth: And really shortly, it was like, oh, this is this epic David and Goliath good-evil debate that we within the media love, for higher or worse. And the narrative round it simply shifted, I might say, like an evening and day shift from being this superb factor that we now have to have, to being this factor that we now have to actually suppose exhausting about and might be simply filled with pitfalls and possibly we by no means ought to have gotten concerned on this.

Wade Roush: After which how did all of it finally collapse?

Brian Barth: So Waterfront Toronto confronted a lot criticism and so they had been mainly pressured to type of put Sidewalk Labs on a extremely quick leash. Like, the unique settlement was like, this is the important thing to the town. Do no matter you need, primarily. They usually simply step-by-step, put  restrictions and constraints on what Sidewalk Labs may do. The town goes to get, form of, royalties from any IP that is developed. The federal government goes to regulate how knowledge is collected and used. And an entire checklist of issues like that, to the purpose the place Sidewalk Labs began saying, “Properly, can we even make this work economically? As a result of we’d like a sure scale to deploy a few of these applied sciences. In any other case it isn’t going to work for us.” After which in Might, Sidewalk Labs fairly abruptly stated “We’re out.” They stated the economics weren’t working, particularly in mild of the pandemic, and so they wanted to tug out.

Wade Roush: I requested Brian whether or not he thinks the collapse of the Sidewalk Labs deal could be chalked as much as a cultural mismatch between an American tech big and the leaders of Canada’s largest metropolis.

Brian Barth: Many, many individuals have stated some model of this to me, that they did not understand how American they had been of their strategy, which is to say that they did not understand how aggressive and not-listening and not-perceptive they had been. And this sort of American exceptionalism that “We’re Google. We’re essentially the most superb factor since sliced bread. And naturally, you need this. Like, how may you not simply take all the things that we’re saying at face worth and eat it up?” That simply grew to become increasingly more current within the air as time went on, to the purpose the place all these individuals who initially type of welcomed them obtained their hackles up increasingly more. Not essentially as a result of they had been anxious about privateness and surveillance, all these items activists had been speaking about, however extra as a result of they had been coping with Google or coping with Sidewalk Labs and feeling like there wasn’t a respect or understanding that the native authorities would possibly assert itself on behalf of what its inhabitants was asking for.

Wade Roush: So, Brian, you wrote within the piece that some entrepreneurs, not less than, are drawn to Canada by its picture as, I’ll quote you right here, “A liberal utopia the place variety, inclusion and humility overcome greed and bigotry,” unquote. And there is one thing in there that corresponds to Canadians’ actual perceptions of Individuals, I feel. And nearly everybody you quote in your story appears to imagine in a technique or one other that Canadian values are completely different from American values and that that manifests itself in entrepreneurship and innovation in essential methods. So I wish to ask you to summarize the sentiments you had been working into amongst Canadians.

Brian Barth: You realize, some folks name that Canadian exceptionalism, this concept that Canada is a lot extra enlightened than the US. And a few folks additionally would say that is a load of B.S. that Canada has simply as many points round inequality and racism because the US. And there may be reality to each of these factors of view, I feel. That manifests itself in enterprise typically with an absence of the libertarian ethos round company tradition. There’s a very distinguished pressure within the American enterprise group that’s profoundly antithetical to authorities regulation. The much less the higher. And that pressure is far much less current in Canada. So I then ended up interviewing a bunch of tech CEOs. And I requested them that query that you simply simply requested me, you realize, is there a distinction? What is the distinction? Like, is that this only a good concept, that Canadian enterprise persons are not as cutthroat, or is there actually reality to that? And other people usually felt that there was reality to that. Some folks felt that they wished Canadian enterprise folks may very well be extra cutthroat, so that they’d be extra profitable. So there’s a vary of reactions. However the extra I probed that query, the extra it did appear to come back right down to tradition. That Canadian households, the Canadian instructional system, Canadian society, would not have a tendency to provide that iconic Silicon Valley libertarian founder that the US has produced so a lot of.

Wade Roush: The headline in your story is “Enter the Narwhal.” It is clearly a reference to the unicorn idea from Silicon Valley. So this sounds just like the setup for a joke, proper, however what is the distinction between a unicorn and a narwhal?

