Toronto's fintech innovation ecosystem: And what's design got to do with it

In June 2018, I completed the two-year journey that was my Master of Design at OCAD University. It was a happy coincidence that I started at Scotiabank Digital Factory as a User Experience Designer right as I was in the process of selecting my thesis topic. The Digital Factory opened my eyes to the digital transformation underway in the Canadian financial services industry, and consequently gave me something to write about: a look at Toronto’s unique technology ecosystem.

Toronto, summer 2015

Toronto, summer 2015

What I discovered was that the outcome of the banking transformation makes a difference beyond financial services, and even beyond Toronto. Because of the importance of the banking industry to the Canadian economy, the success of this transformation is crucial for the continued quality of life for all Canadian people.

Ecosystem components

Ecosystem components

As I conducted my ecosystem research, it was apparent to me that companies and products are not built in isolation from their environment. At minimum, organizations are shaped by their context. Research shows that a startup has a greater chance of success in an ecosystem that is supportive to its core functions and goals, and that maintains a symbiotic relationship among research, government and industry.

In the face of exponential global growth in connected technologies, also known as the fourth industrial revolution, Canada is at an inflection point. Technology startups and big tech entrants are promising to disrupt every industry, and the disruption largely benefits the few select high-tech centres worldwide that generate this growth. One way to bridge this innovator gap is with startups, so Toronto’s headlines are full of speculation around whether Toronto will grow into the next Silicon Valley.

A deep dive on Silicon Valley’s history affirms its uniqueness. As the largest tech ecosystem in the world, it is arguably the benchmark for ecosystem success. Home to engineering-driven, design-forward technology invention, Silicon Valley boasts a culture of risk-taking, entrepreneurship and high mobility, steered by venture capital. Venture capital is structured in a way that rewards rapid growth and expansion, aligns incentives, and connects people, resources and ideas. Additionally, Silicon Valley benefits from generations of seasoned entrepreneurs, experienced investors, mature startups and sophisticated tech talent in a phenomenon nicknamed the anchor-tenant effect: the advantage of having done it before.

At the same time, few would argue that Silicon Valley is a utopia. While also far from the dystopias predicted by twentieth century science fiction, Silicon Valley has recently been critiqued for a myriad of reasons, from lacking inclusivity and diversity, to a culture of overwork and burnout, to oversaturated consumer innovations, to clashes with regulators, to ethics challenges in the usage of algorithms and big data.

Beyond Silicon Valley, global ecosystems have proven themselves successful by amplifying their own unique traits:

  • China has sprouted tech giants like Alibaba and Tencent, and has developed consumer tech arguably more widespread and advanced than in North America, using its regulated environment and large population to its advantage.
  • Berlin has built a thriving tech hub from the base of a city that throws its doors open to immigrants as a hotbed of culture.
  • Taiwan has specialized in process and operations-focused innovation, producing silicon chips ever more efficiently to support Silicon Valley.
Taipei 101, summer 2012

Taipei 101, summer 2012

The question then becomes: what are the unique characteristics that Toronto should amplify in order to create the best possible conditions for Canadian startups, while honouring the culture and life we want to create to be consistent with our collective identities as Canadians? As per the mandate of Steve Case, known for founding AOL, and more recently the platform to support emerging ecosystems Rise of the Rest and corresponding venture capital firm Revolution:

We just need to make sure we continue to identify interesting people doing interesting things in interesting places. We need a more diverse mix of views thinking about agriculture, health care, education and energy and financial services and government services.

In that sense, the qualitative analysis of my research leads me to believe that Toronto tech represents the opportunity to include a greater diversity of mindsets that will create a variety of innovations to serve a greater breadth of people. By applying innovation to industries that are already well-supported in our ecosystem, such as financial services, in a way that is sustainable and profitable, Toronto will continue to develop its uniquely Canadian brand of innovation.

In his address to the Davos World Economic Forum in 2016, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said:

New technology is always dazzling, but we don’t want technology simply because it is dazzling — we want it, create it and support it because it improves people’s lives.
Technology needs to serve the cause of human progress, not serve as a substitute for it, or as a distraction from its absence.
Simply put, everybody needs to benefit from growth in order to sustain growth.
It’s not hard to see how the connections between computing, information, robotics, and biotechnologies could deliver spectacular progress. It’s also not hard to imagine how it could produce mass unemployment and greater inequality.
Technology itself will not determine the future we get. Our choices will. Leadership will.

Do you agree?

A note about design education

At OCAD, I got to work on a myriad of projects: a visualization of a year in daily affirmations from a log I kept with one of my best friends in NYC; an inclusivity critique of self-expression platforms like Medium and YouTube; an exhibit for the workplace of the future; a multimodal translation of a Cubist Movement painting, and more.

Happy Moments visualization project

Happy Moments visualization project

My favourite facet of design education is the challenge to imagine, make and create as a way of life. Design has shifted my mindset from one of consumer to one of producer. Every part of life becomes something to question and to redesign: from org structures, to relationships, to transit systems, to jewelry. My next favourite facet is the separation of the ego. To create the best product for your users, you have to be relentless in seeking feedback, and iterating on that feedback. As I grow as a designer, my ear has evolved from one that hears criticism to one that hears opportunity.

While it has become broadly accepted that design is not just how the product looks, but also what the product is, why the product is, and who the product is for, technology has further expanded the meaning of design. As technology has grown into the largest sector of the global economy, the mandate of design has expanded to encompass computational design: design decisions coded into algorithms for impact at incomprehensible scale.

It is exactly for this reason that diversity in designers is an even more important conversation than in many other industries. The overrepresentation of similar mindsets in design can lead to innovation that misses the opportunity to serve more people. Empathy is not enough: Inclusion is.

For further reading

Blue Ocean Strategy: How to create uncontested market space and make the competition irrelevant by Renée Mauborgne and W. Chan Kim

Brotopia: Breaking up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley by Emily Chang

How we can win: And what happens to us and our country if we don’t by Anthony Lacavera and Kate Fillion

Make it new: The history of Silicon Valley design by Barry M. Katz

Startup Nation: The story of Israel’s economic miracle by Dan Senor

The end of average: How we succeed in a world that values sameness by Todd Rose

The future of work: Attract new talent, build better leaders, and create a competitive organization by Jacob Morgan

The geography of genius: A search for the world’s most creative places from Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley by Eric Weiner

The inevitable: Understanding the 12 technological forces that will shape our future by Kevin Kelly

The spirit level: Why equality is better for everyone by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett

The third wave: An entrepreneur’s vision of the future by Steve Case

Weapons of Math Destruction: How big data increases inequality and threatens democracy by Cathy O’Neil

 

Jen is a User Experience Designer at Scotiabank Digital Factory, working on Search and conversational UI.

Jen is a User Experience Designer at Scotiabank Digital Factory, working on Search and conversational UI.