Special Report: Creative City

Innovation City?

The first step toward a dynamic knowledge economy in Hamilton is in recognizing that the status quo is not acceptable, and that is something on which this community of 500,000 people can almost universally agree.

By Keanin Loomis
Published June 02, 2011

Innovation Night. Innovation Breakfast. McMaster Innovation Park. Innovation Factory. Innovation this. Innovation that. How can a word that so few people are able to define become so overused?

Apparently, it's reached proportions that invite mockery even from our own Mayor. In a recent Andrew Dreschel column in the Hamilton Spectator about the toxic sludge sitting at the bottom of Randle Reef, Mayor Bratina "speculated that, 'Maybe someone is going to find something that eats it up' now that Hamilton is the 'innovative centre of the universe,' thanks to Mac's Innovation Park."

I found the sarcasm to be unhelpful when so many people and organizations - including the City of Hamilton itself - have dedicated significant resources to an attempt to transform one of this city's gateways and expand the tax base with high-paying, knowledge-based jobs.

Then again, when you hear politicians of the slicker sort endlessly tout innovation as the panacea to our future economic competitiveness, perhaps the skepticism elicited from the more cynical among us may be deserved.

The Innovation Myth

Being the individual charged with elevating the profile of the new non-profit organization, Innovation Factory, within the community, I too have lamented the overuse of the word. I'm concerned that innovation risks losing its meaning before people have even grasped what it actually means.

Which is why, at a recent local tech conference, I was piqued to attend a session titled "The Myth of Innovation" featuring writer/blogger Scott Berkun. In his seminar, Berkun trained the audience to be cognizant of the context in which today's buzzwords are being employed. His point was that, when people and organizations are hollowly adopting the terms du jour, we need to vigilantly call bullshit.

Berkun defined innovation as "significant, positive change." It's a definition I happened to like because it is non-controversial, it doesn't pertain only to technology, and it suggests that "innovators" do not need any particular education, skills, or traits.

After the session, I walked up to Berkun and sheepishly introduced myself by saying, "I work for an organization that has innovation in its title. What do I do?"

He reassuringly replied, "That's okay, as long as you and your organization are working to affect significant, positive change in everything you do." That resonated with me, because that indeed is our goal.

Community Innovation

Feeling empowered, I walked out of the conference thinking about Hamilton becoming a centre for innovation, not necessarily in the technological sense (though we at Innovation Factory are certainly trying), but as a community as a whole.

It is certainly a city that needs significant, positive change, and is one that, by all accounts, is poised to experience just that. I have not met many people in this city who would disagree.

But, while there has been positive change in Hamilton over the last few years (even in the face of strong global economic headwinds), it has not been as significant as nearly anyone would like.

For example, McMaster Innovation Park certainly has undergone rapid transformation (just take a look at satellite photos of the area - Camco certainly looks like it was a prolific employer!), but it will run out of steam in the not-too-distant future without a total community (and, probably, provincial and federal) effort.

Thus, no matter how much we cheerlead this city, I can safely assume that everyone harbours some degree of doubt in the recesses of their minds, because Hamilton still has a jobs problem.

Then again, most every city not on a Richard Florida-approved top ten list is struggling with how to confront the knowledge economy.

Confronting the Knowledge Economy

Happily, it's that recognition that spurred 25 private and institutional supporters to support the operations of Innovation Factory in its infancy. Law firms, accounting firms, banks, technology companies, Mohawk, McMaster, the city's EcDev department, and so many other organizations and individuals have lined up behind the common purpose of creating a web of support for the next generation of quality jobs generators.

But it's going to require a lot more help than that. As a community, we have to create the optimal conditions for the next generation of job generators to flourish.

The strategies for triggering a dynamic knowledge economy are many - some work and some do not - and can fill future columns at length. For now, suffice it to say that some tough choices are going to have to be made, and some assumptions about what can and can't be done here in Hamilton are going to have to be challenged.

