I was privileged to be asked to deliver the closing keynote at this year's Digital Interactive & Gaming (DIG) conference here in London. The event, now in its fifth year, has grown into a major convergence point of talent and engagement for the region's growing and increasingly influential gaming and tech community.
My topic was a fun one: London? Silicon Alley? Believe it.
The thesis was a simple one: London's got a ton of incredible things going on just beneath the surface, and it's up to us to bang the drums a bit - okay, a lot - more loudly to market ourselves far beyond our borders.
I managed to cobble together the guts of my talk, and have included it here below. I invite your thoughts - whether you're a Londoner or someone who lives far away - on how you'd use simple, individual acts to build a stronger tech, business or general community. Links/action items are included at the very bottom of this entry.
I'll apologize for the length - and for the fact that there's an exercise at the end. Here goes...
I want to start today with a story of a place very far away from here. A place we might not think has a whole heck of a lot to do with London. But it does.
I know it seems like a reach. Hear me out.
A few months ago, I found myself researching a story on Silicon Valley. The region was in the middle of Facebook IPO hype. Everyone was lost in the euphoria of a thousand Facebook employees suddenly becoming millionaires. I spoke to real estate agents, car dealers, jewelry store owners. They were all waiting for some kind of huge payoff as all these suddenly-rich staff fanned out across the Valley, flush with stock-fuelled net worth, and spent themselves into oblivion.
Fast forward a few months and we all know what happened. The IPO tanked. Facebook turned out to be more hype than anything else. The Fisker Karma dealer that I spoke to isn’t selling any more Fisker Karmas. In fact, most of them ended up destroyed on a dock on the east coast, a victim of superstorm Sandy. Or they spontaneously combusted. And for the first time in a long time, Silicon Valley real estate values aren’t rocketing to the moon.
What does any of this have to do with London? More than you might think. Because London has at least some of the ingredients that make Silicon Valley a destination for technology and technologists, a crucible of innovation that, over time, has become its own force of economic gravity. We may not have the extreme ups and downs of massive IPOs and Wall Street pressure. But the core values of great people, innovation, education, entrepreneurship and community are possibly better distributed here than in any other community in the country.
There’s no reason London can’t be Canada’s version of Silicon Valley. That’s why I’m here today.
The term, Silicon Alley, without the V, has been coined in the past to refer to places that, like the original Silicon Valley, have become hubs of technological excellence, with larger-than-ordinary concentrations of investment and development, all within a very startup-friendly landscape. Here in Canada, the obvious candidate these days is Kitchener-Waterloo Region. In the past, Ottawa has worn the title. Further south, New York has been referred to as a Silicon Alley, as well.
So what have we got that all these other storied places have? What makes us similar to Silicon Valley and the wannabe-Alleys near and far? Lots, apparently, because the basic ingredients don’t vary much from place to place, and it turns out we’ve got lots of them in spades:
- Great educational institutions pumping out focused talent that can hit the ground running in any number of fast-moving tech sectors. Both Western and Fanshawe have feverishly refined their programs in recent years to align more closely to increasingly tech-heavy market requirements. Sure, they’ll teach you to code. But they’re also integrating the arts, humanities, other competencies to facilitate the kind of renaissance-person skillsets tomorrow’s economy demands. Western’s Research Park (link) has been recognized as the top incubator in the country, a place where ideas take root and are nurtured into greatness. Our very own EK3 Technologies grew up there, and is now on display in every Tim Hortons on the planet. The park is also home to the Stiller Centre for Technology Commercialization, a renowned biotech incubator, and the UnLab provides a unique space for hackers, makers and even more than a few socially-aware podcasters.
- Business community infrastructure that takes that talent and gives it guidance, resources, incubation. TechAlliance works with startups to nurture them from their earliest phases, help them grow into prosperous, dynamic contributors to the local economy. It advocates for our tech stars in the London and Southwestern Ontario region, ensuring their – and our – voices are heard and prospective participants in our economy – investors, entrepreneurs, students, you name it – know who we are, what we’re about and why we’re unique. The London Economic Development Corporation – for whom we owe this incredible event – has overarching responsibility for driving business development within and beyond the community. As a center of excellence, the LEDC attracts and situates businesses, then works with them to drive growth, collaborates on ways to keep them here so that they can attract even more like-minded organizations in future.
