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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Free public transport won’t work – unless we get rid of the drivers

Gissa lift mate. Image: Fraser Elliott/creative commons.

The idea of free public transport has clear appeal. Cities in France; and Germany; are already considering such proposals, to reduce traffic and air pollution. And in the UK, Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn declared that he would introduce free bus travel for under-25s, to complement the passes already available to senior citizens.

But the evidence suggests that offering free public transport causes headaches for local authorities – and may not be an effective way of getting commuters to stop driving cars. Tallinn, capital of Estonia, introduced free public transport for residents in 2013. But a 2014 survey showed that most of the people who switched to public transport had previously walked or cycled, rather than driven. A further survey in 2017 showed that patronage had increased by only 20 per cent over four years.

The April 2018 edition of German trade publication Stadtverkehr claims that the only cost effective way to get car drivers to switch to public transport is to couple reasonably priced transit with severe traffic restraints. For example, in the English city of Sheffield, attractive bus fares and timetables used to keep cars out of the city centre. From the 1970s, until the service was deregulated in 1986, there was simply no need for residents to drive into Sheffield.

Finding the funds

The biggest drawback to free public transport schemes is the lack of funds from fares to cover maintenance and upgrades. In Tallinn, for example, the city’s inadequate tram system will eventually require capital for a complete renewal – or face closure. Hasselt, a Belgian town with a population of 70,000, offered free bus travel for 16 years until 2013, but eventually scrapped it when costs became unsustainable.

Paris, meanwhile, has already banned the most polluting vehicles and offered free public transport for a few days each year when pollution has reached dangerous levels due to atmospheric conditions. But according to an article in the June 2018 edition of Today’s Railways EU, traffic is rarely reduced more than 10 per cent on these days, and the long term shift to other forms of transport is minimal.

In the UK, free bus travel for senior citizens has hastened the demise of many rural and intercity services. Many local authorities have diverted support away from rural, evening and weekend services, to the concessionary fares budget. During interviews with BBC Radio 4, younger people – who rely on buses to get to work or go out on the evenings and weekends – complained that services had been axed to offer senior citizens free travel during daytime on weekdays.

But irrespective of your age, health or prosperity, there is no point in having a free bus pass if there are no buses to use it on. As bus services are further deregulated in the UK, there will continue to be pointless oversupply on some corridors, while other areas struggle to see more than a few buses per week – if any at all.


Driverless minibuses

The development of autonomous electric minibuses could be a game changer, especially if a manufacturer is prepared to lease them on favourable terms. Local authorities could pilot a scheme whereby the bus is “hailed” by smart phone 15 to 30 minutes before departure. Indeed, tests for autonomous on-demand services are already underway in cities across the US, UK; and Europe;.

Once the expensive and restrictive labour element is removed from the operating costs, there is no reason why such services could not be offered free of charge to all users. In the urban core – within a 10km radius of a city centre – these services could run 24/7. Further afield, in the suburbs, a daily service from 6am until midnight would probably be sufficient to compete with the private car.

Autonomous minibuses could automatically connect with city buses and trains, which would continue to be staffed and paid for by fares. The minibuses would provide a “last mile” service, taking people within easy walking distance of their destination. In urban areas, all residential and business premises would be within 200m of a minibus stop, extending to 500m in suburban areas and 1km in rural areas.

At off peak times, the minibuses could replace some conventional bus services to avoid the inefficiencies created when a 70 passenger bus is used to transport only ten people on an evening or Sunday service.

To prevent abuse of the minibuses, passengers would scan their phones on boarding to confirm the booking. If they didn’t, a penalty could be collected automatically from their phone. CCTV could identify any disruptive passengers and refuse further bookings. Meanwhile, taxis would continue to prosper from those people willing to pay for a personal door-to-door service.

Public transit systems, as we know them today, would struggle to deliver a sustainable free service. But there’s a real possibility that the autonomous vehicles of tomorrow could do just that.

John Disney, Senior Lecturer, Nottingham Business School, Nottingham Trent University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.