An inspiring trip to Toronto, spiced up with facts and real role models. A micro novel on diversity, innovation, and sustainability in technology.
By Alex Ruby
Christiana woke up soaked in sweat. Normally, she was not prone to nightmares. But her subconscious noticed the tension slowly building with each trip to the mailbox. Yoga and a refreshing shower chased away the memories of Rome. Back then, apart from a little cash, she had had everything she needed on her mobile phone, from a plane ticket to the access code for the apartment, and a payment app. All had worked well. Until the phone was stolen from her. Then the odyssey began. That wouldn’t happen to her again. She went to the mailbox. Was today the day?
Finally. Christiana dropped the rest of the mail on the kitchen table and concentrated on one envelope. She’d been waiting days for this. Hoping every morning to be able to start planning and book the flight. Thanks to dynamic pricing and increasingly sophisticated algorithms, ticket prices could change significantly from one day to the next. Such uncertainties made the strategist in her nervous. She liked to do everything that could be done immediately, preferably on the spot.
At the moment, the direct flight from Munich to Toronto was still comparatively cheap, and every cent she saved would help her with the next six months. But that could change quickly. Expensive rebooking or cancellation fees would be an enormous burden. She wanted this direct flight. Not only because it was the most convenient, but also because a stop-over in another foreign city could cause complications.
Although she was born and raised in Munich, Christiana had no German citizenship. She was stateless. Her parents came from West Africa and had escaped with nothing but the clothes on their backs when the bombs and bullets destroyed their home. They had found asylum in Germany. That had been almost three decades ago. But the documents her parents had taken with them on the run were not enough.
They could not prove Christiana’s identity at birth to the standard required for the issue of a German passport. That was why Christiana had only received a so-called passport substitute and later a travel document for foreigners. In addition, she had her identity digitally verified via the platform of a start-up company. All that had been needed was a photo and travel document, taken live with her laptop camera.
All her data was stored in a blockchain for protection. Only she had control over which companies or institutions could access her digital identity, which proved she was a real person and not a bot. No one else could use it. When she was travelling outside Europe, she still got a visa to minimize difficulties at immigration. Had it arrived at last?
Christiana opened the envelope from the Canadian Visa Applications Office. As a stateless person, she had to fly to Berlin and have her biometric data recorded on site. It seemed the digital transformation arrived in different places at different times. But the hassle had been worth it. Many of her friends had taken time out after school or university to see the world. She had never been on the road for more than three weeks, meaning she was looking forward to the six months in Toronto all the more. Time to form new impressions and gain clarity on some things.
She loved her job and no one on the team was prejudiced against her. Deciding to take a sabbatical had not been easy for her. Fortunately, she had been shown a lot of understanding and the promise that there would always be a place for her when she returned. After all, there was a strong link between her employer’s industry and her destination. That was comforting.
She had saved up a financial cushion over the last few years that would still give her some security when the six months came to an end. Her charitable work also filled her with real satisfaction. Even if she knew she could get back on board at any time, deep inside there was a little voice that whispered there was more for her to do.
Christiana had thought long and hard about where she wanted to go to follow that voice. She loved Tenerife, especially its nature, and had spent her first holiday exploring the large Spanish island all by herself. But Europe was not far enough away from home. Besides, she knew she would miss the hustle and bustle of a big city.
New York, Chicago or San Francisco, indeed the whole USA, were out of the question at the moment. Even if the country and its nature had a lot to offer. Asia had been tempting. Especially seeing the pictures of her friend Barbara, who had recently moved to Singapore to found her own company in a startup incubator.
In the end, two aspects had been crucial for Christiana’s choice: Toronto was considered a role model in terms of diversity and had made its mark in the film industry in recent years. With its many different neighborhoods, the city had so much to offer and there was nature all around. It was also said that the city had a very European character. A good mix, then. Relieved, she booked the flight and applied the visa sticker to her travel document. Then she called Monika. Her friend would move into the apartment while she was away.
The big day came faster than expected. Wasn’t that always the way? There was a lot to prepare and arrange. The search for an apartment had taken the longest. There was a wide choice, just not in the price range that her budget allowed. Thanks to her persistent search she had finally found one in a central location. The decision about what to take was made quickly. She was neither a high-heel heroine nor a glitz girl.
Finding out about the city was pure joy. Curiosity and anticipation grew with every new piece of information. In the last few days, she had cooked tons of pasta. One farewell dinner followed the next: with work colleagues, at her church, with her spinning course from the fitness club, and with her family and closest friends. On the last evening, Monika and the TEDxTUM team had organized a surprise party for her. For a change it was a pizza party.
