#BCTechSummit puts Vancouver at the centre of the global tech stage

BC Tech Summit 2017

An extravaganza of innovation, big business, earnestness, and not an insignificant dose of hype once more arrived at the landmark Vancouver Convention Centre this week.

As the BC Tech Summit came to town, the province heads into an election season. It was, therefore, no surprise that Liberal Premier Christy Clark, representatives from the City of Vancouver, and government-affiliated partners like BC Hydro literally took up a bit more of centre stage in various panels and talks.

There were promises to publicize. For instance, this one from Minister of Advanced Education Andrew Wilkinson: “We are investing in 1,000 additional new targeted seats timed to graduate by 2022, and these graduates will support innovation-driven industries and ensure that employers throughout our province have access to home-grown talent.”

It’s one thing for west coasters to pat each other on the back. The real fun comes from bringing the world stage to our stage.

Beyond the promises, there was plenty of patting on the back. One could hardly blame them as there was plenty to crow about; there were nearly 10,000 tech companies in the province by 2015. The critical mass of this tech hub has taken off, with government figures proudly citing BC’s status hosting one of the largest tech work forces in Canada, with rising wages better than in the rest of the country.

“You get to decide what you want to do and no one gets to tell you that,” Clark said during one panel, sitting in between two young entrepreneurs. “You get to decide.” The talk was naturally focused on youth finding their passion in tech and business, given that the government decided to focus on education, training, and internships for youth in its new tech strategy document.

But she could just as well have been talking about the province writ-large. There’s a new attitude, almost a cockiness, but deservedly so. Uncertainty over the shift from a resource economy is now very much in the past – partly because the tech sector is helping keep that resource-focused hinterland humming along.

Celebrating the tech successes that don’t usually show up on Facebook

Many will associate the BC tech scene largely with digital-social giants like Hootsuite, visual effects companies like Electronic Arts, or a host of plucky mobile app startups based out of Yaletown and Gastown.

But that’s not even half of the real tech story here. The hub in Vancouver is just one part of a tech sector that extends across the province. Internet of Things sensors are optimizing energy installation operations. Big data is helping giant hydro utilities rake in a sustainable pipeline of revenue.

The summit was again a wake up call: the big names at the summit tended to fall into the bleeding-edge science category, or they were tied to more traditional industries like resources.

Quantum computing pioneer D-Wave, based in Burnaby, had a big presence. There was STEMCELL Technologies, the province’s largest life sciences company, with nearly 500 employees investigating the frontiers of bioscience. Aluminum titan Rio Tinto was there to talk up their advances in mining. The University of British Columbia was also on hand, with the government noting its contribution to the greening of traditionally dirty industries like copper mining.

And then there were the big names like Microsoft and Tesla – not founded locally, to be sure, but one can hardly boast about a tech hub without their presence. IBM, ACL; all of the big acronyms were there to share in the glory. Best Buy Canada presented, exhibited and showed off their wares. Local met global.

Tech is crowded and just a bit of a circus, but that’s okay

An estimated 5,000 people were expected to attend this aptly-named summit – a peak celebration of a somewhat counter-intuitively disconnected industry. The tech sector isn’t like mining or manufacturing or retail. The summit isn’t a trade show, product pitching zone, TEDx venue or science fair – it’s kind of all of them and none.

If you’re into tech, there was something for everyone here. You just needed to look for it.

The summit was a living laboratory of somewhat chaotic activity, which ultimately hung together. Possibly, that was from shared enthusiasm, but maybe just because of the drink tickets at the networking segment. Putting all of these groups together made about the same amount of sense as the sushi served alongside the Greek chicken skewers, but was just as wonderful.

Well-dressed human advisors from robo-advisor FinTech startup WealthBar sweetened their spiel and signup experience with branded chocolate bars. In the next corridor, engineering students raced robots around obstacle courses. The VANTEC angel network shook hands with well-heeled investors (or folks who at least looked the part, along with the rest of the tire-kickers).

Across the way from them, in the main exhibiting area, a young lady crashed spectacularly in her closet-sized racing simulator that combined the best of video-game digitization with hardcore mechanical engineering. IT-IQ Tech Recruiters must have had a heyday ensconced among the likes of SunCubes Energy, TELUS, DigiBC, and countless other outfits from what would normally be considered at least a dozen different sectors.

If you’re into tech, there was something for everyone here. You just needed to look for it.

The eclectic mishmash of tech startup marketing reps and student roboticists rubbing elbows with steely-eyed product executives from enterprise firms carried over to the presentations.

A young founder shares her heartwarming story of building an online community for people who have experienced pain and loss and have come out of it stronger. A former fireman with Hummingbird Drones explains how he fell into being the co-founder of a drone company that rescues people who get lost in the snow. A product engineer with EA explains how he and his team actually use trigonometry and calculus every day so that virtual FIFA players look like they’re kicking a football (“So don’t sleep in math class, kids!”).

From BC Hydro, we learn about market transformations in an age of digital disruption. There’s a primer on venture capital investing. Then comes the wearables fashion show, that’s kind of like a regular fashion show, but with construction helmets that will ping you when you’re about to do something dumb and dangerous. Finally, end keynote and Captivology author Ben Parr tells us how to get the attention of our audience (Contrary to what you might have heard, there is such a thing as bad publicity).

For my money, one of the better centre-stage discussions was the almost intimate, fireside-chat style conversation between Minerva Tantoco, former New York City chief technology officer, and City of Vancouver CTO Jessie Adcock. Certainly, it was fascinating to learn about what you can do with a smart city when you’re tracking trillions of bits of data with nearly invisible sensors (For one thing, you can instantly triangulate gunfire, getting cops on the scene before any good Samaritan even calls it in; you can also seamlessly give city buses the edge over private traffic with smarter traffic stops, making public transportation all the more attractive).

Vancouver was one of the first cities to adopt New York City’s Internet of Things city guidelines that aim to thread the needle between urban operational efficiency and the privacy of citizens.

But the bigger message was probably what was left unsaid, because it didn’t need to be: with an appropriate balance of Canadian humble niceties and newfound confidence, Vancouver’s big city was literally putting itself on the same stage as the Big Apple.

This and so many other instances of big foreign tech corporations sharing the stage just made sense for the summit. It’s one thing for us west coasters to pat each other on the back at a big party. But the real fun comes from bringing the world stage to our stage.

The BC Tech Summit isn’t a trade show. It’s not really a place where people try to sell you stuff. But it was definitely a place selling a very nice story. There were a lot of satisfied buyers this week.

Jonathon Narvey

Jonathon Narvey

Jonathon Narvey is a content marketing strategist and BetaKit Senior Editor. Living and working in the heart of downtown Vancouver, he's watched this city's tech hub grow and start to compete on a world-class level. He has learned most of what he knows about tech startups and entrepreneurial spirit by interviewing some of the most innovative thought leaders here and abroad. He's always up for learning something new about the startups, leaders and technologies that are changing our world.

  • VR Geek

    I loved the BC Tech Summit as both an attendee and as a participant. For sure a step in the right direction for BC. The only issue I had as well as I few others I spoke to was the burning of the Olympic cauldron the night before it opened with a HUGE BC Tech Summit sign in front of it on the ground. That seemed really out of place. What is that supposes to represent other than we have money to burn as it is not tech. I am sure Edison if he was alive today would have also been just as shocked that a tech conference burned fossil fuels as a way to celebrate its opening. Please consider installing something with tech next year in this same area and kick things off right. Looking forward to next years.