Photo: An explosion in tech startup activity is bringing change to Waterloo Region’s urban heart, with much of the change focused in downtown Kitchener.

These early days of 2014 have me thinking about change – how much we’ve seen in the past year, and what’s in store in the 12 months ahead.

While specific predictions are a bit of a mug’s game, there’s no doubt we’ll be looking at a different landscape again a year from now.

Tech entrepreneurs know this inherently. Change, after all, is the universal currency of the innovation economy; something to be chased, not evaded.

In the Waterloo Region ecosystem, it’s been a high-speed pursuit, with explosive growth in startup activity, global players setting up new operations, expansion at many of our established companies and rebuilding at others.

All this activity is, in turn, changing the face of the broader community, most visibly in the region’s urban heart, where innovative entrepreneurs have been flocking.

Locals with long memories (translation: old folks like me) will recall that this heart was in dire need of a defibrillator just a decade and a half ago. Big old factories – the Tannery, Breithaupt Block and Kaufman Footwear, most notably – sat dormant or doomed, shops were shuttered and street fights after last call were among the few signs of life downtown.

The region’s tech sector was active and growing even then, but less conspicuously, almost exclusively in low-slung, suburban-style buildings outside the core.

Much activity remains there today, but there’s been a big change: The startup explosion, demographics and evolving preferences have brought an increasing amount of tech activity downtown, adding fresh tissue and new blood to that old heart.

The Tannery is teeming with innovative bustle, anchored by the Communitech Hub, the University of Waterloo VeloCity Garage, Google and Desire2Learn. The Breithaupt Block is similarly abuzz, and home to new development offices for Square and Motorola. The Kaufman building, arguably the catalyst development for much of what’s happened since, is filled with loft tenants, many of whom work in the tech sector.

The activity is quickly spreading well beyond these locations into other core buildings, such as 305 King St. W. (TribeHR, Sweet Tooth, Industry Corp., MappedIn), the Simpson Block (Vidyard, Embium) and 24 Charles St. W., the former off-track betting lounge that is now home to Thalmic Labs.

These aren’t the only examples, and there will surely be more.

The point is that it’s having a lot of impact in a fairly short period of time – on where people want to live, on how they want to get around, on what they do in their spare time.

And it’s not just happening here. All across North America, urban cores are attracting entrepreneurs and young knowledge workers who aren’t interested in the suburban lifestyles of their parents’ generation, at least not yet.

“Cities and firms that ignore these trends risk alienating both their workers and their communities,” Bruce Katz of the U.S.-based Brookings Institution wrote in a recent piece for LinkedIn’s big ideas series, titled, Goodbye Silicon Valley, Hello Silicon Cities.

“Young professionals are starting families later and, in the meantime, demanding a vibrant street life, historic neighborhoods, and public transit,” Katz wrote. “At the same time, our open, innovative economy craves proximity and extols integration, where knowledge can be transferred seamlessly between, within and across clusters, firms, workers and supporting institutions.”

If you walk from the Tannery and head to King Street in downtown Kitchener, you’ll encounter signs of all these things, from funky new eateries, to infill housing development, to preparatory work for the region’s new light rail transit project.

Modern, efficient transit is a key component in providing urban tech hubs with talented young workers, many of whom aren’t interested in the cost and hassle of driving, maintaining and parking a car – even when they can afford it.

Many are going one better by moving into downtown homes so close to their offices that they don’t need transit at all, because they walk to work. They include CEOs, and not just employees, at some of our most promising startups.

At the same time, efforts are now under way to better connect our evolving hub to Toronto’s tech community, to form a southern Ontario supercluster – an effort sure to pick up momentum in the months ahead.

Just as its component tech hubs are helping to transform their local communities, a supercluster will necessarily mean change for this part of the province, and all the challenges that come with it.

How it’ll all look a year from now may be anyone’s guess. Municipal elections on Oct. 27 will bring fresh faces and ideas to the table here and across Ontario. Still, one thing is certain: The only way to manage change is to embrace it.

So, grab hold and enjoy the ride.

Anthony Reinhart is Communitech’s Director of Editorial Strategy and senior staff writer. View from the ‘Loo is a weekly look at the issues, people and events that shape Waterloo Region’s technology sector.

About The Author

Anthony Reinhart
Director, Editorial Strategy
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Anthony Reinhart is a veteran journalist who left the Globe and Mail to join Communitech in 2011. Tony has covered everything from crime, politics and courts to business, the arts and sports, and his writing has won numerous journalism awards. He is Communitech's Director of Editorial Strategy and senior staff writer.