Elevate Toronto: A successful festival highlighting Canada’s potential to “Disrupt Together”

In an earlier blog post we mentioned how Elevate Toronto’s goal was to show how innovative, creative, diverse and multilingual Toronto really is, and boy oh boy, did they ever deliver!

Elevate Toronto, a collaboration between 17 technology organizations in partnership with The City of Toronto, came together with the aim to have a world-class innovation festival where the globe comes to Toronto to discover, connect and be inspired by the individuals who are shaping what’s next.

The festival was put together in only 90 days from the inception of the idea and gathered over 5,000 people in 70 venues and over 100 speakers in a three-day event. Tech-savvy speakers shared their insights and they promoted and encouraged tech startup and blue-chip corporations to partner in creating solutions that can be shared with the world.

 “Diversity is our strength”

“#Diversity Is Our Strength,” first popularized by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, was the theme of the festival, together with “#Disrupt Together” and “#It’s our time” and Mayor John Tory, one of the many keynote speakers, made certain to emphasize the contributions and representation by women, who are often under-represented at tech conferences and festivals.

Perhaps the most amazing moment was on the first morning when Elevate Toronto CEO and Co-Founder Razor Suleman asked the immigrants and immigrant descendants in the audience to stand up, upon which 90% of the crowd complied – part and parcel of being a True Canadian!

Toronto: Home of the upcoming Technical Innovation

Toronto is Canada’s largest city, the fourth largest in North America, and is home to a diverse population of about 2.8 million people. It is a global center for business, finance, arts and culture and is consistently ranked as one of the world’s most livable cities.

Toronto and the Kitchener-Waterloo corridor have emerged as hotspots for technological innovation and particularly, artificial intelligence (AI).  With over 200,000 tech jobs (just behind SF Bay Area at 328,070 and New York at 246,180), we now host a new University of Toronto non-profit organization, the Vector Institute, which will focus on deep learning, a uniquely Canadian contribution to high tech.

An American climate hostile to science is driving Canadian AI researchers and other scientists now working at large U.S. companies to return to the motherland. This includes Geoffrey Hinton, the University of Toronto computer science professor who pioneered neural networks, the type of machine learning architecture modeled on the human brain, who is returning to Canada from his work at Google to fill the role of chief science advisor at the Institute.

Mayor John Tory also announced the creation of a new Civic Innovation Office during the event, where they plan to disrupt City Hall from inside out by applying the talent, passion and ideas of a City of Innovators to create scalable solutions for the city we love. The mission of the Civic Innovation office is to:

  • Improve Toronto services using tech, data analysis and design thinking
  • Facilitate collaboration across city divisions and with external partners
  • Introduce an agile approach to addressing complex city challenges.

The Office will serve as a bridge between outside innovators and the city. Each year, the office will work on projects under a banner theme beginning with a focus on creating a more responsive government, one that acts quickly and meaningfully on behalf of the people it serves. They are currently looking for a partner to work with the city and its residents to design, build and pilot a more responsive model for 311 information requests.

The City of Toronto’s 311 service receives more than 1.5 million calls each year, 70% of which are questions rather than requests for services.

Other cities across North America are facing similar challenges where 311 systems are experiencing increased volumes of public inquiries and they are struggling to introduce new tools and technologies that will allow them to better manage the flow of information to residents and learn from the data they collect.

For many that live here, Toronto is defined primarily by its multicultural quality. We speak over 140 languages and evaluating the service options and innovations that take these unique cultural elements into account will be paramount to the success of the project.

Technology is at an inflection point whereby it can help reduce costs while improving service levels and engaging with the public in their own language which will drive a level of inclusivity, leading to improved relations.

Very few cities are doing this right and Toronto is uniquely positioned to be a world leader in acting globally.

Healthcare: The Next Big AI Beneficiary

What it means for Canada and particularly the three major tech hubs (Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal) is that we’re going to hoover up all the really bright innovative people who’d rather build apps and architectures in a country where climate change is not up for debate and “evidence based decision-making” is not an obscene phrase. We’ll pull in the best talent who want to work on truly useful technology for the future, enhance and build the expertise of Canadian companies and startups, and eventually export it to the rest of the world.

We saw some pretty intriguing healthcare initiatives showcased at the festival. In one exciting exchange, three startups competed for a $20,000 prize by pitching their product before a panel of former Dragons Den judges, a few entrepreneurs and angel investors. The audience cast the final vote and the results were as follows:

AccessNow took third place with their accessibility app for people with physical disabilities. As anyone in a wheelchair or who knows someone in a wheelchair is familiar, restaurants and pubs, the places where people go to hang out with their friends and coworkers, are not nearly as accessible as government agencies or office buildings. AccessNow’s app crowdsources information on entertainment venues where people with mobility challenges won’t find themselves turned away by an unfriendly set of stairs. It includes over 20,000 establishments in thirty countries.

Awake Labs took second place with a promising device utilizing AI and NLP (Natural Language Processing) to help people diagnosed on the autism spectrum to better regulate their anxiety. The platform is a wearable wristband to track indicators of anxiety and log behavior to give the wearer a more proactive way to monitor and manage their anxiety.

However, it was a non-healthcare startup that took the prize – Rumie is a non-profit whose aim is to bring free educational services to underserved communities around the world. For millions of children, particularly girls, they have limited or no access to the Internet. Rumie’s non-connected tablet loads textbooks, novels, quizzes and recorded lectures and the cost is only about $50 per tablet.

Canada’s reputation for being open, inclusive, diverse and multicultural, not to mention extremely friendly to immigrants is gathering the best minds to make Toronto a world-class innovation hub.


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