At the border between Washington state and British Columbia, an inscription on the Peace Arch is a message of unity: “May these borders never be closed.” That’s also the animating idea behind the Cascadia Innovation Corridor, an initiative that envisions a bright future for the Pacific Northwest by linking together Seattle, Portland and Vancouver, B.C. with policy, business and research collaboration and technological innovation.

“While we want to be globally competitive when it comes to jobs in the economy, we also want to problem-solve,” says Washington’s former Gov. Christine Gregoire, who leads Challenge Seattle, a coalition of leaders from the largest employers in the greater Seattle area. “Cascadia allows us to find answers to some of the most plaguing issues that we face and share those answers globally.”

This year, Challenge Seattle was one of the groups behind the 2021 Cascadia Conference, which brought together stakeholders from across the region to discuss shared steps forward. Gregoire had a collaborator in Greg D’Avignon, president and CEO of the Business Council of British Columbia. D’Avignon’s business coalition is committed to international collaboration and realizing the goals of the Cascadia Innovation Corridor. “The thesis was to connect talent, technology and capital to improve quality of life for everyone who calls our region home,” he says.

But D’Avignon, Gregoire and their colleagues were stymied by COVID-19 and the resulting closure of the border between the U.S. and Canada. In a jarring contrast to the words emblazoned on the Peace Arch, Gregoire says the shutdown — and a lack of uniform guidance from both the U.S. and Canadian federal governments — led to confusion for people traveling, disruption for businesses, and distress for families.

Still, says D’Avignon, the Cascadia Conference continued: It just went online. “One of the good things that’s come from the pandemic is that it accelerated connectivity and collaboration, and it did it in material ways where we’re seeing regional solutions and ideas come from the Cascadia Innovation Corridor partnership,” he says.

Their goal for Cascadia is ambitious: a vibrant corridor linking cities with high-speed ground transit, affordable housing for residents across the income spectrum, an economy that leverages strengths from the Northwest’s three major cities, and climate policy in line with the Paris Agreement goals. “The vision of Cascadia requires creative solutions that expand beyond the US-Canada border,” says Dr. Laurie Trautman, director of the Border Policy Research Institute at Western Washington University. “Transportation, housing, economic growth, sustainability – these issues don’t stop at the border, and our responses to them can’t, either.”

If these objectives seem lofty, it’s out of necessity. The population of Cascadia is projected to increase by 3 million to 4 million over the next few decades, says Gregoire, and under current conditions, “we do not have the ability to accommodate that increase in population.” The cost of living is rising, and housing is increasingly unaffordable.

Vision 2050 for Cascadia, a big-picture look at how the region can grow sustainably, offers some solutions to these problems. Among them is a new high-speed rail system, which would take travelers from Seattle to Portland in 60 minutes.

That creates new possibilities for the corridor, Gregoire says. People can spread out from major cities and commute quickly and efficiently on high-speed rail, rather than today’s more typical rush-hour experience on I-5.

This innovative future was the focus of the 2021 Cascadia conference, which organizers were able to hold in person once again in November, now that border restrictions have eased. Gregoire welcomed the change: “Our work is collaboration. It’s really getting together, coming up with new ways of thinking and doing business,” she says. “And as good as virtual meeting tools are, they don’t have that human interaction in the body language and the coming together to create new ideas.”

As a leading voice in the Cascadia Innovation Corridor, Microsoft president and vice chair Brad Smith often invokes the Peace Arch. “Just as the architects of the Peace Arch a century ago saw into the future what they could create for us, our opportunity today, in this place and in this year, is to design and build a vibrant and sustainable economy in the Cascadia Corridor.”

At Microsoft, we believe in a future where every person has the skills, knowledge and opportunities to achieve more. We’re committed to empowering people, communities and organizations around the globe in our effort to ensure an inclusive economic recovery.