Winnipeg: the Florence of the prairies

Winnipeg in 2001 might not be 16th Century Florence, but it is experiencing a renaissance to call its own.

Like the philosophers of old, the participants in today’s digital-age renaissance are forming communities based on mentorship and peer support. In this spirit the city of Winnipeg, with the help of Hewlett-Packard Canada, has developed its first Cyber Village, designed to foster aspiring IT entrepreneurs and further the growth of Winnipeg as one of Canada’s pre-eminent high-tech centres.

Karen Boten, executive director of Smart Winnipeg, is overseeing the development of the Cyber Village, based on similar initiatives throughout North America. Located in Winnipeg’s historic Exchange District, Smart Winnipeg’s Cyber Village is the result of a natural evolution.

“It’s a funky part of town with low rent and very nice older buildings with large floor plates and lots of room, so it’s become an attractive area of town for IT companies. We have about 60 or so companies that have gathered within a few blocks of each other, and another 30 or so in the nearby area. We’ve got a home-grown economic strategy here in Winnipeg, so we’re simply enhancing what has happened naturally,” Boten explained.

“Imagine what we could do if we paid attention.”

More than simply providing services like high speed connectivity and a cool environment for start-up IT companies, Smart Winnipeg’s intention is to serve as a business incubator for its participants. Currently, three virtual tenants reside in the Cyber Village, and while the physical site isn’t up and running yet, they are already experiencing the benefits of living in this technological hub.

Len Andrusiak, a co-founder of Seerx Technologies Inc. along with Luc Kandia, is one of the first residents of the Cyber Village, and recognizes the value in becoming involved with the project.

“A lot of windows of opportunity have been opened,” Andrusiak said. Smart Winnipeg serves as a mentorship for the pilot’s participants, and have helped Seerx Technologies develop a business plan, work on marketing strategies and meet industry contacts.

By choosing start-ups with differing business goals, Smart Winnipeg has created a community with its village’s pilot project in more than just name. The cyber tenants share skills with one another, creating an environment of support and a strong peer network.

HP Canada, one of the sponsors of Winnipeg’s Cyber Village project, is providing much of the initiative’s technical support as it has done for other smart cities, including Smart Toronto. Joseph Belsanti, HP Canada’s e-Services program manager, sees the development of these types of initiatives as indications of progression in the life of the Internet.

“Chapter One of the Internet has already been written and is done with. It was about laying down infrastructure and exposing as many people and businesses as possible to the benefits of Internet,” Belsanti explained.

“Chapter Two is going to be about providing useful and meaningful e-services to daily life, business life and personal life. If it doesn’t provide a direct benefit, you’re not going to use it. It comes down to simplicity.”

The IT community is going back to the drawing board, reinventing itself the way that Renaissance inventors once did, Belsanti explained.

“The Internet doesn’t belong to anybody, so it’s our responsibility as global citizens and corporate citizens to add or contribute to that development as you would nurture a child. That’s what programs like Winnipeg’s Cyber Village achieve.”

Smart Winnipeg’s vision for Cyber Village is for tenants like Seerx to mentor other start-ups once their incubation period is over, creating a community of IT professionals who can help each other in establishing a foothold in the marketplace, and validate Winnipeg’s reputation as a viable and desirable centre for IT development. The ultimate goal for the Cyber Village is to maintain a core of IT companies in Winnipeg.

“Once a business is born here, it is our hope that we can help it grow and that it will stay,” Boten said. “We want to encourage people to think of Winnipeg as having an atmosphere that is conducive to growth.”