Now Christiana sat in the plane and calmed her nerves with a gin and tonic. The horror of a few minutes ago played over in her mind again and again. After she had checked in her suitcases, she had gone outside to the beer garden. To enjoy some sun before the eight-hour long flight. She paid and was about to leave, when suddenly an older man collapsed at the table next to her. Without hesitation, she supported him so that he did not hit the ground. A group of men at the next table also jumped in and helped put the man on a bench, feet up.
She talked to the man, asked questions so that he would not lose consciousness. His face was as white as a sheet and his reactions slow. Someone called 911. The airport’s shift manager came and had the incident described to him. Did the man have a stroke? A circulatory collapse? It was hard to tell. Christiana had her eyes on the clock. Time was running out. She still had to go through passport control. With many intercontinental flights around this time there could be long queues. Boarding would start in ten minutes. But she wouldn’t leave until the paramedics arrived. It didn’t seem right to her.
Slowly the man’s face began to regain color. He smiled at her. “I am an optimist, but with a pretty and helpful woman like you, I don’t mind contemplating the dark side,” he joked embarrassed.
Finally, the ambulance arrived. She told them what had happened and said goodbye. She really could not wait any longer. Neither would her flight. In the terminal her name was called out for the second time.
Slowly her inner excitement subsided. She had done everything possible. She was sure the man had been close to fainting and was better now. Christiana set her wristwatch back six hours as she made herself comfortable. Karma, she thought, smiling. Her breathless explanation for almost missing her flight had made an impression. One of the flight attendants had thought she deserved a reward and upgraded her seat to business class. All snuggled up under a cozy blanket, she thought about what to read now.
Travel guide or novel? She already had a plan for her first weekend in the city. She chose the latter. The book promised to be an exciting case study on diversity in the technology sector. The title had caught her eye as she also loved to play games. Tearjerkers weren’t really her thing anyway. Just before landing she closed the book. Stunned at times, she had followed the path of the main character. Page by page, gaining in speed all the time – until the bitter end. There had been many faint signals that hinted at how the novel would end. She wondered. How much truth was there really in the story? You wouldn’t wish such an experience on anyone.
Upon arrival, Christiana already knew she had made the right choice. No queues at passport control. The welcome of the officer on duty almost warm. He was pleased that she had chosen his city for her longer stay. Both suitcases arrived, undamaged. Airport personnel looked her in the eye, no one turned away in embarrassment.
Everywhere she went she was greeted with a friendly hello. At the taxi stand in front of the terminal people stood patiently in the warm evening sun. Spring had finally arrived, her driver told her, full of happiness. The winters were colder than in Munich. That was why she hadn’t flown until May. During the half-hour drive into the city – the opposite lane was crowded with rush hour traffic – the landmark of the city could be seen glowing red from afar in the early evening light.
Her one-room apartment was located in a side street very close to the CN Tower. The key was stored in a number-locked box and made the check-in stress-free. Both large suitcases fitted easily into the elevator, which took her to the ninth floor. The apartment was surprisingly bright due to the large, ceiling-high balcony window opposite the entrance.
On the right was a kitchenette and a high table with bar chairs. In the middle, next to the balcony door, was a comfortable looking sofa. On the left was the bed, separated from the living room by half a wall. This meant that no one in the opposite buildings could watch her sleep. Only when cooking and only with binoculars. Unless she drew the curtains. The bathroom was not huge, but it was big enough. There was even a washing machine and dryer. It was perfect.
She quickly sent a few messages to her family and closest friends to say that she had arrived safely. Many smileys and hearts came back. Monika was happy for her and wrote that she had also settled in well. Christiana thought she would unpack tomorrow. Her legs begged for movement after the long flight. Before the shops closed, she wanted to get a few things for breakfast.
Five minutes later she turned into King Street. Cozy bars and restaurants alternated with small shops, stores and coffee shops. No high-rise buildings cast shadows. Many of the brick or wooden facades were reminiscent of an English small town. A few blocks down, she found a shop that was a cross-between a drugstore and supermarket. The cashier was quite taken with her reusable cotton bag, and wished her a nice evening. Which it was, Christiana thought as she slipped into bed tired and content.
The elevator door was open. “Good morning! I heard your door and thought I would wait for you,” a young black man with a baritone voice greeted her, smiling.
How often had something like this happened to her in Germany? He had piled up his long black braids into a bun at the top of his head so that he looked almost two heads taller than her. The ends of his braids bobbed up and down with each word. David, as he introduced himself, had only recently arrived in town and was on his way to the gym. Which he jogged to!
