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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How can you travel between Edinburgh and Glasgow? Let me count the ways

A train at Falkirk High. Image: Geof Sheppard/Wikimedia Commons.

How many train lines link Edinburgh and Glasgow? Go on, guess. Two? Three? Surely not four?

No, our two biggest cities in Scotland, separated by just 41 miles as the crow flies, have five – yes, five – different routes between them now. Here is a look at each route, from north to south.

Counter-intuitively, the quickest route does not dart straight across between the cities. From Edinburgh, which is slightly further north than Glasgow, the express service heads north west, past the ruin of Linlithgow Palace, the birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots, as far as Falkirk High before heading south west to Glasgow Queen Street station. This can be as quick as 42 minutes, but only twice a day, although work is being done to have all services run this fast. The rest of the time it takes 47 minutes, on average; from Monday to Friday it runs every 15 minutes.  As the express route, this is the most frequently used service and is the main recipient of Scottish Government spending for connections between Edinburgh and Glasgow, having received £870m in investment in recent years.

The new route via Cumbernauld starts out along the same line, but instead of stopping at Falkirk High goes to Falkirk Grahamston. From there it takes a different line through Cumbernauld, famous for its 1960s brutalist town planning. After that the train stops at various suburbs in the north east of Glasgow such as Stepps, before again reaching Queen Street station, albeit from the north east. This service started in December 2018 and takes about 1hr15.

A rail map of the central belt. The new line is so new it isn’t on here. Image: Scotrail.

The route via Airdrie and Bathgate looks like it would be quicker than the main Falkirk High route, as it is closest to resembling a straight line between Glasgow and Edinburgh. This service, however, stops at a plethora of stations across West Lothian, North Lanarkshire and Greater Glasgow.

All in all, there are 21 stops between Edinburgh Waverley and Glasgow Queen Street, which can add up to a grand total of 1hr17 (some journeys are slightly quicker). This provides a decent service for the many small towns on the route, but is obviously not a good option for anyone wanting a speedy journey between Glasgow and Edinburgh.


This line does uniquely stop at the lower level station at Queen Street, though, and passengers get to travel below Glasgow’s city centre to Charing Cross and Partick. This route is not to be confused with the Glasgow Subway, which this cut-and-cover line predates by ten years. After coming above ground, the train continues west of the city, with the option to head on to the affluent commuter towns of Bearsden and Milnagavie or to Helensburgh on the Firth of Clyde.

Thus, someone can hop on a train in the western outskirts of Glasgow and get to the centre of Edinburgh, all in one go; it will just take a very long time. Helensburgh Central to Edinburgh Waverley takes about 1hr50. As Queen Street and Partick rail stations are integrated with the Glasgow Subway, it also means you can continue your journey around Glasgow circular subterranean experience.

The Shotts line has an abundance of stations, and so journeys that stop at each one can take up to 1hr30, although there are services with fewer stops that take 15 minutes less. This line dips further south slightly than the Airdrie/Bathgate route and slowly works its way through stations in the west of Edinburgh. It then heads through towns such as Livingston and Shotts. Unlike the first three routes, this line ends at Glasgow Central, and therefore the train takes you through the south of Glasgow before crossing the River Clyde.

The Shotts Line is also used by Cross Country services going from Glasgow to cities in England, such as Bristol, via Edinburgh; and these train will make fewer stops between the two. Passengers from Glasgow are also able to stay on trains that pass through Edinburgh and continue on to the seaside towns in East Lothian of North Berwick and Dunbar.

Finally, there is the V-shaped route between Edinburgh and Glasgow. This looks like it would take the longest, but surprisingly can be done in 1hr20 due to there being few stops. From Glasgow, the line goes south east through Motherwell along one branch of the West Coast Mainline, before arriving at the Carstairs junction. From there the line veers sharply north east along the other branch of the West Coast Mainline to Edinburgh. This route has the downsides of being slow, and not even offering many stops along the way to make up for it.

So basically, if you want to travel between Edinburgh and Glasgow, just go via Falkirk High.

Pete Macleod tweets as @petemacleod84 and runs Pete’s Cheap Trains.