Someone sent me this very interesting article about Own the Podium and its implications for wider public policy. At its core, OTP had a “mandate to identify and develop those athletes with the most potential to succeed in the games.” The author provides a good overview of the program and its outcome and then evolves the argument:
“….the OTP program raises issues that go far beyond high-performance sports. It challenges Canadians to think about the meaning of competition in a global setting and to contemplate whether the OTP philosophy should also apply to other sectors of Canadian society. For example, in the context of the often-repeated aspiration by various governments to be among the most competitive countries in the world, the OTP experience raises important questions about whether Canadians have the same appetite to compete to be the best in other spheres such as innovation and technology.”
I have been arguing for a while that, while there are negatives, there is serious value in taking a focused approach to economic development. A small province like New Brunswick, in a relatively small country (population/GDP) like Canada, needs to have a small handful of sectors we are very good at and that are attractive for business investment. That doesn’t exclude other sectors developing but it with other provinces/states mostly being specific in their sector development efforts – we need to be equally focused.
The problem with focus, of course, is deciding who gets excluded. I had a long conversation with an economist at one of Canada’s larger think tanks (in Ontario) recently and he was arguing that Canada needs to focus in on a few of the largest urban centres. He thinks we have neglected investing in this urban growth centres in order to prop up weaker economies. He doesn’t like the idea of investing in losers – we need to be investing in winners.
In his mind, the OTP for economic development, would involve picking the large urban centres and making them the primary focus of economic development-related policies and effort. If smaller urbans and rural areas are witnessing declining economies, they should move to the large urbans. In his model, the focus on clusters should be restricted to the largest urban centres where there is the best potential and the rest of Canada should be exclusively focused on those industries that aren’t urban – forestry, mining, agriculture, etc.
As you might expect we had a wide ranging and rousing discussion. I didn’t change his mind. He told me Toronto life sciences industry leaders are completely annoyed that the feds feel this need to invest R&D dollars in places like New Brunswick in “sub-par” research opportunities just to say they are being fair to the rest of Canada while great world-beating research in Toronto gets underfunded.
Of course my hackles were raised but just one day later I had a similar conversation with someone in one of New Brunswick’s urban centres who almost word for word made the same case for not investing in Northern New Brunwick. He said Northern New Brunswick’s economy should be based on forestry, fishing and mining and the support services that revolve around those industries and that the real focus should be on the urbans in the south.
So, it’s complicated. I argue for focus and then I have two intelligent peers making the case for focus (geographic focus) and I chaff.
There must be some larger principle at work here. Smaller provinces, smaller urbans and regions like Northern New Brunswick should have the ability to build economic mass and provide the economic foundation on which social and community objectives are built.
This focus on foundation must be based on solid economic development principles. Bailing out dying industries, providing entrenched subsidies to counter bad business models and propping up the workforce with large personal transfers is not the way to go.
I guess that is why I have been increasingly focused on local ownership over economic development. When mandarins in Ottawa decide who wins and who loses, places like NB will always lose.
I think we need to find a way to blend these principles.