Innovate! New Brunswick!

I think I mentioned in the past that I listen to the audio edition of the Economist magazine each week on my Ipod.  It’s about a six hour or so endeavor but between snow shovelling, driving, cleaning house, etc. there is usually time each week.

Much to my surprise this morning while making the kids’ lunches, I hear the article reader start to talk about innovation in the public service and wasn’t I surprised to hear little New Brunswick mentioned as an example of government innovation “spurred on by a new generation of younger, more web-savvy civil servants”:

Many think the web will shift the balance of power between the public sector and its clients. Worried about your child’s school? You can join a discussion group on Facebook. Furious with the American government? You can see how much it is costing you at Fed up with Britain’s lousy roads? Go to Don Tapscott, one of the cleverer cybergurus and co-author of “Macrowikinomics”, points to the rise of “prosumers”: rather than merely accepting what the government offers, citizens will shape new services as they appear. Places like the District of Columbia and Canada’s province of New Brunswick have been pioneers, spurred on by a new generation of younger, more web-savvy civil servants.

I assume the article is referring to Service New Brunswick but if there is a more obvious example of a web-savvy government transformation here let me know.

It got me thinking about the factors that went into Service NB.    One, a public demand for more efficient public services (but this existed elsewhere too).  Two a Premier that was a driver of this stuff (remember the failed Accenture deal around technology and health care?).  Three, there was a cost crisis.  The Service NB model was developed during the massive retrenchment in public spending in the early to mid 1990s and, four, there was a core team headed by a guy named Bob Gamble (I think) who took on the project with gusto.

Fast forward to 2011.  I would argue there are some of the same factors relating to our economic development efforts.  Sure, the public demand isn’t really there but the Premier is making the right noise about economic development – I hope he is a driver on this.  There is a cost crisis and there is a move afoot to do some new – and maybe innovative – thinking around economic development efforts.

I won’t get too far into this thinking but one example has been on my mind recently.

Just to set the context, I keep hearing from everyone that the ‘game has changed’ when it comes to attracting new business investment to the province.  I am told that competition is far higher (mostly as a result of the U.S. crisis) and the traditional value proposition for the province – lower costs and lots of available workers – is drying up.  It’s the new buzz phrase – value proposition or business case for investing here (this applies to local firms as well who are building offices elsewhere to access labour).

At the same time, the same experts will say that nowadays the value proposition for investment is tied to specific sectors.  A broader, low cost/available workers value proposition only makes sense in relatively low skilled industrial activity and there is lesser of that around these days.

So my logical question is simple.  What is the concentration of people – public and private sector – in New Brunswick working to build a new, compelling value proposition for investing in our potential growth sectors?

We have by most estimates around 600 government people working in economic development in New Brunswick between BNB, RDC, ACOA, Enterprises, CBDCs, NRC, NBIF, etc.   So how many of them are focused on building the value proposition for a specific sector – say ICT, aerospace, life sciences, forestry, minerals, etc.?

It seems to me this is a core problem and just ready to be plucked for a new approach.  BNB might have a few people assigned to a specific sector – mostly likely in different divisions and functions.  There may be a few people in the Enterprise agencies working part of the time on a specific sector, ACOA maybe a couple.

Then there is the private sector efforts to grow their own industry.  Most industries have virtually no capacity building organization in NB – some have a superficial organization with an executive director tasked to lobby the government.

Think about how you might really lean into a sector and pull a ‘Service New Brunswick’.

What if there were 50 people working directly on growing the ICT sector from the public and private sectors?  All working on a coordinated plan to address the talent pool, foster the R&D environment, support the attraction of industry leaders, work collectively on infrastructure, etc.  What if the public and private sectors jointly invested in a plan for a serious ‘Service New Brunswick’ style effort to grow their sector?

50 people out of 600 (and that is just on the public side) doesn’t seem like a lot but it is laughable given the current bureaucracy, silos, mistrust between public and private players, education on the periphery, etc.  It is hard to get people within a department sometimes – let alone between departments or governments or government and the private sector to work closely on a a specific initiative.

I think this is an important and timely thought exercise.

In my view we could really take our economic development efforts to a new level if we thought in this way.  It’s not about soviet style planning.  It’s about getting a critical mass of talent, resources and ideas working on a joint solution to a serious problem.

Sure government and industry will always have points of tension.  Industries will always have intra-industry competition. The culture of the education community will never fully mesh with a private sector culture but that should not stop us from trying.

The last point is around how to select sectors with growth potential.  You can’t marshal 50 people for 500 sectors.

A few comments on this.

