This story is from the 2018 Access Magazine: The New Face of Innovation. Explore more from this issue

Innovation in Action: Leading Three Cities Into The Future

Workers from MaRS Discovery District in Toronto collaborate in the public space that intersects the two-block-long innovation hub.

Innovation in Action: Leading Three Cities Into The Future

Innovation takes shape in countless ways, community by community. In An Entrepreneur's Perspective: Today's World Through the Eyes of the Young Innovator — a study conducted by The Economist Intelligence Unit and sponsored by FedEx — we tapped people in 40 cities to speak about the new innovation economy. Here, we dig into the unique attributes of three of those cities. From the dramatic rise of Denver's start-up scene to Cape Town, South Africa's, social innovations to Toronto's cutting-edge approach to inclusivity, they're proving the way to the future is anything but prescriptive. And they have lessons for all of us, no matter the place we call home.

Learn what's driving Young Innovators in this report conducted by The Economist Intelligence Unit and sponsored by FedEx.


1.5 million

Square footage of MaRS Discovery District, the world's largest innovation hub
Source: MaRS

The not-for-profit Ontario Institute for Cancer Research (OICR), with facilities at MaRS, aims to accelerate discoveries made in the Canadian province of Ontario into clinical use. Funded by the government of Ontario, the OICR is improving outcomes for patients globally and generating economic benefits for Ontario.

Johnson & Johnson Innovation, JLABS @ Toronto is a world-class life sciences incubator that provides innovators with state-of-the-art labs, specialized instrumentation, operational support and other resources — infrastructure and expertise that help accelerate these innovators' work.

Nearly 50 resident companies working on a range of innovations across pharmaceuticals, medical devices, health technology and consumer health work out of JLABS @ Toronto.

This inspiration sign hangs just outside the JLABS @ Toronto Prototyping Lab. JLABS @ Toronto's no-strings-attached model provides early-stage companies with the advantages of a big company while preserving entrepreneurs' equity and freedom to drive their innovations forward.

Toronto's Yonge-Dundas Square pulsates during the evening commute. The square sits a few steps from DMZ — a start-up incubator that's part of Ryerson University — and a quick walk from other major innovation hubs such as MaRS Discovery District and OneEleven.

With 1.5 million square feet in the heart of Toronto, MaRS Discovery District ranks as the world's largest urban innovation hub. Home to 150 organizations — from start-ups to large multinationals — it's where 6,000 entrepreneurs, educators, scientists, business experts and venture capitalists come to work every day. Access went inside to learn about the innovation first-hand — and to experience the energy and ingenuity that's inspired other high-tech developments, including Alphabet's Sidewalk Labs' recent decision to launch an ultra-connected neighborhood called Sidewalk Toronto. Karen Greve Young, the hub's vice president of corporate development, joined us in a conversation about how Toronto is reshaping its future, along with Michelle Holland, a Toronto city council member and the mayor's advocate for the innovation economy, and Adil Dhalla, executive director of the Centre for Social Innovation.

Innovation occurs in ecosystems that are diverse because it's in the collision of those diverse experiences and perspectives that new ideas are Formed.

Adil Dhalla, Executive Director, Centre for Social Innovation

Karen Greve Young oversees work at MaRS that includes community development and relationships with global innovation partners — with the ultimate goal of helping entrepreneurial networks advance the world together. Here, she takes a break at Johnson & Johnson's JLABS @ Toronto space.

What's led the way in fueling innovation in Toronto?

Adil Dhalla: If I were to prioritize one thing, it's the diversity of our people. Innovation doesn't occur when everyone is the same. When we all have the same experience, when we all have the same backgrounds, when we all come from the same place, we reinforce what we already know. Innovation occurs in ecosystems that are diverse because it's in the collision of those diverse experiences and perspectives that new ideas are formed.

Karen Greve Young: Diversity is critical to achieve innovation with impact. Including people from different backgrounds and areas of expertise in conversations at all levels encourages entrepreneurs and innovators to think outside the box and solve global problems that would otherwise go ignored.

Adil Dhalla of the Centre for Social Innnovation notes the interesting way his organization's members come together. "We're the same age as Facebook," he says, "but we've gone the other direction in that we largely focus on what it means to connect offline."

Inclusivity plays an important role in all of your work, but people don't always associate it with innovation. Why is that?

AD: So many of the systems in the world were created by the few for the many. Diversity is the first step in changing things. The second step is including everyone. I believe the world's best innovations are ones that are created in an inclusive way.

