We need to keep the faith: Toronto Mayor John Tory in Conversation with OneEleven Executive Director Siri Agrell

March 25, 2020

As usual, you’re driving me to drink,” Siri Agrell, Executive Director of OneEleven, said over a juddering video call with the Mayor of Toronto, John Tory, while 1,700 people watched remotely.

The occasion was TechTO Together, an online event featuring Toronto tech leaders sharing insights, advice and solidarity for the tech community during COVID-19. More than 2,900 people virtually attended by the time the two hour event wrapped, with a lively discussion between Agrell and Mayor Tory serving as the main attraction.

After a few long seconds of technical difficulties — Mayor Tory troubleshooting with his iPad, plus the inevitable lag nearly two thousand people actively chatting and following along can bring — the mayor’s window popped up. He’s on day nine of his own self isolation, using tech to connect to a tech event that was shifted remote because of COVID-19, after a business trip that took him to London, England to speak about tech in Toronto required him to self isolate. In a very weird way, it all felt full circle.

Mayor Tory said it’s the first time in his life he’d gone without seeing another person for this long. He’d been taking calls, holding emergency meetings and publicly addressing the city via remote video conferencing apps. The one exception to his isolation was a courier hand delivering the Emergency Declaration to his door for signing — those types of mandates can’t be made remote just yet — but when Mayor Tory made the declaration on Monday, he did it via Skype.

The benefits to technology during this period of mandated isolation?

“I now know how to go on live TV anywhere I want,” he chuckled. But more sincerely he spoke of how technology has helped bridge social gaps in this period of distancing and isolation, reminding him of old fashioned telephone trees where in times of crisis, people had a list of at-risk or occasionally just neighbours to check in on. Telephone trees, he mentioned, still have their use and are currently being implemented by the city as a way to contact the elderly, or vulnerable groups in the city without access to technology.

The initial back and forth banter between Agrell and Mayor Tory did more than set the stage, though, it added a necessary boost of levity for what has been a week of grim news, where time has started to lose shape and the distance between people is being felt almost as a kind of physical withdrawal.

Agrell, previous to her time at OneEleven, worked for the Mayor as his Director of Strategic Initiatives, where a large part of her job as part of his senior staff was focused on the government’s modernization and building the City’s tech sector. At the end of a day where Mayor Tory had declared emergency measures in light of COVID-19, the playful tone kept it casual, human, two people talking honestly about what had to be done and how tech could help.

“We need draconian measures to blunt the curve,” Mayor Tory admitted.

“You know I refer to you as draconian, so,” Agrell joked.

The focus of their discussion was what the Tech community could do for its city during COVID. Mayor Tory said the first thing people should so was focus on their individual responsibility, and then on the role of tech. Following the rules set out by government and medical officials on staying home and social distancing, and pressing it upon others to do the same were paramount. “You’ve got to do it,” Mayor Tory urged, “You’ve got to convince your friends to do it. Even old people like me are used to getting fresh food now,” he added, but said everyone must be limiting themselves to picking up essentials once a week.

It was when shifting to the role tech could play in the current crisis that an already engaged Mayor Tory appeared to zero in on the thousands of people watching, addressing them with the focus one would during a one-on-one meeting.

He said now was the time the tech industry had to work together, to help fellow entrepreneurs in the field and to find ways to help the community at large. He stressed that the city and province were working hard to protect the “goose that laid the golden egg” that the Toronto tech sector has turned into for the economy both municipally and nationally, while acknowledging the role tech has played in attracting many other industries to the city.

The final point in how tech could help was almost a plea. Mayor Tory said that any ideas the tech sector had now, or was working on since the advent of COVID-19 that could assist in curbing it in any way, should be brought to decision makers to utilize and implement it. Agrell offered to compile the suggestions and make them available to his office and City officials.

To wrap up, Mayor Tory encouraged everyone watching to remember that being together, even remotely, makes us feel better.

“This time is this much,” Mayor Tory said, pinching his fingers together right in front of his iPad camera to show what this crisis the city and world is so deeply feeling represents in the grand scheme, “in the span of a lifetime, or the span of a career. We need to keep the faith.”

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