Brian Barth: Certain. Properly, it’s a joke, and I feel it began as a joke in Canada, truly. A  unicorn is that this glamorous imaginary creature proper. A narwhal is that this very type of homely….effectively, so to start with, a narwhal additionally has a single horn in the midst of its brow. It is like a type of a small whale that lives within the Arctic and so they’re generally known as very reclusive. Like, it’s extremely exhausting to trace narwhals and examine them. They’re type of homely creatures, in a means. Moreover the horn, they are not undoubtedly not glamorous like a unicorn. However as one man instructed me “However they’re actual, most significantly.” And his perspective is the Silicon Valley strategy is, not less than within the client, going through corporations lots concerning the glamour and propping up the valuation round a picture.

Wade Roush: I puzzled if, from all the corporations you met and the CEOs you talked to, you’ve a favourite instance of a quote-unquote “narwhal” firm. What have they got in thoughts once they speak about narwhals?

Brian Barth: Properly, the one which I used within the story, and so they occur to be within the good metropolis house, is an organization referred to as Miovision that’s primarily based within the Kitchener-Waterloo space. They’re giant. They work everywhere in the world. They primarily promote know-how round visitors signalling. I would interviewed the CEO, the founder, just a few completely different occasions. He, personality-wise, he was simply very emblematic, I assumed, of the narwhal as a result of he is simply so quiet and so humble and so not liable to grand proclamations about his firm or about a lot of something, which could be very Canadian. Kurtis McBride is his identify, the founding father of Miovision. When it comes to enterprise practices, the distinction that I drew within the story was that Miovision approaches their work primarily from an open supply perspective. And so Kurtis, who was on an advisory board for Waterfront Toronto for the Sidewalk Labs mission, he typically would communicate within the media to attempt to educate folks about this concept of the IT structure, and the corporate that owns the structure, primarily the mental property of that system, they maintain all of the strings by way of the info, by way of the economics. If that could be a monopoly, that may very well be very harmful economically and even to democracy. And so he form of drew this distinction of doing that in an open supply means as a special type of enterprise mannequin.

Wade Roush: You talked with Iain Klugman, the CEO of Communitech, the startup accelerator in Kitchener-Waterloo. I feel Klugman instructed you that he noticed the essence of Canada’s strategy to know-how as being the anti-Fb, the alternative of Fb, and that he thought it was necessary for anyone to step up and reasonably than shifting quick and breaking issues, possibly Canadians may take a extra humane strategy and transfer sluggish and make things better. Is that an correct rendering of what’s going on in Canadian enterprise and know-how?

Brian Barth: It’d be naive to not perceive it as him selling a model. Nevertheless it’s definitely in alignment with the values in Canada and within the enterprise group. I feel we now have to be very cautious to not overdo that, oversimplify that. We do not essentially know that Google, like, got down to be a monopoly, however they had been simply extremely profitable, and now that success is, in some methods, to our detriment. So it is easy to say that once you’re small, is my level. And it might be naive and foolish to say, effectively, Canadian corporations would not observe within the footsteps of Silicon Valley, given the chance.

Wade Roush: If you happen to play out your thought experiment all the way in which to the top and also you ask, what would a Canadian unicorn appear to be? Would it not act any completely different on the world stage? Would it not reduce a special determine from a large American tech firm? What do you suppose?

Brian Barth: Within the thought experiment, I feel it does, simply because Canada does. My largest conclusion of, like, “Canadianness” is it is simply, it isn’t so excessive. I wrote a variety of tales in the previous few years alongside the strains of “Will Trumpism come to Canada?” I debated with plenty of Canadians about this. I began off on the belief of, it’s going to come, as a result of often what occurs within the US tends to occur in Canada like just a few years later. I imply, there are Canadian politicians who’re working towards Trudeau within the final election who’re utilizing the Donald Trump playbook. They usually obtained 1 p.c of the vote. I imply, that factor is there, but it surely would not have the identical traction.

Wade Roush: Okay, Brian. It has been a delight speaking with you. And I wish to thanks for writing your piece and for taking the time to speak about it right this moment.

Brian Barth: Thanks. It has been a pleasure.

[Deep Tech theme]

Wade Roush: That’s it for this episode of Deep Tech. It is a podcast we’re making solely for subscribers of MIT Expertise Evaluate, to assist convey alive the problems our journalists are pondering and writing about.

You’ll discover Brian Barth’s article “Enter the Narwhal” within the July problem of the journal, alongside the TR35. It’s our annual take a look at 35 innovators below the age of 35 who’re breaking new floor in fields like solar energy, cryptocurrencies, and covid-19 testing. Try the entire checklist at

Deep Tech is written and produced by me and edited by Jennifer Robust and Michael Reilly. Our theme music is by Titlecard Music and Sound in Boston. I’m Wade Roush. Thanks for listening.

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