Are the Ivy Leagues what they used to be? Is going to the ‘right school’ a guaranteed ticket to the best jobs in the best companies? Do doors open more easily with the right educational resume? Are successful start ups geographically limited to either of the coasts or founded on coastal cultural sensibilities? Not anymore. In fact those days are long gone.
First and foremost, good ideas are ideas that work. In the world of science and technology, ideas that work are predicated on a mastery of math and science, disciplines that are blind to location and geography. Mastery of those disciplines, a good work ethic and a smaller world make it possible for trendsetters to be found everywhere.
The story behind the University of Waterloo is the proof in that pudding.
Canada’s Technology Triangle has spawned more than 450 high-tech companies, including BlackBerry pioneer Research in Motion. But it didn’t just happen: an upstart university had the brains to embrace mathematics
ON THE SURFACE, Canada’s Technology Triangle — comprising the twin cities of Waterloo and Kitchener, Ontario, and Cambridge to the immediate south — reflects the development Richard Florida described in his 2002 bestseller, The Rise of the Creative Class. In 2007, Waterloo, with a population of roughly 120,000, was named Intelligent Community of the Year by the Intelligent Community Forum, which cited the region’s 334 technology companies (now listed as more than 450), its post-secondary institutions (the University of Waterloo, Wilfrid Laurier University, and Conestoga College), the co-operation between business and academia, and the high levels of philanthropy and local reinvestment.
The Waterloo region’s evolution followed a familiar North American pattern. It started as an agricultural community, grew into an industrial base and urban hub, achieved rapid expansion (in 1965, Kitchener was the fastest-growing city in Canada), then watched as its industries died and the downtowns hollowed out. The area started with gristmills, and proceeded through tanneries, breweries, television plants, and shoe factories, most of them gone now. Waterloo has been named both the Button Capital and the Rubber Capital. But the city lost manufacturing jobs to offshore concerns, to economic and cultural shifts, and to the rise of the Canadian dollar. Unlike hundreds of similar cities that dot America’s Rust Belt, though, Waterloo went on to flourish.
Part of this has to do with the region’s curious historical combination of conservatism and entrepreneurial spirit, its ability to adapt to new industries as old ones die. Manufacturing remains the largest employer, but it also registered the largest sector decline between 2001 and 2006. The technology sector, while smaller, is the fastest growing.
Technology is viewed as the holy grail of modern economies. It brings in jobs and money; it brings the future. A lot of energy is spent attracting it, growing it, and nurturing it, with varying degrees of success. Waterloo’s tech sector is often equated with BlackBerry pioneer Research in Motion, which has its headquarters there. The two are viewed in lockstep, the way General Motors was linked to Flint, Michigan. But, in fact, Waterloo’s technology boom began more than fifty years ago, and at the centre of it stood the University of Waterloo.