We don't want no Silicon Valley – the Canadian city fighting for a new kind of tech hub

Toronto is being upstaged in the tech world by a sprightly little neighbour upstream: Kitchener-Waterloo. Image: Benson Kua

Last year, the mayors of Toronto and Kitchener, Ontario, shook hands over plans to develop new transit infrastructure connecting the big city and the little town.

One of many reasons was to facilitate the movement of high-skill, enterprising workers expected to cluster in the region over the next few years. The province has high hopes for the up-and-coming Innovation Corridor, calling it the next Silicon Valley, or rather Silicon Valley North.

But it’s not big-city Toronto at the heart of the region, but Kitchener-Waterloo (KW), Canada’s start-up city and the birthplace of smartphones.

Ever heard of Research in Motion, now renamed BlackBerry? It was homegrown by Jim Balsillie, a business grad, and Mike Lazaridis, an engineering student at the University of Waterloo.


This is important: KW’s success as a hi-tech hub is largely attributed to Waterloo’s international co-op program. Founded in the late 1950s, it built ties between the university and industry, transitioning the region from traditional textiles to technology manufacturing in the 1970s.

Professional scientific, tech and educational services were gradually booming, and academics were researching Canada’s Tech Triangle by the early 1990s. Fast-forward to 2017, and KW unveiled a new economic development strategy (Make it Kitchener), wooing tech leviathans – Google opened its regional headquarters in downtown Kitchener – and revamping its city core to attract and retain talent. It’s working.

BlackBerry is long gone, but against all expectations, the entrepreneurial spirit remains in KW. Lazaridis continues to invest in quantum computing, nanotech and engineering at Waterloo, and is the force behind Perimeter, a research institute devoted to theoretical physics.

Balsillie directs his efforts towards international affairs, and founded the Balsillie School of International Affairs and the Centre for International Governance Innovation with a special focus in international law. With the support of the provincial government, the international law research program hosts legal clinics, offering advice on intellectual property to start-ups in the region.

The revamped Walper Hotel in downtown Kitchener-Waterloo. Image: Filipa Pajevic

Balsillie is also behind Communitech, an incubator devoted to building and supporting the regional tech community. Former BlackBerry employees kick-started their own businesses, or were snatched up by other tech companies in KW. The city of Kitchener was adamant on keeping people around, offering space and a metaphorical shoulder to cry on until they could stand on their own feet again.

That’s what distinguishes KW from other tech hubs: it’s a community, a family that has your back no matter what. And they’re happy with that – they really don’t want to be another Silicon Valley Why? Because they see how detrimental a hi-tech super-cluster, like Silicon Valley, can be.

Sure, techies are stereotypically inward-looking, and millennials are more often than not considered – perhaps erroneously – selfish and apathetic. But these kids are more concerned with making KW proud than profitable. Even academics recognize that it is the community networks more than business networks that make for an interesting business climate in the region.

Vidyard’s CEO, a millennial, who grew up in Kitchener and has benefited from its community services, feels that the hip and upbeat internal culture of the tech community ought to extend outward to include other sectors and people. He wants KW to improve while avoiding the negative effects of gentrification.   

It may be a tech hub but it still looks incredibly dull from above. Image: Tom1973 via Wikimedia Commons

Likeminded individuals are working closely with local charities, getting involved politically and discussing affordable housing, re-defining volunteerism by offering their skills to the community. Furthermore, they talk to newcomers about homelessness and mental health issues, and the need to address both. When a business comes knocking at the door, the answer is not “what can I do for you”, but “what can you do for me?”

Still, inequality is hard to fix. Kitchener is not problem-free. Developers are building condos that are unlikely to cater to polarizing incomes, and the projected influx of people (especially given the change in political climate south of the border) will rock the boat some.

If all goes to plan, the tight-knit, locals-for-locals community of Kitchener-Waterloo may be the first of its kind – a tech hub that develops its brain without losing its heart.

