Silicon Taiga represents real opportunities

"The future is happening in this city," said a friend I visited recently in San Francisco. He moved there from New York and was blown away by the scale and intensity of innovation in the Bay area.

“The future is happening in this city,” said a friend I visited recently in San Francisco. He moved there from New York and was blown away by the scale and intensity of innovation in the Bay area. And it’s not just the big names like Apple and Google.

Future generations of schoolchildren may learn that our time represented one of those epochal shifts like the industrial revolution (and undoubtedly be as bored by our era as we were by the industrial revolution in Grade 9).

This creates huge opportunities for the Yukon. We are in the same time zone as San Francisco and Seattle, and it is actually quicker to fly to those cities than yesterday’s-bagels places like Toronto or Montreal.

It is not well known, but there is already a large tech industry in the Yukon. Quite a few faces I remember from the F.H. Collins TRS-80 lab in the early 1980s are now highly successful coders, tech entrepreneurs, electrical engineers or doing things on the web I don’t even understand.

All those hours playing Taipan paid off.

The Yukon Information Technology and Industry Society points out that its members have a strong track record. Make IT has around 35 staff, an office in Calgary, and helped redo the Yukon’s big and complicated driver’s license system. Mid-Arctic Technology recently moved into bigger space in the old Hudson’s Bay building on Ogilvie and has been doing work on, among other things, near-field communications and tech-enabled museum visits. Total North offers a big range of communications and IT solutions to its customers, including remote resource camps.

On top of all this is a cloud of smaller firms and independent contractors.

These jobs pay well, have a small environmental footprint, and provide a lot of flexibility for Yukon lifestyles. One F.H. Collins TRS-80 veteran, tired of winter in Whitehorse, told me that he did part of one recent contract remotely from his sailboat in Mexico.

It’s worth pointing out that he probably had better mobile data coverage in Mexico than some Yukon communities where – and don’t tell anyone from San Francisco this – you can’t even use your iPhone to create an instant wi-fi hub.

So, if there is good pay and low environmental impact, how can we help this industry grow?

Silicon Valley is famously independent of government. Silicon Taiga, however, will need some help. YITIS has been working with the Yukon government on a range of topics, and the government published a sector plan in 2013.

The plan set a target of growing the sector by 50 per cent by 2017, up from around $50 million of gross domestic product in 2011.

There are a few aspects to this. The first is that the Yukon government’s own IT spending can help smooth out the cycles of private-sector projects so that the local industry can have a base load of work. Local firms need to be good enough to win the contracts of course, but it helps if the projects are put to tender in reasonably sized chunks and in a steady rhythm rather than all at once.

The government has been trying to do this for over a decade with some success. YITIS points out, however, that the government’s IT budget is only half as big as it was in 2002 as a percentage of total government spending. In economist-talk, the IT intensity of government spending has fallen. Public sector consultants like to talk about “e-government.” But can Yukoners check their children’s marks and attendance on the school portal? Renew your various licenses, permits and cards? Check the traffic during rush hour or see when the next bus is coming?

These kinds of services are revolutionizing life in San Francisco.

One thing you can do in Whitehorse, which is handy, is download the iPhone app with the Whitehorse trail guide. It was created by local firm Tarius Design and, thanks to the iPhone’s geo-tracking capabilities, lets me track exactly how slowly I am puffing my way along the trails at Mount Mac or Grey Mountain.

Other examples include obtaining fishing licenses and campground permits, which as of last Tuesday can be purchased by anyone with an “Internet connected computer,” according to the Department of the Environment.

It would not be a bad thing to put a bit more of the Yukon government’s $1.3 billion budget into digital services that make life easier or more productive for Yukon residents.

A second thing is a backup fibre optic cable, which YITIS supports. Now that the Alaskans are laying an undersea fibre cable to Skagway, we really don’t have an excuse for not putting in a backup line. Right now, since any backhoe operator in Fort Nelson can cut the Yukon off from the Internet for minutes, hours or even longer, bigger digital businesses will be very leery about having important activities located in the Yukon.

As a result, our tech innovators are limited in the kinds of businesses they can build. Data centres and contact centres are largely out of the question while we are on a single spur fibre line. The government has been thinking about this for years. I would suggest moving faster to get it done.

A third thing is developing the next generation of tech-savvy Yukoners, now that the F.H. Collins TRS-80 lab is just a fond memory. This means more than teaching Word, Excel or how to edit videos in iMovie. Today, every high school student should bring home school projects like iPhone apps and robot catapults to put on the family shelf with woodwork and metalwork projects.

The Yukon has been highly successful in offering intense experiential high school programs in outdoor leadership or music and drama. This suggests an exciting possibility: a math, computer science and robotics program delivered in partnership with local tech outfits, who can also offer summer jobs for participants to hone their skills in the real world.

We debate the future of the resource industry all the time. But there’s no debate about the tech revolution. It’s happening, and the Yukon should be part of it.

Keith Halliday is a Yukoneconomist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He won this year’s Ma Murray award for best columnist. You can follow him on Channel 9’s Yukonomist show or Twitter @hallidaykeith