Learning Places: How cities are collaborating more effectively with their universities

By Jeannette Hanna, Chief Strategist, Trajectory

Some aspects of place branding can feel a bit like family counselling when parties who should be natural partners lack a common understanding. The CEO of a large pharmaceutical manufacturer sharpened the point for me. He was bemoaning the difficulty of finding appropriate skilled labour near the company’s headquarters, a west coast US city. I asked if he had shared his issues with the large community college located down the street. He looked at me incredulously and retorted, “Why would I do that?” Why indeed! The idea of educators as allies had never occurred to him.

“Town and Gown” – that well-worn moniker for the connection between places and higher ed – is a complex relationship that both sides usually acknowledge is important. Economic development touts how local colleges and universities create enviable talent advantages for their city or region. Leaders of higher ed make “serving community” a centerpiece of their mission. Yet, it’s a connection that’s easily taken for granted. The “why” of the relationship may be clear, but the “how” of aligning issues and expertise is elusive. Institutional connections between local governments and post-secondary can be surprisingly tenuous, often reliant on personal networks with a dash of serendipity.

What makes the best place/learning partnerships tick? How can they be sustained systematically over the long-term? And how can ambitious places bridge the learning gap without easy access to post-secondary resources? Each locale is unique, of course, but the following stories illustrate the impact and rewards of closely integrating learning and place strategies. The examples are Canadian, but the insights can apply anywhere.

Lesson one: Nurture collaboration systematically

Few people have their finger on the pulse of place and education like Dr. Robert Luke, CEO of eCampusOntario, a centre of excellence in online and technology-enabled learning. With a PhD in education and knowledge media design, he has been a major catalyst for innovations that drive transformations in learning and research, at scale.

For civic and business leaders looking to tap the expertise of academia, educational institutions can appear closed off, elitist, and can be daunting to navigate. Luke sums up the challenge as, “Proximity alone won't make things happen. You need structural connections and real matchmaking capabilities.”

Take COVID, which created an all-hands-on-deck urgency to address unprecedented challenges with non-traditional approaches. CivicLabTO, stewarded by the City of Toronto, became a game-changing collaboration that eCampusOntario supported with an AI-enabled platform connecting municipal officials, eight post-secondary institutions, and four funding agencies. The Ontario Collaborative Innovation Platform is a networked “brain trust” designed to create systemic, sustainable connections. City leaders can pose challenges, academics can share relevant research and expertise, and multi-disciplinary teams can assemble quickly to respond to emerging needs. “The intense focus on solutions removed the ‘we can't do that here’ mentality,” explains Luke. He describes the approach as, “matchmaking at speed. And it worked! The process was structured in a way that allowed people to get their ideas heard. It opened up many innovation opportunities.”


Lesson two: Solve for local

 Not every community is blessed with the wealth of post-secondary infrastructure that Toronto enjoys. A few hours drive west, Todd Kasenberg, Mayor of North Perth, Ontario (population: 15,540), grapples with how to support the skills development needs of a very different community. Happily, Kasenberg is a very different kind of Mayor, who worked as a corporate eLearning consultant before being elected. As part of his “listening tour” with constituents, the Mayor heard many concerns about talent attraction and upskilling: farmers needed support for seasonal workers; the local hospital was struggling to attract technicians; there was a shortage of day care workers. “We have to think differently about some of the challenges we face. We have to have innovation and ingenuity as a default posture,” Kasenberg argues. “We haven’t detached economic development and people development. People and economic prosperity are tied together.”

Today, North Perth’s Set7 initiative delivers world-class training to meet very specific local needs such as skills for migrant agricultural workers, safe food handling, and construction fundamentals.   

For Kasenberg, there are three conditions for this kind of home-grown learning: “You need to have local business community investment, not just buy-in. You need a willingness to prepare your own curriculum. You have to have a municipal government that’s brave enough to say we don’t just do roads and bridges, (we’re) in the business of creating a whole community… spending money on social infrastructure that will make a difference.”

Lesson three: Generate real value

In January, 2024 Asima Vezina, President and Vice-Chancellor of Algoma University, was voted Business Person of the Year by Brampton, Ontario’s Board of Trade. It was a major milestone in the University’s relationship with a city that barely acknowledged the future impact potential of its presence a few years earlier. 

Founded on the site of a former Indigenous Residential School in the northern Ontario community of Sault Ste Marie (population 73,000), Algoma has been committed to a special mission of cross-cultural learning between Anishinaabe communities and the world since 2008 when it was given its Charter and special mission by the Ontario government. Its position as a learning centre serving northern, rural communities was clear. However, when Dr. Vezina stepped into the top job in 2017, the role of Algoma’s Brampton campus, a suburban community of over 600,000, was ill-defined. Talking to local leaders convinced her that Algoma could help the city achieve its ambitious 2040 Vision which called for a significant expansion in university access for their city. At the time, she notes, “Nobody saw Algoma as a big player. We were maybe 100 students at the time. Now, we’re 6,500.”

That growth came about by focusing intensely on what matters to Brampton. The University’s commitment to cross-cultural learning took on new meaning with the city’s highly diverse population. With computer science and technology in high demand at all three campuses, the school struck a bold National Centre of Excellence partnership with Unity Technologies, the leading platform in interactive, 3D content for augmented and virtual reality. To the media, the President explained, “We know the city of Brampton has aspirations to position itself as a key player and leader within the innovation space… and we are committed to playing a key role in helping them with this transformation.”

The University is now investing in the infrastructure to prepare grade 11 and 12 students for these programs. Students from underrepresented groups across the city now spend a term on campus learning, building confidence and preparing for these IT programs. Masters and PhD programs are also in the works, bringing a new level of talent into the industry nucleus.

For every dollar Brampton has invested, Algoma estimates their return on investment to be well over $29 in economic and social benefits, and this is growing. The Business Person of Year citation, in Dr. Vezina’s view, is recognition of the trust the University has built with the community. “It’s a thank you for taking action with us,” she explains. “In my opinion, this is a large responsibility of a University, to work with them to solve real problems, to grow in key areas of need and to collaborate and support their vision, needs, and aspirations as a community. That's what a University does for a community… provide resources for innovation and invest in good ideas that lead to expanded fields of research, talent development and creative workforces of tomorrow.”

Each story illustrates the immense potential that places and centres of learning, no matter how small, can unlock together. Proximity doesn’t create valuable relationships. But a systematic approach to listening and collaborating (with a healthy dose of ingenuity) certainly can. 

Jeannette Hanna is Chief Strategist for Trajectory, the Toronto-based agency specializing in branding for places and civic institutions including higher education. 

The Place Brand Portfolio is City Nation Place's searchable portfolio of Awards case studies from the past five years.