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Exporting attitude: Toronto gets a taste of brotherly love

Next week 100 delegates from Philadelphia will arrive in Toronto to steal some of our ideas, looting the brains of our brightest and best.
The Greater Philadelphia Leadership Exchange (GPLEX), a project of the Greater Philadelphia Economy League, is an exploration of Toronto as an international centre and global hotspot. Over three days, delegates, themselves some of Philly's most high-powered leaders, will tour uniquely Toronto innovation hubs like the MaRS Discovery District, Ryerson University's Digital Media Zone, Regent Park and the waterfront, as well as listen to presentation by Toronto movers and shakers. We asked Economy League executive director Steve Wray what delegates expect to learn from their visit.
Paul Gallant: In the past, your leadership exchange has taken you to Chicago, San Francisco, Atlanta. This is the first time you've left the US. What made you decide to come to Toronto?
One the focuses of the Economy League is what it means to be a world-class region and what it would take for Greater Philadelphia to attain status as a world-class region. As we select places to go, we look for regions that are world class or striving to be world class. Clearly Toronto has attained the status in the global community as a city and region on the rise, as a global financial capital and as an international city. We thought there were a lot of lessons we could bring back to Philadelphia from Toronto that would serve us well.
What do you expect to learn?
A couple of things. Toronto as a place where close to 50 per cent of the population is foreign-born and how Toronto is trying to incorporate that diversity into its vision for the future. How companies and organizations are looking at diversity, not as an insurmountable challenge but as an opportunity. And looking how your relationship with newcomers drives policy change.  In Philadelphia, we're expecting to be much more diverse and we're probably 20 years behind you.  Toronto's not perfect, but what's interesting is its efforts. The second area is that we're interested in Toronto's efforts around social innovation. We've seen that in your MaRS centre and other places. Third, the approach to image building and how you build an image of Toronto.  Toronto is much more recognized now.
Some people might argue with you about Toronto being well branded internationally.
That may be true and it could be even better. But where you're showing up in rankings and other studies, it's impressive.
Toronto's a provincial capital and the economic centre of Canada. Philadelphia doesn't have that role in the US. Are there things we have here you won't be able to take home?
We likely aren't going to have the global capitals of your banks. You're going to be a bigger headquarters city. Toronto's more akin to New York than Philadelphia on those fronts. However, from a size perspective, an image perspective, Toronto suffers from some of the same things Philadelphia does. It probably underperforms, though it performs better than it should, given what we've invested in it. We have different governmental system. Your province is more involved in economic matters than our state is. But what we tend to look at is, it's less about system and more about attitude and how people approach the issues they're dealing with. Toronto has a stronger education system than Philadelphia the city. However, we have a stronger higher education system. You have similar issues with your transit system that we do: older system, how do you integrate new growth patterns, how do you upgrade an existing system when you don't have the money to do it, how do you integrate form and function? When you visit a region, there are some things you want to learn from the region, but you also look back at your own region through the eyes of the place you're visiting.
Is Philadelphia's interested in newcomers and managing diversity a new thing?
Just recently we've seen a growth of population in our urban area. Cities that have grown in the US has grown mostly through immigration. We see that as an opportunity. American higher education is still valued globally, so there is an opportunity to take advantage of that. Philadelphia's immigrant population tends to be higher skilled and better educated than that in other American cities because so many come for our higher education institutions. We've got 101 colleges and universities, 360,000 students in our region. There's a great opportunity. One of the things that stymies that a little bit is federal immigration policy. There are those here that would love to see a strong skills-based immigration policy that would allow some of those smart folks that come here to study to stay. Cities and regions with strong immigrant populations tend to be more entrepreneurial, like Silicon Valley, for example. And that's one area where Philadelphia's lagging and where we can learn from Toronto's growing pains.
As the US economy struggles, what do you think Philadelphia has done well?
Philadelphia's economy is really based on higher education, healthcare and other associated healthcare and life science industries and those are the industries that tend to be growing. They're not recession resistant, but they tend to be countercyclical. Demand for healthcare doesn't go away. We've seen a rebirth of our central city as a residential area. We've had people moving into our urban core. As a region, we've developed a little excitement and buzz. We've got a lot of challenges, but we feel like we're better positioned than we have been in the past. We're lower cost than New York and Washington but we're halfway between them, which is not such a bad place to be. You have access to economic capital in New York and political capital in Washington. The quality of life allows people to live a good life and also take chances to be more entrepreneurial. Our biggest challenge is income disparity. Our wide ranges can hold us back a little bit.
Paul Gallant is Yonge Street's managing editor.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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