The Spaces Between Us

Note: This is the first in a series meant to inform our municipal election. I’m not running for office myself, so I’ve created an “Open Source” political platform to help form consensus for the next four years – and beyond – in London, Ontario.

The Spaces Between Us – Part I: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

My job affords me the truly astounding privilege of some unique insights into our community, and among those insights is the opportunity to witness firsthand the sort of awesome talent in digital media and content creation that our city’s institutions of higher education – specifically Western and Fanshawe – are able to produce. During my time at EK3, and in my current position, I’ve reviewed some truly remarkable portfolios, and been profoundly inspired by what I’ve seen.

So when, a few years back, I was invited to a personal tour of our Province’s premiere digital media incubator – nGen – I happily made the drive across an Ontario not yet recovered from the ravages of Winter to visit Jeff Chesebrough at the next-generation facility he’d founded.

Jeff toured me around the state-of-the-art building, showing me millions of dollars in digital and interactive media creation tools: professional digital film edit bays, Hollywood-calibre visual effects workstations, two $50,000 RED camera kits, rapid prototyping industrial 3D printers, and the most advanced 3D motion capture studio on the East Coast of North America – all available to everyone in Canada at aggressively competitive rental rates.

Where was this marvellous facility? Toronto? Kitchener-Waterloo? Ottawa?

It’s in St. Catharines.

“We knew we had a ‘if we build it they will come’ situation here, and where we located was less important than what we provided access to” Jeff said in his office after the tour.

“See, people in Toronto, they don’t see us as St. Catharines, London, K-W,” Jeff continued, his gliding hands pointing to an imaginary map in the space between us above his desk. “They see us as the rest of Ontario.”

His arms went wide – inclusive. “And Montreal or Halifax? They don’t see us as Toronto, St. Catharines, London. They see us as ‘Ontario’, and BC sees us all as Eastern Canada, and the US sees all of us as Canada, and Europe sees us as North America, and so on and so on.”

I suddenly saw what he meant: If Canada is to take full advantage of the global supply chain of innovative manufacturing and digital media creation that has rapidly grown to our doorstep, we need to match the awesome talent coming out of our schools with the best-in-class physical tools, resources, knowledge and opportunities that are being developed around the World.

Yet without the ability to easily, affordably, and frequently access those facilities, plus the other people and ideas it obviously attracts, many of us (and right now I mean London) will be excluded from the opportunities that are being created there.

Some folks have proposed that we focus on locally replicating commercialization and incubation centres – across a variety of sectors and industry – using a ‘Made in London’ philosophy to tailor each facility to our needs. The challenge I see with this approach is two-fold: first, unlike the nGen philosophy of inclusion, I believe this strategy would serve to isolate London from national and global opportunities by creating a competitive bias; and second, it’s unrealistic and fiscally impossible to replicate all of these centres here in London.

To find the answer, I find myself echoing the sentiments of Kevin Kelly, who has famously suggested that “Access is better than ownership,” and that we are moving towards a time when owning something – even as a municipality – is less desirable than gaining access to that thing.

Yet, try to book a train or a bus ticket to St. Catharines and you’ll find that your only options take hours (the Greyhound bus trip is 5 hours each way, Via doesn’t offer an option), so, realistically, the only option is to drive, which ends up excluding many of the very talented young (and not so young) people that could benefit most from the nGen media incubator.

So following up on a brilliant idea and campaign created and executed by Kadie Ward over at Build Strong Cities: What if we connect our community to the rest of Ontario and Canada with affordable, convenient rail and public transit (bus) to access all of the world-class facilities and opportunities in our Province? The secondary benefit to this plan is we would also end up providing the World with access to the one-of-a-kind resources (some of which are chronicled here) that we are so proud to host in our City.

For the first part of my open source civic platform, I propose that the next council make it a priority to work with the Province and the Feds to build a regional public transit hub – with London at its centre – that would employ rapid rail and bus service to connect our region’s talent, skills, and ideas to the facilities, resources, innovations and jobs that exist only a few hours away. In turn, we can open our doors to a World of opportunities, because when it comes to so many facilities and World-class resources, ‘we’ in London have already ‘built it’, now we need to help ‘them’ come here to access it.

In my next post, I’ll talk about a conversation I had with a colleague about 8 years ago, and why his – again – brilliant and simple idea makes more sense today than it did back then.

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