Prajapati: Can tech thrive outside major cities?

Illustration by Frank Neufeld

Canada boasts a special relationship with small cities and towns, and without them, Canada wouldn’t be the country it is today. After big industries sprinkled factories across Canadian small towns, Canadians flocked to these places that represented the opportunity to live the “Canadian dream.” But now some of these smaller centres do not offer the same opportunity.

Canadian small towns and cities are starting to feel the ramifications of a globalized economy with industries like manufacturing packing up shop. The larger city centres now represent the new Canadian dream, one dominated by knowledge dissemination, tech startups and social enterprises. For many people it was clear that if you wanted a piece of the action, Toronto, Vancouver or Montreal were the only destinations to consider.

Are smaller, regional centres relevant in the age of Internet companies?

Yes, but not without challenges.

The Kitchener-Waterloo region serves as the perfect example of a place outside the major cities that leveraged talent and its local partners like the University of Waterloo to create a vibrant tech hub dubbed ‘Silicon Valley North.’ Even without Blackberry’s sizable footprint, companies across the KW region are flourishing.

But smaller cities and towns have to tackle several obstacles that hinder the potential of their economic development for tech companies. First, they have to deal with ‘talent deserts’ where eager individuals who want to start a business or join a startup may have to leave the area as better opportunities reside in the cities.

As well, residents who aspire to start a business in these smaller centres may be unable because they lack the resources and guidance needed. Most small towns don’t have incubators, business development centres or even a proper network to foster that business. Also, some may not want to leave their small towns because of their strong ties to it. Thus, they might be discouraged to start their enterprise or move to other cities.

This issue is twofold: Small towns find it difficult to attract or retain talent because larger cities offer more opportunities and, at the same time, they may not be able to support startups because of a lack of resources available to help companies, where even one successful company would increase chances of a small town succeeding in the long run.

There is no clear quick fix but some are trying to make a difference, like Stratford. The Ontario city has made impressive strides to secure its economic future by rallying to get a satellite campus for the University of Waterloo built. The focus of the campus will be digital media and information technology. The satellite campus also has an accelerator to help companies grow. Since the University of Waterloo has an impressive track record with startups, Stratford is aiming to benefit.

Better yet, Stratford already has several international accolades: one for its famous culture of support for the creative and performance arts, and more recently Stratford has been improving technological infrastructure and wireless access in its efforts to become a ‘smart city.’ Stratford is well positioned to be an influential force among other Canadian startup ecosystems.

Stratford isn’t the only regional centre attempting to benefit from tech companies and startups. Picton, Ont., has been making its own efforts to bring startups to their town and has recently managed to secure a $10-million fund to help finance early-stage companies. Picton already has a success story where one startup they provided seed capital for was acquired.

What’s more is that supporting startups just might bring back lost industries like manufacturing. The $35 microcomputer from the Raspberry Pi Foundation is now being manufactured in the U.K. They worked hard to transition manufacturing from China to Wales to support the local economy. Imagine retooling older small-town factories that were once producing automotive parts to build circuit boards with the phrase ‘Made in Canada’ on computers for kids to learn programming.

I’m confident that with the right strategy, policies and leadership, a small town can be equally vibrant as its city counterparts by harbouring any number of companies for the digital age and once again represent opportunity for those seeking the ‘Canadian dream.’

Bhavin Prajapati is a growth hacker at Crowdbabble, a social media analytics company providing a platform for marketers. He is an alumnus of the Masters in Health Information Science program and a former member of the university Senate (2013-14). This column originally appeared in The Globe and Mail.