Universities bridge worlds of local culture and global ideas

As the challenges facing urban centres become more complex, Canadian universities are taking a leadership role in developing and implementing solutions. From sparking start-up companies to reinventing healthcare, universities are embracing their position as leading city institutions.

And although university tech-hubs often get the most attention for their entrepreneurial spirit, universities are also making a difference in their city’s culture and environmental sustainability.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.


If medical discoveries were the flagship contribution of Canada’s universities in the 20th century – from the discovery of insulin to the genome project – the 21st century began with a race for the next tech start-up.

Technology hubs are often seen as entrepreneurial, job-creating engines that universities can help ignite. This has certainly been true in Ontario – Canada’s most populous province. The province of Ontario houses one of the world’s largest technology corridors, running between the cities of Toronto and Waterloo – some 115 kilometres.

This region has more than 15 universities and colleges as well as world-class universities – the University of Toronto and the University of Waterloo.

In terms of scope, Ontario’s technology industry has the largest number of tech workers and highest density of start-ups after Silicon Valley in California.

The University of Waterloo has been particularly active in supporting start-up companies through its Velocity programme. The Waterloo region is known for being the home of Blackberry Limited, a tech company – and programmes like Velocity aim to foster more start-ups by supporting the innovations of students and community members.

Velocity offers design support, funding, mentorship – and even a dormitory tailored to entrepreneurial students – to enable students to launch local businesses. Products from these endeavours have successfully made it to the global markets with North’s smart eyewear and Pebble’s smart watch, which was bought out by Fitbit.

Social entrepreneurship

While technology and job creation might be the flashiest contribution of universities to their local region, the most meaningful impact is often seen when universities dig deep into the social and cultural life of their cities.

The University of Winnipeg has been a leader in this area for the past 15 years as it developed a strategy to be an environmentally-sustainable hub in the heart of the city where the campus occupies a large section of the downtown area.

In 2005, the institution founded the University of Winnipeg Community Renewal Corporation, a non-profit organisation, to help revive the campus and develop relationships with the surrounding community.

The university and the city’s downtown core faced similar problems including ageing infrastructure and commuter patterns that saw people drive in and out for short term visits rather than embed in the city.

The Community Renewal Corporation works in four areas for their projects: environmental, social, economic and cultural. They offer a range of services from environmental scans to project design – often related to architectural and landscape projects.

The organisation has worked to make the campus Kyoto compliant and ensure that all community buildings they support achieve a minimum of LEED Silver status.

The activities of the Renewal Corporation have grown way beyond the University of Winnipeg’s campus and even the city of Winnipeg itself. Other post-secondary institutions have brought the corporation on board to help them pursue a similar path of sustainable infrastructure projects.

Most importantly, the Renewal Corporation works with universities to be leaders in their city’s urban revitalisation. They offer a new model for universities to be the cultural and environmental heart of the city.

Global-local perspectives

From job creation to sustainable architecture, there is immense potential for universities to be leaders in their local regions. Although it may appear contrary, this local focus is an ideal complement to their internationalisation efforts.

The complex nature of universities means they always move in multiple directions at the same time – both expanding in their community and developing overseas connections. There are few other institutions that exist in both worlds.

Universities offer a natural link between local culture and the world of ideas. When universities love their city, creating campuses that draw together the local community, they provide space for contact with the global, an important contribution in a divided world.

Grace Karram Stephenson is a post-doctoral fellow in the department of leadership, higher and adult education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, Canada.