Michelle Holland: One way we're addressing innovation for everybody is with our Digital Literacy Day coming up in May, which, as far as I know, has never been done before or celebrated in a city in this way. By pairing corporations and organizations together — bringing in everyone from grade 12 classes to senior citizens, who will attend sessions about everything from STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] to online banking — we are working with different segments of the population, including marginalized communities who normally don't have the access to the digital economy. We want to make sure they feel included and aren't left behind.

Michelle Holland, who serves on Toronto's city council, is overseeing an innovation-oriented branding effort for the city, set to launch in mid-2018. "We're doing incredible work here, and we need to make sure people hear a singular narrative," she says.

That same thinking extends to women in technology, which is a big push of yours. Tell us about it.

MH: It's critical that we move the dial on women in technology and provide the right environment for that to happen, whether that's through the regulatory system or whether we're promoting girls in STEM and making sure our educational system is providing that. We're also working with corporations to make sure they're offering the right environment for women to move up and expand their careers.

Innovation is booming in Toronto, including the recent announcement of Alphabet's Sidewalk Labs to launch Sidewalk Toronto. What do you think about that?

KGY: Sidewalk Toronto will transform a section of our city's waterfront into a modern, tech-driven neighborhood, and it will demonstrate that Toronto is poised to lead urban innovation worldwide. It will provide an example for cities around the world looking to build smart cities collaboratively.

Cape Town

Entrepreneurs from 80 companies collaborate at Workshop 17, one of the biggest innovation hubs in Cape Town.

Cape Town's "Silicon Cape" moniker isn't just a marketing push or play on words. The city's tech environment ranks at the very top of all African cities — fueled, in part, by initiatives such as the SA Innovation Summit. More ecosystem builder than event, the summit is part of a thriving start-up scene where many efforts include some aspect of social entrepreneurship. To get a better sense of innovation in South Africa's second-biggest city, Access connected with SA Innovation Summit's chairperson, Audrey Verhaeghe, Ph.D., and the winner of its most recent contest and the founder and CEO of EmptyTrips, Benji Coetzee.


Percentage of start-ups in South Africa that got their start in Cape Town
Source: PricewaterhouseCoopers

SA Innovation Summit taps innovators not just from Cape Town but from the rest of South Africa and 14 other countries in the southern part of the continent. Tell us about it.

Audrey Verhaeghe: We have just over 1,000 people, including 56 investors and 720 entrepreneurs. Our effort is to uplift, accelerate and connect this local tech talent with the rest of the world.

Your most recent winner was EmptyTrips, a disruptive open freight and transport marketplace that uses algorithms to match supply and demand of cargo transport in Africa — your company, Benji. What was it like to take home the top prize?

Benji Coetzee: SA Innovation Summit was absolutely amazing. It afforded EmptyTrips international exposure paired with a certain credibility as a new player in the industry. But it's more than just a competition. It's a platform for like-minded entrepreneurs to meet, learn from another and hopefully create partnerships.

Benji Coetzee, founder and CEO of EmptyTrips, won the top prize at the 2017 SA Innovation Summit.

What makes Cape Town so appealing to Young Innovators?

BC: The best adjective to describe Cape Town and the Silicon Cape is "daring." The hive of young, talented people from some of the best learning institutions in the country — coupled with a buzzing start-up community of venture capital firms, start-up accelerators and supportive programs — is a recipe for innovation.

Innovation often includes some aspect of doing good. What's the back story?

AV: In Cape Town, you see extreme poverty in the townships that comes from the apartheid years, and people are really trying to connect those poorer regions with the city. For instance, incubators are put in traditionally poorer areas. That's important because Cape Town doesn't hide poverty. You need to understand poverty — you need to see it — to act on it. It's part of a groundswell of social entrepreneurship driven by technology that's very prevalent in Africa. The impact of what you do is an important driver, and it's very much supported by cities like Cape Town. The government understands that innovation and entrepreneurship is a job creator, and it's a message they're projecting to the rest of Africa.


Energy from start-ups helps fuel the revitalization of the Lower Downtown (LoDo) neighborhood near Denver's Union Station, this photo, as well as the River North (RiNo) neighborhood home to INDUSTRY, below.

