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OCAD President Sara Diamond. (Handout)
OCAD President Sara Diamond. (Handout)

One Big Idea

Becoming 'Silicon Valley North' Add to ...

For a week every year, hundreds of thousands of people would descend on Toronto to view the latest in mobile software, present research on digital technology and enjoy installations by leading new media artists. Every day, Torontonians would have access to government services and information on their immediate environment through their smart phones or at kiosks across the city.

This probably sounds like the vision of a high-tech entrepreneur or a science-obsessed researcher. But, in fact, the idea comes from Sara Diamond, the president of Canada's leading academic arts institution, OCAD University.

Ms. Diamond argues that Toronto has the industry, the infrastructure and the ideas to lead in digital technology - not to mention artists who've used such high-tech applications in their work - and she'd like to see us bring it all together in an event as large as the Toronto International Film Festival.

"You have all of these ingredients and we need to be courageous enough to say 'We are the No. 1 digital city in North America; come to Toronto and look at what the future will bring in digital capacity and a digital economy,'" she says. "I think Toronto could become a magnet for … next-generation thinking."

Of course, if you're familiar with Ms. Diamond's résumé, you might not be surprised that she's proposing a "Silicon Valley North" concept for the city. In addition to being an artist, the academic has a PhD in computer science and, before taking over the helm of OCAD in 2005, she worked at the Banff Centre, where she created a new media institute, specializing in research and artistic creation using technology.

Can you outline your idea?

Once a year, we would have an event in Toronto, a festival week that would take advantage of the physical infrastructure at the universities and the [TIFF Bell]Lightbox, and some of the exciting things that are going to happen at the waterfront. We would bring the world to Toronto to see what's happening in everything from creative content and new media artists to the various industrial sectors. There are hundreds of companies creating everything from digital games to educational content to experiences that combine television with online. We also have a heated technology sector developing mobile applications in everything from security to health care. We'd want to put all of that together and at the same time bring the best minds in the world and have them talk about the future of a digital world. This has impacts for economic strategy by encouraging companies to stay in Toronto and not migrate to the United States or other parts of the world. It would be the kind of showcase that would attract venture capital and superangel funding.

What's the mobile piece?

Co-relative with the showcase is the need to take services, entertainment, education, health care, and place those onto mobile platforms. We should be able to get on the TTC [Toronto public transit system]and use our mobile device to pay our fares, we should be able to shop using our mobile devices, we should be able to understand our security environment using our mobile devices, and every service the city has should be available to us through digital mobility. You could also be device-free but be able to go to a kiosk and find out what you need to know about that environment, or access a service. As you walked through a neighbourhood, you would have information, images, sounds pushed at you; opportunities to explore places, to go into local businesses, to meet people. And you could also pull information towards you by giving information about your interests, your needs, who you're trying to meet, what you're trying to see. And again, we can put Toronto on the map by benchmarking ourselves as being a mobile global capital.

Going back to the technology showcase - what form would it take?

It would have a street fair where the environment was brought to life through interactions using your mobile device or electronic instruments that could be part of the street environment. And you would walk into buildings and there would be active installations that would be responsive to you, that you could play with. And you also would have that demonstration environment of both up-and-coming content and technologies, and an opportunity to play with those technologies. And you would want to attach lots of opportunities to promote digital literacy, so you'd also use those weeks to take experts from the science and technology world, and the creative world of digital, out to talk to young people and let them know what the career opportunities are.

You compared this showcase, in scale, to TIFF, the Toronto International Film Festival. How does something this large get started?

It needs to build on things that are already happening in the city. There's an event called Technicity that is an opportunity to discuss the technology sector in Toronto. There's a whole series of conferences that are really excellent, like NextMedia, or Interactive Ontario's conferences on gaming and on interactive media. And there are day-to-day events; at OCAD University, we have an incubator for the Mobile Experience Innovation Centre, and content and companies that are part of our culture at the school. So I think it's really pulling together the places and event-makers who are already doing this, and the city, and finding a time in the year when all of us would contribute our resources and build a showcase environment, using primarily existing resources. I don't think it would be that difficult, because there is a lot of activity happening already. It's really about getting the right people around the right table.

What's happened so far towards making this a reality?

There have been some exciting discussions with the city, as they're looking at their strategy to roll out the next generation of activities for creative Toronto. And there certainly have been discussions among university and college presidents, and there's a lot of discussion within industry about both our potential and our need to showcase the heated activity that's happening in the GTA [Greater Toronto Area]

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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