Waterloo’s Dynamic Innovation Ecosystem: A model for Syrian Refugees

Restoring Dignity Requires an Ecosystem

World Refugee Day, on Tuesday on June 2oth, provided another occasion to celebrate Waterloo region’s dynamic innovation ecosystem.

How can a moment when the global community highlights the plight of tens of millions of refugees put anyone in a celebratory mood? What is innovative about a world that seems to be getting ever more efficient at producing refugees?

Let me explain.

Looking back one year ago, this community could rightly be proud of the tremendous response that enabled us to welcome over 1,300 Syrian refugees. Faith communities, neighbours, civic leaders and local businesses joined with many amazing service agencies in marshalling resources we didn’t know we had to do something many of us didn’t think was possible.

We were also justifiably proud that this community was at the forefront of developing the mechanism that made this response possible: the private sponsorship system for refugees that emerged out of conversations in the late 1970s between Mennonite Central Committee and the federal government.

This systemic innovation is a model that other countries around the world have since been seeking to emulate.

That being said, during one of the many community events organized around last year’s World Refugee Day, I was struck by a provocative question posed by a Conrad Grebel University College student. What, she wondered, was genuinely innovative about our community and nation’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis? Weren’t we simply tweaking and scaling up things we have already been doing for the better part of four decades? Given the scale of the global refugee crisis, wasn’t it high time for another genuine breakthrough?

Good point. Who will spark the breakthrough — or the many breakthroughs — we need, given that the people working so hard to respond to the refugee crisis are already stretched to their limit?

I was heartened when, last fall, colleagues at the University of Waterloo’s Conrad Business, Entrepreneurship and Technology Centre organized a campus-wide pitch competition for student teams to propose ideas that could restore the rights and dignity of ten million refugees. Now, that is an ambitious, audacious, and desperately needed goal!

This competition was actually just the first step toward the 2017 Hult Prize, which attracted more than 50,000 entries from over 100 countries.

While the fact that upwards of 50 teams of diverse and passionate University of Waterloo students participated in this campus competition was amazing, it was even more amazing to see the winning Waterloo team go on to triumph at one of five regional finals in London this past March.

If you can create a real business, the beginning of a prototype, you can change the world.               – Muhammad Yunus, 2006 Nobel Peace Prize Winner

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Paul Heidebrecht is a leader, scholar, advocate, and mentor. He is Founding Director of a centre that catalyzes collaboration between affiliate organizations, incubator start-ups, project partners, and faculty and students at the Conrad Grebel University College/ University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. Follow Paul’s work @GrebelCPA

Paul Heidebrecht




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