- Government support that provides critical funding and connections to other like-minded individuals and businesses both here and in other communities. Cyborg Trading Systems, a leading developer of trading systems for global-scale financial organizations, recently benefitted from this unique depth of government-business partnership. If you don’t know this company, you should. What they do is way beyond Wall Street – their systems automate trading and risk management, and give companies in this brutally competitive sector the information edge that makes the difference between profitability and growth… and failure. And just last month, they won a major federal grant to further grow its operations here in London.
Who else is out there? You’ve been seeing them, hearing them and speaking to them all day long, and I’m willing to bet your head will be buzzing for weeks to come. I’d like to outline some key contributors to the tech community here – and please accept my apologies for leaving anyone out. There are just too many good ones out there:
- Phoenix Interactive – Before this company came along, bank machines were green-screened monsters that everybody hated. Phoenix turned the industry on its ear, shifting to user-friendly, Windows-based interfaces that revolutionized the financial self-service industry. While everyone else was focusing on hardware, Phoenix had already recognized the gamechanging potential in software, and has been actively partnering with financial institutions around the world ever since to advance the self-service state of the art.
- Voices.com – If you’ve watched a television commercial at all lately, you’ve seen Voices.com’s work. It’s grown from humble London beginnings to become the world’s leading marketplace for voice-over talent. Using agile development tools and advanced web technologies, Voices.com has outflanked traditional talent services based on conventional technology. By accelerating and enriching the connections between those seeking talent and those who have it, Voices.com is an ideal example of leveraging technology with efficient intelligence to knock off industry giants. Along the way, the company’s been recognized for innovation, balanced management practices and strong community involvement. Hard to believe they’ve been around for only 9 years.
- Big Blue Bubble – Casual gaming is big and getting bigger, and Big Blue Bubble isn’t just riding the wave: it’s driving it. With some of the top mobile gaming titles in Apple’s iOS App Store and on Google Play, this London developer continues to expand its influence on the community here. Unlike many other dev shops, though, Big Blue Bubble develops across all major platforms, including PC, Mac, and even Nintendo’s Wii.
- Big Viking Games is leading the trend toward Facebook- and social media, mobile-based gaming. Their list of staff perks reads like it came from Google – unlimited snacks and an in-office concierge and barista – and they just moved into new digs. Never mind that they were founded…last year. You’ve got to move fast in this business, and Big Viking is typical of London tech players built to take advantage of this new, ever accelerating landscape.
- Digital Extremes – quite likely the granddaddy of them all here in London. They’ve built an international reputation for game platform development, with titles like Unreal, Bioshock and Retro Pinball. They’ve been leaders in the online game movement, and have been repeatedly recognized by the industry – and here at home – for setting the bar for other game devs to follow.
- Rtraction – Digital agency is a term that a lot of conventional agencies like to throw around a lot. Rtraction doesn’t have to throw around anything – digital agency IS its DNA. The company works with a wide range of clients to transform their business vision into web, online, mobile and wireless reality. They’re out there in the community, using conventional media – and events like DIG – and social media to raise the volume on critical technology and policy issues. They’ve become a magnet for talent not only here, but throughout the region.
Disclosure: Earlier in my career I’ve worked, proudly, with the following two companies…
- Autodata – Who here has bought a car in the last…oh…decade? Show of hands, please. Who used the web to do research before heading down to the dealership? There, you’ve been touched by Autodata. This company sells vehicle build-and-price solutions to virtually all major global auto manufacturers. Virtually every car company website you visit today is powered by Autodata code. They’ve built massive data warehouses of every imaginable data point and configuration for every possible vehicle on sale today, and as a result lead the global automotive data industry with dominant market share wherever they compete.
- Info-Tech Research Group – The result of a case study submitted for a class at Ivey, founder Joel McLean turned a paper into a business that has challenged industry stalwarts like Gartner, Forester and IDC to rethink the way companies buy and use technology advice. Technology can be a hard thing for non-technology companies to figure out. Info-Tech’s analysts simplify the process, publish content that helps businesses figure it out, and consult directly with clients to advance the state of the technology advisory art. Its research products are used by thousands of companies worldwide to get more from their technology investments. The company has used its close ties throughout the London community – education, business, government – to bring on the right talent at the right time, and to exploit market opportunities that might have otherwise remained invisible.
If I really wanted to, I could go on all day. Samsung’s going to build advanced solar modules here. EXP, a geotechnical, earth and environmental and structural services consulting firm, runs two fully-equipped lab where it does groundbreaking research. I haven’t even touched our incredibly vibrant medical research and services sector, which continues to lead the region by attracting talent and investing in world-beating, lifesaving research. On the services front, we’re home to G.E. Healthcare, 3M and Trudell Medical International, among others. Our hospitals and affiliated research centers continue to shine as well: Just this year, the world’s learned about huge advances in HIV treatment, created right here. And this week, a science fiction-like treatment that uses advanced imaging to help locked in patients communicate with the outside world.