He preferred to leave in the morning before the studio became too busy. They also had a spinning session, he confirmed to her. “Just come along,” he said spontaneously. “I’ll take care of you.”
But Christiana already had an idea how she wanted to spend her first day, and a well-known market in a brick building was top of the list.
“Then I’ll just see you for lunch at the St. Lawrence market. Good as well,” he laughed.
She looked at him in surprise. How did he know that? But David had already put on his headphones and ran off.
Just around the corner behind the tiny park she saw a small café. The owner watered the flowers outside on the stairs. “What a beautiful day,” she beamed.
Christiana did not need any more invitation to have her bamboo coffee cup filled with cappuccino here. She loved small restaurants where people cooked and worked with all their heart. After the first bite of juicy cake her taste buds immediately confirmed that it was also true for this place. Arriving at King Street, she turned east.
Saturday seemed to be gym day in Toronto. Of the few people on the street, almost all wore sportswear. A few meters on, between the pavement and the rails on which a red and white tram passed by silently every few minutes, wooden chairs in gay colors invited pedestrians to take a short break. But the coffee and her plan to see as much as possible carried her on.
The next thing she noticed was a shop that had something to do with food. It was too early for lunch. But her curiosity was piqued and she took a photo as a reminder. After the next intersection, one restaurant followed the next. Creative names alternated with funny house facades. A certain Fred was obviously not here. Rooftop terraces promised meals at somewhat loftier heights.
With each step, the reflecting glass walls of high-rise buildings grew larger in the background. The culinary mile was followed by an art installation that paid tribute to black women of pop culture. Blurred photos of singers such as Nina Simone or Josephine Baker illustrated the danger that their achievements might fade away. Quite in contrast to those of white, generally male artists, who had more often than not been inspired by their successful black colleagues.
Christiana let herself bask in the captivating charisma of these heroines. The melody of “Feeling Good” swung gently in her head and left her lips as a soft humming. She wanted to sing out loud. At the thought of her friends, with whom she had often sung at weddings, she went on exhilarated. Only to come to an abrupt halt shortly afterwards.
The Canadian Walk of Fame started in front of her on the sidewalk. The stars, or rather maple leaves in the shape of stars, were dedicated to influential people – either locals or people who had lived in Canada for a long time – from film, music, culture and sports.
She knew many of the names, but would not have associated them all with this country. Shania Twain, Céline Dion and Bryan Adams were obvious. Michael J. Fox, Kim Cattrall, Kiefer Sutherland and his father, Corey Hart, Nelly Furtado or Sarah McLachlan not necessarily. Pamela Anderson? The Baywatch mermaid? She wasn’t from California?
The wind had picked up. Despite the sun it was cooler now. In front of her was a shady gorge formed by the high-rise buildings of the financial sector. In stark contrast to the brightly polished, flower-framed bronze statues in front of an entrance, she saw someone lying homeless on the sidewalk next to the traffic lights; above the air shaft of the subway, whose ascending heat was certainly the reason for the choice of location.
Christiana could not tell whether it was a woman or a man. The entire body was firmly hidden under a blanket. It was as if she could feel the person’s shame. She threw some coins into the cardboard box. Deep in thought she continued on. As if to dispel her dash of sadness, the sun suddenly shone directly on her face.
A passage opened up between the towering houses. At its end she saw a green meadow. Something was on it. She moved closer. It was a herd of bronze cows. Turning back towards King Street a staircase led down. But not to a subway station.
“Path” shone in colorful letters on a post. An underground tunnel network in the center of the city that protected pedestrians from wind and weather and spanned more than 30 kilometers. The first turn of the shovel had been made in 1900. Each color of the individual letters stood for a cardinal point. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, there was currently no larger system of underground passages than this. But the day was too gorgeous to go underground.
She moved on quickly. The financial district was not on her list of preferred places today. What was more, her hunger was slowly returning. She turned into a side street. There was a construction site in front of her. Not quite sure if she had taken the right turn, Christiana approached a young woman.
“I’m sorry. Am I in the right place? I want to go to St. Lawrence Market.”
The woman beamed at her. “Hey cool! Yeah, it’s not far. Just turn left there, then straight ahead and turn right at the next crossing. You will see it at once.”
Helpfulness was apparently very high on the Torontonians’ list of priorities.
The brick building was full of activity. Stands with fresh fruit and vegetables lined up next to long meat counters. Cheese and spices alternated with fragrant bread and raw fish on ice. Appetizing smells of freshly cooked food stimulated her senses from all sides. Although the corridors were full of people, there was no crowd in front of the stands.
