Michael Litt is co-founder and CEO of Vidyard.
In February, the federal government revealed the five regions it aims to turn into tech “superclusters” – Silicon Valley-style innovation ecosystems spread throughout the country. With nearly $1-billion in federal funding earmarked for development, these clusters represent a massive investment in Canada’s knowledge economy, and Kitchener-Waterloo stands to benefit.
The area sits at the geographic and creative centre of the new Southern Ontario supercluster. With its rich pool of postsecondary institutions, a barn-raising ethos of co-operation and collaboration and a growing legacy of innovative companies, it has many of the raw ingredients necessary to become the beating heart of an internationally recognized, innovation-based economy. But not all of them.
Importantly, it’s not technology but rather community resources that the region lacks. The absence of convenient transportation, high-calibre health care and accessible education all represent serious challenges to our future. Combined, these lifestyle factors hamper our ability to attract the best and brightest people, as well as to cultivate and retain talent from our own backyard. When I speak to engineering students at local universities, for example, only about a quarter plan to stay in the region after graduation. And this regional brain drain extends well beyond tech.
The good news is that completing the package in Kitchener-Waterloo is eminently within reach. While I don’t have all the answers, I do think it’s critical to jump-start this conversation. Upping our game in a few critical areas not only advances our innovation-cluster status, but also stands to benefit the entire community.
World-class health care that you can easily access
Currently, both of the region’s major hospitals sit in downtown Kitchener, making them hard to access from outlying areas. They also lack comprehensive services, sending many residents to seek specialist care in Toronto or London. The region should leverage Canada’s biggest selling features – public health care and high-quality postsecondary education – in the creation of a prominent teaching hospital with easy highway access for patients throughout the region. Yes, a new hospital is a big, ambitious ask, but it’s exactly the kind of capital investment that will put the region on the map.
Connect the cluster with high-speed rail
Right now, if you’re looking to get from Waterloo to Toronto, it’s a toss-up as to what will get you there faster: plane, train or automobile. Highway traffic congestion frequently turns what should be a one-hour drive into two, three, or more. That leaves the meandering, infrequent GO train – a more than two-hour trek – as the most reliable option. Commutes like that are a killer for attempts to attract international talent to the region, or even entice our own residents to stay.
The planned but perennially delayed high-speed rail link is more necessary than ever to deepen our connection with Toronto and cement true supercluster status. A viable daily commute between the two centres will help attract qualified candidates for high-level jobs in both communities.
Level the playing field on education
The educational landscape in Kitchener-Waterloo presents a troubling dichotomy. The area is home to some of Canada’s most prestigious – and exclusive– postsecondary institutions, yet its primary- and secondary-school systems lag behind the provincial average on test scores and outcomes. Local students who don’t graduate high school can’t fully benefit from the burgeoning innovation economy. At the same time, an underperforming school system is a red flag for families considering relocating to the region.
At the postsecondary level, meanwhile, we have a different numbers problem: Our STEM graduates may be top notch, but we need a lot more of them – and we also need more to stay in the area. Right now, the demand locally (and across Canada) for qualified graduates far outstrips the supply.
These are thorny issues with no easy fix. But one way forward lies in building stronger connections between the region’s secondary and postsecondary systems. Let’s get more students interested in STEM at a younger age and let’s find ways to funnel more of them into our universities. Improving high-school outcomes and opening up more postsecondary spots would create a truly local talent pipeline– a community where kids who grow up here can pursue higher education here and stay to build our knowledge economy.
Invest in the creative economy
It’s a common misconception that artists and engineers exist in opposition. In fact, creativity and innovation have a proven link. An innovation economy needs a cultural and creative complement and vice versa. That’s why it’s key to up-level Kitchener-Waterloo in terms of nightlife, restaurants, art galleries, theatres, concert venues and more. A thriving cultural scene appeals to high-level recruits from outside the community, entices young local graduates craving a dynamic lifestyle and, really, benefits everyone who lives here.
To this end, we need to find innovative ways to attract world-class arts and culture to the city. Grassroots efforts currently under way, many spearheaded by local companies, are a step in the right direction. But more can be done – from industry partnerships to government initiatives.
For those of us engaged with building the innovation ecosystem in Kitchener-Waterloo, the federal government’s interest and investment in creating these superclusters is highly encouraging. And we’re keenly aware that what benefits our sector must benefit the entire community. We’re lucky to live in a region with an exciting opportunity before us to address our challenges and cement our legacy as an economic powerhouse.