The final piece of the London puzzle? Community. No one does community like we do. From social media meetups to podcamps to podcasts, you’re sitting in the middle of one of the most connected, social-forward regions in the country. Our hashtag, #LdnONT, has become a veritable signature of what’s going on in this city, and where the next big thing is coming from. An incredible new community resource, London For The Win, consolidates the key organizations, initiatives and events in one place, and invites members of the community to add their own – crowdsourcing raised to the next level.
Friends and colleagues who live in K-W and Toronto can’t believe we enjoy this level of engagement. Sure, like us, their citizens are actively tweeting, Facebooking, Blogging, and Tumblring. But they haven’t connected the dots on a grassroots level to the same degree that we have here in London. They haven’t branded themselves online as deeply as we have.
You can argue that they don’t need to, that because they’re so big to begin with that the need simply isn’t as acute as it is here. You can also argue that their geography gives them an advantage. The GTA is the centre of the known universe, while K-W lives on the edge of that orbit. London, in comparison, lives in a world of its own, in the middle of Southwestern Ontario, not close to much of anything.
Which means that we have to try that much harder. That because we’re not gifted with a sense of critical mass – or centre of gravity, if you will – to begin with. So we have to use creative, agile methods to create it out of thin air. As a result, #LdnONT is our calling card, and it gives us a starting point, of sorts, to speak a little bit louder. And resources like London For The Win represent resources where we rally around, and figure out what we want to focus on next.
[Talking to Outsiders]
As I look around the room, I realize we all understand this. We work in or around the gaming industry. We’ve committed a day away from our offices and our classrooms to be here, so obviously we’re all deeply invested. Look to your left and to your right and there’s a better than even chance that you already understand the value proposition of the person sitting next to you, or the organization that he or she represents. And if not, a 30-second discussion should bring you both up to speed.
But what happens when we leave here later tonight? How do we take the message of London’s gaming and tech industry, the fact that we are worthy of being called Silicon Alley, that we are doing some incredible things, and that we do stand on an equal plane with other technological centres of excellence both in Canada and elsewhere? If you’re an employer, how do you convince students about to graduate that this is where they should stay? If you’re a student, how do you know where to look, who to talk to and what to ask? I want you to keep those questions in mind for later, but for now, consider this:
[Making the intangible tangible]
Everyone knows what a bank does. They make themselves lots of money. We also know what a manufacturer does. They make stuff we can all hopefully afford. But does the average Joe – not the mayor, but a real average Joe – understand what a development shop does? It can be such an intangible thing to an outsider. I try to explain game development to my Luddite, disconnected mother and her eyes just glaze over. What about an average non-techie member of the business or broader community?
If we do a better job sharing our vision with them, we naturally increase the number of people willing to go to bat for this region, willing to share the stories that we’ve shared all day today. The story of London as Silicon Alley becomes not one circulated within the gaming and tech communities, but within the wider one, as well. Keep that in mind the next time you bump into someone at the grocery store and they ask you what you do. There’s huge opportunity to sell this, sell us, outside of our own, admittedly geeky circles.
[But – still silence]
So, let’s look at London again. We’ve got a bunch of great companies. Staffed by a bunch of great people. Supported by a range of incredible community, government and quasi government organizations. We’ve used social media to create a culture of connectedness within the community that makes it easy for businesses and those who work for them to grow. The core ingredients are there – and they’re wonderful ingredients indeed. But we’re still not known beyond our borders as the place to be if you want to do tech. Kitchener-Waterloo still gets all the national headlines, and the real Silicon Valley still grabs everything globally.
Why is that?
Simple: Marketing. Or PR. We don’t do as much of it as we should. And they do.
As an industry, we’ve done the great, fundamental work to build our businesses, crack into global markets and take no prisoners along the way. We’ve topped the App Store charts and set new standards for interactive and online gaming excellence. Our research continually breaks new ground in any sector imaginable, from medical to manufacturing. But we haven’t had the conversations with our neighbors to really clue them in on what we’re up to.
I’ll politely suggest that we may want to consider doing just that.
