Cheryl Jensen - Ottawa's following an exciting road toward tech success

Ottawa is following an exciting road toward tech success

Originally featured in the Ottawa Citizen

There has been a lot of talk lately, including in a recent series by the Citizen, about Ottawa as a technology town and whether we have what it takes to become a tech powerhouse.

“When it comes to the tech sector, it’s tough being Ottawa,” one of the Citizen stories noted.

The proof? There are no direct flights between Ottawa and Silicon Valley.

You can decide for yourself whether you think that is a deal-breaker, but I will say that neither do we have direct flights to many of the great arts or sports capitals, yet we still seem to punch above our weight in those areas, a bit of extra time in airport terminals notwithstanding. (By the way, our airport remains my favourite — and I have travelled through many.)

That’s not all, of course. The main argument advanced by those who try to downplay our growing tech sector is that we couldn’t do it before and so it is a forgone conclusion that our efforts now will be for naught.

“Ottawa trying to rebrand itself as a tech hub is an interesting exercise. I’ve been down this road before,” a former employee of Algonquin College told the Citizen in the same article.

Sadly, it is an attitude that has become all too common here.

When the Globe and Mail interviewed Tobias Lütke, founder of Shopify, a few years ago, he referenced his own frustration with the mindset of what the newspaper called the “old-guard techies,” stuck in the past. “You can’t get them to talk anything but doom and gloom,” Lütke said.

Like Lütke, I don’t subscribe to this glass-half-empty view of our city, and I don’t think anyone else should, either.

I say this with confidence, because despite the assertion that we are treading well-worn turf, the truth is that we have not been down this road before.

Things have most certainly changed since Ottawa first flexed its tech muscles, and they have changed for the better. This is largely because of the efforts of our local post-secondary institutions — all of which are pushing the innovation envelope — and a number of community-based organizations. Chief among those is Invest Ottawa, whose leaders realized early on that to be successful in this new push, we were going to need to break away from the tendency to focus on technology for technology’s sake.

Now, our city’s thriving tech industry is about so much more than just technology, and the renaissance we are starting to see reflects the diversity of this new world order. We have become a driving force at the intersection of technology and community, and that is where I believe innovation truly resides.

At Algonquin, for example, our students are harnessing technology to help dementia patients. They are developing the skills that will enable them to build safer homes and city infrastructures through the use of cybersecurity. Soon, they will be studying public-safety and technological solutions that will enable us to better cope with the aftermath of natural disasters, such as tornados and earthquakes, in a new, cutting-edge degree that we are creating.

Many projects like this would simply not be possible without the support of organizations such as Invest Ottawa. Masterpiece VR, the world’s first collaborative 3D painting, sculpting and modelling program, is an Algonquin College collaboration housed at Invest Ottawa. Masterpiece VR saw its commercial release in September, demonstrating the high calibre of these projects.

Not only does Invest Ottawa encourage us to think about how we approach technology, but it also encourages us to aim high: Most recently, staff at Invest Ottawa played a leadership role in the bid to welcome Amazon’s new campus to the capital.

It has also been quick to realize that the nature of tech work itself is changing. Over the next 10 years, automation, machine-learning and artificial intelligence may render whole skillsets — and jobs — obsolete. Innovation in the community context will become more vital to an organization’s survival. It is our job to give our students the skills to adapt to this changing job market, and Bayview Yards is one of the important collaborations we have to make this happen.

It is this kind of innovation that will fuel the energy to sustain this latest rejuvenation of a sector that many people seem to think died a long time ago.

I would argue that it has only just begun.

Cheryl Jensen is the president of Algonquin College and a board member of Invest Ottawa.

Click here to read the full article on the Ottawa Citizen