- With over 220,000 students and more than 25 incubators and accelerators, Montreal is creating avenues between academia and industry to drive innovation.
- To mobilize startups, academia, SMEs and industry, the citizen needs to be placed at the centre of innovation.
- Canadians need to consider the human, industrial, social and cultural impacts of innovation in its cities.
Partnerships with officials in all levels of government are critical to driving innovation in Canadian cities. Officials need to be informed throughout the process of innovation so that issues can be addressed and resolved as they arise.
What are the main forces shaping the future of innovation and work in Montreal?
Montreal has the unique opportunity of being the only Canadian city with more than 220,000 students, and we have the capacity to have both professors and students working together.
The second thing is that we count around 25 incubators and accelerators, and 2,500 startups—which is a lot. What is interesting too, is the different areas of expertise in the city. We have artificial intelligence, with Montreal being one of the first cities worldwide to specialize in this area. We are also working in cybersecurity, with Montreal and Tel Aviv being the two unique cities of the world with cybersecurity ecosystems.
The third area is the video games industry. We have three cities around the world that specialize in this: San Francisco, Tokyo and Montreal. Our city has more than 1,200 workers in this field.
The signature of Montreal and Quebec is the creativity and culture. Seven per cent of provincial gross domestic product is coming from our cultural industries, and we have over 150,000 people working in tourism. We also have the chance to have a national cluster in Montreal and in Quebec in cleantech as well as aeronautics, pharmaceuticals and biochemistry. It is interesting to work across these sectors, and to see how we can avoid silos.
How do Montreal’s unique strengths change the way we work? Are they unique to Montreal?
The first thing is to be able to listen to people and work with them. I am speaking about innovation, and it is the basis of human beings to be able to listen and to work with people. I am going to give you an example of one activity we are doing, which is QI Connection. When we have a huge challenge, QI Connection finds startups and students to answer this challenge and present their ideas and gives them a chance to present something new.
Right now, in Montreal—and this is true for most metropolises in the world—there is a huge problem. The problem is the fact that people are working from home and not coming into the downtown. Our topic at QI Connection is to revitalize the city centre and offer solutions to the merchants and businesses.
We are going to mobilize the academic sectors, the private sector and startups, and ask them to come up with new solutions, and not just technical solutions—because we are speaking about innovation. It is about the social, cultural, human and industrial elements of innovation.
“We have to work to humanize innovation and work with and for the citizen.”
What is interesting is that our main challenge is that we have to ask people to come back to the city core, but we want to create that home sensation at the office in downtown Montreal. We presented different examples with different actors who are going to give life to these use cases, because finding a solution is an emergency. How can we be a playground of innovation, not in theory but in practice? We want to use the downtown as a playground, and the Quartier de l’Innovation is an urban playground. It is not a laboratory, but a city with citizens, and we have to work to humanize innovation and work with and for the citizen.
How do we help citizens adapt their skills in a fast-changing world?
Listening to the community is so important, and as generalists, we try to build bridges. To answer your question, the best example is Mitacs. To me, Mitacs is a bridge between the young generation and the future generation, and it gives them the possibility of connecting with different sectors, hubs and the knowledge that we have. I can give you an example.
We worked with two Mitacs’ students on the electric shuttle that we are working on. They did an amazing job, because it built a bridge between our office, the community, the private sector and the students’ knowledge. We had a good professor behind them, but we managed to add a social dimension to their work while placing confidence in the younger generation. We need to make those connections, so Mitacs is very important.
“We need to trust the new generation, because the answer has been and will always be that we need to change things and listen more.”
We did exactly the same thing in cybersecurity by working with six Mitacs students on a project that spanned a number of hubs. As I mentioned, Montreal has the most students of any city in Canada and we asked, “How do we take the students and give them an opportunity to deploy their knowledge?” The result was amazing. We need to trust the new generation, because the answer has been and will always be that we need to change things and listen more. To me, Mitacs is the best way to connect the different silos and to build bridges between the projects that we are working on.
What wisdom and guidance would Albert Einstein give to Canadians to emerge stronger from the pandemic?
Somebody who does not make mistakes, does not have the capacity to innovate. I am sure he would say, “Just try.” We have to fail, and in a team meeting last week I said we have to fail, we have to keep going. We have no choice; we have to try new things. It might not be easy, but we have no choice but to do that. That is why I put this picture of Albert Einstein here, because he did not have a fear of making mistakes. We have to make mistakes in order to do something new, and I am sure he would say the same thing.
Who would you pitch and what would you say in terms of improving Canada’s capacity to innovate?
First of all, we have to work with governments and enter official partnerships in the process of innovation. We need a free area of innovation in Montreal, and we need officials with us in this process—not at the end, but in the beginning of the process. Because if it does not work, they have to understand, and we have to act quickly. We need partnerships with officials in all governments—federal, provincial and municipal.