The largest French-speaking city in North America, the Montréal Metro Area is home to more than a tenth of Canada’s population. The region was hit by the decline of heavy industry in the Eighties, and launched a large-scale transition of its economy to ICT, aerospace, life sciences, health technologies and clean tech. Together, these clusters contain more than 6,250 companies employing about 10% of the workforce.
A Smart City plan introduced in 2014 is the most recent contributor to this transition. It focuses on further build-out of the city’s wired and wireless broadband infrastructure, as well as deploying technology to make city services and systems more efficient and creating a collaborative ecosystem involving business, institutions and citizens.
The city owns its own electric utility, which has contributed to an 81% Internet penetration rate, with most connections at high speed. Current plans call for build-out of free WiFi across the 17 square kilometers of the central city. An open “citizen laboratory” already invites participation in incubating social technologies. An aggressive train-the-trainer program operates from 85 centers to equip community leaders with digital skills, which also help the significant portion of the population who struggle with basic literacy, a legacy of the city’s industrial past.
Montréal en Histories
The city of Montréal has 161km of fiber optic cable, which will more than double over the next two years. That network provides the backbone for MTL WiFi, which offers 8 Mbps per user and gained 50,000 unique users in its first month of deployment. The rollout began in Montréal’s historic district and provided the digital infrastructure for the Montréal en Histories project. Funded by the city and executed by producers of the famed Cirque de Soleil—which was founded in Montreal and still has its center of operations there—the project memorializes important periods in Montréal’s history in the form of videos projected at night on the walls of buildings throughout the Old City. Interested passersby can use a phone- and tablet-based app to activate the videos and delve more deeply into the content. One striking video addresses racial history with two side-by-side tales: one of black slave girl accused of setting a catastrophic fire who was tortured and hanged on little evidence, and another on the early career of Jackie Robinson, who played for Montréal and received the strong backing of his teammates in the face of public discrimination.
Knowledge is Power
The metro area’s universities graduate more students from higher education than any other Canadian city. Over 415,000 students earned an undergraduate or graduate degree there from 1998 through 2008. Montréal institutions also received more than 160,000 registrations for e-learning in the 2011-12 school year, while a specialized program is training hundreds of teachers in the use of digital technologies. This educational foundation feeds into the region’s fast-growing knowledge economy, which is a major focus of policy. Montréal operates six Learning Labs specializing in areas from transportation to healthcare and urban planning, and has deployed an online collaboration system to engage its ICT cluster (some 5,000 companies) in more open innovation. Accelerator programs and co-working spaces foster an expanding start-up culture, with the arts and media playing a significant role; Cirque de Soleil is a Montréal company.
Youth Fusion is an inspiring program that targets youth at risk of dropping out of Montréal’s schools. Gabriel Bran Lopez, an immigrant from Guatemala, founded the program as a serious, long-term effort to engage such students and help them achieve their highest potential in the future workforce. Youth Fusion places university students in classrooms for 30-40 hours per week to help students learn robotics, fashion design, cinema, entrepreneurship, video game technology and a variety of other topics. The program pays these university students for their time and effort with fundraising from local businesses, who are eager to see more future employees trained in the skills they need.
Youth Fusion programs are organized as contests running over several months, culminating in selection of winners, often by judges from local industries. Through their work, the students learn French, math, art, leadership and teamwork—and also learn that they can enjoy being in school. The program was originally introduced as a pilot in 2 schools with 7 university coordinators and has grown to include 200 university coordinators working in 92 schools with 40 corporate supporters and partners across the province. Youth Fusion was recently named the most effective charity in Canada, generating C$16 in social value for each C$1 investment.
Quartier de l’innovation
Montréal’s innovation quarter, the Quartier de l’innovation (QI), was launched in May of 2013 by two universities: the École de technologie supérieure (ÉTS) and McGill University and is now evolving to include Concordia University as well. The QI is an innovation ecosystem in the heart of Montréal designed to boost the city’s potential for creativity by combining the strengths of many education institutions and businesses in one place.
To create such an ecosystem, Montréal is making use of the dynamic community that has already grown in the area. Home to many artists and cultural and non-profit organizations, the area also houses close to 100,000 students between the three universities. The QI also boasts 250 companies employing 20,000 people with the largest concentration of information technology and multimedia workers in all of Canada. As it continues to grow, the QI helps the nearby area grow with it by drawing new businesses and residents, leading to a total of $6B in property development and municipal investment since its inception.
The QI’s main strategy is integration of key segments in the sector: the industrial segment, the education and research segment, the urban segment and social and cultural segments. The quarter facilitates connections between these four segments, helping organizations from each of them form strong relationships with the others to further innovation. As entrepreneurs and new companies move into the area, the QI works to aid in cross-pollination of ideas and in helping them get off the ground. The area currently houses six startup incubators, including the Centech (technological entrepreneurship center) and the CEIM (Montréal business and innovation center). The CEIM offers customized management support and related services for startups in information technology, new media, life sciences and clean industrial technologies, while Centech provides support for ventures in manufacturing technology.
The history of technology development in Montréal Metro has created a fragmented sector consisting of many small companies. The city’s economic future depends on helping those small-scale innovators to collaborate in building a bigger future, while preserving the culture and beauty that attract 3.5 million visitors to the area each year.
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