19th century thinking in the 21st century

Just a quick follow up to my previous blog.

I am convinced that a lot of government folks, community leaders and economic developers in New Brunswick are still stuck in the 19th century when it comes to economic development.

You see, in the 19th century, economic development was all about exploiting natural resources. We had agricultural towns, mining towns, forestry towns and fishing towns (villages). Communities thrived primarily based on these natural resources and all the services that sprung up to support them. The very large towns (cities) emerged as regional hubs for commerce that couldn’t be easily accommodated in the smaller communities.

In the early part of the 20th century, economic development became about the transformation of those natural resources into value added products. It was about manufacturing. Manufacturing jobs accounted for the bulk of economic growth in the early to mid part of the 20th century. And New Brunswick really never took advantage of this trend while Quebec and Ontario did. Even today, something like 85% of the value of our exports is based on raw commodities such as refined oil, pulp & paper, unprocessed fish.

Now, in the 21st century, economic development has become about creativity. About software. The Internet. Animation. Call centres. Help desks. Personal and business services. Health care. Senior citizens. Entertainment. The vast majority of new jobs created in Canada in the last 15 years were in these areas. And only a tiny fraction (less than NB’s percentage share of the population) were created in New Brunswick.

Now, coming back to my original point. There are those inside and outside New Brunswick that think once a mine or a mill or a factory closes in a small rural town like Miramichi, Bathurst, Nackawic, etc., we should let the community die (read John Ibbitson for a stark version of this). Stop propping up these rural communities with welfare, EI and disporportionate government funding. Allow the free flow of labour. If the new jobs are in Alberta – encourage Miramichiers to move out to fill them. If New Brunswick becomes just a couple of small towns servicing what’s left of a mining, forestry and fish-based economy – so be it.

Those folks would be wise to leap ahead 150 years to the 21st century. In the 21st century, whether Miramichi thrives or dies will be based on their ability to leverage and develop the creativity of its people. Whether or not it can carve out a unique value proposition in the new economy the way its forestry and fishing did for the old economy.

Old Way:
Miramichi – forestry and fishing town

New Way:
Miramichi – animation and software development hub

Old Way:
Bathurst – mining and forestry town

New Way:
Bathurst – eLearning town and centre of excellent in distributed government service delivery

Old Way:
Tracadie – fishing village

New Way:
Tracadie – Value-added manufacturing outsourcing capital of North America (this presumes us building a four-lane highway up there as well as rail – but indulge me for a moment).

Old Way:
Saint John – Sugar refining, ship building, low value added manufacturing

New Way:
Saint John – Energy hub – focused on innovation – co-generation, wind power, tidal power, solar power (I am only partially kidding with the last one – SJ has more sunny days than Moncton or Fredericton according to Environment Canada).

But I fear there is absolutely no real interest among government and community leaders to do this. For the government, the strategy seems to be ‘survive’ until we leave office. If we can throw money at a mill to keep it alive five more years until we, er I, er… are in Ottawa – I mean out of power – can pass the problem on to the next guy. Except that’s what Robichaud said. And Hatfield. And McKenna (although he tried hard). And Lord. And xxx. And xxx.

Resolve to be a master of change rather than a victim of change.
Brian Tracy, author of Goals: How to Get Everything You Want-Faster Than You Ever Thought Possible

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