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A city of clusters | Why I am bullish on Hamilton’s economy

As the Executive Director of the Innovation Factory, I am always asked about the state of innovation in Hamilton. It’s not hard to get a quote from me talking about how positive the outlook is for Hamilton. In this issue of urbanicity Magazine, I have been given the opportunity to expand on why I am so bullish.

The answer is “clusters”.

Yes, it’s that simple. When you see clusters forming, goodness will follow. Why do so many tech companies start and succeed in Silicon Valley? It’s
not a crazy streak of luck that high tech startups are succeeding there. There is a cluster of tech companies and people who want to work in that space. They gather there because it’s a great place to share ideas, take chances, and launch new companies with a lot of like-minded people. Lots will fail, but some will do great things. If you fail, there is a group of people to support you. Then you move on to your next venture. As outsiders we see the successful companies in the news, but we don’t hear as much about the clusters that support them.

Look at the animal kingdom. Animals cluster. Some species form herds for safety, they flock for endurance, and they gather in packs for the hunt. So when I see clusters forming I take it as a good sign.

What Hamilton clusters do I speak of? To start, look at all the groups being created to build our tech community. Kevin Brown started Software Hamilton in 2011. Today if you attend their events it’s not uncommon to see over a hundred people gathering to watch a demo of some Hamilton-built software and to network over a beer. Kevin’s salary for this role is $0, but living in a strong tech ecosystem as more value to him. Another one, Ladies Learning Code is a national digital literacy initiative for women, and it has a strong Hamilton group. There are meet-ups for Start-up Drinks, Freelancers, and spaces dedicated to clustering like ThinkHaus. We have a lot of people who could be dedicating 100% of their time to being personally successful. Instead, they choose to contribute a part of their time building a stronger ecosystem.

Forming clusters is making Hamilton stronger. When I started at the Innovation Factory, the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce had just released a report recommending our Life Sciences companies form a cluster. We are in the early days of this initiative, which involves Mohawk College, McMaster University, St. Joseph’s Health Care and Hamilton Health Sciences. Eventually, we can draw out every company in the life science space to participate. Even so, I have already seen early successes in the projects that connected  the members of that group to each other. So why do people want to cluster here in Hamilton? Why not find an existing cluster in another city, or in the United States? Hamilton offers a great quality of life. Groups have also clustered around music, the arts, food and other things that create a rich cultural diversity. We celebrate this in events like Art Crawl, or Supercrawl. As a small city, our clusters overlap. Technology, music, art, and food. You will find all these groups cross-pollinated with some of the same people.

We have a lot of great economic clusters that overlap with the arts clusters. We could stop there and the results would be impressive. It turns out we have the same enthusiasm on social issues.

Last summer I was invited to speak at HiveX, a conference put on by the Hamilton Hive. If you are not familiar with it, the Hamilton Hive is a local young professional’s network. While I was thinking about that presentation I was struck with the diversity of problems this conference was tackling. It really highlighted to me how much this city clusters. There is a group tackling everything. This was a professional conference on a Saturday. Who comes out on a Saturday dressed for business? It turns out a lot of people. During the day, they listened to presentations on urban renewal, social innovation, and a variety of top- ics. It wasn’t a “sit and listen” conference. It was a roll-up- your-sleeves, join-a-team, and plan-what-you-are-going- to-do-when-you-leave conference. It was unbelievable that a group of people that could be focused on building their careers were carving out significant amounts of time to form groups and solve bigger issues.

So how are you going to change Hamilton? You alone are not. You are going to gather a group of like-minded people and tackle the problem as a cluster.

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