What ever happened to GIS?

This ties into my TJ column today about research.

When I came back to New Brunswick in 1991, the province was already becoming known for its geomatics and GIS expertise from the excellent work at UNB.   So the question is simple.  Why didn’t we leverage that great research into a serious geomatics cluster in New Brunswick?

Why didn’t we go out and try and attract the top players such as ERSI based on the capabilities here?   Why didn’t we put incentives in place to increase the technology’s use here?   Why aren’t there hundreds if not thousands of jobs in this sector with international and local companies providing services and technology around the globe?  When you google geomatics cluster you get many hits about a very interesting initiative in Alberta – but I went through a dozen pages of hits with no mention of New Brunswick.

There are a few companies operating in the sector that I know of but if you go back to studies done in the mid 1990s you will find all this talk about ‘potential’.

I just think we don’t do a good enough job looking at economic development from a cluster – or if you don’t like the word – an ecosystem perspective.

We should fund research that is aligned with targeted sector development efforts.  We should try to attract firms in those targeted sectors.  We should promote entrepreneurship in those targeted sectors.  We should build community college and university level diploma and degree programs to turn out graduates for these sectors.  We should be out targeting immigrants that have skills in those targeted sectors.  We should be branding the province or regions within the provinces as excellent places for those targeted sectors.  We should be preparing cost studies and tax studies showing our advantages in those sectors.  We should be developing tax incentive programs to attract investment into those targeted sectors.  We should organize trade missions in those targeted sectors.  We should…..

Ad hoc doesn’t seem to work that well.  Sure we had great GIS work at UNB 20 years ago – probably still do – but how are we building that into a more integrated approach to economic development?

2 thoughts on “What ever happened to GIS?

  1. I was involved in some if the GIS work in Alberta in the late 1990s (as architect of the ‘MuniMall’ project for Alberta Municipal Affairs). There were many plans for GIS back in those days but all the data was held under proprietary lock and key, so there wasn’t much anyone but the licensed vendor could do with it.

    In order to have built on local work and made geomatics work as an industry here, it would have been necessary to get a jump on the proprietary systems. But to do that would have involved the province opening its geographic data as a resource on which to build.

    As it stands now, there probably isn’t much that can be done. It’s most likely all privately owned and under contract to some U.S. or (if we’re lucky) Alberta-based company, and we can’t even do geomatics in our own province, much less globally.

    That said, let me address the wider question…

    > We should fund research that is aligned with targeted sector development efforts.

    Yes. But. On what basis do you do the targeting?

    The approach I’ve seen applied here in NB across all levels of government is that company execs lobby government ministers, who then determine that NB should invest in such-and-such, based on these recommendations.

    The problem is,

    a) these companies are usually looking for very short-term returns, if they are looking for research returns at all, and not just no-strings funding, which is more common

    b) NB companies are now behind the curve and are asking for research which has already been done elsewhere and which is therefore not original or useful

    c) NB companies are more concerned about competition here in NB (this is *especially* true of the larger NB companies) and seek research in order to gain a local advantage, freezing out existing competitors, or new industry from the grassroots or from external companies

    d) NB companies, and companies in general, want research which preserves existing business practices, and not the sort of research that would produce new startups and new employment sectors in the province

    These apply not just to research money, but to development money in general. If you allow the business sector direct the direction of economic stimulus, business will recommend spending in such a way that entrenches its own interests, even if this is harmful for the economy as a whole.

    Therefore, if research and development is to be targeted, it should not be based on the interests of existing business. Indeed, the larger and more entrenched the business, the less input it should have on the direction of this spending.

    Rather, what should be identified are new and unique ventures. This that have the potential to create economic activity (and not just some shop of flea market, which is what passes for ‘entrepreneurship’ out of the Chamber of Commerce these days). What are people doing that actually constitutes expertise? What are we actually getting good at?

    In view of that, GIS was probably destined to be a miss in this province. Did we have any *actual* capabilities or capacity in this province around GIS? Was the province prepared to step in, not simply with money, but with infrastructure and industrial support – being a provider of data and services, and being a model customer?

    From where I sit, I’ve seen minimal GIS work in NB over the last 10 years. It was probably all golf-course-ware — a bunch of corporate types and Business NB types out on the golf course saying, “hey, wouldn’t this be a good place to invest in?” And some half-formed plans to invest in something nobody in the province is actually doing.

    We have research, development and training infrastructure, capacities in place here in NB – not much, but it’s there. This should be the *source* of these new ideas, not some mill that you just turn on and send your golf-course ideas to. What are the researchers *actually* building and developing? How can we spin *that* off into a cluster?

    As long as we continue to thing of research and education merely as tools to be used by business to implement their plans, they will not add to NB’s economic development capacity. And then all the rest of it – “diploma and degree programs… targeting immigrants… branding the province or regions… preparing cost studies…e developing tax incentive programs… organize trade missions [etc]” – are nothing more than ways to strengthen the incumbents and to stifle actual economic development here.

    I’m not sure you get this (maybe I’m wrong). But the very same incentive, applied in one place, stimulates development, while applied in another, inhibits it. And in NB, we have become experts at using incentives to inhibit growth. We spend our money and incentives entrenching existing industries and anti-competitive practices, while we should be doing exactly the opposite.

  2. “What are the researchers *actually* building and developing? How can we spin *that* off into a cluster? ”

    I think you have to start that process one or two steps back. Its not just a question of spinning off innovations; its also a question of where the R&D dollars are invested. I agree that asking the existing business community where those dollars are invested is not a great idea; they will, indeed, want things done for them and be less interested in 1) investing their own money in their pet areas, and 2) areas that appear to be of little value to them but have some potential for the province. That point has been made a number of times before here.

    The question you ask re the basis for the targeting also has been posed many times on this blog; I don’t see much vision out there amongst our politicians, or from other leaders, to get us moving in that direction.

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