Nearly a decade ago, Dr. Sheldon Williamson set out to bring a major conference to Toronto: the 18th International Conference on Industrial Technology, or ICIT 2017. Sponsored by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, it was a highly sought-after event, with eight other destinations from around the world competing for the rights to host it. Working alongside the Leaders Circle, Toronto’s conference ambassador program, Williamson began to assemble a persuasive bid.

“Toronto sells itself — we’re ranked second in the world’s top smart cities, and the third largest technology sector in North America,” he said. “So, it was relatively easy to put together the bid and proposal, and we received a great deal of support from the city, Destination Toronto and the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.”

After a vote among 120 conference committee members, Toronto was named the host of ICIT 2017. That decision didn’t surprise Williamson, who is also a professor and Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Research Chair. Toronto is a major player in the industrial technology sector — boasting a high concentration of start-ups, research institutions and established companies, along with expertise across a span of advanced manufacturing areas.

Headshot of Sheldon Williams
Sheldon Williamson, Professor and NSERC Canada Research Chair, Ontario Tech University


A natural fit

Fast forward several years to March of 2017, and over 300 of the top minds in industrial technology touched down in Canada’s largest city for the four-day gathering.

One advantage to hosting ICIT 2017 in Toronto is that it gave organizers the chance to tap into its thriving industrial technology ecosystem — including renewable energy systems, power systems and smart grids, and robotics and automation. This took many forms, from captivating speaker sessions led by local experts to tutorials and keynotes on a range of topics in industrial technology. ICIT 2017 also featured a day-long exhibit, during which companies displayed their latest products through presentations and panel sessions.

All of this was punctuated with fascinating tours of automotive and tech titans, like IBM in Markham, Ford’s Assembly Plant in Oakville and General Motors in Oshawa, where attendees saw first-hand the innovations and developments that are driving the future. They also visited acclaimed academic facilities and research institutions, including the University of Toronto and Ontario Tech University.

Beyond its technology expertise, Toronto lures visitors for its cultural offerings. Approximately 50 per cent of the population is born outside Canada, which makes it one of the world’s most multicultural cities. It’s this very openness to diverse ways of life that enriches conference agendas and leaves a lasting impression on delegates. As Williamson recalled, ICIT 2017 offered several unique cultural experiences that were a massive hit among attendees.

“Conferences are usually very global in nature — which is why many attendees were thrilled to find diverse food, attractions and cultures embedded within the city of Toronto,” said Williamson. “One evening, we served an Indian food buffet that was outstanding and invited a folk group to perform a Punjabi dance. The next thing you know, all the engineers were dancing on stage. It was a highly memorable moment.”

Creating a long-lasting legacy

One piece of feedback that Williamson continually heard from delegates is that they are eager to come back to the city for future conferences. Thanks in part to this success, Toronto has since been slated to host the 25th International Society for Industrial Ecology (ISIE 2025), which will attract some 1,000 global attendees.

“IEEE trusts us to host a fantastic conference,” Williamson said. “When I think about what brings events back, it comes down to cultural diversity. At the International Conference on Industrial Technology, people saw that Toronto is amazing not only for its industrial technology expertise, but for its diverse cultures as well. It has something for everyone.”

Already, the legacy benefits felt through the event have been plentiful. Reflecting on the long-term outcomes of the conference, Williamson explained that it has acted as a powerful magnet for talent.

“When delegates returned home, they were very impressed with the universities — specifically Toronto Metropolitan University, the University of Toronto and York University,” he said. “They’ve since sent their own students to finish undergraduate degrees here. That’s improved our economy because those students are now working within our industry.”

Williamson says that the event has also sparked new collaborations and investment opportunities between Canadian and international delegates: “We had attendees from Germany who want to launch start-ups here, as well as from Japan who would like to invest in technology in Toronto,” he explained.

"ICIT 2017 is a great example of how international meetings can benefit local academic institutions and create a lasting impact on the local technology ecosystem,” added Kathy Nicolay, Leaders Circle Manager. “As the fastest growing technology centre in North America, Toronto is the ideal destination for tech meetings that value collaboration, research opportunities and knowledge exchange.”

The integral role of ambassadors

ICIT 2017 is one instance of the vital role that conference ambassadors play in raising the profile of a country. In addition to being a member of Toronto’s Leaders Circle, Williamson is part of Destination Canada’s Canadian Visionaries Network — which are both platforms that he feels more academics, thought leaders and innovators should be a part of.

“There isn’t much that’s required from us as Canada is an easy sell — but there are so many rewards,” he said. “By helping bring an international conference to the country, you’ll build your network. You’ll gain local and global recognition. And you can attract talent from other countries and learn from them. It’s a win-win overall.”

The Canadian Visionaries Network

Meet the Canadians, like Dr. Sheldon Williamson, whose innovation and sector leadership are attracting international business events to Canada.