Hamilton as Educational Startup Centre

If Hamilton waits for McMaster to embrace downtown Hamilton, we might be waiting for a long time. Better to create our own institutions from the ground up.

By Mahesh P. Butani
Published July 18, 2011

The presence of institutions of higher education in our downtown core is a critical precondition for its economic growth. Such institutions provide the much needed lifeblood for revitalizing downtowns. They ferment new intellectual vigour in our communities. Their presence stimulates body heat on the streets and attracts new residential and commercial investments.

In the game of 'chicken or egg' that Hamilton's downtown has been caught up in since the seventies, without the chicken there are no eggs!

While many Hamiltonians may pray fervently that McMaster extrapolates from this scientific revelation and reinvents itself into a real city university, the odds of this happening are politically stacked against it. Since there is zero competition, there is zero motive to evolve.

Even if there was a newfound will at McMaster under the new direction of its President - if only a fraction of what Judith Rodin found at the University of Pennsylvania - or even if there was a shift in political winds at Queens Park, the machinations of the byzantine power structure of the higher education industry in Ontario will continue to ensure that any new real education ventures by McMaster in our core are stalled or endlessly mired in subterfuge.

"...the higher education industry [in Ontario] is one in which those who consume its product do not purchase it; those who produce it do not sell it; and those who finance it do not control it." -- Professor E. G. West

From Blast Furnaces to Bedpans

Hamilton has been keenly aware of this missing vital precondition to trigger growth in its core, yet for decades it has been unable to influence its realization. In the face of such heavy odds, how does Hamilton take charge of its own destiny?

Petitioning McMaster, or for that matter even Mohawk, may be a start but is a waste of time. If they haven't sensed such fundamental truths necessary for revitalizing the downtown core in the last thirty years, chances are they will not sense it in the next thirty. It is like asking our Board of Education to become stewards of our core.

Create Hamilton in Our Own Eyes

We can sit back from here on and wait for events to buffet us as we slowly watch this city's core turn into one giant healthcare-centric economy which retires every evening to the suburbs. Or we can exercise the one clear option presently available to all of us, which is to start building for ourselves, from ground up, many small locally relevant and diversely based, private schools and colleges, and even small scale specialized private institutions of advanced learning in creative fields by crowdsourcing real innovations. A new kind of local education industry that lift the rest of "all of us" in its tide.

I don't mean this facetiously at all. We have the skill sets within our community to do this. We are just paralyzed from all the absurdities thrown at us repeatedly over the years.

Very simply, one can make use of technologies like email to directly invite diverse institutions in Canada and abroad to come to Hamilton. Or use forums like Kickstarter, Jovoto and others to creatively solicit ideas, partners and even start-up funding for developing small sustainable learning institutions that aim for transformative changes in our core.

No one has failed taking such an approach to education institution building before - for in all probability such an approach by the people of a city may not have been yet undertaken. Our ability to turn Hamilton towards a real Knowledge economy rests solely on our willingness to take such small steps with confidence against all odds.

Or we can simply kick back and wait for the magical trickle-down effects that our academics and innovation gurus have been promising us for years.

If you do opt out for this, just remember that there is a fast-flowing river called 403 between Longwood and our Core which may capture and redirect the flow from all the trickling, so don't be surprised if your wait ends up being long.

Take Ownership of Our Own Destiny

Imagine the look on the faces of our academia when they watch on CNN Live a heartrending story of a beleaguered city that finally got tired of waiting for Godot, and decided to take ownership of its own destiny!

Solicit individually or, even better, as a team. Be forthright about the opportunities, and fair about the conditions and challenges faced in core. Research the institutions being approached for synergies and find funders online worldwide. Develop a strong idea and value proposition. Partner with local incubators and media companies to package your ideas well - and take a chance on this!

You may surprise yourself with the power of adopting a simple stance to complex problems.

From a thousand proposals sent out by Hamiltonians all over the world, if ten step up to the immense opportunities our core offers - imagine the impact your simple stance would have on this city's fortunes.

The political levers required to facilitate you will begin to magically turn on their own once such an exercise gets underway. Remember, everyone wants Hamilton to succeed, but it was a small private school called Columbia that pioneered real body heat on our downtown streets back when it was empty.

Who knows: you may even be known as the founder of the institution you have initiated, or you may just wish to be the silent spark behind the institution you have helped form, in which case you can enjoy the privilege of that special silent smile, as you one day walk past your institution of higher learning to see it pumping vitality into our core.

