The annual C2 Montreal conference every May is widely considered to be the benchmark for corporate event design in North America, but it’s actually much more than that.

Inside Montreal’s sprawling Arsenal contemporary art gallery this year, as reported last week in Skift, the show floor was filled with dozens of creative activations, such as networking experiences in trapeze chairs suspended from the ceiling. In a high point for the event, attendees booked more than 3,000 face-to-face meetings with each other to discuss topics of common interest via E-180’s Braindate platform.

Outside, a pop-up big top circus tent with 360-degree ceiling projection hosted the keynote sessions. Surrounding the tent, stacks of brightly painted shipping containers served as outdoor corporate VIP suites overlooking the dock and restaurant floating on a channel connected to the St. Lawrence River.

In 2012, the Sid Lee ad agency and Cirque du Soleil — both headquartered in Montreal — launched C2 to engage a broader spectrum of potential partners for their respective companies. They also wanted to position Montreal as a wellspring of business and social innovation, with creativity celebrated as the connectivity tissue that links communities. In 2013, the French Le Nouvel Observateur media group called C2 “The Davos of Creativity,” and the unofficial tagline stuck.

C2’s programming and content highlight innovative trends springing from the convergence of “commerce and creativity,” which gives C2 its name.

Sample sessions this year included “Rethinking The City of Tomorrow” with speakers from the Brookings Institute, MIT, New Cities Foundation, and the City of Montreal. “The Social Economy: Driving Innovation For a Thriving City” session was presented by the City of Montreal and local startups advancing social innovation. There was also a series of dedicated tracks and workshops diving into themes such as artificial intelligence, startup accelerators, small business development, data, and diversity.

In the big scheme of things, however, C2 is a postcard for the future of Montreal, and by extension, the future of collaborative urbanism.

The conference is basically one big billboard designed to promote Montreal’s evolution as a smart and highly livable city to entice international companies to invest in the region’s startup and academic sectors. Since the recession, the City of Montreal government, the region’s four major universities, and the local startup community have been working together to develop Montreal as an “open-air smart living laboratory,” and C2 is positioned as the front door of that urban engineering experiment.

“C2 Montreal is a unique platform that explores the trade-creativity dynamic through a variety of experiences and rich programming,” said Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre during C2. “The influence of this world-class event reinforces the image of our metropolis internationally as a creative and innovative city. C2 Montreal also contributes to propelling our businesses by putting Montreal’s talent and know-how to the forefront.”

Central to the smart living laboratory strategy, the downtown core and university campuses have been packaged and branded as the Montreal Innovation Quarter. The Quarter was launched in 2013 by McGill University, Concordia University, and École de Technologie Supérieur to capitalize on the complementary capacities among the academic institutions and area startup companies in research, education, innovation and entrepreneurship, as well as their regional and international networks.

“We have the most university students of any city in Canada, so we have to have a playground to give them the possibility to play and use their know-how,” says Damien Siles, managing director of the Montreal Innovation Quarter.

Siles explained at C2 that many cities and companies approach innovation with a siloed mindset. To transcend that, the Quarter outlined four pillars of innovation at its inception that guide overall strategy for the future development of the city. The pillars are: education/research, industrial, social/culture, and urban.

The Quarter’s website also posts a wealth of content highlighting specific companies, research, and case studies relating to those four themes.

Siles said that all of those spheres of innovation need to be integrated in Montreal, and every community needs to be involved in their development, for the city to assert itself authentically as a smart living laboratory. That spirit of convergence and collaborative development, he added, is also attractive to outside companies.

“When you’re speaking about innovation, you’re not speaking about the special sectors in one industry or another,” Siles said. “You’re speaking about how it’s possible to humanize innovation when you connect everyone in the city. You can’t just keep it in a laboratory.
You want the population to participate, not like a guinea pig, but like part of a new collaborative vision for what’s best for Montreal.”

Humanizing Innovation

“Humanizing innovation” has become something of a public mantra in Montreal.

