February 21, 2019 – Thunder Bay, Ont.
The decline in blue-collar jobs over the last generation has left many cities struggling, neighbourhoods have become rundown and young people have been forced to move elsewhere in search of better opportunities.
One way out of the decline is through innovative industry clusters to take advantage of emerging technologies.
It may sound like a pipe dream, but it has worked to both provide employment and to rejuvenate a city economically and culturally, says an expert in technology and entrepreneurship.
“Innovation has become a way to attract residents back to those decent-sized cities that have suffered economic downturns,” Thomas Coke says. “It’s also a way to modernize those big cities and make them better places to live.”
Coke’s experience is with Michigan and, in particular, his hometown of Grand Rapids. As part of Lakehead University’s Research & Innovation activities, Coke will offer insights into how technology has spurred the rebirth of communities in that Great Lakes state.
“We’ve really put a lot of effort into attracting young tech talent, realizing that tech is going to be a way forward,” he explains.
Boasting degrees in economics and law, Coke’s work has been in venture capital, angel investment and crowdfunding. He’s currently chief marketing officer with Argonomo, a firm specializing in the digitization of business. He was recently named president of SafeWhistle, a company developing encrypted software for whistleblower complaints.
The rejuvenation of Michigan has been around financial technology, or FinTech.
And it’s not just Detroit, the auto capital of the U.S., that’s bounced back. Smart zones or hubs with small-business development centres have been a boon to places such as Kalamazoo, Flint and Marquette, where big tech companies can find highly educated engineers and technologists who would rather not live in Silicon Valley or big cities like Chicago and New York.
“It’s just tech innovation,” says Coke. “It might be medical devices, specifically manufactured products. It’s innovation across the board, which has become a way to attract and maintain talent in a given area, and get people excited about living in these smaller towns.”
The experience of his hometown is instructive. Its most famous son is former U.S. president Gerald Ford, and it was historically known for its furniture industry. Today, the largest employers are in health care. With an appealing outdoor lifestyle and highly regarded colleges and universities, it’s luring and retaining top talent.
“Every city is going through change. The history of Thunder Bay is very similar to what we saw in Michigan,” Coke says, noting the decline in grain, rail and forestry — jobs that market forces and automation have altered forever. “Those jobs are never going to come back. People have to re-train themselves and be more innovative. Companies have to be more innovative if they want to stay afloat.”
One significant element of this resurgence is the willingness of successful companies and wealthy families to support civic projects and provide funds to spur new developments, even if many of the start-ups eventually fail.
“It’s energized the ecosystem quite a bit,” Coke says.
“A lot of this is applicable anywhere. The only difference I see between Ontario and Michigan is your government is a little bit more supportive than ours is traditionally. You have a bit more beneficial public funding than we have. But we do a great job of mixing public and private to get to where we need to go,” he adds.
Coke’s presentation takes place Tuesday, Feb. 26, 3-4 pm at Ingenuity Alley (CASES Atrium). For more about R and I Week, which is a showcase for research and innovation happening at Lakehead University, visit lakeheadu.ca/ri.
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Lakehead University has approximately 9,700 full-time equivalent students and 2,000 faculty and staff in 10 faculties at two campuses in Orillia and Thunder Bay, Ontario. Lakehead is a fully comprehensive university: home to Ontario’s newest Faculty of Law in 44 years, the Northern Ontario School of Medicine, and faculties of Engineering, Business Administration, Health & Behavioural Sciences, Social Sciences & Humanities, Science & Environmental Studies, Natural Resources Management, Education, and Graduate Studies. Maclean’s 2019 University Rankings place Lakehead University among Canada's Top 10 primarily undergraduate universities and in 2018 Research Infosource named Lakehead Research University of the Year in its category for the fourth consecutive year. Visit www.lakeheadu.ca.