When Ottawa’s newly reconstituted economic development agency Invest Ottawa earlier this year unveiled its proposal to convert a disused former city workshop in the Bayview Yards into a hub for the city’s technology and startup communities, I thought it was one of the boldest initiatives from an organization whose hallmark, at least in its previous incarnations, was not exactly one of bold and innovative thinking. I have long looked covetously at Kitchener-Waterloo’s Communitech Hub, Toronto’s MaRS Discovery District or Campus London in the British city’s east end, and I welcomed the IO effort to create a similar locus and anchor point for Ottawa’s considerable but largely fractured technology communities.
(And I use the plural of community advisedly here. Ottawa’s tech sector is an amalgam of communities that, best efforts of many people notwithstanding, continues to fracture between the older, west-end companies focused mainly on communications infrastructure and the younger, downtown companies working on software and apps.)
Not surprisingly, the proposed complex has also become an easy target for one of Ottawa’s favourite games of second guessing that exposes the inferiority complex hobbling far too much of what entrepreneurs and their supporters are trying to accomplish here.
Our own Leo Valiquette took a swipe at it yesterday, criticizing it mainly for a location that at the moment is well removed from either of the two concentrations of startup activity in the city. (Leo made his first visit to the Waterloo Region recently and, just as I experienced on my first and many subsequent visits, he was blown away by the Communitech Hub, the Accelerator Centre and other first-class facilities there and came home wondering why the heck we couldn’t have something like that here in our own backyard.)
When the Communitech Hub opened in 2010, it did so as part of a large-scale redevelopment project of the Tannery Building that houses it as well as tech giants such as Google and Desire 2 Learn. The Tannery Building, in turn, was only one element of an ambitious downtown revitalization plan for Kitchener that has seen the University of Waterloo relocate its School of Nursing to the neighbourhood along with countless new condo and retail developments and a soon-to-be-completed transportation hub. Kitchener’s downtown still has its dodgy bits, to be sure, but it is clear that something new and exciting is afoot.
I am certain that when the Communitech Hub was first proposed for its then out-of-the-way location far removed from the university classrooms and labs and from RIM’s ubiquitous low-rise buildings, it seemed like a peculiar place to put it. But the vision and faith of those behind it has been validated.
I believe the same potential holds true for the city’s Bayview Yards scheme, of which the proposed innovation complex is simply one part. An important part. And, like the Communitech Hub, a potentially anchoring part. But still just one part. Don’t worry, Leo; I’m sure a decent proliferation of coffee shops will inevitably be part of the overall program. It won’t be downtown or in the Byward Market. But if the right things are included in and around it, it will become the new destination for Ottawa’s technology communities.
Luc Lalande, a long-time and insightful observer of Ottawa’s technology scene, also weighed in on Invest Ottawa’s plans, both in a column on his own blog and in a comment yesterday on Leo’s post. I agree with Luc that the complex needs to be about more than just bricks and mortar, that the sorts of programming, facilities and shared tools it offers will be more critical. But I disagree that the bricks and mortar are not important. I think this city desperately needs a place where entrepreneurs, startups, mentors, advisors, investors, government programs and, yes, even the bottom-of-the-food-chain suppliers like lawyers, accountants and consultants can all come together.
My bottom line is that I want somewhere in this city that acts as the focal point for all the energy, enthusiasm and effort that I see every day as I talk with entrepreneurs and startups. I want it to have all the things Luc talks about in his column. I want it to have the right mix of private office space and open public spaces. I want it to be open, vibrant, accessible and welcoming. I want everyone in the startup ecosystem to be able to drop in whenever they want, knowing that they will run into people they want to and need to meet. I can do that in Toronto, in K-W, in Montreal, in Vancouver, in London and in Cape Town. But I can’t do it in my home city, and that, above all, needs to change.
If you have a point of view on this debate, we’d love to hear it here. Just as usefully, you could also turn out for the focus group that Carleton University’s Technology Innovation Management program has scheduled for next Tuesday. Come on people: Let’s put that inferiority complex to bed and dare to dream that we could build something #OttawAwesome!