TORONTO

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne made an impassioned call for confidence over complacency as the province moves to a knowledge-based economy, urging the private sector to keep pushing alongside governments during the transition.

“The truth is, right now, we have all the pieces needed to realize our vision and to lead in the new global economy, but the question is, do we have what it takes to put the pieces into play?” Wynne told delegates at the CityAge conference in Toronto.

“We’ve built the foundation for knowledge-based growth, and we need to feel confident about that. We can’t be complacent.”

The two-day conference, attended by more than 200 decision-makers in business, government and academia, shone a light on the challenges and opportunities facing cities – specifically, city-regions such as Toronto-Waterloo – as the economy becomes increasingly focused on innovation, connectivity and rapid change.

It was Wynne’s second appearance at CityAge, which was held in Waterloo last year. To underscore the nascent effort to better unite the province’s key technology hubs into a global-scale corridor or “supercluster,” the conference was held at Toronto’s MaRS Discovery District this time.

Topics ranged from smart-city technology and talent to the role of universities and the importance of place-making in building cities equipped for the new economy.

The most prominent issue, however, was the need for better transportation connections between Toronto and Waterloo Region, which a growing chorus of tech companies, community leaders and elected officials have been pointing out. The traffic-clogged Highway 401 and the lack of two-way and more-rapid rail transit came up several times during the conference, most notably on Thursday, when Toronto Mayor John Tory and Kitchener Mayor Berry Vrbanovic spoke out jointly in an interview with Communitech News.

The Premier acknowledged that infrastructure “is still an Achilles heel for us,” and pointed to decades of government underfunding of it. “For decades, we collectively – and this isn’t a partisan comment – we fell behind; we didn’t make those long-term investments that we needed to be making.”

Governments need to play a more effective and innovative role in enabling growth and opportunity in the private sector, Wynne added.

“We can’t do that by keeping on doing the same things and expecting different results,” she said. “More than that, government needs to lead with a vision and back it up with long-term, patient public financing that rallies the private sector around that vision.”

To that end, Ontario has earmarked more than $130 billion for infrastructure improvements over the next 10 years, including $16 billion for mobility in Greater Toronto and Hamilton. It includes improvements to GO train service, by electrifying four sections of track on five rail lines, “so that faster trains can run more frequently, as frequently as every 15 minutes in both directions all day,” Wynne said.

To help pay for it, the province is privatizing its massive power utility, Hydro One, which Wynne cited as a difficult but necessary move to build “the next generation of productive public assets – the modern transit this region so desperately needs – to attract top talent, move people faster and seize its supercluster reputation.”

In a talk at the outset of the conference on Thursday, BMO Financial Group Vice Chair Kevin Lynch also focused on the changing economy, citing “two realities” in Canada today: “One is an unprecedented rate of change in the world that we live in, and the second is, we’re facing an unprecedented slowdown in our structural growth right now.”

Innovation and technology are at the core of both phenomena, Lynch said, as both a driver of the economic change he referred to, and as a big part of the solution to the growth problem. But Canada will need to rectify its laggardly performance among the world’s innovation leaders if it hopes to turn things around.

“The question for us in Canada is, are we ready to be a disruptor, or are we going to be amongst the disrupted? It’s kind of a binary choice,” said Lynch, who is a member of Communitech’s board (Communitech is also a CityAge sponsor).

The answer will be painfully clear if business and government continue to cling to past practices and fail to seize the potential the innovation economy holds, particularly in the talent-and-knowledge-rich Toronto-Waterloo corridor. We have the ingredients, Lynch said; what we need is the recipe.

“I think the biggest risk today is the status quo,” he said. “In times of change, you cling to what you know, and that’s the worst decision.”