‘People everywhere are thinking big. Why not us?’ – Brad Smith on the region Microsoft calls home

There are 16 million people living in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. And the full potential of the so-called Cascadia Innovation Corridor as an economic and research powerhouse is yet to be fully realized.

At the fourth annual conference of the Cascadia Innovation Corridor, business leaders, government officials and academics met to discuss how cross-border collaboration between the United States and Canada can benefit the whole region.

Here are the key takeaways from Microsoft president Brad Smith’s speech at the conference that took place in Seattle in early October.

More than Vancouver, Seattle and Portland

Although the area’s three most populous cities naturally get the most attention, the Cascadia Innovation Corridor also involves the cities, towns and communities of British Columbia, Washington and Oregon.

“We need a broad regional strategy,” Smith told the conference, “because we need to distribute growth.”

As the cost of living in Seattle, Vancouver and Portland rises, it will be increasingly important to ensure that job opportunities, housing and transport infrastructure spread beyond the metropolitan centers and the surrounding suburbs.

[READ THIS: The big ideas driving the Cascadia Innovation Corridor]

Primed for the data revolution

The world is in the middle of an economic shift as profound as the one seen in the first half of the 20th century, following the invention of the automobile. Data, machine learning and artificial intelligence are already having far-reaching effects on the way we work, how we manufacture products and how we deliver services. The Cascadia region is well placed to play a leading role in this revolution, thanks to the talent it attracts – not just from other parts of the U.S. and Canada, but from the whole world.

“It is talent that has built great companies,” said Smith. “It is talent that is continuing to build the companies of the future.”

This head start is boosted by initiatives like the Northwest Quantum Nexus, a program created by the University of Washington, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Microsoft Quantum. It is working to accelerate research, technological development, education and training in the cutting-edge field of quantum computing.

Investment in education

Educating the digitally skilled workforce of tomorrow needs to start early. Microsoft is one of the companies that has participated in rolling out tech skills to schools across the region, including TEALS (Technology Education and Literacy in Schools), bringing coding to children of all ages.

“Societies need to think about the ethical issues that technology is creating, especially in a world where AI empowers computers to make decisions that previously were only made by people” – Microsoft president Brad Smith

That work is continued at the region’s universities. The British Columbia Institute of Technology has a model for community colleges showing how education and skills training can be extended to people who are currently in employment.

But, as Smith argued, it isn’t enough for people just to be taught how to code: “Societies need to think about the ethical issues that technology is creating, especially in a world where AI empowers computers to make decisions that previously were only made by people.”

[READ THIS: A baby monitor for chickens and other projects solving real-world problems]

Brad Smith speaking with the co-chairs of the Cascadia Innovation Corridor Steering Committee - Governor Christine Gregoire (CEO of Challenge Seattle) and Greg D’Avignon (President & CEO of the Business Council of British Columbia).

Cascadia Data Discovery Initiative

One goal of the Cascadia Innovation Corridor is to enable the major cancer institutions in the region to join forces to work toward a cure for cancer.

Central to this will be the new Cascadia Data Discovery Initiative (CDDI), that brings together partners including BC CancerUniversity of British ColumbiaUniversity of Washington eScience InstituteKnight Cancer Institute at Oregon Health and Science University, and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. This collaboration works on the premise that the future of cancer research lies in data, and builds on the work Microsoft is undertaking with Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Sciences to create a data-sharing platform that uses differential privacy to ensure research data is kept secure and private. In December 2018, Microsoft and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center together started a new chapter for the region when Smith announced a $4 million challenge gift focused on accelerating cancer research.

Taking a lead in privacy rights

The data initiative highlights the need for robust and trusted protections for data privacy, an area where the region has an opportunity to devise a model for the rest of the world to follow.

Legislators in British Columbia and Washington State are looking at ways to revise and modernize the laws and statutes governing data use and privacy. Smith believes that, by working together, the region can create a legal foundation for people to federate data while ensuring privacy rights are protected.

“We can begin by doing this for cancer research,” he argued, “but ultimately, this model for data sharing can be applied to any problem we wish to address.”

More funding for affordable and sustainable housing

The people of the Cascadia region will only benefit from the potential economic growth that new technology offers if they can afford to live in proximity to where they work.

Local authorities and mayors across the region are working on ways to boost affordable and sustainable housing – with innovative solutions to common problems being shared in forums like the Cascadia Innovation Corridor Conference.

But the issue requires investment, as well as ideas. Microsoft has committed $500 million in capital investment for projects that build low- and middle-income housing, and to address homelessness.

[READ THIS: The stories behind Microsoft’s affordable housing initiative]

Making high-speed rail a reality

Along with more affordable housing, the region needs better transportation infrastructure to make the most of the future.

British Columbia, Oregon and Washington have provided three-quarters of the funding needed to identify a financing and governance plan for a high-speed rail route linking Vancouver, Portland and Seattle and communities in between.

At the conference, Smith announced that Microsoft would provide the final quarter of the funding, and encouraged the region to be ambitious about its plans.

“Everywhere you go in the world, people are thinking big, and I think the fundamental question we should always ask ourselves is, why not us?”

The vision could be reality by 2035

The steering committee of the Cascadia Innovation Corridor believes it can enact its plans to make the region a world-leading economic and research hub by 2035.

“It’s far enough out that it forces us to think big, because we need to think big. But it’s close enough in that we know that every single year will matter, and therefore we have to pursue this vision with practical plans and a sense of urgency,” said Smith.

The Cascadia Innovation Corridor is already working

Evidence shows that the recent work undertaken by the Cascadia Innovation Corridor is changing behavior and attitudes in the region.

Data from LinkedIn show that when the project first began, people in Vancouver were more likely to connect with people in Toronto than in Seattle, while those in Seattle were more likely to connect with people in New York than in Portland or Vancouver.

“This has started to change,” Smith said. “We’re building connections up and down this corridor. And as we do that, one of the doors it is opening is to more and more research together.”

For more on the Cascadia Innovation Corridor, visit Connect Cascadia. And follow @MSFTIssues on Twitter.