Mahesh P. Butani is a non-architect, and a developer by default. He is involved in re-developing properties in downtown Hamilton; and has an MA in Arts Education from Teachers College, Columbia University, NYC (1986), and bachelors in Architecture from Bombay, India (1982). Currently he is not an architect in Ontario on account of not having enough Canadian Experience; and does not qualify to teach as he carries too much baggage to fit into the Canadian education system. He refuses to be re-trained to fit in, on a matter of principle, and is a passionate disbeliever of icons and self-regulation of professions in Canada - but still maintains his belief in collective self-organizing behavior; and feels that the large swath of intellectual brownfields across Ontario are far more harmful to the economy than the brownfields left over from deindustrialization - and in response has set up a social network called Metropolitan Hamilton. http://metrohamilton.ning.com/


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By Mogadon Megalodon (anonymous) | Posted July 18, 2011 at 09:20:05

Private sector schools do exist -- Columbia College and Southern Ontario College are local-grown examples of this working at a respectable level. The International Village has the International Tour & Tech Academy as well. But at a larger scale, it can be an imperfect solution that trades subterfuge for a community-conflicted agenda.


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By Mahesh_P_Butani (registered) - website | Posted July 18, 2011 at 16:54:41

Mogadon Megalodon: Respectfully - is there another option left for Hamilton?

Imperfect solutions become the building blocks of innovation, when "perfect solutions" fail consistently over thirty years to seize the moment.

Compare these two renditions of the same notion: "The University and The City": A and B

The first, a voyeuristic view of our city - one which has no community-conflicted agenda. While the other, an honest engagement with the lives and times of cities, by those who seized the moment.

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By Mogadon Megalodon (anonymous) | Posted July 19, 2011 at 12:50:56 in reply to Comment 66396

Thank you for the links, Mahesh. I'm not saying that it's a foregone conclusion. I'm just saying that a company is not necessarily an unblemished good simply because it can lay claim to virtue-infused descriptors such as "educational" and "start-up". (NB: This is also true of established institutions – I'm sure there are prognostications about an "education bubble" somewhere on this site.)

Nor are they necessarily bedrock businesses: the Alexandrian Institute, which closed in the middle of a school term if I remember correctly, is best remembered as scabby residue on the face of the James/Main flank of the Sun Life building. Again, that sort of scenario is not necessarily a fait accompli, but it problematizes momentum, especially in an ecosystem that is not always kind to innovation, entrepreneurship or the constraints/dynamics of small businesses.

My earlier two more educational players downtown: the National Academy of Health & Business (12 employees, 40 students), the first applicant under the new Hamilton Downtown Office Tenancy Assistance Program; and Collège Boréal (25 employees, 125 students). But there's also no reason why these businesses would locate downtown without inducements from the government.

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By lawrence (registered) - website | Posted July 19, 2011 at 11:27:24

How WRCU2's comment above got downvoted is beyond me. Inspiring words as always Mahesh, and thanks for sharing what's going on in Crown Point WRCU2. I am in Crown Point west. I wouldn't mind attending one of these think sessions myself.

Hamilton had a great grass-roots initiative in Freeskool. Is that still happening? I loved the concept. It sounds very similar to what the commentor above was talking about.

I do strongly believe that Hamilton has to be the creator of it's own destiny, before large corporations who just see $ and don't give a rats behind about the city or what makes it beautiful and unique, plan our future for us.

EDIT: It seems Freeskool is still alive and well.

Comment edited by lawrence on 2011-07-19 11:29:28

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By Mahesh_P_Butani (registered) - website | Posted July 20, 2011 at 16:49:00

Thanks you Lawrence and WRCU2 for our kind comments!

Appreciate your continuing dialogue Mogadon. Hamilton's institutions of higher education as well its K-12 system has reached its structural limits of self-critique - hence they are simply unable to generate the kind of solutions that our city rapidly requires to redirect its course.

Although many who are connected to these institutions talk the walk of change, they are as much victims of the education complex, as is the community.

Solutions that can impact real change, have to come from the outside of such institutions which have been modeled after the pre-industrial complexes that were built to morph but never evolve with times.

We need to fix what is fundamentally broken in our community before we can meaningfully fix its built-form. What is broken in our community is a way of thinking that has resulted in our great suburban-urban divide.

This can only be fixed by new educational enterprises that are not burdened by the rituals and dance that have made our present institutions "comfortably numb".

Our generation has failed to create many new meaningful educational enterprises in our core because we continue to approach institutional building with the profit v/s non-profit motives. However, the younger generation is fast overcoming this duality and is actively working with concepts such as 'social enterprise'.

Toronto's CSI is an example of this new thinking in action. An example well worth replicating in our very soon to be redeveloped city-owned building: the former Bannisters, across from the Royal Connaught.

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