Canada’s Silicon Valley consul general opens up about techlash, Sidewalk Labs

 

When Rana Sarkar, shown in a handout photo, was appointed consul general of Canada in San Francisco in 2017, he was entering the job with years of experience at KPMG Canada, the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto and the Canada-India Business Council. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO

TORONTO — When Rana Sarkar was appointed consul general of Canada in San Francisco in 2017, he was entering the job with years of experience at KPMG Canada, the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto and the Canada-India Business Council.

But most of the challenges facing the industry he was about to delve into have seldom been encountered before — struggles around digital rights, a backlash against technology, questions about the social responsibilities of innovation businesses and growing worries about the role of smart cities.

Sarkar sat down with The Canadian Press to discuss some of these issues.

You’ve been in this role for roughly a year and a half. What has your focus been on?

I think the issues we have been dealing with are investment traction, working with our Canadian ecosystem to ensure they are better connected and improving the rate and velocity of connectivity between Canadian companies and companies more locally. Part of what we are trying to do is increase flow and that is not just companies looking to raise money or sell or any of that. Those are part of it, but it is also exposing them to things that are going on and other ecosystems.

There are a lot of Canadians in Silicon Valley and it’s an ideal time for them to be looking back at Canada and helping refresh their lens in terms of what is taking place in Canada. Most of them have family and professional contacts out here, but they are just starting to explore re-entry or are looking at opportunities in Canada. We are obviously encouraging that because of the dynamism of opportunities back here.

So it’s not just our imagination that the U.S. tech scene has started to care more about Canada?

No, especially because of the challenges of the Bay area. They are hitting a point where cost is an issue. We have staff travelling in great distances, two hours one way. The cost of living in the area and the cost of owning the average house in the Bay area is now $940,000 or 4.5 times the average in the U.S. Getting your kids to school is tough. It’s a challenge for a lot of people if you haven’t won the super lottery.

‘Techodus’ is very hot in the Bay area right now and Austin, Denver and Seattle are often seen as secondary locations, but Canada is seeing a lot of attention as well. I have a couple of people on our school run that basically commute to Vancouver every week, which is an interesting phenomenon.

Are the people coming here just heading for typical tech hubs — Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal?

They are also looking at Alberta. I think Calgary and Edmonton are doing a good job at attracting people back to their ecosystems, but that is just anecdotal at this stage.

I think there are real opportunities for the revitalized Winnipeg. I think Halifax is finding a real boom. I was just there recently and Halifax is probably booming more than in the post-war period.

The Valley and tech is going to spread out. What you are going to start seeing is thinner firms that are more geographically spread out and are more purposeful and their growth is attentive growth. People are going to be able to work remotely and from a variety of places. That would mean the revitalization of a whole bunch of different communities.

Does that mean you think the arrival of Uber, Amazon and Microsoft are good for Canada’s innovation economy? 

I think you can hold two ideas at the same time. I think you can say if we have smart growth of the ecosystem and people building jobs and opportunities, it’s a good thing.

I think we do need to pay more attention to intellectual property. We need to pay more attention to types of businesses we are building and how we are supporting them. The things we are doing in terms of investing in the ecosystem and the incentive programming is actually important work and has been successful. Not everything is going to be successful. Not everything is going to be a home run, but we need to be making this push urgently.

In your job you must feel like you have to strike a balance between attracting the big companies to Canada and making them care about the country, but also encouraging entrepreneurs here to feel like they can grow and build a hit business here without leaving.

Absolutely.

My job is not to be down there to be luring big tech companies. My job is to be having conversations with tech companies. We are having tough conversations with them as we should and as we need to. I think this next couple of years all of us are going to be engaged in much tougher conversations on this issue.

I don’t think we should look to the Valley like it’s the nineties and the only way we can grow is if we raise a round (of funding) in the U.S. I think you go down to find partners and inspiration and a sense of what is happening in the global marketplace.

Speaking of issues, so many of the conversations in Canadian tech lately have been around Sidewalk Labs and the smart city it is hoping to build with Waterfront Toronto. How do you feel about the project?

I think what’s in the best interest of cities should always be paramount. Tech is additive, but I also think there’s a danger in ‘techlash’ itself, where we could overcorrect and become closed off to the opportunities in technology, which are also significant.

Are we striking a good balance right now?

This is going to be a contested conversation. It is going to be forward and back. It is going to be messy. There are no straight lines here, but I think where the conversation gets enriched is when people have higher degrees of literacy and are more fluent on the issues, so it is not one or two spokespeople from polarized sides, but everyone contributing with an informed view.

Aside from data, at every tech talk, there seems to be a persistent question: How do you build the next Shopify? Is that something we should be focused on?

I think we do need anchor tenants. We need companies of scale that have global ambitions and unique intellectual property.

So then what are your priorities for 2019?

I think part of it is building capacity internally within our organization so we are better embedded.

I think I am focused on being a part of critical conversations and making sure Canada’s voice is at those tables. These are not easy conversations. The days of tech utopianism are over, but I am still a tech optimist, but I think we need to do a lot of work around it.

 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press

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