First, I don’t think you have to be so draconian about this.  We start with the low hanging fruit.  We take a long look at internal strengths and map that to investment trends in the wider world.  We align resources.  If a new, emerging industry group comes along – say a sub-industry like social media – and is convinced in the potential to create hundreds of new jobs and millions in new tax revenue for government, we can expand the group of sectors.  Remember, in my model we are leveraging private sector resources as well – not just taxpayer dollars.  If an industry is prepared to put – even a modest amount of – money on the table, that good will is worth leveraging.

But the focus has to be on growth.  There are key, legacy industries that we need to nurture to ensure their ongoing success even if there is not much growth potential but we must focus on those sectors with real growth opportunities.

If you go back 10 and even 15 years we were told that ‘aerospace’ held amazing potential for NB.  It’s not much larger now than it was back then.  There are many examples of this.    If we really lean into a sector development effort and bring a wide range of people, resources and ideas to the table we have to be reasonably assured there is potential for growth.  Spending millions to stand still or even go backward is not my idea of a ‘Service New Brunswick’ level of success.

Who knows?  Maybe in 10 years they will be talking in the Economist magazine about a new savvy group of economic developers in New Brunswick.

We won’t know if if we don’t try.

5 thoughts on “Innovate! New Brunswick!

  1. ” Two a Premier that was a driver of this stuff (remember the failed Accenture deal around technology and health care?).”

    I think that was the key. The other factors were present in other regions but the outcomes were different. McKenna had his faults but he did show some direction and hired some good people to implement change – and SNB was the first agency like that in NA, I believe. I don’t see much sign of that innovative approach in the current admin. Given the stories in the local papers over the past day or so re the size of the civil service, plus the prominent coverage given to the usual rants from CFIB and CTF, and one gets the impression that the PCs are preparing the groundwork for major spending cuts rather than anything innovative.

    Good things can come out of a crisis – provided you have the right leadership in place. The PCs are not showing much of that yet, neither are the Libs. Meanwhile, Mr Cardy of the NDP is sounding like a Libertarian when it comes to ED! Maybe I’m on the Planet Bizarro.

    “BNB, RDC, ACOA, Enterprises, CBDCs, NRC, NBIF, etc”

    That’s the other problem. Quite a few of the ED dollars are federal – and the feds have their own priorities. It is really up to NB to come with a strategy that the feds can buy into, otherwise the SNB approach is a non-starter.

  2. Can we even agree on what a good Econ. Dev. process is? Considering the effort expended in this area, within this region, I can see why we may be inclined to argue that there must exists a nascent superior capability in this area – that we must simply remove bureaucratic roadblocks to achieve a ground swell of opportunity. However, in order for me to be convinced of such potential, I must hear, see and smell some indication of a much deeper appreciation of why what worked in the past, worked – and why what didn’t work, didn’t. Political influences coupled the human penchant for post rationalization/justification seems rather high within our current structure. Without these intellectual chains being removed, our econ dev. efforts will remain not much more sophisticate than a child playing with a gun. The solution in such a case is not giving the child a bigger gun.

  3. Did you see that article on business clusters and their impact on innovation in the Globe and Mail, . I guess we have to be careful not to confuse economic development and innovation, what is your opinion?

  4. A few things. First, that G&M article says international linkages and relationships are more important to innovation than clusters. That makes sense to me. I haven’t been a huge fan of the cluster theory because it is strongly biased towards size. But the truth is that all large clusters started small at some point. I am increasingly convinced that we need to be focused more on growth sectors. It just seems to me that if we are to work on making New Brunswick a better place to invest – it make sense to have some target areas.

  5. Too much dependance on govt hand outs by so called economic dev groups. Very little innovative/creative thinking. NB and the maritimes in general is a great place to live ie lifestyle/quality of life here second to none. Should be a strog point for attrating IT, Technology companies, research centres(build on the number of universaties. with the importance of water world wide we could be a center of research on conserving, managing treatment etc.Expand/add on to medical research labs for new drugs and treatments (cancer heart) etc These technologies could be marketed to the world. (p.s. I do not advcate for privatization of our water resources)
    Get rid of the govt bail outs for the old traditional industries such as forestry, power generation by coal, oil, nat gas, and nuclear. These are all on life support and will be forever. use that money to dev a new economy which is less dependent on these energy sources. Fishing is also being kept on life suport by govt funding which is doled out on political expediance rather than helping the industry to survive on it,s own. This is not to say that these old industies will not be a part of our economy they will but will susceed standing on their own merits. Just my rambling thoughts.

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