View from the ‘Loo: On creativity, community and connective tissue

The Perimeter Institute exemplifies the power of the connective tissue of Waterloo Region's innovative ecosystem. (Communitech photo: Anthony Reinhart)
The Perimeter Institute exemplifies the power of the connective tissue of Waterloo Region’s innovative ecosystem. (Communitech photo: Anthony Reinhart)

In the midst of a roller-coaster news week, a timely lunch break reminded me why this community always manages to stay on track, no matter how wild the ride.

The lunch came courtesy of my friend and fellow word-welder Colin Hunter, senior scientific writer and editor at the Perimeter Institute in the heart of Waterloo.

If you don’t know Colin, you should. Arguably the best writer in the region, his body of work spans award-winning newspaper journalism, a symphony script he co-wrote, his satirical wrestling news site, a hand in a Stephen Hawking speech, and some of the most readable material you’ll find on quantum computing and theoretical physics – topics that make most people’s teeth hurt, including mine.

As we munched away in PI’s Black Hole Bistro, it occurred to me that Colin embodies what has always kept Waterloo Region moving forward, regardless of circumstance: hard work, diversity of interests, creativity, curiosity, collaboration.

These qualities permeate the tech sector in particular, and help explain why, within days of BlackBerry announcing a major staff reduction and proposed sale, we’ve seen Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, Google and Motorola choose Kitchener-Waterloo as the sole Canadian location for new ventures.

In Dorsey’s case, it’ll be an engineering office for Square, his mobile payments startup. As for Google, it will launch one of seven new tech hubs across North America here, to help entrepreneurs benefit from closer interaction with the internet giant. And Motorola is hiring software developers for its expanding Canadian engineering office, which currently employs 10 in downtown Kitchener’s Breithaupt Block.

In the midst of all this, the Communitech Hub hosted its second successful Startup Weekend, in which 11 companies were built from scratch in 54 hours.

As coincidental as all these events are, they help to answer a question we’ve heard often over the past couple of years: What happens to Waterloo Region now?

What happens is, we keep going. And we keep going because of the strength of the connective tissue we’ve developed over decades between our entrepreneurs, academic institutions, civic leaders, community groups and research facilities.

It’s not a linear or hierarchical relationship, but a mashup – and a happily chaotic one, at times – of people from different disciplines working towards the same goal, essentially: To build prosperous, interesting and meaningful lives in this community while competing and winning on the world stage.

When Colin and I finished lunch, we wandered down the hall – past someone trying on an invisibility cloak for Perimeter’s upcoming BrainSTEM festival – and into John Matlock’s office.

As Director of External Relations and Public Affairs, John is PI’s cheerleader-in-chief. Despite my unannounced visit, he took time to tell me how the institute works with various partners, public, private and academic, as its researchers strive to advance theories that are fundamental to everything we know and what we might accomplish.

The history and culture of theoretical physics shows how clever thinking, especially breakthrough ideas, feed into experiments, across other sciences and into society through innovations that transform the future.

Such discoveries lead to technologies and capabilities  completely unforeseen by the initial researchers whose only motive was to understand how the world works at a basic level. This makes an institute like Perimeter – founded in 1999 with a donation from Research In Motion (now BlackBerry) co-founder Mike Lazaridis – a great complement to the region’s ecosystem of innovation.

As John explained the whos, whats, whys and hows of Perimeter’s unique culture and world-leading research – Stephen Hawking is a visiting research chair – and the partnerships that enable it, it struck me how similar the institute’s model sounded to that of Communitech: One based on bringing together bold thinkers to solve problems, with help from key allies across the community and around the world.

John, who grew up in this region as I did, attributes much of the can-do spirit of collaboration to early settlers who, in building a small, isolated community away from Toronto, had to work together to make their mark on the world.

In Perimeter’s case, physics “is an international pursuit,” he said, “and while there are many competitive situations, unless you’re co-operating – even partnering with everybody – you’re really not in the game.”

The same goes for tech entrepreneurship, in which success depends on big thinking and a global outlook.

Waterloo Region is not the only community where you’ll find this kind of cross-disciplinary connective tissue, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a successful one that doesn’t have it.

It’s what keeps the roller-coaster on the track through highs and lows – and what makes the ride so remarkable.

Anthony Reinhart is Communitech’s Director of Editorial Strategy and senior staff writer. View from the ‘Loo is a weekly look at the issues, people and events that shape Waterloo Region’s technology sector.


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Anthony Reinhart About Anthony Reinhart

Anthony Reinhart was a newspaper reporter and editor for 23 years before he left the Globe and Mail to join Communitech as its staff writer in 2011. Tony has covered everything from crime, politics and courts to business, the arts and sports, and his writing has won numerous journalism awards.

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