If Ontario wants to spur development of a “digital corridor” or tech “supercluster” linking Greater Toronto, Waterloo and Hamilton, the provincial government needs to set up a region-wide economic development agency, improve transit connections between the three hubs, and promote closer ties among the area’s leading research institutions, an international expert on regional clusters told the CityAge conference in Waterloo last week.
“It’s time to brand the whole region,” David Wolfe, Co-Director of the Innovation Policy Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, told the conference's 200 attendees. The Toronto-Kitchener/Waterloo-Hamilton region accounts for 35.8% of all jobs in Canada, 29.6% of patents and a third of all venture capital deals, he added.
At a press conference during the two-day event, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne appeared to agree with Wolfe’s recommendations, noting the province is now looking at the sorts of land use policies, business supports, post-secondary education planning changes and infrastructure investments that would be required to establish a regional supercluster. “All of that is under discussion,” Wynne told reporters. “We know the right approach will allow [a supercluster] to flourish.”
On the critical issue of improving rail links between Toronto and Waterloo Region, Wynne added that Metrolinx, the regional transportation planning body, last month acquired from CN a 53-km long rail corridor between Guelph and Kitchener, an asset that will help the agency move towards all-day, two-way service.
While she couldn’t provide any specific planning details, Wynne also said her government remains “committed” to developing high-speed rail along the corridor, an idea first bruited during the spring provincial election. “If we’re going to draw world-class talent,” she said, “we need to have world-class infrastructure and having high speed rail along this corridor is part of that.”
Yet Ontario planning officials who attended the conference acknowledged they haven’t yet studied how to use high-speed digital networks as another form of regional economic development tool. Delegate Marcus Doran, a University of Waterloo software developer who is launching a digital mapping company, said governments should view high-speed broadband as not just a form of municipal infrastructure, but also a means of attracting and retaining tech firms.
“When you start talking about the infrastructure necessary to support a supercluster, no one yet has mentioned that kind of connectivity,” Doran said, noting that Waterfront Toronto recently invested in a high-speed broadband network for its lakefront projects. “It should be talked about just as much as transportation.”
While public and private sector participants have yet to hash out a complete policy agenda to support the supercluster, there was little dispute about the economic and entrepreneurial heft at either end of the emerging relationship.
According to a global ranking of the top 20 startup ecosystems, Toronto and Waterloo rank eighth and 16th, respectively. The University of Waterloo, which pumps about $2.6 billion into the region’s economy, is one of the top three academic recruiting sources for Google’s software engineers.
At the other end of Highway 401, Toronto’s bank towers have evolved into a formidable hub for information and communications technology firms, many of them providing services to the financial institutions located in the city’s core.
For Waterloo’s tech entrepreneurs, the question of how to knit together the innovation clusters at either end of the corridor has become increasingly important as a new generation of entrepreneurs and creative class workers find themselves torn between Toronto’s urban vibe and Waterloo’s innovation networks.
As the conference heard, a growing number of tech workers are choosing to live in Toronto and travel to Waterloo, a commuting pattern that has played out in San Francisco and Silicon Valley.
But John Ruffolo, CEO of OMERS Ventures, noted that his group has also assembled 2.5 million square feet of commercial space in Toronto with an eye to marketing this emerging downtown tech hub to Waterloo firms, as well as the innovation arms of several regional universities.
Besides advocating for better transportation options, supercluster proponents say that companies and institutions in the two regions need to find, or create, more venues to connect with one another. Wolfe said the leading research universities in the three cities should establish a region-wide “virtual” organization with a mandate to promote greater research collaboration, possibly focused on high-growth fields like biotechnology, ICT and advanced manufacturing.
In Philadelphia, the 51-year-old University City Science Center offers a model of how multiple universities, teaching hospitals and accelerators from a broader region can jointly operate an incubator that has graduated 350 companies and 15,000 direct jobs. According to president and CEO Stephen Tang, the 31 shareholders, including universities in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware, have adopted a “rainforest” approach to fostering an innovation ecosystem.
Tang also pointed to a May, 2014, Brookings Institute study on the rise of innovation districts in the United States, which represent a “radical departure” from traditional economic development strategies.
While the sort of innovation districts cited in the Brookings study have emerged in both Toronto and Waterloo in recent years, the authors focused their analysis on clusters located entirely within an extended city-region.
As Wolfe pointed out, Greater Toronto-Waterloo Region supercluster proponents may be breaking new ground in terms of promoting economic diversification across an extended urban region. “Are we sitting on the edge of a unique opportunity?”