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.