Here comes the cluster, there goes the neighbourhood?

Mark Mann
February 20, 2019

I recently sat down for dinner with a friend who owns a small restaurant near the O Mile-Ex building in Montreal, which now houses several of the city’s largest artificial intelligence organizations: Mila, Element AI, SCALE.AI and Thales employ hundreds of AI researchers between them, all in one enormous converted textile factory.

I assumed that he would be happy about the influx of well-paid digital workers to the neighbourhood, but he shook his head. “Most of them eat what’s prepared for them in the in-house cafeterias,” he observed. “They barely leave the building.”

It seems like a small complaint, given the energy and excitement for the AI sector and other digital industries in Canadian cities. The researchers and firms in these ecosystems need support — both at the startup and scaleup level — if we want to compete internationally. But that investment doesn’t look the same to everyone: “The government pays half their salaries while I’m filing payroll taxes and struggling to keep my staff employed year-round,” my friend commented ruefully.

Clusters are good for business, but the collateral damage to the social fabric of cities caused by large digital players does not come up in most conversations about Canada’s innovation economy. Outside the policy and strategy debates, there’s a brimming resentment. This opposition can become a powerful force, as Amazon’s recent sudden withdrawal from New York demonstrates.

Monolithic corporations like Amazon can throw their weight around and simply walk away when they face dissent, but Canada’s innovation players and policy-makers can’t afford to be so hard-nosed.

In their Opinion Leader column for this issue, Adam J. Holbrook and Carol Muñoz Nieves write about their interviews with entrepreneurs in Vancouver’s digital industry cluster. They found that digital workers — often members of the “precariat,” who circulate in the gig economy — frequently can’t afford to stay in the cities where the clusters are concentrated.

If even digital workers can’t make it, what about everyone else? Without a greater focus on liveability and other social issues, Canada’s many tech-cluster and supercluster initiatives could backfire. We need to take a step back and consider every stakeholder, including the restaurant around the corner.


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