Victoria: icapital of Canada?

By Gene Miller, April 2015

The task of positioning Victoria as a centre for innovation and investment demands, among other things, desire.

There may be a fabled war going on in the heavens between Light and Darkness, but however great the celestial battle, we can’t hear it. Conflict requires noise to get our attention. I recently sent an urgent, anxious email all in caps and the receiver wrote back: “DON’T SHOUT AT ME!”

A silent and, but for this column, un-heralded thunderclap was delivered on the big UVic auditorium stage mid-February, when 300 of us attended an evening “conversation” between university Chancellor and CBC Radio personality Shelagh Rogers and internet wunderkind Stewart Butterfield, co-founder of the photo-sharing app Flickr, founder of Slack, an online group project-sharing tool whose company is already valued at some unholy number, and son of enterprising locals David and Norma Butterfield (Shoal Point, Loreto Bay, and the current Spirit Bay).

At the end of the conversation, a questioner asked Butterfield something like this: “Why don’t you move Slack from San Francisco up to Vancouver?” Vancouver, admittedly, is a hot city for online game development.

Butterfield’s answer—I paraphrase, but not by much—was: “Because so much of the venture capital and talent is in San Francisco.” 

BOOM!

Peter Elkins, a new-to-Victoria go-getter, is currently planning a local impact investing event, based on the belief—elegant in its simplicity—that investments deployed locally, rather than in global funds, can earn comparable returns but deliver significant local economic impact. Peter asked me to suggest potential big-name speakers who champion this idea. I put him in touch with a more knowledgeable Vancouver colleague, who replied: “So just to play it back to you, Peter, you’re looking to mount a conference that (a) touts the benefits of local investment and (b) touts the benefits and opportunities to invest profitably in Victoria. I don’t think the challenge lies in finding interesting presenters. I think it lies more in positioning Victoria as a centre for innovation and investment rather than government and retirement.”

BOOM!

So, what is required to make Victoria’s two i’s Innovation and Investment, instead of Intransigence and Inertia? How, in other words, do you actually go about “positioning Victoria as a centre for innovation and investment?” I mean, the language is gorgeous: “Positioning Victoria blah-de-blah, doodle-y-doo.” You can’t but smile and bob your head affirmatively when you hear it. It’s tasty. It sounds leaderly, visionary. It has its chin thrust forward and it vibes “mission nearly accomplished,” “job almost well done,” “problem practically solved.” It’s a toe-tapper.

I have cynical Victoria friends—given my sunny nature, people I try to see as infrequently as possible—who would nastily respond with questions of their own: “How can the dead rise?” And “Tried levitating lately?”

You understand, of course, that the hidden bomb, the crocodile in this particular river, is “positioning,” even though the word has a mellifluous sound that suggests carefully arranged Calla lilies standing just so in the vase, or rose petals tossed artfully around the dining table place settings with that perfected look of accident and abandon. There! Positioned!

But what if it’s not staging, but real work—more like positioning the Sphinx in Centennial Square? Gee, that might actually use up some energy drinks.

I’m not about to offer the three-bullet blueprint on how to do it. Honestly, I’m not good at that stuff. But there are folks who have mental clarity and real skills at liberating such goals from the dead weight of opinion, contradiction and pointless debate, and who are remarkably adept at methodology—in this case, setting up economic development, marketing and capital attraction strategies and then executing them. 

That is, there are people we (the City) might engage who could build a crystal-clear playbook around the goal of “positioning Victoria as a centre for innovation and investment.” These folks would do lots of relevant research, filled with useful metrics; deliver a draft strategic plan crammed with action items, performance targets, a time-frame and a budget; and would, given the go-ahead and commitment of adequate resources from us, execute the plan in two years, or three years, or four. In all likelihood they would deliver exactly the outcome we were hoping for: new local economic vitality transforming downtown Victoria into a thrumming enterprise hub filled with thousands of new creative, productive people living, working and playing, making the streets safe, happy and populous, filling offices, making downtown’s shops and businesses successful.

You know the kinds of creatives I’m describing. For lack of a more evocative and prolix definition, let’s go with: Vancouverites—friendly, fit, intelligent, unremittingly positive. They network, they jog or bike, wear spandex, slurp vegan lattes or whatever. They have MBAs, they “do” spreadsheets and org charts and structured process. They’re not programmed for failure or tiny, symbolic victories. They don’t think Victoria’s better the way it was. They’re energetic, irresistible, unstoppable.

