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