The scene Thursday at the inaugural Wilfrid Laurier University DRIVE conference. (Communitech photo: Sara Jalali)

North America is undergoing “the greatest social and economic transformation in history” and key to that transformation is the city, a Waterloo audience of entrepreneurs, investors and academics heard Thursday.

Urban theorist and Rotman School of Management professor Richard Florida energized the morning crowd at the first full day of the inaugural DRIVE conference, held at Wilfrid Laurier University’s Lazaridis School of Business and Economics.

The author of three books on what he describes as “the creative class” walked the audience of 160 attendees from 20 countries through the shift from physical labour to the harness of natural resources, to a world where the mind has become the means of production.

Central to this shift, he said, is the city: the critical mass of diversity, experience, talent, investment and creativity.

Florida suggested that Silicon Valley is in a “precipitous decline” because the suburbanization of innovation is on the wane, with the urban assets of older neighbourhoods and older buildings attracting innovators. It’s just easier to mobilize labour and talented people in urban areas, he said.

With that concentration of talent in urban settings, there have been consequences, such as the cost of living driving some citizens out of their traditional neighbourhoods.

Florida said that this is a mistake: “Every single human being is creative,” he said, but with one-third of the population in the creative class of academics, thinkers, designers and entrepreneurs, “we are wasting the creative talent of two-thirds of society.”

The challenge is to harness and reward that creativity.

There is pushback to the rise of the creative class: those who feel left behind have created tensions that have led, for instance, to the rise of populism. Some people are being pushed out to exurbia, the region beyond the suburbs — “they can’t afford to live in their cities … no wonder there’s pushback.”

The next phase of innovation has to build cities that are inclusive to everyone. It’s a challenge, said Florida, that Canada is ideally positioned to address.

Inclusiveness was an issue for Johan Wiklund, Lazaridis visiting chair on loan to Laurier from Syracuse University, who was to be one half of a debate with Netherlands-based Menno Van Dijk, CEO and Founder of ScaleUpNation in the session titled Innovators or Cookie Cutters: Do Accelerators Spur or Limit Growth?

But both speakers had more in common than in conflict, offering a provocative view of how incubators and accelerators work.

Wiklund, a leading authority on entrepreneurship research, said several studies showed that startups that went through incubators did not perform as well as those that went straight into the market. “The criteria for getting into an incubator is different from the criteria for success in the market.”

He said incubators look the same, with “very similar programs and very similar people … often skinny, tall, drink coffee and ride bicycles. If an ecosystem is to be stable, it should not be a monoculture.” He suggested that incubators need to do a better job of attracting quirky people – “people who think in different ways, who don’t fit in the standard mold.”

Van Dijk agreed about the cookie-cutter approach to incubators, saying: “Don’t build incubators like student dorms,” adding that the culture of ping-pong tables and T-shirts is “imported from the U.S.” On the matter of diversity, he suggested that it’s not that women aren’t invited into incubators: “they just don’t need it … boys stay home longer (than girls) …. The incubator doesn’t need to be more inclusive, it should just realize the real talent is already working.”

Both argued that incubators and accelerators are of greatest benefit to startups that already have a product on the market: “Find out what the market wants by being in the market,” said Wiklund.

The challenges facing tech development in North America’s largest city and in one of Canada’s richest tech environments were explained by Iain Klugman, President and CEO of Kitchener-based Communitech, and Maria Gotsch, President and CEO of the Partnership Fund for New York City.

Both Gotsch and Klugman spoke to the notion of paying it forward in New York and Waterloo Region — “What can we bring to the table to help the community?” asked Klugman — and both found common cause in the recruiting of those who could become partners.

One big secret to success, Gotsch told the group, is that “there is an art to convenings.” It’s critical, she said, to control who are at the meetings. Klugman agreed, saying CEOs can’t send delegates to CEO meetings.

Gotsch said that a New York City tech environment can’t be all things — there’s no point in pursuing energy tech in NYC, she said — but there are gaps, and then made a pitch for talented academics and life sciences entrepreneurs to consider living in New York.

New York came up again in the panel on Clusters and Superclusters as the audience heard from New York’s New Lab CEO Shaun Stewart; Jayson Myers, CEO of Next Generation Manufacturing Canada, helming the advanced manufacturing supercluster in Ontario; and Irene Sterian, president and CEO of production-enablement network ReMAP.

Myers told the audience that the federally mandated superclusters are an experiment, noting that experimentation is essential to innovation. A main focus for the supercluster is to fund projects that offer solutions that combine various technologies from various sources, with an emphasis on supporting smaller companies.

Sterian suggested that ReMAP is more of a nanocluster, than a supercluster, aimed at working with smaller firms seeking to navigate the tricky waters of scaling up. “I speak five languages; one of them is government,” she said to some knowing nods.

Stewart, now at New Lab after years in travel-tech (with Google X as director of the self-driving car project and then Chief Development Officer for Waymo), sees his New York operation as a home for “frontier technology.”

“Our agenda is to solve a problem and generate insights.”

Asked about failure as a part of the entrepreneurial process, Sterian advised the crowd to be nimble enough to pivot: if attracting a multinational is working, create a working partnership with two or three SMEs that can work together.

Attendees took notes on laptops and notepads, and networked vigorously at the breaks.

Pat Krajewski, retired after 20 years as an executive with Scotiabank, and chair of the Dean’s Advisory Committee for the Lazaridis School, attended the conference simply to see what was said, and thought it offered “more than I expected.”

“The speakers are telling it like it is: the learning for tech entrepreneurs is incredible in one day. And for investors, they are seeing what the trends are.”

Jordan Dutchak, executive director of the 18-month-old Co.Labs, Saskatchewan’s first incubator, said it was important to hear how such groups as Communitech, with 20 years’ experience, is dealing with issues that Co.Labs is experiencing in its first two years.

For Kim Morouney, managing director of the Lazaridis School of Business and Economics, the DRIVE conference was a fortuitous collaboration with Toronto-based Hockeystick, which provides data tools for investors. Morouney and Hockeystick CEO Raymond Luk are DRIVE’s co-chairs.

Morouney says that this first DRIVE conference is part of Laurier’s aim of becoming a more international school. Already, the greatest number of international students coming to Laurier enter programs in economics and business.

She said this international positioning is an important goal for faculty, researchers and students, and for the Canadian companies the Lazaridis School serves: “Canadian companies, if they are going to be successful, have to reach for markets beyond our borders. And we can’t just assume that the U.S. is the only market we need. We need to help our companies look beyond North America. It’s important for us to be as international as we want our companies to be.”

The conference continues Friday; the date for the next DRIVE will be announced soon.

Communitech is a partner of Startup HERE Toronto.  This article originally appeared on their site.