Monday, March 07, 2016

Can Windsor use a non-snub to energize a focus on innovation?

OMG, did you hear? There's a new $100 million "Innovation SuperCorridor" initiative from the province introduced in the budget ... AND WINDSOR'S BEEN SHUT OUT! Snubbed! All that money and Windsor need not apply.

Well, that was the story in the Windsor media, anyway—led by the Windsor Star, which rang the alarm bells, soon followed by other media outlets. The president of the University of Windsor, Alan Wildemanwrote a rebuttal, but to little effect. Apparently, the chamber of commerce is now preparing a lobbying campaign to make sure Windsor gets its fair share of the funds.

Which will be a challenge, since there actually is no $100 million initiative. Either the Star invented it or they cribbed it from someone who did, because it certainly wasn't in the budget.

It's true that the budget described an area it called the "Innovation SuperCorridor"—it "extends from London and Waterloo region [sic] in the west [I'm pretty sure one of those is distinctly farther west than the other] through Toronto to Ottawa in the east"—and left Windsor out of its definition. But there is no $100 million initiative to build this corridor or any funding attached to it at all.

The label was just used in the budget as a grab-all for some unrelated projects. It was a communications theme—a rhetorical device, not a funded initiative. Sure, it would have been nice to be included in the rhetoric, but that's all it would have been. No funding or access to funding would flow from it.

It wasn't even new rhetoric. In the 2014 Ontario budget, the government wrote:
"Ontario's ICT sector is led by three clusters—Toronto, Ottawa and Kitchener-Waterloo—with a growing cluster in London. They form a corridor that accounted for over 80 per cent of the sector's employment in 2013"
That was two years ago. I remember it well because I nearly tweeted it. That was London's turn to be "included in the rhetoric" and I thought it was notable. But I had a hunch that no one in London would notice or care that the government was including the city in this "corridor." Sure enough, no one did. (This is a difference between London and Waterloo; it's a sure bet that some people in Waterloo would have noticed.) And they didn't notice again this year when that corridor was given a name and they were included again. Zero media coverage in London. Not even a tweet. It's just not the kind of thing they pay attention to.

So the whole "corridor" silliness is at least a couple of years old. And as for the "$100 million initiative", it doesn't exist. The Star added together three projects discussed under the SuperCorridor subheading and came to $100 million. Half of that is going to Perimeter Institute—a theoretical physics institute (founded by a Windsor native—Mike Lazaridis) that has been getting provincial funding for years and for this budget presentation it happened to be mentioned under the SuperCorridor label. It's not like there was this pool of money to be used to build a corridor and PI was selected as the best way to achieve it. There is no $100 million fund for Windsor to get a piece of.

The biggest project mentioned in that SuperCorridor section actually includes Windsor: the proposed high-speed rail from Windsor to Toronto, which will certainly cost a whole lot more than $100 million. Whether any of us will live to see it is another question, but it's discussed in the budget document, under the Innovation SuperCorridor subhead and with explicit reference to Windsor.

And, as the president of U of W mentioned in his piece, Windsor does receive innovation funding from the province. For example, the university receives significant dollars for its EPICentre student business accelerator under the provincial program run by the innovation ministry (and the people managing the program for the province told be how impressed they were by Windsor's efforts). The same provincial ministry funds Windsor-Essex's Regional Innovation Centre, WEtech. The public accounts show other payments to Windsor organizations from the innovation ministry. Not everything gets mentioned in the budget document.

But some good may come from this manufactured outrage—and the Star did redeem itself somewhat by pushing the discussion in this direction.

If—as the resulting indignation suggests—Windsor really does want to be seen as an essential part of Ontario's innovation ecosystem (and it should), then there are priorities that need to be set and investments that need to be made. It wasn't all that long ago when Waterloo would sometimes get left out of discussions of Toronto and Ottawa as Ontario's innovation hotspots. That never happens now, and Waterloo didn't get there by complaining about being left out—although we did some of that too. It required effort by some very skilled people.

Windsor councillor Irek Kusmierczyk—who also works at WEtech—was quoted in one of the Star stories saying "every other city I look at is investing in technology, in innovation, in partnerships, and Windsor doesn’t." This is a critical point. The City of Windsor doesn't fund WEtech (and, if I was WEtech, I don't know how eager I'd be to get funding from them) and recently rejected a pitch for funding from the Downtown Windsor Business Accelerator. I'm an outsider and don't know the whole context of these decisions, but you don't see from the City of Windsor the same determination I saw (and was part of) in Waterloo Region. You don't see it in London either—on this, Waterloo is the outlier, not Windsor. And the key thing is, it's not just a matter of funding. It's having the right people working on the problem and creating an environment that will attract those people.

So, if this imaginary snub can motivate some real action and a bolder commitment to focus on innovation, then it will all be worth it. Windsor has the right ingredients to make it happen.