If We Build It, They Will Come
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If We Build It, They Will Come

Photo by Hamutal Dotan/Torontoist.

Nobody could rightly accuse Sheldon Levy, Ryerson University’s president, of lacking ambition. In his first term (the board recently confirmed his reappointment) he has shepherded the university through the early stages of an ambitious bricks-and-mortar expansion program, one that will ultimately reshape several city blocks. And in a sold-out speech before the Empire Club yesterday [PDF], Levy laid out his vision for a new phase of expansion, one that goes far beyond physical space and extends far further than Ryerson itself. Levy has a gleam in his eye, and its name is Silicon Valley North.

If Levy has his druthers then Toronto, already a hotbed of technological enterprise, will soon become an international hub for digital media. He contended that universities need to start joining forces in earnest, as well as forming closer partnerships with industry and government, all with the goal of making downtown Toronto a leading centre of technological innovation. Taking his cue from Phillip Preville’s recent article about city-building in Toronto Life, Levy described Toronto as facing a fundamental choice about its future: we can muddle along as we have been—a solid, reliable, middle-of-the-road city that is credible but not high-powered—or we can embrace the challenge of trying to position ourselves as a global leader in emerging industries. According to Levy we are confronting the perennial, identity-defining question:

“Does Toronto want to play in the big leagues or not?” The Ryerson answer is a definite “Yes!” And I have reason to believe it is also the answer all of us want to give… Maybe the best way to differentiate what we are planning to do is to use a manufacturing analogy. If we are okay with implementing solutions designed somewhere else, then a branch plant mentality is enough for us. But our ambition… is that Toronto will design the solutions that will be implemented by others.

Photo of Heaslip House on the Ryerson campus by lytfyre from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

So far, so good. Levy is entirely right to emphasize that we are well-placed to take advantage of current shifts in the economy: as he pointed out, the TSX has the second-highest number of technology firms listed on any stock exchange, our media and entertainment industries (for all their recent cutbacks) are some of the most developed in North America, and we’ve got a highly educated population to draw upon for new talent. What was arguably a bit more contentious, however, was his positioning of universities in all this. Ryerson, maintained Levy, is going to take its cues from industry, offering training and underwriting research that is specifically geared to the needs of the marketplace. “Our approach,” he said, “is going to be a practical one—where industry, business, and government tell us what the economy needs. Our goal is straightforward: we want to devise made-in-Toronto solutions for i-banking, i-business, i-news, i-industry, i-medicine, and i-everything.” This is the sort of talk that draws cheers from some, relieved that universities are finally bringing their heads out of the clouds and down to where the rest of us live and work, but groans of dismay from others, worried that it signals a shift away from the kind of open-ended inquiry universities are uniquely equipped for and meant to conduct.
It is too soon to tell precisely what Levy has in mind and how literally he means for Ryerson to pursue research programmes that are laid out by the marketplace. His speech was warmly received by the business and political leaders in the room, and it spoke to a real hunger among many of them to retool Toronto’s economy to suit the changing times. Mayor Miller heaped praise on Levy afterwards, picking up on his theme that we are at something of a crossroads: “What he said was very important… In Toronto we have a good city, and we can live that way, or we can choose to lead the world.”