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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11 reasons the Lisbon Metro blows every other transport system out of the water

Telheiras station. Image: Cornelius/Wikimedia Commons.

Subways are great. It’s an undeniable fact. They’re speedy, spacious, don’t take up space above ground, and, depending on the design, can make you feel like you’ve been catapulted back to the ‘60s, or forward to, well, the ‘60s. But only one can be the best – and that one is the Lisbon Metro.

Here are 11 reasons why.

There are just six interchanges – and two zones

Subways are great – but they're not so great if you’re got a hopeless sense of direction, as anyone who’s had to battle through NYC City’s some 468 stations will tell you (yeah, we can’t really work out how many there are). No such larks in Lisbon, there are just six interchanges on the whole network.

The inevitable map. There are also zones 2 & 3 further out, but the metro doesn't go that far.

Sure, you might not quite have the scope of the Big Apple to play with, but the apple isn’t real anyway and custard tarts are better. Plus it still gets you pretty much everywhere you want to go, minus the fights about which route is quickest. What’s more there are only two zones, so you don’t have to work out the most convoluted route in the world just to avoid Shoreditch High Street on the Overground.

This said, zone two (which is confusingly called zone one; the central zone is zone L, for Lisbon) only actually has three stops in it, so it’d be a bit of a bummer if you ended up living there.

They’ve totally embraced naming lines by colours

Tourists don’t get tube systems. Locals end up explaining to tourists using the colours of the line. This is the rule of any metro system, and who are we to change fundamental human nature?

The development of the network, 1959-2012. Image: EpicGenius/Wikimedia Commons.

So, imagine my wonder upon discovering that the Lisbon Metro is all about those coloured lines. There’s a yellow line: it’s called the yellow line. The red line is called the red line. The green line is named in honour of the colour I turned in envy when I saw this deliciously simple system. Which is, for the avoidance of any doubt, green.


The stations are accessible

Getting around the UK using public transport can be chaos as it is, let alone if you need to use accessible stations and trains. It’s been some some 26 years since the Disability Discrimination Act (later replaced by the Equality Act in 2010), which protects disabled people from discrimination across wider society, came into force; yet something as simple as getting on the tube can still be a massive issue.

Just 73 of London Undergrounds 270 tube stations offer step free access, only slightly more than a quarter. An extra £200m was committed to created a step-free tube in 2016, but even this will only take the number to 100 – which eagle eyed mathematicians will note is still less than half.

Jump over to Lisbon, and while it’s by no means a perfect picture, 30 of the some 50 stations are marked as having disabled access: that works out at almost 60 percent.

It’s gloriously unbusy. Like, really

No, really. It was so un-busy the first time I got it I went back during ‘rush hour’ on purpose and it looked like this.

Where is everybody? 

There are countdown clocks which operate by the second

I’m from a village in rural North Devon, which means getting public transport is an exercise involving looking at a damp timetable stuck to a lamppost and hoping something might turn up in the next hour. Even in most bigger cities, the metro system will only give you the time you’ll be waiting for your train in minutes.

Lisbon pulls out all the stops though, and you can see how many seconds – yes, seconds – it is until your tube is going to arrive Your dreams of being able to sing countdown as tube arrives have come true.

Note the countdown. 

The hanging cords don’t swing and smack you

It’s a commuters worst nightmare: not only are you packed five centimetres closer to another human being than you’d ever wish to be, but then the stupid cord you’re supposedly hanging onto for support crashes you into them full frontal.

Not so in Lisbon, where the hanging cords are made of sturdier stuff, and your personal boundaries can live to see another dawn.

There’s a refreshing lack of adverts

In the interests of transparency, I’d like to state at this point that I did track down some ads – namely one for Burger King and a Simon & Garfunkel gig, which sounds like a wild night – but nowhere near the scale you’d see here in the UK. In fact, these were the only two I found.

A recent report from Transport for London showed they were the biggest holder of advertising space in the UK. In 2016-17, it hosted some 16,000 different adverts drawing in some £142.1m in cash by bombarding Londoners with pictures of West End shows, weird head skull shavers, and essays about Jack Daniels posted on literally any available space.

While I accept it’s a good money earner, it’s a bit of cheek that the operator say commuters actually appreciate the distraction.The latest TfL report claims that 60 per cent of commuters say adverts are a welcome distraction. Did they even notice the Clapham Common cats campaign?

I, for one, am all on board with the Portuguese approach and freedom to daydream. Hell, they’ve got the advertising spaces, they just haven’t filled them up.

There’s 4G on all the lines

Yep, even underground. It’s magical. I’m not entirely convinced it’s planned, but it’s pretty great.


Tickets are valid for 24 hours from the point of use

This is honestly a revolution, and is probably the last serious point we’ve got for you, but golly it’s a good one. It’s a simple premise: buy your day ticket and it’s then valid for 24 hours from first use. So if you buy it at 3pm on a Sunday, it’s valid until 3pm on Monday.

By way of contrast, if you find yourself in a similar situation in London, your day pass will only work up until the last tube that day.

You also don’t need a deposit to get a reusable card. The Lisbon Metro dolls out reusable (and non plastic) cards for a mere €0.50 a time.

There’s an announcement that sounds like a friendly grandfather clock

The beeps of commuter trains haunt me in my sleep. This, though, sounds just like the grandfather clock in my nan and grandfathers’ house. Cute.

It’s in Lisbon

The Tyne & Wear Metro might go to the beach, but it’s not quite the same.

Uncredited images courtesy of the author.