To people who live and work in Denver, the city's rapid rise as a hotbed for start-ups comes as no surprise. Early adoption of co-working spaces and a Young Innovator population eager to experiment has created the perfect environment, leaders say. More than 700 tech start-ups — including 170 founded in the past year — have helped boost the city center and surrounding neighborhoods. And Denver's annual start-up week ranks as the largest free entrepreneurial event of its kind in North America. To learn more, we talked to Michael Hancock, Denver's mayor, and Ellen Winkler, the co-founder and owner of one of the city's hottest co-working spaces, INDUSTRY.


Denver's rank for start-up activity among U.S. metro areas
Source: Kaufman Index of Startup Actvity, 2017

In a nutshell, what do you think sums up the rise of innovation in Denver?

Michael Hancock: Denver is a city that is open and welcoming to all. We are such a diverse and rich community of innovators, activists, volunteers and so much more. As mayor and as someone who grew up here, I think part of that innovative energy — the vibrancy that makes our city so exciting — is that we have diverse neighborhoods that welcome creativity and change.

INDUSTRY led the way in revitalizing one of those neighborhoods, River North (RiNo). How did that happen?

Ellen Winkler: Brighton, where we have our biggest property, was the ugliest street in all of Denver — and we were the crazy ones who were going to take all the darts and go there. But we pretty quickly learned we could have filled two buildings over, or three buildings over — and my husband and I said, "Wait a minute; we're on to something." What we created was 150,000 square feet of creative office space, where we have everything from small offices to the headquarters of CorePower Yoga. But what's really wonderful is the energy and the life that you feel when you walk in. We have 80 dogs in each building because everybody can bring their dog to work. We have five kegs in each building, so there's beer all the time. And we have cafes and coffee shops in each building.

It's also about the sense of community, right?

EW: Right. You might have five or 10 or 60 people in your office, but as soon as you walk out of your office, you have 600 or 700 other people that are in the exact same boat as you are. So in that broader community, you make friends a lot quicker. If you want to go running, there are 20 people who go running at lunch. If you want to play pingpong, there's a 300-person pingpong tournament.

That energy extends to issues like sustainability, too, right?

MH: Sustainability is all about innovation — finding creative ways to sustain practices and improve our basic natural resources for as long as possible. One of the innovations we've seen come to fruition is the citizen-approved Green Roofs initiative that was on the ballot this past November. That initiative will require most new buildings to include rooftop gardens, potentially in combination with solar panels. The goal of the initiative is to significantly reduce long-term operating costs by lowering energy consumption and increasing the longevity of a roof. We're told that a green roof lasts 2–3 times as long as a traditional roof because the waterproofing portion is protected by greenery.

It's one more way innovation is transforming the city. What's it like to be part of that?

EW: Helping build a city has been exciting — and I don't think there are very many cities that in that amount of time have changed as much as Denver has, and I think for the better. Because people care about the city. Many of us are here because we chose to come here.

How is that excitement and change translating into opportunities not just for one segment of the population but for as many people as possible?

MH: I believe one person's innovation can help all of us thrive. One of the things we're really proud of is Denver Peak Academy.

Government entities are tasked with difficult processes, yet expected to respond in rapid time. Denver's Peak Academy is an innovative way to make government fun, while also reducing the amount of time it takes to respond to various processes and individuals. It's really about meeting our people where they are.

When we talk about innovation, we know this works. Denver Peak Academy has gained national attention, and we're proud to be leading the way on how governments work toward efficiency and customer — resident — satisfaction.

You might have five or 10 or 60 people in your office, but as soon as you walk out of your office, you have 600 or 700 other people that are in the exact same boat as you are.

Ellen Winkler, Co-Founder and Owner, INDUSTRY


  1. Very inspiring… One can actually sense the innovation in action. They key word that is seen throughout is diversity…
    Thank you for sharing these.

    Reza February 19, 2018
  2. Inspired—One can understand what they are doing with all the diversity in their cities by encouraging people to get involved with their communities.

    Sonya February 22, 2018
  3. This is AWESOME. I'm a 70 year old retired secretary and wish to heck I was 25 and really smart. I'd jump on this idea in a second and get involved in some way. Congratulations on moving this world forward. Every person counts, regardless of their race, religion or political affiliation. Keep up the good work and keep sending out articles like this one.

    Catherine March 28, 2018
  4. Diversity is America!!! Sometimes the pendulum swings

    Just magnify the severity of the situation but we learn

    The most when our backs are up against it!!!

    Don’t ya know.

    Dan April 18, 2018
  5. What an AWESOME concept in motion!

    Gigi April 20, 2018

Add a Comment

Please note, your comment will not appear until approved, and all fields are required. Your email address will not be published.