Microsoft President Brad Smith, part of the steering group for the Cascadia Innovation Corridor, talks about why he thinks it's important to connect the Puget Sound and Vancouver, B.C., regions and roadblocks that the initiative might face.
This week, political and business leaders will gather in Vancouver, B.C., to push forward an initiative to better connect British Columbia with the Puget Sound area — in terms of transportation, but also for technology development and educational research.
The Cascadia Innovation Corridor, as it’s called, started two years ago and so far has resulted in seaplane service between Seattle and Vancouver and partnerships between universities in both cities.
As it enters its third year, leaders have also created a committee to spearhead broader connections and are hoping to show progress in many areas before its five-year anniversary.
Brad Smith, president of Microsoft and part of the steering group for the initiative, spoke in an interview with The Seattle Times about why he thinks it’s important to connect the regions, and the roadblocks that the initiative might face. (The Q&A has been edited for brevity and clarity.)
Most Read Business Stories
Q: Why link the two cities and what might that look like?
A: I think the origins to this initiative come from the fact that we have two dynamic cities that are only 143 miles apart that share some similar strengths and also face some common challenges, and more than anything we can probably be more successful together.
This is especially important when you have cities that are smaller than, say, a New York or a Mexico City or a London, where you have cities like Vancouver and Seattle that have clear strengths but they’re not among the world’s largest cities. And when you can bring cities like this together, you can start to do things that you cannot do when you are acting on your own.
Q: Why is Microsoft invested in the creation of the corridor?
A: First, we’re very invested in both places. Obviously, Puget Sound is our home. We have roughly 60,000 people that come to work every day at our facilities in Puget Sound. But we’ve been growing in Vancouver as well (Microsoft has about 800 employees in the city). And so by having a foot in each place, we tend to see the opportunities in a very direct way, and we tend to see the common challenges that both communities face.
Q: What are some of the challenges that face the corridor as a whole?
A: Each city is a little smaller in scale when it comes to the number of tech companies, when it comes to the research base. So when you start to put yourself in the position to combine the University of Washington with the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University, you suddenly have a research base that can compete on the world stage even more effectively than we are when we’re dealing with things separately.
At the same time, both communities are facing the same challenge: growth in the central core. Housing prices have been going up in Vancouver just as they are in Seattle. Other people are being crowded out.
Part of the long-term strategy in both Seattle and Vancouver needs to be to spread growth out so that people can work in more places, they can live in more places, they can be connected by better transportation between these places.
Q: Globally we are seeing a turning inward by some nations and away from international cooperation. Do you think that could hamper an effort like Cascadia?
A: Oh, it’s an interesting time to be pursuing something that crosses a border. Obviously, there are more questions about countries and the role of borders today.
On the other hand, I think the completion of these trade negotiations (leading to President Donald Trump’s announcement of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement) is extremely important. It removes one aspect of uncertainty that is an initial challenge for bringing people in Seattle and Vancouver closer together.
I think the fact that this trade agreement hopefully puts things back on a more solid footing can actually help us move forward with the Cascadia Corridor Initiative even more quickly.
Q: When will we start seeing big connections and effects from the initiative, and what will that look like?
A: Well, we only started this in earnest two years ago. But already we’re seeing some concrete steps. One was this past April when we saw a seaplane flight begin between Seattle and Vancouver. Of course, at a certain level it’s almost remarkable that these were not in place but it’s obviously a very good step. Both Washington state and the province of British Columbia are moving forward with high-speed-rail feasibility studies.
I’m also encouraged by some of the early collaboration in the field of cancer research. We saw Fred Hutchinson execute an MOU (memorandum of understanding) with two big cancer research institutions in Vancouver. I think that’s put in place a foundation for more collaborative cancer research.
All of this is happening at the same time that Vancouver was named one of the super cluster beneficiaries — the federal government’s efforts in Canada to really invest in more economic growth.
Q: What about some Canadian concerns that big U.S. companies could overwhelm smaller Canadian companies?
A: From Microsoft’s perspective, we’re investing in the ecosystem in British Columbia. We think about technology for things like augmented reality and gaming where we’re investing in both spaces in British Columbia, and we’re focused on the kinds of stuff that will create not just opportunities for a single company but for a broad ecosystem.
Microsoft has a major gaming studio in Vancouver, it creates the “Gears of War” title. We also have important relationships with other studios that are creating games for Microsoft, including Ensemble Studios, which creates “Age of Empires.” It’s a good example of how success comes to a region when you begin to build real momentum in a variety of companies and not only one. And then you see that connect with the educational institutions. We’re bringing that same approach to augmented reality. We have researchers and developers there but we’re also working with startups.
In British Columbia, we’re working with BCIT (British Columbia Institute of Technology), which is building out an augmented reality curriculum for health care professionals. Once you start to get these kinds of pieces coming together, you start to create substantial opportunities that tend to ripple across the ecosystem.
Q: After it’s been in place longer, how will the corridor compare to some of the other tech-heavy regions around the world, like a Silicon Valley?
A: I don’t know that we’ll ever see Vancouver-to-Seattle or even Vancouver-to-Seattle-to-Portland quite rival in size what is in Northern California, just because that is such a large ecosystem. But certainly I think there is a critical mass we are creating in the Puget Sound and British Columbia areas that can continue to grow and that will give us more strength, especially on the world stage.
But second, I think we need to make it our goal not just to grow but to create healthier growth. I think one of our biggest challenges in Puget Sound now is to continue growing in a way that sheds some of the challenges that have really affected Northern California. We have our own affordability issues and I think the only way to address the affordability issues is to take a very comprehensive approach, one part of which involves stretching growth out.
Q: Will the corridor have a big impact on the challenges facing foreign workers, such as restrictions on their working in the U. S.?
A: Potentially, but I think when you think of a corridor like this you have to be prepared to invest in a 20- or 30-year vision. There are immigration issues of the moment, and I personally believe that we’re more likely to find at some stage in the future a more stable path, especially around issues like high-skilled immigration.