Couples with prams were respectfully let through. Many seemed to come here regularly and buy from their trusted marketeer. The prices were no more expensive than in the supermarket last night. After she had been around for a second time, she still did not know what she wanted to eat. What did she fancy? A burrito? Salad? Pork loin in cornmeal? The latter was advertised as a local specialty.
“Hey sunshine,” a familiar-sounding voice shouted suddenly. “Welcome to foodie heaven – or hell of decisions. Depending on how you take it.”
Her elevator encounter from this morning stood behind her laughing. “Come, I’ll buy you some oysters. Then we’re going to get a crab cake.” Sometimes it was good when someone else made the decisions.
In disbelief she stood in front of the fish counter. There were countless varieties of oysters. Each with a more or less appetizing name. Most of them came from the east coast, the seller explained. But they also had some from the west coast. Those were Gigas, especially big ones. Out of curiosity, she chose one Raspberry Point, one Fiddler’s Cove and one Mystic, each because of their names. David chose a Macintosh and two Gigas: a Beach Angels and a Fat Bastard, the seller approving his choice with a wink. Christiana laughed heartily.
She learned that David had come to the city from Berlin two weeks ago and was working on a new business idea. He described himself as someone who could “hack” anything – in a positive sense.
“Then you’re an ethical hacker?” asked Christiana after she had sipped the first oyster.
“Not really. I’m an engineer and I like to build things.” It was important to him to consider the social impact of his work.
The incubator at the city’s largest university had launched a new program – especially for black founders. His application had been accepted and, over the next few months, he would write vast amounts of code, solder components to boards and develop an adaptive transport robot to be produced in small series. Somehow, he was not yet completely satisfied with the first draft of the product. There was a promisingly large market for it, and not only on paper. Consumers became increasingly lazy when shopping.
Potential corporate customers had confirmed there was great demand in interviews. Otherwise he would not have been accepted in the incubator for the so-called sandbox program – for founders who were just starting up. But, in his gut, he still wasn’t sure if a transport robot really was the right thing for him.
“Or the fat bastard and the beach angels don’t get along,” she joked. “But seriously. I’m sure your solution will come at the right time. People are ordering more and more over the internet and the parcel services are almost unable to cope. Still, the thought of four-legged robots running around next to me on the sidewalks or stairwell is quite funny. How did you come to love those dogs?” Christiana wanted to know.
David laughed. “There are already some prototypes out there. Many have wheels and only work on straight paths. Pilot projects are being run in Houston, Phoenix and San Francisco, for example. In Ann Arbor there is now another one with a kind of tricycle. One solution on legs comes from a company I do not ever want to work for. They’re too creepy for me,” he shuddered.
“There’s another firm with a similar design and I might be able to get in. Hopefully not just to help them fulfill their BAME quota,” he added with a raised eyebrow. “But to be honest I’d rather start something on my own with like-minded people.”
The day when driverless vehicles became the standard for delivering parcels and pizza was not too far in the future in some parts of the world. Logistics solutions held a lot of promise. The countries with the largest share of online trade were China, USA, Great Britain and Japan – with annual growth rates of 10 to 25 percent. Germany was more moderate at around five percent, but there alone a total of 4.3 billion shipments per year were expected by 2022. The parcel services were already overloaded and personnel difficult to find. No wonder. The major trading platforms had used their market power to impose extremely low prices on logistic service providers.
That had got David thinking. Most likely, solutions like his would make the already large companies even larger. Still, the technical challenge, especially with regard to safety, was hard to resist. On the last mile, there were even more details to consider than with autonomous cars on roads. The robots had to be able to communicate with the larger delivery vehicles that brought the parcels from the logistics centers to the individual city districts.
Once this was solved, the next hurdle presented itself: safe delivery to the consumer. Every entrance was different. Inside buildings there were either stairs or an elevator that needed to be operated. Backyards could be tricky. Passers-by had to be evaded. Accidents were a major risk, and avoiding them crucial for the solution being accepted.
“I’m sure you won’t be bored,” nodded Christiana.
“Bored? Never heard of it,” winked David. “But enough about me. What brings you to Toronto?”
While they strolled to the next fish stall, she told him about her sabbatical, and that she wanted to get a few things straight. Not her whole life story. They knew each other too little for that. She wasn’t looking for a flirt, either. Fortunately, neither, as far as she could tell, was he. After taking a last bite of crab cake, he said goodbye.
“Come by the office for a cappuccino sometime,” David invited her. “Or call me if you want to go out on the town. I already know some nice people and locations.”
Why not? New friends opened up new perspectives.