The Foundation at Waterloo

Foundation at Waterloo
Article I wrote nearly 4 years ago about how I think Waterloo became Canada’s Silicon Valley. Kind of dramatic at first but read on. I’m thinking a lot about this kind of stuff these days after finding out more and more about the perilous economic situation Alberta and Canada as a whole are in. We must #HACKSTAPLETHESIS !
October 2014
Southwestern Ontario is a post-industrial wasteland. I’m saying this not only because I am a true-blue Albertan; it’s also because I have seen the decaying remnants of the once proud industrial core of our fair country. I have seen the festering outer suburbs of London, the has-been port of Owen Sound, and Windsor, the provincial frontier only comparatively-less-tragic than its sister-city-across-the-river. My second-year stint of living in what was then a near-anarchic downtown Kitchener helped me feel the pain of what I read in the headlines about the province’s troubling financial situation.
But even as a have-not province, Ontario is still functional. It simply shows signs of collapse – a phase in the existence of all systems. Collapse usually occurs when a system complexifies to a point where it can’t gather enough energy to sustain itself. The system becomes so highly interconnected and tightly wound that it is not resilient to outside shocks. The old-growth forest succumbs to a rapidly spreading disease, or is reduced to ash by fire. In Ontario’ case, an economic system based on industrial mass-production can no longer support a continually growing standard of living for its workers, or a competitor from abroad with a more efficient operational paradigm leaves it in the dust.
But collapse is not an end. It is a beginning. Nothing stays the same. If the building blocks of growth are sustained, then systems will grow and complexify again. The clearing of an old growth forest makes room for new seeds to emerge from the nourished soil. Even if all of society in southwestern Ontario fell apart, not just some sectors of its once juggernaut economy, something new would eventually appear. But when? And what?
In 1952, while uWaterloo was still just a twinkle in its founders’ eyes, the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov published a novel, Foundation. It is the story of the collapse of a great Galactic Empire, a slow decay towards a dark age of 30 000 years. A mathematician named Hari Seldon develops psychohistory, a field that integrates psychology and science that allows for the broad prediction of future events. Psychohistory indicates an upcoming dark age, so Seldon proposes a plan that would reduce its length to only one millennium. The idea is to form a team of the galaxy’s brightest minds who will compile all of human knowledge. In isolation on a planet in the far end of the galaxy, they will work to produce the Encyclopaedia Galactica. The population of this planet evolves and grows over time beyond its original purpose to eventually form a society different in form but on par in impact as the galactic empire it supplants.
You may see where I’m going here. The University of Waterloo is to southwestern Ontario as Foundation is to the Galactic Empire. In the height of the Post-war economic boom, the founders of our University most probably did not have this remotely in mind.  I don’t believe they were thinking about the end of an unprecedented era of human prosperity as they started a technically focused institution with an unconventional co-operative education component in a thriving industrial town in Mennonite country. Serendipitously, the right things lined up, and the right ideas were incubated.
Without the University of Waterloo, I very much doubt that this city would be the tech hub it is – the shining counter-example for any dreary headline about Ontario. Waterloo, and the community spirit of banding together and asking “why not?” for which the University is an anchor, has largely avoided a dark age of dreary post-industrialism by creating a new age of technological innovation with a different set of growth assumptions. An entire world market for personal communications devices was literally created here by RIM. Even the decline of Blackberry represents a new internal cycle of growth. The tech-juggernauts of tomorrow rise from the ashes, able to tap into a bigger share of the co-op pie once consumed by Research in Motion.
Our university is also a mechanism to create new Foundations. Places with innovative approaches to knowledge have been created in other unlikely locations: the Cambridge Architecture campus, the Stratford Digital Arts Campus and the Huntsville Environmental Campus. Even on main campus we have groups like St. Paul’s GreenHouse, Velocity and WPIRG that constantly challenge the prevailing assumptions of the university and generate new possible futures. Regeneration seems to be so deeply ingrained in the culture of this university that the formation of new internal institutions and attraction of community members who think differently is constant over generations. The fulfillment of the original tacit mandate is perpetuated. A fortunate virtuous cycle indeed.
The gentrification of Waterloo influence by uWaterloo creeps south. Central Kitchener is a case-study of urban revitalization very much visible to any undergraduate who, over the course of their four or five years here, has been daring enough to venture across the threshold of Union Street. The reorganization of this region’s economy has spurred the development of a new rapid transit system that will surely promote growth in directions and niches that we can’t even anticipate. Cities and regions across the province and country look to Waterloo as an inspiration for their own renewal. We must ask the hard questions about who is carried forward in the renewal and who is not: has the tech industry only really created opportunities for only white collar, highly educated folk? However, the idealist in me says the story of Waterloo is leaning towards being a triumph in the long run. Foundation and Empire.
You may have heard of the book The Upside of Down, by our own Professor Thomas Homer Dixon. In it he sets out a theory of growth, crisis, and renewal of societies. He argues that breakdown is inevitable but can be softened and offers deep opportunity for beneficial reform. I’m not sure what he thinks about Asimov’s novel. The determinants of renewal are probably far more complex;  they would compose culture and ecology for starters. Psychohistory is probably far more elusive to human utility than it is portrayed in Asimov’s novels. The morality of Foundation strategy and its outcomes as a whole might be problematic. Judging whether the current state of things in Waterloo, or at any time in Waterloo’s history, is net negative or positive is another matter. But as a parallel myth to the origin myth of our institution the Foundation analogy has the potential of driving some interesting ideas and speculation.
Imagine if the Emperor at the height of ancient Rome set up an academy of the greatest engineers and writers somewhere in Spain to gather all of the knowledge of Roman Society into one great encyclopaedia. Imagine if in the 1950s Detroit a pool of alternative research and development groups were set up to experiment with radically different production methods. Imagine if in the Alberta of 2014 a renewable energy institute was set up to experiment with alternate ways of meeting our insatiable need for our-friend-the-hydrocarbon. The periphery, not the core, is where the next normal originates.
What can we all do to ensure whatever is best about humanity lives beyond us? How might we help build a brighter future we will never see? What are the ideas we want as the basis of humanity’s future? It seems the profundity of the “Foundation Effect” is determined by the boldness of vision for summing the best of our current state and the liberty of experimentation of an alternate future state. But the establishment of any effort of summation and experimentation shielded from the worst of ground-zero is all that is needed to encourage growth after collapse.
I believe the Foundation analogy represents an underlying dynamic of how the systems we are part of can be changed. An analogy is always meaningful when it generates interesting questions. If the Waterloo story is not one with radical enough change in it, then start sowing the seeds of a new story. Will you create the Second Foundation?
Hagey had vision, but he was not Hari Seldon.


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