But the first step is in recognizing that the status quo is not acceptable, and that is something on which this community of 500,000 people can almost universally agree.


A few questions, then.

What, if anything, is standing in the way of Hamilton realizing significant, positive change? While people recognize that the status quo is not good enough, I don't see a broad swath of the citizenry active enough in pushing for it.

Do we have the right political leadership? Surely our city councillors would all answer in the affirmative if they were asked whether they supported significant, positive change, but I haven't seen anything to indicate to me that they are doing anything to foment it.

Then again, I heard our former Mayor talk about it all the time and not much happened there either. Does that mean that our municipal political system is broken?

Certainly we can't just wait for our local politicians to act, but where is the private sector in helping transform Hamilton at a much more rapid pace? Why is it that the people who recognize Hamilton as a can't-miss opportunity are mostly from out of town?

I would hope that progress is so inexorable that it will happen in spite of uninspiring local leadership. Is it inevitable, especially when (or if?) the global economy improves? If so, is it out-of-towners who are primarily going to be reaping the rewards?

These are the many questions I still haven't found answers to in my almost two years in Hamilton. In the meantime, I and the thousands of people in this city pushing forward with the "innovation agenda" will continue undaunted, certain that most, if not all, of the right ingredients now exist. We would welcome the Mayor's full support and active participation.

This essay was first published in the June, 2011 issue of Urbanicity.

Keanin is the President and CEO of the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce.


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By Milton Friesen (anonymous) | Posted June 02, 2011 at 11:23:33

You point out important themes in your article. It is generally better to just get at the work, something that innovators do and innovation pundits often don't. I wrote a a piece recently arguing that inspiration may coming in a moment but innovation is much slower and more difficult work.

Cynicism will grow if there is talk without concrete achievement. We need to keep extending our collaboration and build actual things, create culturally rich experiences and works, and foster a flourishing exchange of highly diverse ideas. I can't see that any of that will be quick, easy, or linear. Your article is a welcome contribution.

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By You can't handle the truth (anonymous) | Posted June 02, 2011 at 11:25:40

We sure do have problems in this city, however the question I want to ask is do have we all the players at the table?

I do not think that they are and many do not really want to hear certain segment of the voices. The city hires consultants and such to speak for them and any public forums are also driven by the consultants, where the voices of the people are ignored,

There is no real talk of failed programs, we continue with the same status quo. What are knowledged based, high paying jobs when there are people who have post secondary education and never seen the light of day, with the growth of temp or precarious work.

Are you all planning to leave huge swaths of the population behind?

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By Eric (registered) | Posted June 02, 2011 at 15:32:38

My sense is that when most people talk about innovation they either don't understand it or place little to no value on creating the conditions for it to take place. (By the way, I'm not meaning this to be a criticism of the author of this article. It's simply a general observation.)

Have you ever read Implications of a Systems Perspective for the Study of Creativity by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi? This is the best statement I know of for thinking about the conditions required for the cultivation of creativity. In short, if we're ever going to see a substantial increase in innovation we have to change a number of things in our society. Of those many things, we must for instance begin creativity enhancement programs in all the schools. Alas, this works against the testing mania imperatives of No Child Left Behind. It would also require investing substantial sums in teacher education, when it seems the country would rather invest in a new weapons. It will be resisted by dogmatic and conservative elements in some cases--after all, creativity is often associated with rejection of norms. Unlearning conservative psychological orientations (dogmatism, conventionalism, lack of openness to new experience, etc.) will be a huge uphill battle. And, in addition to the crime of spending money, increasing innovation society-wide requires a long term vision. (Did you know that the Netherlands is currently working with a 200 year out program to reduce carbon emissions? Long horizons like this are a near blasphemy in American society.)

Perhaps the best innovation we can make right now is in learning how to increase innovation. Does our culture have sufficient wisdom and intelligence to do this? I don't know.

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By Imperial (anonymous) | Posted June 02, 2011 at 23:29:35

Solid article Keanin.

