Innovation fuels human progress and prosperity. It is not surprising, then, that the promotion of innovation has become the cornerstone economic strategy for leading, ambitious jurisdictions around the world.

Innovation, understood simply as better ways of doing things that are of value to others, is applicable to every sphere of human activity. However, as global competition increases and the pace of technology adoption accelerates across all sectors, there has been shift in focus toward those enterprises working downstream from natural resources and materials processing & production. This collection of enterprises — sometimes termed the knowledge economy — relies heavily on a workforce with advanced education and a heightened creative capacity. Such workers are not only flooding into global marketplaces today, they are also increasingly aggregating in cities.

This means that cities, more than ever before, have become hotspots for innovation and catalysts for the growth of regional and national economies. This is a challenge in Canada, a country that is highly urbanized from the standpoint of the percentage of population in cities, but at the same time, one of the least dense countries in the world. Our major cities are modest in size compared to the emerging global megacities, and isolated from each other. As a result, the impact of anchor cities such as Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, Calgary and Ottawa is amplified when compared to other jurisdictions.

Inner cities are “in”

The rising importance of cities is emphasized by a recent urbanization milestone. For the first time in 100+ years, more people migrated into inner cities in the US than out into surrounding suburbs. As Daniel Isenberg of Babson College says, “inner cities are ‘in’ – innovative, hip hotbeds of convenient culture, commerce and connection.”

But whether it’s downtown or uptown, one thing is plain: Thriving cities both benefit from, and foster the emergence of, vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystems. Future-focused cities everywhere are nurturing these ecosystems to accelerate the spin-off benefits that high-growth firms produce – new jobs, talent attraction and wealth generation.

So often we look for shortcuts or magic bullets in innovation. If we could just fix our tax system, or get our businesses to spend more on R&D, or get our universities to become better at commercialization, or fix our venture capital problem!

Entrepreneurial ecosystems must grow organically 

What are the characteristics of an innovation-friendly ecosystem? First and foremost, it must be authentically rooted in and make the best use of local assets. Put another way, a culture of entrepreneurship and innovation must grow up organically. It cannot be transplanted.

It follows, then, that a successful ecosystem needs the engagement of all the actors in the innovation process – scientists and social innovators, startup entrepreneurs and established business leaders, experts in professional service firms, policy makers, investors and more. And it also follows that the ecosystem can only be built through collaboration, sustained effort and investment. Collaboration is particularly important in Canada because there are so few of us and our innovations need to find international markets shortly after launch to succeed.

Toronto positioned for success

In my (admittedly biased) view, Toronto is brilliantly positioned for success in the global innovation economy:

  • It houses an extraordinary foundation of world-leading scientific discovery and humanities scholarship, rooted in a range of excellent educational institutions.
  • It has a diversified, stable economy and strong financial institutions.
  • It is strong in all the emerging innovation sectors (life sciences, cleantech, digital technology, media and entertainment and social innovation).
  • It has a vibrant creative and cultural community.
  • And, despite all the challenges of infrastructure and transit, it remains a highly livable city.

But perhaps the most distinguishing factor of all, the reason why Toronto’s innovation future is particularly bright lies in its people. Amazingly diverse, skilled and talented people gather here from around the world, aggregating steadily into strong collaborative networks.

Used by permission under Creative Commons licensingYou can see this shift in the many important initiatives that have been co-created here by leaders from all walks of life, spanning the worlds of art and science, among them: TIFF, Evergreen, Luminato, Artscape, the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research (OICR), the Ontario Brain Institute (OBI), CivicAction, MaRS and MaRS Innovation (which harvests intellectual property from 16 Toronto academic institutions).

Toronto’s uniquely collaborative community is not only breaking down disciplinary silos, it is also working fruitfully to capitalize on our ethno-cultural diversity and bridging the public, private and non-profit sectors.

The Innovation City: Fresh thinking and global perspectives

While our momentum is substantial, there is much more we can do to accelerate innovation in the Toronto metropolitan region. To that end, we need fresh thinking, global perspectives and new networks. That is why we are excited to be hosting The Innovation City on July 18 and 19 at MaRS. This dynamic conference brings together leading thinkers and doers from around the world to share their experiences in building the innovative cities of the future.

See you there!

Ilse Treurnicht

Ilse Treurnicht

Ilse Treurnicht was CEO of MaRS, a 1.5-million-sq.-ft. innovation hub located in Toronto. See more…