Filipa Pajević researches urban planning at McGill University, Montréal, and is on Twitter as @filipouris

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On Walter Benjamin, and the “Arcades Project”

Passage Verdue, Paris. Image: LPLT/Wikimedia Commons.

In 1940 a small group of refugees were turned away at the French-Spanish border. Having fled the Nazi invasion of France, they hoped to find safety in Spain. One of their number, a German-Jewish philosopher and writer, intended to have travelled onwards to America, where he would certainly be safe. So distraught was he by the refusal he met at the border that he took his own life.

The writer in question was Walter Benjamin, the prominent critical theorist who has contributed so much to our understanding of urban society, and he died with a manuscript close at hand. When asked previously if the briefcase of notes was really necessary to a man fleeing for his life he had replied, “I cannot risk losing it. It must be saved. It is more important than I am.”

The work that Benjamin died protecting was the Arcades Project. It was to be his magnus opus, intended by the author to illuminate the contradictions of modern city life. But it was never finished.

To Benjamin, the subject of the work, the arcades of Paris, were relics of a past social order, where consumerism ruled. The arcades were a precursor to the modern mall, lined with all sorts of shops, cafes and other establishments where visitors could buy into the good life. The area between these two lines of businesses was covered with glass and metal roofs, much like a conservatory: it gave visitors the high street feel in an intimate, sheltered and well-lit setting. You can still find examples of such places in modern London in the Burlington and Piccadilly arcades, both off Piccadilly.

Such arcades proved hugely popular, spreading across Europe’s capitals as the 19th century progressed. By Benjamin’s time, though, his type of shopping area was losing custom to the fancy department stores, and in Paris many of them had been obliterated in Haussmann’s city reforms of the 1850s and ‘60s. Whereas Parisians could once visit 300 arcades, now only 30 remain.

Through his research Benjamin started to see the arcades as representative of a pivotal moment in social history: the point when society became focused on consumption over production. Buying the latest fad product was just an opium, he thought, dulling senses to the true nature of the world. By bringing light to this, he hoped to wake people up from the consumerism of the 19th Century and bring forth some kind of socialist utopia.


He also warned that this shiny veneer of progress was hiding the true state of things. Instead, he revered crusty old cities like contemporary Marseilles and Moscow, where social life was more honest. In this way, Benjamin contributed to the intellectual movement focused on stripping away the excess of revivalism, standing alongside architects such as Le Corbusier. 

Through his newspaper essays throughout the first half of the 20th Century, Benjamin also became one of the first thinkers to focus on urban isolation. His suggestion that we can be most alone when among such a dense mass of other people is something many in modern cities would sympathise with. His work wasn’t all doom and gloom, however, as he saw cities as our salvation, too: laboratories from where society’s problems can be worked out.

It was 2000 before an English translation of the unfinished the Arcades Project was published, but by then the work had already had a significant impact. Just as he stood on the shoulders of giants such as Baudelaire and the Surrealists, modern thinkers have drawn on his work. Benjamin's concerns about common architectural forms can be seen to inspire modern architects such as Laurie Hawkinson, Steven Holl, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.

The city of Paris itself was as much a part of the Arcade Project’s inspiration for Benjamin as was his intellectual predecessors. In his letters he repeats that it felt “more like home” than Berlin, and his days were spent marvelling at how the old and the modern exist together on the Parisian streets.

How groundbreaking the Arcades Project really was is hard to say. The fact it wasn’t finished certainly scuppered Benjamin’s plans to wake society up from its consumerist slumber, but that doesn’t make the work inconsequential. His fairytale of steel and glass is as much about the relationship between its author and Paris as it is a theoretical work. By putting the city as the main subject in human’s social history he laid the groundwork for future generations of thinkers.

Benjamin was lost to the tragic tide of the 20th century history, and his death marked the end of the project which could have changed the way we think of the urban landscape. Even if you shy away from the grandiose or don’t buy into his promises of socialist utopia, reading the work can still offer some eclectic factoids about 19th century France. At any rate, it must be acknowledged that the man gave his life to the betterment of society and the cities in which we live.