The planning team we might engage to achieve this outcome would work productively (how could it not?) with all the logical stakeholders: VIATEC, the Downtown Victoria Business Association, the Chamber, Business Victoria, the Greater Victoria Development Agency, Downtown Victoria 2020, the Urban Development Institute, the City, the media, and so on, but not be a creature of any of them. It would have one singular job, one set of “measurables” and one goal: “positioning Victoria as a centre for innovation and investment.” And yes, of course I’m trying to make a point by beating this phrase to death: namely that single-mindedness and intensity of purpose is how to succeed. A recent magazine ad for software systems giant SAP puts it succinctly: “Complexity has a million ideas it can’t make happen. Simple finishes what it starts.”

(I hasten to note that all of this is exactly what Peter Elkins, without waiting to be asked, is attempting to do.) 

Of course, the umbrella-shakers and the cane-thumpers would yell, “What? Who the hell wants any of that? It’ll just make the lines at the Dutch Bakery longer! They’ll clog the aisles at London Drugs buying their off-the-rack orthotics. I’ll have to wait minutes for a cashier so I can purchase my laxatives and denture cleaner!”

And of course, there would be Victoria’s predictable Lilliputian turf wars. Every relevant organization and interest would claim this is their brief and this is exactly what they are doing; or they would scream for an advisory board and a seat on it—just to make sure that our team is made less effective with lots of “reporting to” and superfluous protocol and everyone else’s agenda, baggage and noise. 

When the times call for action, Victoria goes for process. And more process. But I ask: Is it possible that every other city in North America is in competition with us for those economic benefits, and is engaged in its own ambitious attraction and capture strategy?

Which takes us the long way around to that least measurable of qualities: desire. I think a lot about desire—that hunger and need to make something that’s living in your head real in the world. 

I was working on the computer last night, looking at an architectural image. I wanted to spin the image, try different “skins” or finishes on its exterior, change the colours, alter the floor plan…and thought: “I would love to make these changes by voice command. There should be an app for this!”

I’m not going to create the app. For me it was idle impulse, not burning desire. But someone will create the app (if it doesn’t already exist). It’ll be called Morph, or some other clever name, and I’ll bump into or stumble over it eventually and think, “Damn, I had this idea first!” But that won’t matter, because I lacked the hunger to make it real in the world.

This is how desire works. It’s not whimsical, or lazy, or self-satisfied, or abstracted, or amateur. It’s galvanizing, ambitious, often impolite, a bit monomaniacal, single-minded. Something needs to be at stake or at risk—ego, reputation, money, self-image, prosperity, survival. It thrives in a competitive environment, when the hot-breathing devils of risk and failure are chasing it. Here in Victoria, we need somehow to cultivate or intensify desire as a civic value and virtue. Not a small challenge!

You know the biggest threat to the status quo? The status quo itself. This isn’t paradox. Consider the terms under which the natural order operates, and you must acknowledge the inevitability of disruptive or chaotic change. The status quo, often mistakenly conflated with order, stability and the way things are supposed to be, is constantly being threatened by novelty. This is how nature keeps the whole system healthy. What else did you imagine the word “dynamic” implied? Let’s quickly tick off some synonyms: aggressive, changing, energetic, forceful, lively, potent, powerful, productive, progressive, vigourous.

Cities develop qualities and habits, just like people; and a threat is anything that might interrupt the practice of normalcy, that set of assumptions and habits that drags us, and the city, through the day. The prospect of change can seem like a door opening onto the void. Scary! But the harder we hold on, the faster we sink.

It’s remarkable how little it takes to interrupt normalcy. A confession: for a couple of weeks, several months ago, when a development down the street from me was under construction, some tradesman was parking his pickup in my “reserved” curbside parking space in front of my home. I’d come back from morning coffee, and there it was. Every day. All day. It was a stone in my shoe. It so upset my sensibilities that I could barely function. 

That’s Victoria’s seductive charm: It projects an atmosphere of immutability and makes us willing accomplices. It feeds the delusion that if we all just shut our eyes, ball our fists and wish it so, things won’t change.

BOOM!

Gene Miller, founder of Open Space Cultural Centre, Monday Magazine and the Gaining Ground Conferences, is currently co-writing 50 by 20 with Rob Abbott.