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Guelph and Wellington should choose their heroes better

Guelph and Wellington have completed their proposal to be the "Silicon Valley of food," but this week's Market Squared asks if we really want to be like Silicon Valley?
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On Monday, the City of Guelph and County of Wellington celebrated the completion of a great journey to create Canada’s first circular food economy.

Let’s preface this by saying it’s a good idea to dedicate time and resources to finding a way to reduce hunger, create greater access to healthy foods and reduce food waste. The Earth will have nine billion mouths to feed by the end of the century, and we probably don’t want to start exploring Soylent Green as a replacement.

But one line struck a chord with me in the staff presentation to council on Monday. It was when Barbara Swartzentruber, the executive director of strategy, innovation and intergovernmental services, said that the goal was to make Guelph the “Silicon Valley of food.”

Sounds good, right? It’s your classic elevator pitch, it breaks down a complicated idea to four words that makes you immediately visualize the goal.

My problem isn’t with the idea, it’s with what the words “Silicon Valley” stand for.

Geographically based in the southern part of the San Francisco Bay area, there was once a time long ago when being the “Silicon Valley” of anything was something to aspire to. But is this still that day?

The most recent negative example is the story of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, which was recently the subject of a much talked about HBO documentary, The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley.

Holmes, a drop out from the Ivy League Stanford University, became a self-made billionaire with the promise of a technology that could run multiple medical tests from a single small sample of blood. The tech didn’t really exist though, Holmes’ promises were ultimately empty, and at the end of the day, more than $9 billion was sunk into Theranos and those investors got nothing in return.

This is not the first time there’s been a story like this in investing history, and it’s certainly not the first time for Silicon Valley itself, just ask anyone that owned stock in But rarely has so much, been invested in so little.

The basis for the documentary, and the book it’s based on, John Carreyrou’s Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, is that there were plenty or warning signs that Theranos wasn’t all it was meant to be. From Holmes’ affect, to nepotism in the company, to a management style best described as paranoia and intimidation, Holmes and Theranos had powerful defenders almost right up until the moment the doors were closed.

Why? Everybody loves the “genius” with a “bold, new idea” that strikes out to “revolutionize” the world. It’s hard to deny the iconoclast, especially when you don’t want to end up being the person that didn’t buy Apple stock in 1979 when you could have and should have.

This is exactly the kind of culture that allure of Silicon Valley has perpetuated. Guys like Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg are cowboy entrepreneurs. They rode into town with only a name and an idea, and they told everyone how it was going to be, and it was so.

Of course, the truth is that Jobs has been described by his own daughter as cruel in his behaviour and that his business success went hand-in-hand with his abuse and ruthlessness. Bezos, meanwhile, has gotten a lot of criticism for the working conditions in Amazon warehouses, where employees are expected to keep pace and pick one item every seven seconds, or lose “time off points.”

Putting it that way, do we still want to turn Guelph into a Silicon Valley of anything?

And while the whole idea of the Smart Cities Challenge sounds like a fun way to galvanize our municipalities to tackle real problems in modern Canada, why do we need to turn everything into a game?

That’s something else that Amazon is good at. They were looking to build a second headquarters, and got cities across North America to fall over each other to offer one of the world’s richest corporations all kinds of goodies and tax incentives. Then, when New York City politicians began asking serious questions about their “winning” bid, Amazon took its ball and decided to stay put.

Amazon’s pitch was that they were going to bring thousands of jobs to Long Island City, the area of New York they were planning on building their HQ2, but that claim was greeted with skepticism. Were the working-class folks in Long Island City going to get good jobs at HQ2, or were they going to be gentrified out like so many people in San Francisco who’ve been priced out of what is now, in many ways, a bedroom community for Palo Alto?

On the surface, Silicon Valley is something to aspire to, but as an industry it’s hardly lived up to its own aspirations.

Perhaps the city and the county should find a new metaphor for their own ambitions, or at least be forewarned about the implications.