If you’re not a denizen of Ontario, you could be forgiven for not having any clue where the city of Innisfil is located. The quintessential Canadian small town, Innisfil is located about an hour north of Toronto in the middle of cottage country. While that might conjure up mental images of rolling golf courses and picturesque lake views, Innisfil has a secret: it wants to become a high-tech city of the future.
“I think there are so many entrepreneurial stories that exist outside of big cities.”
– Takara Small
Merging cutting-edge innovation with a rural landscape seems like a lofty goal for a town with a population of just under 40,000. But Innisfil has taken significant steps, launching its own accelerator, DMZ Innisfil, and developing The Orbit, which it calls “a modern high-density city plan of the future.” Innisfil might offer the charms of small-town life, but it also uses Uber for public transportation and accepts cryptocurrency for property tax payments.
Innisfil’s “underdog story” caught the eye of Toronto-based technology reporter and entrepreneur Takara Small. Conversations led to collaboration on a new podcast series, Tech Town, exploring Innisfil’s future aspirations.
BetaKit recently had the chance to chat with Small about the Tech Town podcast, the ripple effects of COVID-19, and why hiring for diversity and inclusivity in tech is especially important for small towns.
What motivated you to want to produce a podcast about a small town wanting to become a tech town?
I just thought that it was a really interesting story. The idea resonated with me because I think there are so many entrepreneurial stories that exist outside of big cities. I’m really interested in talking to entrepreneurs, and not just those who live in Toronto or major cities.
Through the podcast episodes you’ve produced for Tech Town, what’s the most surprising thing you learned about Innisfil and their approach?
The most interesting thing is that they’re partnering with organizations that are outside of the town. I found that really surprising.
Initially, when I was going to do my background on the town, its accelerator program, the entrepreneurial programs – I thought they were just going to focus on bringing entrepreneurs to the town, and everything would be kept completely within Innisfil and the resources there. But then I realized that they’re working with people and organizations that are outside, and really trying to bridge the gap between rural and cities.
I mentioned [on the podcast] Ryerson University and how they’re working with them, but it’s just the idea that it’s not an isolated initiative in Innisfil. They’re trying to bring in as many big players as they possibly can.
What do you think is the biggest challenge for towns like Innisfil to attract innovation?
Honestly, I think COVID-19 is going to be one of the biggest issues, simply because a lot of people would have been able to just drive to Innisfil to see the town and the space they have. They have a physical space they created just for entrepreneurs and for startups to thrive and grow.
It’s easy to dismiss small towns because you don’t know what resources they have, or what talent they have. But all of those fears can be assuaged when you actually go there. So I really do think COVID-19 is a challenge not only for entrepreneurs, but also for small towns that are jumping into the entrepreneurial field.
Do you think towns like Innisfil might benefit as more tech people are working remotely and looking at moving away from bigger cities due to COVID?
I think a lot of towns and communities outside of Toronto are going to benefit. I was just reading the other day about how the price of homes in Hamilton has skyrocketed! (laughs) I have a lot of friends who decided to move to Hamilton because they couldn’t afford real estate in Toronto.
So I think with this new world we’re living in, and with everyone trying to cope as best they possibly can, you’re going to see a lot of entrepreneurs and innovators go where they can afford to be. And I think it’s really important for those entrepreneurs and innovators to have big ideas, and to go where they feel welcome.
Do you think small towns looking to be tech hubs should pattern themselves off what the bigger cities are doing, or should they focus on forging their own path?
I think it’s definitely the latter. Small towns and small communities need to be innovative and create their own roadmap for success. I don’t believe imitating or copying what other big hubs are doing is necessarily going to serve them well, because they don’t have the same number of people or the same resources. They have to be very scrappy, so I think creating their own path is really important.
I also think small towns need to be open to diversity and inclusivity. There are so many newcomers to Canada – especially with the Startup Visa program – who can be huge job creators. They have so much talent and so much bandwidth. They’re eager and excited and they have a lot to give. I think small towns can benefit from diverse perspectives – from people of colour, from all kinds of newcomers. So to answer your question, I don’t think small towns should feel like they have to follow any roadmap that the big cities have, because things are different now – especially with COVID-19.
Do you think it can be difficult to get small-town residents on the same page when it comes to implementing high-tech strategies? Do they need extra convincing?
While we were doing the Innisfil podcast, one of the interesting things I kept hearing from people was the fact that they realized if they didn’t change things and if they weren’t innovative, they weren’t sure what would happen in the future. And I think that drive to ensure that the town – or any town – continues to succeed is really important.
It kind of goes back to what I was saying in the previous question, but the future of a lot of jobs and opportunities are being increasingly located in the tech sector. So, towns see that if they want to continue to have taxes that pay for roads and other services, they have to think outside the box. And as a person of colour, I think there are so many opportunities, and any Canadian town should think about what they can offer.