Prosperity Council of Waterloo Region: Task Force on Creative Enterprise

Earlier today, a much heralded conference took on the heady task of defining the future cultural landscape of the Waterloo area. Called “Creative Dimensions in Prosperity”, it was a major milestone for the Prosperity Council of Waterloo Region which is an initiative of Communitech, Canada’s Technology Triangle and the Chambers of Kitchener/Waterloo and Cambridge.

Over the last few decades, the Waterloo area has, quietly but spectacularly, taken a quantum leap in economic stature and quality of life by:

  • leading the charge with a world class technology cluster with companies like Google, RIM, COM DEV, Open Text, Descartes, Dalsa, Desire2Learn, MKS and Christie Digital;
  • investing heavily in post-secondary education  at University of Waterloo, Wilfrid Laurier University, University of Guelph and Conestoga College, not to mention the new life sciences campus and major research parks in Waterloo and Guelph;
  • delivering over $300 million in capital spending on healthcare (which was admittedly catch up for past under-investment), including the Grand River Regional Cancer Centre, St. Mary’s Regional Cardiac Centre and Mental Health Centre and
  • development of major public institutions such as Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, The Centre for International Governance Innovation and the Balsillie School of International Affairs.

It is in this context that we are overdue for a strategy, driven by significant injections of capital investment, to move our creative (artistic and cultural) sector to the next level as well. The conference was both about educating community leaders on what this entails, but more importantly setting the wheels in motion to make it happen. For me, personally, harnessing the entrepreneurial energy of our Region more strongly to our arts and culture sector is an exciting prospect, indeed. With about 150 invited  community leaders, it was a good size to balance influence with the efficiency of achieving real, tangible results.

The format, which mixed presentations of research into other model communities with small group workshops sandwiched between a number of local and national keynotes, was quite effective. I kept notes in the millenial way, namely by propagating some of the key comments and concepts out to the Twittosphere. Thus, here are a few observations of the speakers, which of course don’t begin to capture the knowledge and energy at Whistle Bear.

Gerry Remers, CEO of Christie Digital, kicked things off with his thoughtful and energetic take on:

  • “intersections of arts and business”
  • “profound arts experience that can turn even Conservatives into human beings?”, then went on to
  • “… contrast known arts investment multiplier effect with contentious $45 Million Tory arts spending cuts”
  • He proudly talked about the “Christie Digital sale of 150 projectors to IOC for Beijing Olympics – a $6.5 million deal!”
  • although we pat ourselves on the back, in truth “… Waterloo Region still has underdeveloped arts and culture sector”

Gerry, in particular, was a great choice both because of his personal passion and global knowledge in this area, but also because his company, Christie Digital, is an excellent exemplar to the audience, positioned as it is right on the boundary of the high-tech for profit area and the creative industries.

One of the two consultants, Janet Meredith, talked about 7 different “model” communities, including Austin, Calgary, Denver, Dublin, Edmonton, Glasgow and Portland. One observation was that there is “stiff competition for top talent. Creative community values are a key differentiater in winning this battle.  Waterloo needs to look at other global creative clusters for inspiration”. The other consultant, Liz Westerfield, mentioned that “… Denver Art Gallery gets $5 million annually from city sales tax levy”, out of an approximate total payout of $40 million per annum, funded by a 0.1% city sales tax.

During a panel, co-chair Tim Jackson made the significant observation that “arts underfunding leaves no latitude to innovate, take risks or make mistakes.” Like the for profit sector, risk taking and competition are key to a vibrant arts and culture ecosystem.

After the breakouts and lunch, William Thorsell, CEO of the Royal Ontario Museum, gave an insightful keynote delivered with the voice of deep experience in exactly what our own initiative needs to achieve. As such, he outlined how in a very short window of time, Toronto has invested in 10 arts and culture megaprojects, totalling $1.5 billion, including Royal Ontario Museum, Art Gallery of Ontario, Four Seasons Opera Centre, etc.

  • He councilled the group to clearly understand their strategic antecedents, surprisingly citing that the southern “German car cluster (BMW & Mercedes) only happened there because of Roman occupation 2000 years ago.”
  • Strongly reinforced the notion that “competition in philanthropy is a key success factor” which helped the audience underestand the dynamic betwen having loads of “bottom up” initiatives balanced with a strong top down strategy. Perhaps because of its existing size and stature, there seemed little need to have an overall strategy driving the 10 Toronto Arts and Culture megaprojects.

David Johnston, President of University of Waterloo (aka “Mr. Book”) gave a learned and inspiring talk providing both historical context and insights to help us shape the parameters of today’s discussion:

  • David noted that to “prosper is to grow well (thoughts on name Prosperity council)”
  • “individuals do make a difference and leadership is key to building the future”,
  • So much so, in fact, that the best results happen when there is a “cluster effect of great leaders working with other great leaders to make eagles soar”
  • David defined “Social Capital as intelligent people interacting with each other”

Overall, it was a great agenda. Kudos to the organizers for the wisdom to balance education with initiative. This is definitely a “big tent” strategic agenda. It will take time, leadership, competition and, above all, major investment to bring it about. It speaks volumes about the entrepreneurial spirit of our Region that we are even considering embarking upon this journey.