This is the story of a small town in Canada, taking a classic underdog journey to stand alongside the big tech hubs of the world.
Drive anywhere beyond the GTA in Ontario and you’ll see a multitude of small towns. Some are so small that if you blink as you drive along ‘Main Street’, you’d more than likely miss it.
Innisfil has proven itself to be different, albeit that it started with very similar roots to most other smaller Ontario communities. In the last decade, the little town has blossomed and grown in new and ambitious ways.
Where is Innisfil?
Drive about 45 minutes north of Toronto and you’ll come to the community of Innisfil. With a population of 37,000, it’s a bit bigger than Ontario’s average town but not so big that it isn’t still a cottage-like escape from the bustle of the GTA, complete with more affordable homes, beaches, green space and a general feeling of living well.
Interestingly, Innisfil almost disappeared off the map. In a podcast focused on rural innovation called Tech Town, hosted by Takara Small, Innisfil’s mayor Lynn Dollin shared a little history:
“In 2009, the province decided they were going to annex a big chunk of Innisfil and give it to our neighbouring municipality of Barrie. And at the time morale was so low and it was not a good time. We had trouble hiring good people because nobody knew whether or not we were even going to exist after the annexation. And we just felt really down. And it was actually, there was a group of people at the time who thought that what we should do is actually change our name and start all over again.”– Mayor Lynn Dollin
In short, Innisfil had an image problem: a lot of people were feeling pretty negative about this small blip on the map, just south of Barrie, Ontario. But when the powers that be brought up the idea of changing the name and brand of the town? The residents weren’t having it! As Mayor Dollin points out: “I think it sparked, if nothing else, it sparked the community to say, “Heck no.” And that in turn sparked our staff and ourselves to live up to the expectation that our residents had.”
Doing Things Differently
Early on, the long game at the township level was to reinvent Innisfil into a place that could attract entrepreneurs and startups, to become a technology hub that could rub shoulders with the likes of Dubai, New York and … yes, Toronto.
The first step in that evolution was with changes to one of the basic public services available in most any community: the library. In 2012, the library in Innisfil went way beyond book lending, to include a community hub with a hacker mentality, supporting those who were interested in the tech industry.
What is now known as the Idea Lab is run by Susan Downs, a trailblazer in her own right:
“…when the library board and the town first heard that I wanted to set up a hacker ethic, they thought that was a little outrageous, but it really is that idea of trying things, making things so that you build skills. So I think that started the initial difference. We had already been very different with our children’s programming. We were much more involved in how we reach them from many different literacy levels and through technology.”
The impulse was to put aside traditional barriers and try new and different ideas. Such as? While libraries all over the province have been branching out on what services they offer, to appeal to a younger demographic, the Idea Lab was the first hub in Ontario to install a laser cutter. A bold move but the first of many focused on bringing services and innovations to the community that are normally only available in a larger centre.
The Strategy Was to Behave Like A Startup
Innisfil was growing in part because of its proximity to the GTA, but also because of the allure of a more gentle lifestyle. How it was going to grow became something of a tipping point, as the area expanded.
In a recent edition of her podcast, Takara Small notes: “I’ve noticed the industry chatter building over the last year, as people are asking, “What’s going on up in Innisfil and why?” And it’s not just Toronto. I did a public Q&A with Twitter founder Jack Dorsey last year. And when the subject of Innisfil was raised, he said he wanted to learn more and even visit. I guess we can all get fixed ideas in our heads of what small towns are and where progressive thinking can take place.”
So how was Innisfil different? One of the strategists for Innsifil’s evolution—Jason Reynar—had this to say:
“We’ve been looking for and have explored different kinds of partnerships, with startups or tech companies, that help us get where we want to get to, but don’t follow the same kind of traditional path.”
Why? It’s simple: Innisfil doesn’t have a huge tax base on which to build infrastructure. It’s a small town with a relatively small staff in charge of supporting the community’s needs, and the notion of following stiff, bureaucratic methods to get what they needed wasn’t going to be effective. They needed to behave more like a startup: more fluid, more able to pivot, and in general, able to think outside the box.
It’s ironic that the small size of their bureaucracy is what allowed them to innovate, without multiple layers of sign offs to get anything done. Agility is their strong suit, according to Mr. Reynar: “We’re pretty flexible. We’ve got a progressive council and a progressive community. And so when we make a decision, we can do it tomorrow. We don’t have to wait, and that seems to have been a real advantage to us as we look at partnering to deliver different kinds of services…We’re moving fast. We are making mistakes along the way. We’re learning from them. And we’ve got big aspirations, right? We want to get a lot of the benefits that come with the bigger city feel, but not give up the stuff that we think is really important for a community.”
Jack Dorsey, among many others, didn’t learn about Innisfil by accident. The innovations and partnerships that Innisfil has put in place—like the now well-known partnership with Uber to create a public transit system for the area—have received national and international media coverage, including with Leyland Checko, of The Guardian.
“Pretty much everyone I spoke with was pretty excited about the fact that Uber was their public transit system. I think there was on the one hand the novelty of it, it kind of put Innisfil on the map, and that map being it was the subject of a number of news stories, people were chattering about it, it was on the radio. So on the one hand people were talking about Innisfil. On the other hand, people were excited about the idea that they could take transit for the first time in a number of years, because there were no buses there. There are taxis, but kind of a transit system that purported to serve the needs of what a transit system does, moving people from point A to B, felt like a pretty big development for the community.”
The story was part of a larger one, where innovation and technology intersect with larger elements of public infrastructure, like transit, in a way that has never been considered before. Innisfil’s move to create a system in partnership with a private organization ran contrary to the accepted wisdom on public transit, but it made perfect sense for a community spread over a fair distance—200 square kilometres, to be precise—which couldn’t afford the more traditional version.
There is more to the story of Innisfil’s partnership with Uber, but what it comes down to for this small town with big ambitions is that the community is meeting the challenges of technological change for the future, with a view to growing like a startup, mistakes and all, into a community that people want to come to in order to establish their own entrepreneurial dreams.
To listen to the full story, listen to the Tech Town Podcast.