The City of Waterloo

On innovation, collaboration and community

There’s a reason that companies like Research In Motion (RIM) prosper in Waterloo, Ontario. There is a reason that the city has grown 25 per cent in the last decade and a reason that 121,700 people call it home.  The City of Waterloo is part of the thriving Waterloo Region, population 500,000, and operates on a philosophy of innovation, collaboration and community.

Innovation and collaboration

The City of Waterloo is located along the top of Highway 8, a short drive off Highway 401 in Southern Ontario. Although more than an hour from the Greater Toronto Area (Ontario’s business hub), it has become the municipality of choice for innovators in business and academia, showing that Toronto indeed may not be the centre of the Ontario universe.

Recently, CBJ was able to visit Waterloo and meet with Marlene Coffey, Director of Economic Development. Originally the intention was to talk about Waterloo’s technological focus and look at why companies grow in Waterloo. However, just five minutes in Waterloo’s UpTown, the urban core, and it was clear that there is so much more than technology to focus on in this great city.

Waterloo exudes an energy that is unique and the architecture and landscape reflect that energy. The city is built around innovation, from the way residential, commercial and employment centres are developed, to the redevelopment of the urban core. Coffey says that the Waterloo philosophy permeates the community, as Waterloo is “all about innovation and collaboration and it’s commitment to a philosophy to build community”.

The community itself is very tight knit, with its roots in agriculture. Throughout its history, Waterloo has had to learn how “to adapt to change and survive”, but has proven success over the past 150 years. Waterloo has always been an entrepreneurial city and “that ability to be entrepreneurial has allowed us to be successful in this day and age,” Coffey continues. “There’s a culture—and that culture lives and breathes here every day.”

Technology and development in an “Intelligent Community”

In Waterloo, ideas and innovation drive development and the evidence lies within the walls of the headquarters of Canada’s biggest companies; from the pillars of the finance and insurance industries, to the educational institutions, high tech firms, to those in the knowledge economy.  

“As a municipality, a government service, we have to keep up an incredible pace in terms of delivering on demand, and our community has a high standard that ripples through everything—we deliver on that.”

No wonder the community has grown so fast—the drivers to continue meaningful expansion are there and the city is indeed ready for business.
The transformation of Waterloo’s economy has been led, in part, through an information technology investment, which in 2010 alone generated $18 billion in revenue across the region. The city derives its sustainable economy through a knowledge-focused industry that is globally recognized and centers around corporations led by the best and brightest at DALSA, RIM, Open Text, McAfee, Descartes Systems, Sybase Inc., and Raytheon, to name a few. It is also part of Canada’s Technology Triangle.

The shift toward a knowledge economy has been boosted by the integration of innovation centres and think-tanks including the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, the Centre of International Governance Innovation, the Institute for Quantum Computing, and the University of Waterloo David Johnston Research and Technology Park. According to the city, “Waterloo continues to build community through unconventional collaboration,” and will soon be home to the new Balsillie School of International Affairs. “A significant donation will fund the post-secondary institution, in partnership with the two universities, CIGI, and local government, to advance ambitious new approaches to global governance.”

In 2007, Waterloo was named the world’s Top Intelligent Community by a global non- profit think thank that focuses on job creation and economic development in the broadband economy, the Intelligent Community Forum, who rated the city using criteria including broadband infrastructure, education, training and employment, digital inclusion (which currently addresses the needs of all citizens), innovation and marketing.

Working together in Waterloo

Waterloo’s culture is built into a cycle of investment, starting with intellectual property, leading to innovation, commercialization, global business success and ultimately reinvestment in Waterloo.

The economic development philosophy in its entirety is cyclical and starts with the University of Waterloo’s Intellectual Property Policy that was born in Waterloo in the 1970s and has driven academia and business development since then. The best thing about this cyclical nature is that it helps build community and business simultaneously. Coffey tells us of 26 initiatives within her office in 2010 alone, all evidence of a highly collaborative culture.

Coffey says that Waterloo excels as a community of “ideas generation” and provides access to a full suite of business services, including venture capital. “When someone wants to develop in this community they are not only backed by the community but also by the expertise to help one take ideas to paper and ultimately bring them to market,” she says.

“The most difficult stage of development is commercialization and Waterloo stands out as a place where many patents and trademarks are generated,” she adds. The city’s new businesses have the advantages of access to venture capital, government support (in many cases) and post-secondary institutions, overall providing very comprehensive platforms for growth.

Not only do businesses thrive in Waterloo, but they also give back, completing the cycle of development. Philanthropy is part of the lifeblood of the city. “The community makes huge reinvestments through philanthropy and ultimately feeds the cycle of a sustainable community,” Coffey explains.

Emerging development

Manufacturing represents 17 per cent of the Waterloo economy, illustrating the high level of innovation outside of traditional markets. Although technology is a huge industry, Coffey also points to health and social sciences as growing sectors in this region.. “We’re attracting talent faster than it’s going out,” she says, which confirms Waterloo’s culture of collaboration as a powerful engine of economic growth for both Ontario and Canada.

Construction in Waterloo continues to increase, and is seeing levels of growth that surpass 2008 pre-recession rates. The Waterloo economy is rife with diverse businesses in various sectors, sizes, and life cycles, meaning that the economy is more stable and better able to weather economic shifts.
The economic development office gets involved with fostering a positive business environment, facilitating development and partnerships, all of which may emerge in unique and non-conventional ways, including concepts of developing arts and culture. The city markets itself as “a region very rich with destinations”, in a collaborative initiative through a tourism destination marketing organization (built on a partnership among the communities of Cambridge, Kitchener and Townships).

From a young age…

The citizens of Waterloo learn at an early age that innovation is king. Coffey showed a photo from her son’s camp at the University of Waterloo, Engineering Science Quest, where the words “science” and “innovate” appear in the same context—not bad for an elementary school aged program.

She also showed a photo of a residence at the University of Waterloo that has been designed to bring like-minded people together to start businesses. The residence is called “Velocity” and though one might think of business and pair the idea with adults, the photo clearly shows university students on the cusp of something great. Coffey adds that the young culture of innovation is “our future labour force”.

The business culture in Waterloo is also favourable for small businesses and entrepreneurs. There is a small business centre located in the same building as the Economic Development office and things were certainly bustling there when CBJ took a peek.

Visiting Waterloo is an eye-opening experience. From the doors of industry, to the exploration and research in post-secondary institutions, to the classrooms where future superstars are learning about collaborating—the foundation of growth prevails in this world class city.

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