Growing a tech centre: What I saw in Waterloo, what I hope to see in London

Since I moved to the London area and started working with TechAlliance, I've had several discussions -- and a few media interviews -- around what London needs to do to grow as a tech/innovation centre and how London compares to Waterloo Region in that regard.

The Waterloo side of things I know well and can discuss at length, but at first I didn't really know enough about London to talk about that side of the issue. In 2000, I wrote a story for the Waterloo Region Record comparing the Waterloo and London tech scenes, but whatever I knew about London then was based on some Web searches and a day's worth of interviews (which is to say, not much at all). I still don't know as much as I want to, but after six months, I've observed enough to at least start in on the topic. Rather than write one very lengthy blog post, I'm going to try to divide them into less-TLDR chunks.

Since this is looking more like a preamble, I should also say that Waterloo is indeed ahead of London in its development as a tech centre. This may seem like stating the obvious, but it isn't necessarily as obvious as you think. I really didn't know what to expect when I made the move. Waterloo Region first started comparing itself to Silicon Valley and referring to itself as Canada's Technology Triangle (initially along with Guelph) in the 1980s. The boast always ran ahead of the reality and there were periods -- even recent ones -- when people thought a lot more was happening in Waterloo than there really was. There was some "fake-it-till-you-make-it" at play, but in the end we made it, so who's going to complain now?

So, for London, while we can look to Waterloo and find decisions made back in the 1950s that helped lead to the region's current state as a tech centre -- decisions with decades of effects that aren't going to be replicated quickly if at all -- in some key dimensions, Waterloo and London weren't that far apart, even as of a few years ago. A lot of the raw materials for success are here in London, and while I don't think we'll be overtaking Waterloo Region over the next few years, there is plenty of potential here and some cool things are happening in London ... things for future blog posts. We definitely have an opportunity to show significant growth in the years ahead.

With that introduction out of the way, I want to look at where this growth is going to come from. Many Londoners are looking to two sources as the leading candidates. Based on my experience in Waterloo and discussions with folks from many places, I wouldn't place my bets on either. And this may be one of our biggest challenges.

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