There’s a tech champion at city hall

There’s a tech champion at city hall

We talked to Toronto’s chief innovation advocate, Michelle Holland, about ushering city hall into the 21st century

Photograph courtesy of Michelle Holland

You’re the city’s first ever official innovation advocate. What does that mean?
When I was re-elected to city council in 2014, I started looking at ways Toronto could improve our services. I pushed John Tory to create this role. I’m looking at new technologies and how they can make city services more efficient. My job is to identify problems and find solutions.

What’s the biggest problem with Toronto’s tech world right now?
We need to attract more talent. That’s why the federal government is pouring money into the tech sector. They know it’s on fire. Trump’s election also helped attract people who would have otherwise gone to the States.

Has Trump’s election made it easier to attract new people? 
I believe so. For example, I heard about about one entrepreneur who was calling engineers in Poland and saying, “Toronto is everything you would have in the U.S. and more, because we have such diversity and acceptance.”

If you could change something about Toronto’s tech scene with the snap of your fingers, what would it be?
There would be more women in tech. More women feeling empowered and more women at the table.

Another big issue is the distance between Toronto and Waterloo. Are you working on any big infrastructure plans to bridge the gap?
I would love to see the Hyperloop here, and apparently the province is looking at it. The problem is that governments are afraid to take risks. It’s a new economy and a new era.

I guess the tech mantra of “fail fast, fail early” doesn’t fly at city hall.
Exactly. But we can’t operate that way anymore. That’s why the city set up a new Civic Innovation Office. We’re finding solutions to antiquated services. For example, the ferries didn’t have online ticketing until this summer. Ritual, the online ordering app, came along and said, “We can do this.” The city is also organizing a Digital Literacy Day in May 2018 and a Digital Literacy Week. It’s about making sure nobody gets left behind in the new digital economy.

What’s one Toronto start-up we should be watching right now?
DropBike is going to explode. A lot of people don’t use our Bike Share system because they have to bring it back to a station. With DropBike, you can drop it anywhere, because it has GPS in it. It can solve all of our bike-sharing problems.

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