Driving that forward last year, Concordia launched the first OpenLivingLab Days in the city, organized by the European Network of Living Labs and the locally based Communautique community participation platform. The mission was to create an open-source online and offline engagement ecosystem for community members to meet with industry leaders in different sectors.

That concept is now being scaled inside a series of venues that will make up Montreal’s open-air smart living laboratory, which will begin to open later this year in the Montreal Innovation Quarter. Visiting and local professionals will be encouraged to meet with area leaders developing new systems around 5G technology and the Internet of Things. Those technologies will also be tested in the student dorms at École de Technologie Supérieur to help local startups iterate products and bring them to market.

Collaborative events, facilities, and platforms like these are spawning across Montreal to engage more locals and visitors in co-creating the future of Montreal and new research-driven, user-centric thought leadership around urban user experience.

The Faire Montreal online portal, for example, is a “collaborative platform for anyone to discover innovative projects, contribute to their development, and monitor their evolution.” And this month, Montreal’s first Fab Lab (fabrication space) opened where the public can visit to learn about advanced manufacturing technologies and robotics design.

Speaking about the new 12,000-square foot Espace Fabrique facility, Mayor Coderre said, “This unique, creative space of production will foster the creation of direct and indirect employment and help reduce costs related to the development of new manufacturing products.”

Tourisme Montreal has expanded its role considerably to help conference organizers plug into the rise of public-facing developments in the local innovation economy. For Pierre Bellerose, VP of research at Tourisme Montreal, the C2 experience presents the best time to introduce the world to Montreal’s knowledge base.

He explained that the tourism marketing agency has always leveraged the event’s success and media popularity to show outside companies how the city works together to organize conferences beyond the ordinary. Now, their responsibility is evolving to promote the city’s innovation economy and startup community more aggressively, and work more closely with partner organizations like the Montreal Innovation Quarter.

“As a convention and visitors bureau, we’re creating a showcase of innovation to present to potential clients, because Montreal offers such a large ecosystem of creative companies and creative people,” said Bellerose. “C2 is that kind of business activity in action. It humanizes innovation, which we can show to international business leaders to prove that Montreal is the place to be.”

The ROI of Innovation Events

Presently, Montreal and the province of Quebec are peaking. According to Bloomberg in January: “Quebec added 85,400 full-time jobs in 2016, more than the other nine provinces combined, and growth in its labor market accounted for 42 percent of the Canadian total.”

Technology, digital media, and other advanced industries are driving much of that growth in Montreal. Therefore, the local government wants to build on that momentum, and Canada’s national government wants to scale it across the country. So both governments are supporting C2 to capitalize on the event’s proven ability to attract foreign capital and talent from more than 60 countries around the globe.

At the local level, the City of Montreal granted $200,000 (US$151,000) in funds to C2’s operating budget on a yearly basis from 2014 through 2016, and increased that to $250,000 this year.

On the national front, Canada Economic Development for Quebec contributed $1.5 million in non-repayable funds to C2 Montreal for 2016 and 2017 to support small business development programming at home and expand marketing overseas. The payoff: According to the Quebec Institute of Statistics, C2 has generated economic impacts of more than CDN$250 million for the province.

The innovation and economic development continues to grow. Montreal-based Element AI, which hosted the C2 Artificial Intelligence Forum this year, announced today that it has raised US$102 million, representing the largest Series A funding round for an artificial intelligence company in history.

“Artificial Intelligence is a must have capability for global companies,” said Element AI CEO Jean-François Gagné in today’s release. “Without it, they are competitively impaired if not at grave risk of being obsoleted in place.”

That sums up the mission of C2 Montreal, where you can feel the energy and commitment to co-create new community platforms that aspire to change the world.

The event isn’t really about people sitting in the circus trapeze chairs hanging from the Arsenal’s towering ceiling. But that type of creative conference design, and the big buzz surrounding it, gets people in the door. Montreal’s creative ecosystem is taking over from there.

Photo Credit: The mobile interview bike at C2 Montreal was one of many creative elements spurring spontaneous networking this year. C2 Montreal