What Ontario needs to become a Silicon Valley-ish tech ‘supercluster’

Speakers at the recent CityAge conference explored the potential of the Waterloo-Hamilton-Toronto corridor. Is this really the next IT hub?

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CityAge Waterloo 2014

Could Ontario be the next tech supercluster?

That was one of the questions posed in Waterloo at CityAge: The Innovation City, one in a series of conferences being held across North America.

If you haven’t heard of a “tech supercluster,” the term refers to connected communities that span several cities.

Silicon Valley is the ultimate supercluster; it’s not one city, but multiple cities with their own personalities that make up the entity known as Silicon Valley. And it’s a “brand.” Heck, there’s even an HBO series named after it.

Turns out there’s big potential for a supercluster here in Canada, spanning the 110-kilometre urban corridor that links Waterloo with Hamilton and the Greater Toronto Area — second only to Silicon Valley.

There are some 380,000 tech jobs in Silicon Valley. In Ontario, there are 280,000 tech jobs in this “digital corridor.”

Attendee Simona Marian tweeted from the event: “4,000 tech companies and 175,000 employees between Union Station and Waterloo Region: @Kathleen_Wynne at #CityAge Waterloo.”

And attendee Saj Jamal tweeted: “Toronto-Kitchener/Waterloo-Hamilton accounts for 35.8% of all jobs in Canada & a third of all VC deals #supercluster.”

But to spur development of this supercluster, the province needs to set up a region-wide economic development agency and improve transit connections between the three hubs, according to David Wolfe, co-director of the Innovation Policy Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, who spoke to the conference’s 200 attendees.

The province, for its part, is considering infrastructure investments, including the development of a high-speed rail along the digital corridor, according to Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, who spoke at the event.

While high-speed trains were a hot topic at the conference, the discussion could have centred more on high-speed networks.

In a Communitech article, delegate and software developer Marcus Doran 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.

He points to the Waterfront Toronto project, which is making big investments in digital infrastructure.

The $30 billion project designed to revitalize Toronto’s waterfront relies on a high-speed 1 Gbps broadband network that supports smart platforms, as well as a robust WiFi network and cloud-based community platform.

This infrastructure allows for a host of applications, such as advanced energy management within buildings, connected health services, and traffic flow and parking management — to name a few. More importantly, it allows for collaboration and innovation.

Don’t get me wrong — a high-speed train would be great for commuters. But after waiting for Toronto to address its traffic congestion and public transit woes for many, many years, I don’t hold out great hope for a high-speed train any time in the near future.

Advanced ICT infrastructure is table stakes for smart cities. And it certainly should be for a tech supercluster. Without it, it will be far more difficult to attract the financial and human capital required to create a tech supercluster that will rival Silicon Valley.

But if it’s done right, and we come up with a good “brand” for this Waterloo-Hamilton-Toronto digital corridor (because clearly that’s a terrible name), then we could see the emergence of the world’s next great supercluster.


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