Improving Montreal’s local innovation ecosystem using human-centered design

By Daniel Tarantino and Viva Dadwal, Montreal Shapers

Street Art on Rue Saint-Denis, Montreal, Quebec. Photo credit: @mtl.streetart

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is transforming the economic, social, and cultural realities in cities across the world. In September 2017, Professor Klaus Schwab and the World Economic Forum launched the Shaping My City’s Future Challenge at the 2018 Annual Curators Meeting in Geneva.

How ready is Montreal to be able to embrace the opportunities presented by the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

Montreal has long been an important centre for deep learning research, supported by pioneers Yoshua Bengio, Joelle Pineau, and hundreds more PhDs and software engineers long before any semblance of true artificial intelligence (AI) was on the global radar. With a strong innovation ecosystem and the brainpower of leading AI researchers, our city has seen a remarkable influx of investments in the last six months, including from the likes of Google, Microsoft, Samsung, Thales, and Facebook.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s high-profile appearance at the unveiling of the Facebook AI research lab in Montreal touted our city’s creativity as an engine of prosperity, yet we were left wondering: who are the forgotten benefactors of this prosperity and for how long? Will today’s progress extend to those trapped in poverty, marginalized in their communities, or living in areas underserved by the systems of prior industrial revolutions?

We are optimistic that AI can be harnessed for good; however, we stress that an inclusive human-centered approach must remain squarely in the elaboration of our collective future. As a cautionary tale from the world of urban planning, the automobile and the manner in which it has shaped cities around the world with consequences that we are now beginning to appreciate serves to highlight what is at stake when people aren’t at the centre of our thinking.

As a city in a province which has fought hard for social equality, the responsible development of AI must be Montreal’s promise to the world. To avoid the mistakes of past industrial revolutions, we must recognize that the basic needs and rights of every human being cannot cede to the speed of innovation. Specialized fast-paced communities with a narrow set of defined self-interests must be woven thoughtfully and flexibly into areas where broader, often slower building societal values and cultural norms have yet to be explicitly brokered and established. We must admit that the ability to make productive use of new technologies that drive human progress is poorly distributed among peoples, and that Montreal is no exception. Further still, we must recognize that different people value different things, with forthright disagreement over the socio-cultural and economic impact of technologies.

Neither our city, nor the world, needs innovation to come at all costs. Ultimately, to avoid past mistakes, the Montreal Global Shapers recommend breaking disciplinary silos and fostering an inclusive innovation ecosystem that thinks holistically about the impacts of its work. Our membership knows firsthand how, all too often, tech development is undertaken through a tech lens that neglects socioeconomic knock-on effects. As conveners of various multi-stakeholder groups, we naturally believe that inclusive and accessible environments that enable meaningful and structured discourse around key questions in the elaboration of various technologies such as AI, would go a long way to help ameliorate current and future malaises.

Within the context of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and Montreal as a burgeoning global AI hub, how might the Montreal Hub and the Global Shapers Community help build a more inclusive, human-centered and prosperous future for our innovation ecosystems in our city?

  • First, we propose that Montreal’s AI research and development centres host inclusive roundtables, town halls and consultations that put marginalized stakeholders on the same drawing board as software engineers and technology business managers. This must be done not in elite boardrooms and conference halls, but in local community centres, food shelters, and libraries. More importantly, we need to ensure that the documented results of these dialogues genuinely manifest themselves in final products, as opposed to memoirs and white papers that exist only on paper ex post facto, as is all too often the case.
  • Second, that Montreal’s innovation ecosystem takes the lead on proposing revisions to professional standards and codes of ethics applicable to AI workers, and revised proactively through the lens of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, as opposed to reactive post-disaster approaches witnessed in other professions.
  • Finally, with regards to Montreal’s success as a lucrative innovation hub, local and provincial policymakers must preemptively adapt regulations and social programs before the flood of capital chokes off the city’s affordable housing supply, an important lesson learned from cities like San Francisco, Seattle, Toronto, and Vancouver. Maintaining the city’s socioeconomic diversity is key to the elaboration of inclusive technologies, as opposed to technologies developed by and for affluent tech workers.

While these recommendations are by no means exhaustive, they are intended as a means to initiate further dialogue on the future of our city. Fortunately, we aren’t starting from zero: the Montreal Declaration for a Responsible Development of Artificial Intelligence and the Montreal Artificial Intelligence Ethics Meetups are laudable initiatives in our city to begin to engage critical reflections around the development of AI.

As leaders within our community, we strongly believe that creativity can be an engine for prosperity; however, the precondition for prosperity in the Fourth Industrial Revolution must be the responsible inclusion of all voices. A person who struggles for survival cannot participate in innovation and the knowledge economy, at least not to the extent of others. Reaching those who are furthest behind is the first step in leaving no one behind. The incidence of Montreal as a global AI hub and strong innovation ecosystem incidentally places young leaders in Montreal at the heart of efforts to address these issues in our heavily interconnected modern day world. This is the spirit of Montreal, an identity of our city, and our hope and recommendation for the future of Montreal.


Daniel Tarantino works in the Cities, Infrastructure and Water space at Arup, a multinational engineering, planning and design consultancy endeavouring to shape a better world.

Viva Dadwal is a BCL/LLB candidate at McGill University Faculty of Law and a Senior Fellow at the University of Ottawa Centre on Governance.