Sidewalk Labs will attract and retain tech talent

Sidewalk Labs will attract and retain tech talent

Jan De Silva is president and CEO of the Toronto Region Board of Trade

At the Toronto Region Board of Trade, one of the stranger questions we’ve been asked is why we would support a U.S. firm like Sidewalk Labs in Toronto. That’s like asking whether the Board of Trade supports trade.

The technology economy is driven by talent. You can have a large portfolio of intellectual property, but without the talent to commercialize them and maintain them, you’ll fall behind your competitors. Toronto’s tech talent boom is fuelled by an array of businesses both local and international, large and small.

When U.S. firms like Uber and Google open offices here, they boost the Toronto tech sector’s capacity to attract, employ and retain talent for our entire pool of technology firms. In that light, Sidewalk Labs’ arrival is especially useful. They intend to focus on a range of civil engineering, mobility, green-tech and construction technology challenges that can help our existing firms and local innovators deploy and scale solutions, first in Toronto and ultimately in international markets. A third-party report commissioned by Sidewalk forecasts that by 2040, the project will generate some $14 billion annually and more than 90,000 jobs in sectors like property technology and mobility innovation.

The board believes the arrival of foreign tech firms can and will be a good thing. But that view isn’t unanimous in the business community. Some critics think we can somehow grow our tech competitiveness through a protectionist response. They have proposed, among other ideas, reserving major RFPs for only Canadian firms. They’d reject Sidewalk Labs’ proposal because it’s an American firm, even though our businesses depend on reciprocal access to U.S. markets.

Critics also argue that the presence of big tech firms in Toronto limits growth for mid-sized and start-up firms. That’s a short-sighted take. BlackBerry, for example, remains a major global player in the software security market and a giant in Kitchener-Waterloo, and it has also helped boost a constellation of smaller firms, in part because BlackBerry workers who left the company could establish start-ups knowing there was enough talent in the area. If Toronto is going to gain in the tech economy, it’s going to gain from attracting more talent and keeping it here.

We need strong public-realm data privacy regulations, whether or not Sidewalk Labs operates here. Once those rules are in place, much of this debate comes down to whether trade is good for Toronto or not. And of course it is. Foreign firms bring foreign investment. Canada is a small market in a big world, and we have only so much capital. We win when other countries invest here, funding research and employing people, instead of spending it elsewhere. The more opportunities we provide for tech sector workers to have full, rich careers without ever having to get on a plane to Silicon Valley to do it, the better.

This story originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe, for just $29.95 a year, click here.

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