Because while we haven’t been marketing our tech prowess to the regular folks in the broader economy or out on the street, we’ve become known for things we’d rather not be known for. Bananas being tossed on the ice? Check. Ginormous sinkholes in the middle of the downtown core? Yup. Bridges that like to dance and sway in the wind? Got one of those, too. City councilors who want wireless scramblers installed in council chambers so citizens can’t tweet during session? Unfortunately, yes.
Nothing any other city doesn’t have to deal with, mind you, because every city, every region, every organization has to deal with its own share of issues. But it’s distracting all the same.
Of course, none of this takes away from the goodness going on in our tech economy, but it can mask it to a certain extent, because no one really pays a whole lot of attention to that snazzy new app or killer Facebook game when everyone’s busy debating the merits of banana peels, and what happens when you throw them into sinkholes
[Shift the Agenda]
For the London region to take its rightful place as an emerging player in Canada's tech landscape, we’ll need to do a better job shifting the agenda in a somewhat different direction. When I tell my kids that some of their favourite games on the iPad were coded right here in London, they refuse to believe me. When we were shopping for a car, they laughed when I told them I had had lunch with the lead developer of the configuration engine that we used to spec out and price out my wife’s car before we bought it. They couldn’t believe that the big, flashy website, with its ultra-sophisticated back-end that turned the act of buying a car into near Disney-like entertainment, was created in a low-slung commercial-industrial building on an unassuming street in London’s east end.
[Highlighting the Small Fry]
Walk any street in any part of the city, and there are businesses already doing just that. There are lots of low-slung, unassuming buildings throughout London. With lots of incredible, world-beating work being done inside them.
Hang around any office – gaming or not, tech sector or not – and chances are there’s someone with a regular 9-to-5 job who goes home at night and codes an iOS or Android game in his or her spare time. Off the top of my head, I can rhyme off at least half a dozen friends who are already doing just that.
Are they on the radar? Should they be? In most cases, they aren’t. And in most cases, I think they should be, because a lot of them are pretty accomplished in their own right.
But here’s the thing: we’re so dialed in as a social media-enabled region that it should be a relatively simple thing for those same one-off developers to use that network to connect to the resources they need. And they need lots of stuff.
Like any developer, they need: technical guidance, testing assistance, marketing help, and ongoing business mentorship. They need people and organizations to take them under their wing and help them evolve their weekend coding efforts into sustainable businesses. Silicon Valley was born in countless garages, but eventually those little garage-based outfits became powerhouses like HP and Apple. That same psychology applies now, and here, as well.
If one of the goals is to grow the gaming and tech sector by using our differentially effective social media capabilities to tap into grassroots developers, then I’d humbly suggest we’re more than ready to move on this front.
Here’s where you come in: If you know someone who’s got a pet project on the side, feel free to reach out to them – I’ll suggest Twitter, but it’s entirely up to you – and see if you can offer your own little bit of mentorship.
At the end of it all, Silicon Valley didn’t just happen. It grew out of a unique-in-history set of circumstances. People, plus location, plus education, plus community engagement, plus investment plus business support and mentorship, plus a healthy dose of risk-taking. But in the 15-ish years since I moved here, I’ve had the unique pleasure of watching a similar set of ingredients quietly take root here.
I know we don’t have the beaches or the California sun. Or that uniquely American sense of brashness. But that doesn’t mean we can’t create our own centre of gaming and technological excellence right here in the London region. Indeed, we already have. And we, in this room, already know this. The opportunity now rests with us to spread the word beyond this place.
But wait, there's more...
After I was done speaking, I sprung this on my unsuspecting audience. Their responses were amazing. Here goes...
Normally I’d open the floor to questions, but I’d like to try something different. We’ll get to Q&A in a bit, but I’d like you to indulge me first. I’m a believer in lists. They help focus my efforts and stick to my priorities. Since I’m a business of one, a daily list keeps me from wasting precious resources on stuff that doesn’t matter.
I think we, as a gaming and technology community, need a list now, too. I’d like you to look to your left and say hi to the person sitting next to you. If you’re at the end of the row, tap the shoulder of the person ahead of you. Can't pair off? Go threesies.
Please take a couple of minutes to decide ONE THING that we should be doing to raise London’s profile as a Silicon Alley economy. What’s the ONE THING that YOU would do within the next month to raise the volume, so to speak, and build London’s eminence as a tech-forward place to both do business, and to establish yourself after you graduate?
We’ll give it a couple of minutes. Then we'll walk the mic around the room to allow everyone to share their ideas. Please also tweet them to @DIGLondon and the #DIG2012 hashtag. We’ll compile the list and post it to the DIGlondon.ca website.
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