Waterloo Region’s LRT: the debate that won’t end

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The Region of Waterloo is undergoing a major public works project that will place Light Rail Transit along the core of two of the major municipalities in the Region: Kitchener and Waterloo. This ambitious project is being sold as an important infrastructure project for the future of a rapidly growing and exciting place to live. I support the idea of it. I see the long term benefits and I think it will help build a better city.

Sadly, even after a decision was made the debate goes on. It will be a highlight of the upcoming municipal election which I fear could get some people elected based on the public’s feeling on a particular issue that will be oversimplified and placed into sound bites. LRT is so much bigger than an election cycle or two.

I think there is complex set of reasons why this argument will not end but these are my three big ones:

  1. Population density and how/why people use their cars is a big risk that is being brushed over. The “field of dreams” argument (build it and they will come) can not be a suitable response! Explain it to people in how they get around now and how it will be better. If you can’t there is a problem! Figure out how to manage the problem.
  2. If you oppose it or question it openly you are shouted down as being against “the future.” When a young community leader spoke up at council they tried to discredit him instead of discussing his main point that people won’t switch to transit from cars. What are they so worried about? Engage these people and their different views. Adapt! It will make it better.
  3. A very dynamic and flexible leadership group is needed to ensure the plan can adapt to future realities. One example, it might make more sense to place the GO train in Cambridge. The LRT doesn’t get there and a transportation hub is planned for Kitchener — what if you can’t likely have a 1 hour train on that line for 20 years but you can next year in Cambridge?

There needs to be less storytelling and more practicality in the discussions. Good leadership tells it like it is and deals with issues head on. This community needs to take on the issues like the crippled transportation infrastructure with Toronto and not sweep potential risks out of view with idealistic statements of what they hope will happen. Also, there needs to be a larger theme of a walkable city that isn’t just about tech startups but involves the future of recreation, manufacturing jobs (because the discussion can’t ignore the largest employment sector in the region), research, and retail. Make this future more inclusive.

Lets talk big. Talk positive. Include the young leaders and diverse economy into the discussion!

Otherwise, I fear, something that could be so positive for the Region, the Province, and the country might not become a reality.

 

The VeloCity workspace

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Yesterday on the VeloCity blog I announced the VeloCity workspace at the Communitech Hub. It is, to me, a piece that has missing at VeloCity as we have tried to do an awful lot in what is a residential building but what you can’t do is work as part of the startup community locally. The University of Waterloo campus is just too isolated with the way parking is and its size to try and have a space that is open to the community for various events and collaboration. When you add the cost of living in residence and housing rules that require you to be a current full time student (all understandable and reasonable) there was a clear need to have a ‘next step’ space for students that have other living arrangements and recent grads of the University.

Currently there is no better place to be than in the new Communitech Hub in Kitchener. With bigger companies like Desire2Learn (founded by a uwaterloo grad) and Google as well as smaller companies like DossierView in Tannery space along with the partner organizations within the Hub itself, it is a good opportunity to be in the middle of the best that the Waterloo Region has to offer. Plus I get to work with the Accelerator Centre and Communitech, something I love doing as they are both organizations that have climbed a big learning curve and are now really influencing the services offered to companies across Canada.

This is a fluid experiment and I am assuming certain details of how we run the space will change but it is really exciting to try. What I do know is that a similar space at Ryerson (the Digital Media Zone) is a success with a load of startups working away in a gorgeous space in downtown Toronto. VeloCity and the DMZ are working closely together to develop this new model for an incubator type service inside higher education which is also something I am excited about. My hope is that we can get more Universities and Colleges working with us but time will tell.

What I see as our big challenges going into this are:

  • Cost of the space and covering the costs of the services — current guestimates place this kind of service for very early stage startups at around $1000 a month per startup. Our costs aren’t that but I will need to keep an eye on it. Certainly we do not have anywhere close to the same staffing level as Ryerson and I am not sure we need to but we do need more help to keep things moving. That will increase our cost.
  • What does success look like? With the residence I am still not sure what success is. I know it isn’t having a startup launch out of the residence into the real world and it is more important to build a strong bond between future co-founders but I will need to work on that. With the workspace it could very well be measured by the number of startups that find some revenue.
  • What are we missing? I try not to let this drive me nuts but I am constantly trying to find the gaps in what we are doing and ensure we stay focused on what are core mission is. That means saying no sometimes but a lot of the time the ‘no’ is because we just don’t have the staff to work with certain groups. Need to tackle point one above.

In a few months I will find new challenges and see if what I think are important problems really are. This is pretty exciting! Any questions, just ask. I aim to be as open as I possibly can about this whole thing ;)

Did marketing drive the coming meltdown in higher ed?

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Seth Godin has an interesting post, The coming melt-down in higher education (as seen by a marketer), where he focuses pretty strongly on the games being played in higher education to attract students and justify the huge relative increase in the cost of higher ed. Four of his five points are what everyone sees and I tend to agree. The marketing material designed to push people to apply and then (in the US) the more applications you reject the higher your rankings feeds back into the marketing material. I think that is a bit of a over-simplification of rankings but I completely agree the rankings game is one big driver of the madness in marketing.

His point on accreditation (his fifth point) has a big hole in it but there is something to this:

Back before the digital revolution, access to information was an issue. The size of the library mattered. One reason to go to college was to get access. Today, that access is worth a lot less. The valuable things people take away from college are interactions with great minds (usually professors who actually teach and actually care) and non-class activities that shape them as people. The question I’d ask: is the money that mass-marketing colleges are spending on marketing themselves and scaling themselves well spent? Are they organizing for changing lives or for ranking high? Does NYU have to get so much bigger? Why?

The access to the information might not be the value of higher education anymore but learning how to make proper sense of that information and evaluate it properly certainly is something that is very hard to learn outside of higher education. In addition to that, creating new high quality information is something academics are born to do. Certainly a lot of it is noise but nothing like the noise that I am contributing to with this blog post*. The other part, does an institution need to get bigger? Yes. But only if it is growing to build its research and commercialization activities in my mind.

For those that don’t get why we need higher ed, it comes down to who you want to rely on doing your research and driving our society in the future. Currently companies like IBM, Microsoft, Dow, 3M, etc are doing all the research in closed environments with profit as their motivation. Higher education institutions have tried to keep pace but the facilities are expensive and the space required is hard to come by for labs. Most research in higher education is open (once published) with a clear way for people to replicate the results (in Science at least). Engineers take the science, add a bit of their own, and put things together. Arts looks and how people interact with it. With marketing folks and MBAs (with the best intentions) driving the fix for the money/space problem by attracting more students the priorities of the institution appeared to have lost their way.

I agree with Seth Godin but I think a meltdown is a tad dramatic. I can see a shift back towards research and experience in Ontario at the very least. There is a recognition that the experience is what students are looking for and the research (along with commercialization of some research) is what could generate the revenue instead of tuition increases.

Like a recession, by the time you identify it you are already in the middle of it. A shift is happening, not a meltdown, but I think how much power/influence marketing folks have on the institution will diminish and the emphasis will go to the story tellers that share what value and experience really is in higher ed.

*yes there are lots of generalizations in here but I am not writing a research paper ;)