The second Cascadia Innovation Corridor conference kicks off in Seattle today, where tech luminaries are teaming up with elected officials to deepen ties between Seattle, Portland, Vancouver B.C. and other surrounding areas in a variety of ways.
RELATED: Microsoft backs Seattle-Vancouver high-speed rail study as Cascadia conference aims to deepen ties between regions
The inaugural Cascadia conference last year in Vancouver looked at how Seattle and Vancouver could work together to become an innovation hub through sessions on government leadership, education, transportation and investment. This year the scope is broader, including Oregon and representatives of other Northwest institutions. Microsoft has been a driving force in the cooperation between the regions, as well as the Cascadia conference, after opening a big development office in Vancouver last year.
“Last year we came together as a region to build something that we simply can’t create apart: an innovation corridor to create more opportunity and prosperity on both sides of the border,” Microsoft President Brad Smith said. “By linking our two cities together through cross-border collaboration, research, funding and educational opportunities, we will spur new economic activity and opportunity that creates a better future for everyone.”
Smith explicitly pointed to mixed reality — which he described as a blend between augmented and virtual reality — as a concept that will affect industries of all kinds and will continue to be a focus of these new Cascadia partnerships. Smith added that mixed reality is poised to be an $80 billion business affecting everything from gaming to architecture to healthcare.
The Seattle-Vancouver region is poised to be a leader in the mixed reality space due to Microsoft’s presence, and the HoloLens projects it is pursuing, as well as a healthy AR/VR startup scene in both Seattle and Vancouver, Smith said.
“We’re going to need to place some bets on the industries we believe can outpace others in galvanizing growth,” Smith said of making mixed reality a focus of the Cascadia partnerships.
King County Executive Dow Constantine kicked off the event, taking over for Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, who was scheduled to open the conference before resigning Tuesday. Constantine lauded all the benefits and draws of Seattle and Vancouver, while noting that both are poised for staggering population and job growth over the coming decades. That brings with it challenges related to issues like transportation, affordable housing and more.
“The growth is coming,” Constantine said. “We either allow it to overwhelm us, or we make it work for our shared prosperity.”
To that end, getting a high-speed rail line traveling between Seattle, Vancouver and Portland has been a key pillar of the Cascadia efforts. Microsoft kicked in $50,000 to supplement state of Washington funds to study the idea. Smith said he would like to see leaders look even bigger, at autonomous vehicles and Hyperloop and how these concepts can bring regions that can be bogged down by traffic closer together.
Additionally, Microsoft and other proponents of the partnership are pushing to get charter flights that can travel quickly between Seattle’s South Lake Union and Vancouver Harbour.
“If you’re going to work more closely together you actually need to travel,” Smith said. “And we could do a lot better when it comes to shrinking the distances between Vancouver and Seattle and Portland.”
On the docket for the conference are talks about higher education, transportation, venture capital, life sciences and virtual reality. This year’s conference slate doesn’t boast headliners the magnitude of last year’s rare public conversation between Microsoft Co-founder Bill Gates and its current CEO Satya Nadella. But political and academic leaders from Washington and British Columbia will be joined by tech heavyweights like Microsoft’s Smith, Redfin CEO Glenn Kelman, Hootsuite CEO Ryan Holmes and more.
Check out the livestream above, and look for our coverage from the event in downtown Seattle.