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Amazon HQ2 says no to Winnipeg but it’s not the end of the world

I have lived in Winnipeg for several years now and I know that this city is at the center of global innovation. This city hosts folks that invented the Ebola vaccine, that revolutionized food distribution, and that boasts an innovation alley with a substantial amount of visionary initiatives in the science, technology and arts fields. Besides the interesting depiction of Guy Madden’s My Winnipeg, this city is at the heart of the future of the world, as we will eventually know.

Amazon’s intention to sidestep Winnipeg in its top 20 contenders for HQ2 might appear as a blow in our faces. Our city had put up a strong bid and was in strong contention with other more popular cities like Washington DC, Toronto, and Texas. Even though we were unlisted, Bezos now knows Winnipeg and that it is host to one of the top 10 teams in the National Hockey League.

The fact is Winnipeg and Winnipeggers are too “nice” about hyping our city. Our “cold city” is its strongest selling point. It may be cold outside but we have warm hearts. We brave the cold for good causes. We gather to break Guinness records for CancerCare by forming the longest human skating chain. What Bezos’ Amazon does not know is that we do crazy things for the right reasons.

But what lesson do we learn from Amazon’s sidestep of Winnipeg? We choose not to crawl into a fetal position, suck our thumb and sulk at the loss; because it isn’t. It is a blessing in disguise and an opportunity for us to show the world the stuff we are made of. Three important points to note here

One, this is an opportunity for funding of very small-scale innovation in the city. Innovative tech ideas that need angel investments between $0 and $10,000 seem to fall through the cracks because of the absence of a necessary support structure for that level of innovation. So projects like Relnos, a corporate-targeted social media scheduling system which was developed by students of Red River College, and AM-FM, a culture-based multicultural film festival and policy dialogue platform, fail to succeed for lack of angel investments. Any of the many small projects in Winnipeg could be the next Amazon.

Two, fire-fighting approach hurts. Infrastructure needs to be developed in anticipation of the next big thing. Ideas such as the construction of an innovation park could prepare Winnipeg for the future Amazon. But most importantly, a light rail system would do this city some good because Winnipeg cannot grow with its existing transportation infrastructure. Phased over ten years, a light rail line that runs the length of Lagimodiere Boulevard, another that runs the length of Bishop Grandin Boulevard to the airport, and one that runs from Transcona to Winnipeg downtown might be what is needed to transport the additional 50,000 potential employees that will work in a future HQ2. The point here is that we need to build the city of the future now.

Finally, our Indigenous communities should be front and center on this innovative drive. Not only does the climatic conditions of the north provide an appropriate environment for innovation, research and development, Indigenous people of the north should be a part of this vision too, much as was described in my doctoral thesis. It starts with improving access to telecommunications upon which value-added services can be built.

So, Bezos, your team of evaluators has made a grave mistake by ignoring Winnipeg. It is a blessing in disguise because 10 years from now, you would wish you had come here.

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