Existentialism

I had a great lunch yesterday where we delved into the question of why urban areas or communities exist at all and the role of public policy and economic development.  A hundred years ago we had hundreds of thriving small communities (of a few hundred people in many cases) with a butcher, a baker, a lawyer and all the other cliches.  There were a wide variety of reasons for this.  In the last 100 years we have seen consolidation into urban centres (more or less) but why do those urban centres even exist?  Can they be a transitional phase to some other state?   We can now shop online – that might end up ruling out the retail market.  We are encouraged to ‘age in place’ and there is an emerging trend toward more self-management of health care.  Education is changing.  Manufacturing investment is highly mobile now.  Technology-based industries are highly mobile. 

I guess my point is that cities like Moncton or Halifax or Bathurst or Sydney cannot rely on many of the legacy industries.    I think we will have to move to a centres of excellence model where urban areas focus on being really attractive to a few specific industries and let the trends in other industries play out as they will. 

I am not saying that place (geography) will completely become irrelevant.  In many ways it becomes more relevant – but more as a location for people and talent.   But many of the industries that were primarily place-based in the 19th and early 20th century have left those communities.  I think you can make a reasonable argument that many (at least some) of the place-based (or heavily influenced) industries will disappear. 

My thinking on this came out of a converation I had yesterday with a company that has a pile of high paying, highly skilled workers in Halifax and absolutely no place-based reason to be here.  No local markets.  The leadership wasn’t even from Halifax.  So, why, I asked are you here?  Because it is the best place for us to be (and he listed the 20 or so reasons).

That’s the future, I think.  We have to be good at some sectors that are not based primarily on place (local markets).

It’s not often we look at things in a generational context but I think it is wise once in a while.

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6 Responses to Existentialism

  1. I’ve been saying the same thing for years. Be an attractive place to live for people who are geographically independent. In Sackville we have several small companies and independents with clients outside the local area and no reason to be here other the lifestyle.

  2. mikel says:

    Gee, you sound almost like Richard Florida…but no, that can’t be true:)

    I lived in Sackville, and boy did I hate it! But I really wanted to hear those 20 reasons.

  3. Mike E. says:

    Hey David, I’m wondering if you worry that focusing on a few industries makes those areas too exposed to changes in those industries. Also do you feel that a small economy of a town like Bathurst or Miramichi has enough population/economic activity to be able to diversify? And lastly, do these small towns have enough population/economic activity in order to be able to attract and retain the skilled workers that they need? I know I for one would love to see a post or two devoted to topics like these. Kind of a here are the challenges and here’s how they can be met.

  4. Samonymous says:

    I think it’s a matter of trumping up the KBE so that opportunities meet the needs of those that have the potential to build a brighter and better New Brunswick. At the moment, we are losing far too many educated individuals with specific skills and settling for opportunities that retain mediocre individuals (the non-cream of the crop). You can’t build a 21st century economy with 19th century-type workers.

  5. “…focusing on a few industries makes those areas too exposed to changes in those industries.”

    I think that is a risk but as a matter of fact that is how things are shaking out right now. Vancouver is doubling down on film and digital media. Calgary has bought its way into biomedical research and nanotechnology. PEI has spent a pile building its capacity in animal science and nutraceuticals.

  6. Mike E says:

    David Campbell :
    “…focusing on a few industries makes those areas too exposed to changes in those industries.”
    I think that is a risk but as a matter of fact that is how things are shaking out right now. Vancouver is doubling down on film and digital media. Calgary has bought its way into biomedical research and nanotechnology. PEI has spent a pile building its capacity in animal science and nutraceuticals.

    Ah I may have misrepresented what I was meaning, I wasn’t asking should we be strategic with our development efforts? more I was meaning how do we go about being strategic with our efforts. You bring some good examples but they all seem to be industries that are highly skilled, which means big economies to attract/retain the talent or things like universities that pump out more skilled workers than needed locally. I don’t want to seem like I’m challenging your points; I really want to see the urban-rural and population decline conversation taking place in our region. You always take a balanced view on your blog so I’m hoping you will talk some more about this subject from a strategic/practical viewpoint.

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