Crotchety: my new favorite word. Otherwise known as grouchy, irritable, grumpy, and cross, it exactly fits my current bad mood. For the last couple of years, I’ve heard nothing but grumbling and growling from the business community: taxes are too high… the oil cash cow has gone dry… Muskrat Falls is a boondoggle… we can’t compete with government salaries… there’s not enough workers… our population is aging. Whine, whine, whine, whine, whine…
Frankly, I’m sick of it. I’m not saying the issues don’t exist, but enough with the complaining already. If necessity is the mother of invention, it’s high time we got innovating.
Atlantic Canadians used to be amazing world-class innovators (see this issue’s For Starters for proof), and much of it was from a period when there were a heck of a lot fewer of us. Times were tougher then too, and the world seemed bigger. Transportation and communication took weeks, if not months, to traverse the globe. And despite lower standards of living and poor health care and precarious employment, we were pervasively inventive. Visit any small town or isolated community from only a hundred years ago and you’d find numerous people doing more with less—people who made things work, against all probability, simply because they had no other choice.
Sure, we still have innovators (whose accomplishments we proudly proclaim throughout the pages of this issue), but they are almost exclusively within the academic R&D community.
You know what our problem is? We’re too soft. Despite all our moaning and groaning, we have it too good—we’re too healthy, too safe, too well off—to become the innovators we need to be if we’re ever going to enact the transformative change that we will soon (very soon) desperately need. Think innovation is a synonym for a new (or improved) piece of technology? Hell no. That’s not innovation—that’s just a tool. Sure, it might be a very expensive and complex gadget, but it’s still a tool nonetheless. If you want to know what innovation really is, and where it comes from, start with one all-important question: what if… What if we accepted the things we cannot change, and focused our energies on changing the things we can?
Despite all our moaning and groaning, we have it too good to become the innovators we need to be if we’re ever going to enact the transformative change that we will soon (very soon) desperately need.
Begin with the rapid advance of technological advancement. Most people recognize that substantive social change is in the wind and that substantive numbers of low-skilled but well-paid jobs are expected to be replaced with artificial intelligence. This is something we cannot change, any more than our 1980’s counterparts could have held back the Internet.
Now, consider our aging population. We can’t change the fact that the biggest population boom in human history is fading. According to Statistics Canada, our region’s working age residents could drop to only 55 per cent of our total population within 20 years. No matter how many immigrants we attract, it’s highly unlikely that we’ll be able to replace the tens of thousands of taxpayers who are about to retire from the workforce.
Now, ponder for a moment on the number of postsecondary institutions in Atlantic Canada and the generally advanced education of our population. According to the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council, Atlantic Canadians age 25-29 have more graduate degrees than any of the other provinces across Canada.
Now, consider the energy abundance here in the region—from offshore oil and wave energy to onshore wind and hydro power (even the much-maligned-at-the-moment Muskrat Falls), we are a literal battery pack.
So, here’s my ‘what if’… what if we look for the opportunities instead of just seeing the obstacles? What if we recognized our shrinking but highly-educated population as the ideal work force for the technologicallyforced downsizing that’s coming our way? What if we looked at our universities and colleges as essential attraction tools for immigration and R&D—and invested in them more instead of less? What if we changed the way we see our power projects, so that we identify them as economic engines rather than cash guzzlers? For decades, we’ve seen a continuous loss of manufacturing to regions with poor working conditions and similarly horrid wages. Those people may be replaced by machines, but those machines still need power to operate. What if we mandated regional power projects so that they had to provide ultra-low cost power to regional consumers, making Atlantic Canada a sought-after location for an increasingly automated global manufacturing sector?
I’ll leave you with my final word of the day, and it’s the one thing we can’t afford any more: complacency. You’ll hear more about this in our next issue. Stay tuned for #ThinkBIG.