The foundation at Waterloo

In 1952, while UW was still just a twinkle in its founders&rsquo; eyes, the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov published a novel, <em>Foundation</em>. 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&rsquo;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 and preserve civilization. The population of this planet evolves and grows over time beyond its original purpose to eventually form a revolutionary new society from the galactic empire it supplants.

Southwestern Ontario is a post-industrial wasteland. I&rsquo;m saying this not only because I am a true-blue Albertan; but also because I have seen the decaying remnants of the once-proud industrial core of this country. I have seen the ex-factory towns, the has-been port of Owen Sound, and Windsor, the provincial frontier only slightly-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&rsquo;s troubling financial situation.

You may see where I&rsquo;m going here. The University of Waterloo is to industrial southwestern Ontario as <em>Foundation</em> 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.&nbsp; I don&rsquo;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. Waterloo is a city of self-renewal.

Without the University of Waterloo, I very much doubt that this city would be the tech hub it is &mdash; the shining counter-example for any dreary headline about Ontario. Waterloo has 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 Blackberry. 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. It&rsquo;s a wonderful story, but it still begs a number of questions. In this remarkable continuation of wealth generation, who gets carried forward and left behind? How does this tech-topia impact the environment? How might we address these inequities?

I believe the <em>Foundation</em> 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. 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.