Can we turn this pandemic into an opportunity for Atlantic Canada?

Can we turn this pandemic into an opportunity for Atlantic Canada?
Sheri Somerville, CEO

In the early days of the COVID pandemic there was a popular joke about a potential business survey question: “Who led the digital transformation of your company?” And the choice of answers was: a). CEO, b). CIO, and c). COVID-19.

Although it’s hard to use the phrase “on the bright side” in relation to a global pandemic that locked the entire world down for months and sent economies into a tailspin., COVID-19 has had some paradoxical side effects.

In many instances COVID sped up trends and processes that have been happening already. At the Atlantic Chamber, we recently launched a new digital insight community called Atlantic IMPRESSIONS. We are using an advanced technology platform to gather near real-time feedback from businesses to help inform government support and policies—helping deliver better outcomes for business.

Other good examples are smart technologies and advanced manufacturing.

To comply with physical distancing as well as health and safety protocols, many factories turned their attention to new technologies, automation, and digital solutions as the best available way of staying safe AND keeping their businesses going.

Many business owners soon realized that advanced manufacturing solutions are not as prohibitively expensive or as complex to install and operate as previously thought. Moreover, it became clear that smart technologies are not only safe and convenient, they also boost productivity, improve quality of products and services, and increase businesses competitiveness—and all these benefits will remain after the pandemic is over.

Another trend accelerated by COVID was the number of employees working remotely. Almost overnight the perception of remote work as ‘not normal’ changed to commonplace and manageable.

COVID-19 has accelerated the acceptance of remote work and, like the increased use of advanced manufacturing and technology, remote work is probably here to stay. Businesses have gradually realised that being “tied” to the office in many cases is a cultural tradition and not an operational necessity.

Judging by the increasing number of media articles on this topic, we are now at the next stage: when people have begun to question whether living in a big city—with its stress, commute times and high rent—is necessary or even worth it. Perhaps it makes more sense to move to a smaller community with a unique quality of life, and work from there.

This is a golden opportunity for Atlantic Canada—a region with many smaller communities, famous for its friendly people, beautiful nature and lower cost of living compared to the big cities and other provinces. Job vacancy, immigration, and birth rate statistics confirm we can certainly accommodate more people.

However, to attract people from the cities to settle in our communities, we need the required infrastructure in place. Internet connectivity is a key element of that infrastructure. You cannot operate a business or work remotely if there isn’t adequate connectivity.

The challenge is the cost of building high-speed infrastructure is prohibitive in rural areas. A sparse population and large distances make it unprofitable from a business point of view.
But more people moving into rural areas means more customers and a viable business case for internet providers. Especially as many newcomers would be remote workers, and therefore heavy consumers of Internet services.

It’s a catch-22 situation: a provider can’t invest in infrastructure if there aren’t enough customers in the area, and the customers won’t move to an area without reliable high-speed Internet connectivity.

This is not an unbreakable circle. Considering all the positive ripple effects on local communities, this is a development opportunity which governments at all levels need to investigate.

In my view, public money to support improved rural Internet connectivity is a well justified investment. The lack of internet infrastructure is one of the key reasons people choose not to locate in our smaller communities. Solving that problem would attract more residents to our rural areas, which means more customers, more businesses, more taxes, and ultimately more prosperity for the region as a whole.

The reality is that demand for digital services is not going away. COVID or no COVID, the modern workforce is becoming more and more mobile, moving around more freely and settling down where they like it best. The regions that figure out how to attract those people, will make the best use of this opportunity. And I would love to see Atlantic Canada among them.

Because we are simply one of the best places in the world to live and work. •

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