John Tory is Mayor of Toronto. Berry Vrbanovic is Mayor of Kitchener, Ont.
In a boardroom at the Toronto offices of Shopify in February, our region's top tech minds were asked what they could do to help government foster innovation.
It was at that point that one participant of our co-hosted event stopped us. We don't need to do something, he said – you do. In order to demonstrate that government is serious about innovation and economic growth along the Toronto-Waterloo corridor, it's cities that need to take bold action.
He was right, of course. The talented individuals who are creating new ideas and new industries have a world of options in front of them. To keep them here, to benefit from the wealth and jobs they create and the ideas and industries they spawn, it is the rest of us who must take action.
This was the impetus of a joint mission we took this week to San Francisco and Silicon Valley, along with Waterloo Mayor Dave Jaworsky, Cambridge Mayor Doug Craig and representatives of innovation centres Communitech and MaRS.
We were there to put the Toronto-Waterloo corridor on the map as a global hub of innovation, to broadcast our accomplishments, and clearly state our ambitions as part of a longer play to attract and retain investment and talent to the region, while cultivating growth.
We weren't there to compare ourselves to Silicon Valley. The corridor has a unique story to tell: an ecosystem built around a highly educated, diverse workforce as well as a diversified economy.
We're seeing rapid growth in our tech sector, which now employs more than 200,000 people across 15,000 companies, with more than 5,200 startups. In fact, Waterloo Region has the second-highest density of startups in the world.
Toronto has the most PhDs in artificial intelligence, a field that is transforming industry. This talent is being recruited out of the country at an alarming pace, and we should all be doing more to keep them here.
That's why we are championing the corridor as a destination of choice for the world's smartest people. And it's why we're working together as an ecosystem rather than competing as individual municipalities.
Both Toronto and the Waterloo Region benefit when U.S. companies like Salesforce, Google, Facebook, Square and Cisco – which already employ hundreds of people in Canada – expand their presence here. That's why we met with them in California, pushing them to grow and encouraging them to engage as corporate citizens.
We met with San Francisco's chief innovation officer, who champions the use of data, technology and citizen engagement to increase trust in government. He has pioneered a unique program that invites startups into city hall to develop (and commercialize) solutions to issues such as traffic management and accessibility.
We hosted three receptions (with the C100 Association, the Digital Moose Lounge and Maple SoCal) for expat Canadians, many of whom don't know about the tremendous growth that's taken place in the corridor.
More than 300,000 Canadians work in Silicon Valley, where they've gained valuable experience in scaling up companies. This experience is sorely lacking in the corridor, and we must attract individuals with the promise of leadership roles and the chance to work on big problems.
But our trip made it clear there's much more work to be done.
One venture capitalist described to us his $8-billion (U.S.) fund and desire to invest in the corridor and then told us that Canadians need to learn how to sell.
The provincial and federal governments must act quickly to improve transit and transportation, as our region's slow commute times are negatively affecting productivity and perceptions.
Our federal partners must also streamline the immigration process for highly skilled talent, so that our companies can recruit the very best in the world. And our corporate leaders and governments must become customers of the tech sector, too, and embrace technology enabled solutions.
To this end, we must start talking about regulatory reform as economic innovation. We can't claim to be innovation-friendly while banning technology companies that are disrupting transportation or financial services.
No one region has a corner on innovation or the wealth it can create. But there are lessons to be learned from San Francisco, where people gravitate to work on challenging projects and be a part of something big.
This is our vision for the Toronto-Waterloo corridor. We have clear strengths, talented people and the capacity to create big companies.
The building blocks are here. But if we want to make this vision a reality, we all need to take action.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that there were 5,200 startups in the Waterloo region, when in fact there were 5,200 startups in the Toronto-Waterloo corridor.