Once they got past an inexplicable preoccupation with parking, participants at a focus group session last night had some good input for Ottawa’s economic development folks who are planning an ambitious innovation complex just west of the city’s downtown core. Ian Scott, an economic development officer in the city manager’s office, gave a presentation on the proposed new complex, slated as part of a complete community development plan for the near-derelict Bayview Yards, and then solicited feedback from the 50 or so people who turned out.
Suggestions ranged from the bizarre — one participant, harking back to days when out-of-town customers had nowhere nearby to stay when they visited Ottawa tech companies in Kanata, insisted a hotel had to be part of the development — to the obvious — restaurants and coffee shops. But folks also called for an inclusive facility where startups could launch and grow, where support services would be available, where a critical mass would build such that people, both tenants and others, would want to hang out, and where — and this was my chief contribution — serendipitous collisions could happen between those entrepreneurs and all elements of the startup ecosystem.
A lot of the discussion, though, focused on the negative in a way, I have to say — In fact, I did say — that is so bloody typical of this city.
The location was repeatedly slammed as being too far removed from other centres of startup and innovation activity in the city, with one participant insisting the new complex would much further away from Ottawa’s universities than the Communitech Hub is from the University of Waterloo. In fact, according to Google Maps driving directions, the two Waterloo facilities are a 13-minute drive apart, 25 minutes by public transit. Bayview Yards, meanwhile, is an 11-minute drive from the University of Ottawa and a 15-minute drive from Carleton. Existing public transit puts both schools less than half an hour away, and those travel times will shrink considerably when the new LRT line starts running at just about the same time as the Bayview Yards redevelopment comes online. In fact, Bayview Yards is exactly located at what will be the junction of the existing O-train and the new LRT, and you’ve gotta believe that will swiftly become a busy and popular transportation hub. (For what it’s worth, the proposed innovation complex is a 12-minute drive from the Byward Market, where Ottawa’s new generation of startups is concentrated, and a 21-minute drive from the heart of Kanata’s tech cluster on March Road.)
People debated the wisdom of moving Invest Ottawa to the new hub from the rented digs it currently occupies just off Preston Street, citing both the cost of doing so and the fact that Invest Ottawa, which currently occupies about 30,000 square feet of space, will eat up two-thirds of the 45,000 square feet anticipated for the new facility. Leave aside for the moment that Invest Ottawa’s current footprint is actually much smaller than that; more than half of the nominally Invest Ottawa space on Aberdeen is occupied by startups, the Grindspace incubator and partner organizations such as IRAP. More critically, it makes no sense whatsoever that the city’s lead agency in charge of fostering innovation and entrepreneurship would be left out of this new facility.
It wasn’t all negative; there were lots of helpful suggestions, even if they won’t all prove to be workable. People want manufacturing space, prototyping services and on-site legal, marcomm and other services. They want private and secure office space, open-concept office space and casual drop-in office space. They want very-high bandwidth Internet connectivity. And, apparently, they want parking!
Done is better than perfect
My take away, which I shared at the meeting, is that the biggest risk to this proposed complex is that it won’t be — it can’t be — perfect for everyone who has a legitimate stake in it. The good news is, it doesn’t have to be. Perfect is the enemy of finished. Ottawa walked away from a similar opportunity four years ago, although, admittedly, what was proposed at that time was a whole lot bigger and shinier than the more realistic and modest Bayview Yards plan. At the same time as Ottawa was bowing out, Kitchener-Waterloo’s Communitech was opening its Hub, which has gone on to become the undisputed locus of startup activity in that city and the envy of every Ottawan who has visited it. Ottawa’s version never made it off the drawing board because every “i” could not be dotted, nor every “t” crossed.
Let’s not repeat this mistake. Just because we can’t see over the horizon, people, it is no excuse not to set sail. As I said last night, everything the city and Invest Ottawa try to do with the new facility will not be successful, and nor does it have to be. Let’s finally start implementing the playbook that rules innovation almost everywhere else but here: Failure is okay. In fact, it’s something to embraced. I disagree entirely with the hotel guy who also said that because there’s a lot of money going into this, we have to get it right. We don’t. At least, not at first. We need to try all sorts of things, fail fast where necessary, iterate and improve. That’s the very essence of a robust startup ecosystem, and it’s time that ethic was applied to the Bayview Yards initiative.
Photo: My quick iPhone shot of Ian Scott presenting the Bayview Yards innovation complex proposal at last night’s focus group session organised by Carleton University’s Technology Innovation Management program.