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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“This is a civic pride for the digital age”: why we should why we should willingly let City Hall have our data

He was the future once: David Cameron discusses smart cities with Angela Merkel and a German technology executive. Image: Getty.

Victorian England. From the shadows of wealth grew poverty. Slums slumped against symbols of civic pride, cowering next to towering town halls funded through rich merchant princes, whose elitist rule was insufficient to deal with too many people in too few houses with too little infrastructure.

Enter municipality. With darkness came electric light; with disease came tunnels to disperse their cause; with time came reform, regulation and the rise of town planning.

It’s over a century since those places which first industrialised became those first urbanised; yet even the wealthiest cities in the world continue to struggle with the complexities of urbanisation. In London, ten thousand die each year from pollution; in New York, six times this amount reside in homeless shelters.On the rush-hour roads of Sydney, cars stand still, and in the ‘burbs or banlieues of Paris slums still stand.

An umbrella bought during a downpour costs more than one bough under blue sky – and the truth is that, for too, long city halls have failed to forecast and so incurred greater costs. It’s a reactive culture summed up by words first head in Jimmy Carter’s budget office: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Disease before sewer, gridlock before investment, collapse before rebuild – visible fix over unseen prevention

But with the world’s urban population growing by 65m every year, this has to change: there is not enough resource to manage cities reactively. Enter technology and the move to smart cities.

From Barcelona to New YorkOxford to Amsterdam, Singapore to Seoul: billions of low-cost devices are being installed into everyday objects to send and receive data: street lights recording pollution, and bridges reporting performance; traffic lights that count, and whose analysis will be counted upon, to ease traffic congestion; health wristbands understanding our heart’s needs, shop ceilings noting our heart’s desires. A web of information woven into the very fabric of cities which, when added to data from sources like mobile phones, is providing a living-breathing picture of how we and our cities operate.

This data is no longer retrospective or historic but live and dynamic. It is of such quantity, and can be analysed at such granular detail, that it can provide certainty where once there was only supposition. It is build-up before the gridlock, illness before epidemic; the crack of an ageing bridge, the first signs of smog. It is diagnostic to preventative. Umbrella under blue sky.

Those promoting the “internet of things”, estimated to be worth $11.1trn a year by 2025, will declare it a panacea – but it is not, at least not entirely. Sure, challenges regarding data quality, privacy, standardisation, and security will be overcome; 4G will become 5G will become 6G. Devices will communicate intelligently with each other – autonomous vehicle to autonomous vehicle, autonomous vehicle to bridge, drone to home. Data will become as fundamental to cities as infrastructure, and will be referred to as such.

Yet city halls in democracies, whilst infinitely better informed, will continue to make their decisions which are restricted by commercialism, framed by political ideology, and driven by short-term electoral or media pressures.


People first

From the mid-sixties to the start of this century a UK television programme called Tomorrow’s World showcased future living. For every correct prediction (mobile phones) came countless incorrect ones: the floating-bicycle, say, or paper underwear. My point is that only a small part of understanding the future of cities is about understanding technology. The majority is about understanding people and society, the people from whom the very word “city” is derived: civitas, the collective of citizens.

Gutenberg did not change the world by inventing the printing press in the 13th century – but he did enable the world to change. The technology was the printing press, the outputs were books filled with knowledge, the outcomes were the actions of the many who used that knowledge. Technology is a tool, a process towards an outcome. 

In much the same way, the Internet of Things will not change the world – but it will enable the world to change. Sensors are the technology, data the outputs, the analysis of this data and subsequent decisions, the outcome.

It is crucial to avoid the Tomorrow’s World approach. That is, racing to implement technology first without consideration of identified social, economic or environmental needs; introducing more complexity when most citizens seek simplicity. As the writer and urbanist Jane Jacobs once said:“First comes the image of what we want, then the machinery is adapted to turn out that image.”

Start with people. Form the image. Think of technology through the Greek origins of the word, techne and logos – a discourse about the way things are gained – and capitalise on collective intelligence to move towards that image.

Since cities first started to appear some millennia ago, they’ve provided incontrovertible evidence that the wisdom of crowds is far greater than the individual; that collective intelligence gained from that trinity of city institutions – citizen, government, industry – surpasses what can be achieved by any one in isolation. Where would Apple, Uber, or Google be without the government-backed inventions like the world-wide-web, touchscreen technology, WiFi or global positioning systems?

A new civic pride

Of course, an app on a smart phone that can ask a thousand questions is meaningless if nobody feels motivated to answer. Increasing urbanisation brings increasing interdependency: lives intrinsically linked, services shared. The challenge for city halls is to turn the increase in what people have in common, into an increase in common purpose, through understanding the three benefits that motivate and lead to action.

Extrinsic benefits, of status and reward, caused merchant princes to fund city halls in Victorian England: such benefits today see the ambitious putting in extra hours. Intrinsic benefits, like competitiveness or fun, that once caused business tycoons to compete to build the tallest skyscrapers, now explain why “hackathons” and “city challenges” are such a success. Then there are the pro-social benefits of altruism or benevolence, that cause millions to volunteer their time to give back and feel part of something bigger than themselves.

These motivations are of greater significance, because there are no longer people with clipboards standing on street corners asking permission to collate our views on services: it is happening automatically through the Internet of Things. Our choices online, movements offline; the travel we take, the pollution we make; our actions and interactions. We are data.

City halls can take a click-box-small-print approach to this, like so many apps. But there is opportunity to do the opposite. They can promote the fact that citizens can knowingly provide their data towards making lives better; visualise and enable citizens to see and understand their input, alongside data provided by others.

They can incentivise interaction with data, so that entrepreneurs can work back from outcomes, solve challenges, and re-localise where appropriate (we should not need a multinational to get a taxi). They can be proudly open, enabling citizens, industry and government to receive pro-social benefit by contributing to something bigger than themselves: their life and the lives of others.

This is a civic pride for the digital age. Not just localism or patriotism based on geography but the strength of connection between people and their ability to direct and determine change through data. Not just pride in the buildings and infrastructure that form our physical world, but in the quality of data that will shape our future world and move us from a diagnostic to preventative society – umbrellas under blue sky.

We should take pride in technology, yes; but that should come second to the pride in those who, enabled by that technology, drive progress. Who, through the wisdom of crowds, form an image of the future and strengthen democracy by motivating society to move towards it. Who embrace openness and help overcome the challenges of urbanisation.

Kevin Keith is a writer, researcher, urbanist, and director of the southern hemisphere’s largest open data competition, GovHack. He tweets as@KevKeith.

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