My thinking on economic development has evolved over the years. As long time readers will know for a number of years now I have been advocating for what I call an opportunities-based approach to economic development. In its simplest terms, a community or province (or even country) looks to exploit specific jurisdictional assets or attributes into economic opportunity.
We have some examples of this, of course. Some folks realized in the late 1980s that aquaculture was taking off in places like Norway and that the Bay of Fundy would be an ideal location for this type of industry. Government put a variety of policies and programs in place to exploit the opportunity and it has become a $300 million industry for New Brunswick. Business services centres would be another example ($1.5 billion export revenue sector) and cybersecurity would be a more recent example (strong capabilities at UNB, growing global demand, a few market leaders already in New Brunswick). So government and economic development agencies are working to build that industry – investing a relatively modest amount of time and money in hopes of generating another billion dollar industry for the province.
As I always say – this is not the same as large scale industrial policies like we have seen in the past. For example, say New Brunswick wants to build an auto manufacturing sector so it offers huge subsidies and other inducements to build something from scratch (maybe like Bricklin in the 1970s). I’m not going there. We can have the conversation but for me I’m talking about something far more simple.
If we have a lot of maple trees in Albert County have we made any effort to see if a cluster can be developed like in northwestern New Brunswick? If we have fallow agricultural land – have we inventoried it and are we pitching opportunities to European farmers? If we have a core expertise in language translation/industries – can we deliberately do things to strengthen the value proposition and then sell that opportunity to entrepreneurs as well as national and international businesses? In the near term the Fundy Trail could be attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors every year – is someone sketching out a plan for investment in tourism assets to help them deposit more money here or are we sitting back and hoping the private sector will eventually figure things out?
This is one the fundamental issues. Some folks are of the vlew that if there is an opportunity that the private sector will automatically step in. This is not the case. We have an information problem. If the Town of St. Stephen could use a few more dentists, physios, etc. because residents are driving out of the community for these services (just an example, not necessarily true), why wouldn’t the town identify the demand, whip up a business case, maybe bolster the investment environment in some way and then trundle off to the big city or health care trade shows to flog the potential? If UNB has an excellent research centre in biomedical engineering – are we doing enough to link the capability to the private sector and investment? Or are we just hoping that the Phds are out pounding the pavement?
Whether it is a local market gap or a large scale export opportunity such as mining project or manufacturing venture – why is it not a primary role of economic developers to shine a light on those opportunities and bring them to potential investors (entrepreneurs or local, national or international firms)?
Again we do this in a selective way. I just want us to be far more intentional about it.