The big ideas driving the Cascadia Innovation Corridor

Born out of an idea that greater connections foster greater innovation, the concept behind the Cascadia Innovation Corridor is simple – but its vision is far-reaching.

As we have reported, the corridor, connecting 16 million people across Washington State and British Columbia, has helped boost the region’s economy, expanded trade and encouraged collaboration in academia, technology and research.

Business, academic and government leaders from both sides of the border are gathering this October to look ahead to 2035 and the future of the corridor.

“It’s the opportunity to take an idea that has been around for quite a while and turn it into an idea whose time has come,” says Microsoft president Brad Smith.

Here are some of the big ideas driving the corridor forward. Microsoft spoke to a few participants who will be at the conference to discuss the major benefits of this initiative.

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Research excellence

In the few years since the corridor has been formalized, collaboration with higher education institutions across the border has grown. Part of the vision for the region includes a virtual higher education research campus, connecting students, researchers and enterprises across the region to address issues of importance locally and globally. Students at the University of British Columbia and the University of Washington are collaborating, alongside Microsoft, on shared urban challenges. The Cascadia Urban Analytics Cooperative brings together researchers, students and public stakeholders to use data science for social good.

Greg D’Avignon, president and CEO of the Business Council of British Columbia, is co-chair of the Cascadia Innovation Corridor steering committee. He says the region is sometimes shy about trumpeting its success: “There’s a convergence of technology, talent and capital that wants to seize these opportunities and solve the problems that are endemic to our region but also to the world.”

Cross-border travel

Woman on Lynn canyon suspension bridge, North Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Greater Seattle is the area’s commuter belt – and long travel times are not unusual. The launch of a sea plane connecting Seattle to Vancouver in 2018 has brought the two cities closer. Proposed high-speed rail links will also make travel in the corridor a simpler and faster prospect.

Laurie Trautman, director of the Border Policy Research Institute at Western Washington University, believes this work is vital: “We have these two communities, which in some ways are certainly integrated and collaborative, but in other ways remain pretty isolated from each other. That involves a lot of duplication of effort, and repetitive costs that could be avoided if we had more seamless integration.”

Sustainable agriculture

Farming needs innovative solutions to help ensure its sustainability. Across the corridor, farmers and scientists are working together to use technology and analytics to power more informed agricultural practices that limit harm to the environment, boost productivity and help keep the region competitive on the global stage.

Sophisticated, data-driven production is made possible by shared research across the agricultural industry. “Our agricultural industries cross the border like it’s not there, but our agricultural research entities don’t,” says Chad Kruger, director of Washington State University’s College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences.

“A lot of times we’re making redundant investments and we’re leaving gaps in other critical spaces. WSU and University of British Columbia may both hire a soil scientist at the same time, and not hire an entomologist that we need. We’ve all kind of come to realize that the lack of coordination is actually a costly mistake.”

Life sciences

Using data and AI pooled from higher education institutions and research bodies, the Cascadia Corridor hopes to become the “Silicon Valley of health.” Working toward a cure for cancer has been a focus in the region, with partnerships between organizations such as the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, B.C. Cancer Agency and the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.

Former Washington state governor Christine Gregoire says this kind of collaboration can change the world: “For the first time in history, we’ve been able to use the word ‘cure’ when it comes to cancer. Not just prevent, not just treat, but cure. That is because together we’re better. Together, we are much more able to do the kind of research that will lead to those ultimate solutions.”

Meanwhile, the Cascadia Data Discovery Initiative builds collaboration between scientists and research institutions and enables the sharing of data.

Attracting talent

There’s a desire in the Cascadia region to set the global standard for seamless partnerships between higher education and industry. Already, students have the chance to intern at the Vancouver campuses of companies such as Microsoft.

Together, Microsoft and the British Columbia Institute of Technology have created a first-of-its-kind mixed-reality curriculum, with the goal of training students for jobs in digital media and entertainment along the Cascadia Corridor.

As Dr. Tom Roemer, vice-president academic at BCIT and a member of the Cascadia Innovation Corridor steering committee, puts it: “People with shared passions and like mindsets have the opportunity to create fundamental change. We must not let ourselves [be] held back by what arguably is an artificial barrier. The border is not a geographical divide, and [it’s] barely a cultural one.”

Transformative technologies

Within the corridor, there are pools of technology expertise: Canadian start-ups have been investing in the quantum space for some time, and the Puget Sound is a world leader in cloud computing. Bringing this knowledge together could help position the region as world leaders in developing applications for blockchain, augmented and virtual reality, and quantum computing. Evidence of this can already be found in Canada’s Digital Technology Supercluster.

Michael Schutzler, CEO of the Washington Technology Industry Association, is particularly excited about the opportunities presented by technologies such as blockchain and its effect on finance.

“There’s an enormous opportunity for us to be not just a major player, but perhaps the major player in banking post-blockchain. A kind of 21st-century version of Switzerland or New York,” he says.

Housing, transportation and connectivity

Collective investment in transportation, housing and broadband infrastructure will build a more connected community and help bring more jobs and prosperity to the region.

Ultimately, as Kevin Desmond, president and CEO of Vancouver transport company TransLink, stresses, the success of the corridor will be down to its people: “We have not always experienced that level of connectedness between the communities, businesses and the public agencies in a way that has an esprit de corps. I think that’s what’s exciting, to see this take shape. I think we’re going to see good things happen.”

For more on the Cascadia Corridor and the upcoming Cascadia conference, visit Cascadia Innovation Corridor Conference 2019. And follow @MSFTIssues on Twitter.