I feel the same whenever I hear Minister Glenn Murray speak on creativity. Everyone and their uncle is spouting the power of creativity, the creative economy, and it's exceptional abilities to revitalize neighbourhoods and rebuild communities. I think he's spoken in Hamilton about a half dozen times in the past 5 years with the same clear, and consistent message > invest in culture, creativity and innovation.

Yet the reality of everyday Hamilton rings true.

I've spent the better part of the past 5 years working closely with the City. In some cases the results are encouraging and keep me motivated, in others I walk away confused, discouraged and bewildered by a process and system that seems inherently broken.

Milton has hit it on the head > 'nose to the grindstone and work' must be the mantra of the current innovators and creative professionals. We cannot sit in wait for support from any one source except ourselves.

Yes, continue collaboration, continue reaching out, be inclusive - but by no means can we hope that consistent vision or leadership will come from City Hall alone. Much as you've said - I fully welcome full participation from our Mayor, Council and City staff. Lots of incredible folks in the mix there. I simply won't be waiting on it.

Jeremy Freiburger

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted June 03, 2011 at 19:22:11

If we really want to see "innovation" take our town by storm, then we need to look at why people aren't doing it.

First, there's zoning laws. It's probably illegal to do it in your home, or a business zoned for any other purpose. You would likely need to locate in a properly zoned area a good distance away if you wanted to produce whatever you designed legally.

Second, there's intellectual property laws which govern what we can all produce, and mean that any designer needs to keep legal professionals on hand just in case somebody else has thought of something similar first.

Third, there's the venture capital firms which rule the loan markets seeking to buy up the rights or patents to "the next big thing". They give a few innovators huge amounts of money, which drives up the cost of innovating, but doesn't do anything for most who haven't been "noticed". If someone is noticed, they can expect to have their idea bought before anything interesting happens with them.

And fourth, if you can get by all of this, you must then deal with retail, which is dominated by a few national chains totally uninterested in local suppliers.

Why don't people innovate? Because they're not allowed to. Because it costs far too much. And because "innovation" is a game rigged so that only the 'big boys' can play.

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By misterque (registered) - website | Posted June 09, 2011 at 01:05:26

I think a large part of what is exhausting those of us who actually do innovate is that we have heard all this before. About 12 years ago there was an Innovation Center built at Clappison's Corners. There is even an Innovation Drive that is still there. We heard all the same fan fare, all the same pie eyed prognostications of promise as we do with the Innovation Park. So now there is another Innovation center opening up. So what, the reality is that life is actually much worse for most Hamiltonians after 12 years of innovation. Less jobs, less disposable income, less stable savings, more expensive communications, inaccessible education, more expensive food, more expensive fuel, more expensive rent, lower wages and less benefits.

The point is that innovation is useless as long as the same collection of douche bags are running the show. Since they will not allow any sort of innovation that may impair their bottom line, nothing will change. Innovation should not be just about starting a business and creating another RIM. Innovations like limiting the usury fees of credit card companies, or allowing for true cell phone competition to benefit the consumer, or setting investment standards for internet and wireless that allow Canada to catch up with the entire continent of Asia. If the people that represent us in power cannot manage such things, then using words like innovation is meaningless. Innovation is reduced to two possible things: 1) ways to get more money of out people, 2) cute things that the poor think of to try and get by.

Looking at the sponsors of Innovation Factory it is very unlikely that you will be able to make the world a better place without getting your funding pulled. Innovative Centers of Excellence in Creativity Collaborations are great photo ops and tax breaks for those in power. Nothing for rest of the world. We have seen and heard this all before. And I mean this with all sincerity, good luck.

Comment edited by misterque on 2011-06-09 01:07:09

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By Kiss-Cut (anonymous) | Posted October 26, 2011 at 13:38:58

Canada lands a handful of cities on a global innovation list:

Toronto (#10), Montreal (#31), Vancouver (#49), Quebec (#79), Calgary (#81)


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