“London Inc. – Part 7 – Our Digital Economy”

One of London’s noteworthy economic success stories over the past decade has to be the impressive growth* of our digital economy.

Just this past summer, eight of the record ten London-based companies recognized by Profit Magazine’s 500 Fastest Growing Companies were local tech rock stars.  They include among others: Arcane, Big-Blue Bubble, Big Viking Games, HRDownloads, Startech.com, Voices.com, Zomaron, and Digital Echidna.

Moreover, London’s digital economy is filled with a broad cast of resilient tech-intensive stalwarts including: TD Bank, London Life, Diply, Info-Tech, Autodata, Digital Extremes, ILookAbout, ZTR and Cineplex.

The credit for this market upswing goes to the business leaders and creative teams that comprise the estimated 300 companies and 9,000 employees* attributable to this sector.

We must also credit the ecosystem that now surrounds and supports this sector.  Among others, they include: TechAlliance, the Small Business Centre, the Southwest Angel Group, LEDC, Ontario Centres of Excellence, National Research Council, Western’s Research Parks program and Propel Entrepreneurship Centre, Fanshawe’s Leap Junction, UnLondon, and most recently, the new Ivey Accelerator and Pillar’s Innovation Works.

TechAlliance has been a particularly noteworthy contributor to London’s tech scene.  The member-based organization was founded 14 years ago by 30 of London’s tech leaders and has risen from its modest roots to become the area’s Regional Innovation Centre and a respected member of Ontario’s Network of Excellence (ONE).  This provides our tech entrepreneurs with access to an array of start-up resources, market research and best practices.

As a result of this collective community investment and the enduring commitment of our tech entrepreneurs, our city’s digital leaders are beginning to achieve unprecedented growth levels and recognition.

Unfortunately, these newfound successes are creating new challenges – namely access to qualified talent.  It is estimated that between 500-1000 tech jobs remain unfilled in our city.  This talent gap is even more concerning when we consider the record high levels of Londoners no longer participating in the workforce.

We Londoners must address this talent gap if we hope to expand or even retain this high-value economic contributor, and must do a better job acquainting external funding sources with the power and potential of our city’s digital cluster.

London must also do a much better job measuring the tech sector.  I attach an asterisk (*) to the phase ‘impressive growth’ in the opening sentence of this post and the subsequent employee estimates, because London does not effectively quantify the sector’s trends, gaps, strengths and weaknesses.  We cannot fix what we cannot measure, and we certainly cannot tell our success story if we cannot tell it accurately.

Immediate Action

Therefore, in my view, the immediate strategic priorities to secure those additional 500-1000 new jobs for London’s tech sector are simple and their execution must be a priority.

  1. London must establish a tech sector lead. While the efforts of all the organizations now charged with supporting the tech sector are appreciated, there is too much confusion and duplication among service providers.  Much like Communitech is the tech lead in Waterloo, one organization needs to stand above the rest and serve as the point for the city’s digital identity.  This sector lead must build London’s tech brand, secure the necessary support infrastructure and measure our collective results.
  2. London must establish a tech-intensive entrepreneurial hub. While not as large or opulent as Toronto-based MaRS, such a hub would give London a presence, a destination, and a sense of place where new and known entrepreneurs can collide and create the next generation of inventions and innovations. London now needs to think big by developing a plant or district, ideally downtown, that everyone knows is the hub of new entrepreneurs and new businesses.
  3. London must make a much larger investment in workforce tech training. London also needs to aggressively petition the senior levels of government for re-training investments.  The Provincial and Federal Governments invest millions in other cities and even commercial entities to support sector development.  We need to secure our fair share.
  4. London must materially improve access to capital markets in North America, Europe and Asia. The growth, maturation, and preservation of London’s organically-grown tech sector is dependent on the timely and convenient access to resources, both financial and human, in major markets. This strategy includes the pursuit of High Speed Rail, and in the more immediate timeframe, the solicitation of direct air-travel options.

A Longer-Term Play

All of the above strategies have proven effective in other communities and are very doable here at home. However, there is one additional strategy that  I believe London should seriously consider if we hope to further develop our digital identity, expand the pool of qualified resources available to the tech sector, and differentiate ourselves from other tech hubs in Ontario.

Specifically, London should seriously explore the prospects of adding a 3rd fully-accredited post-secondary institution to the community, namely a Poly-technical Institute.   The purpose of the new Institute would be to focus its curriculum almost exclusively on the new knowledge economy.  It would bring staff, students and faculty from around the globe interested in working with local industry to generate the next generation of digital, engineering, energy and environmental advances in a progressive setting that delivers outcomes.  In addition to being a job creator and economic contributor locally, this initiative would put London on the cutting edge of new innovations, new platforms, new training regimes, and new international partnership opportunities.

Ideally, I would like the new Institute to be developed in partnership with Western and Fanshawe.  In an effort to help differentiate London further, I would also like us to consider formally partnering with a similar Institute in Europe or Asia that can bring new thinking and exchange opportunities for our young people.  Perhaps of greatest significance, the new Institute would provide our tech companies with a pipeline to additional source of high-quality graduates in the digital field.

London’s digital leaders and the tech sector’s support infrastructure have done an amazing job constructing a sector from almost nothing, with almost nothing.  Our community now needs to step up, be bold, and help place our city among the nation’s tech leaders, right where it belongs.