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New Brunswick's Economic Future Rests On Innovation

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There seems to be quite a few articles in popular media lately predicting doom and gloom for New Brunswick: high unemployment, outmigration of youth, crushing debt and deficit. Most recently was an article by Martin Patriquin in Maclean's magazine.

I have my own story to add to this. I am a lifelong resident of Fredericton and want to be near my family. I recently completed my PhD in sociology at the University of New Brunswick and have entered the job market, sending out applications to universities, government, think tanks and consulting groups (any of you out there, feel free to contact me!).

I am feeling more and more that I will have no choice but to leave the province (and I have friends saying that for me this would be for the best).

I feel compelled here to offer some of my thoughts on economic development in New Brunswick, about the province's future. I am not new to this topic. I have written on it for popular media, published a peer-reviewed paper with the Canadian-American Center at the University of Maine and given public talks on the issue.

I have contributed to Insight articles for the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto (headed by Richard Florida) on economic development in New Brunswick and in smaller jurisdictions.

New Brunswick needs innovative thinking from policy makers, and an understanding of the 21st-century economy and how the province can best position itself. There needs to be a focus on entrepreneurship and innovation, a focus on seizing opportunities offered by the green economy. The province needs to build an economy based on innovation and sustainability.

A report from CZB consulting on Millinocket, a town in Maine which had faced mill closures, is illustrative. The report (in the form of a blunt open letter to the town) stated that Millinocket had to be open to new thinking and fundamental change on economic development policy with changes in the world economy.

The report cited a distrustful attitude to outsiders as also an inhibition. The report highlighted a need to emphasize education and invest in beautification to promote tourism.

The report stated that:

The bottom line is that Millinocket has long resisted truly adapting to a changing world, and that resistance has served you poorly... In short, the world has changed (over) the last 50 years to a far greater degree than Maine has, and to an especially greater degree than the Katahdin Region has. It's uncomfortable for us to say, and no doubt even less comfortable for the community to hear, but the world has left Millinocket behind and no one will pay the catch up costs except you, so if you don't, it's game over.

A headline from Maine's Portland Press Herald on this report stated that "All Maine is Millinocket." New Brunswick can be included in this as well.

We have to ask, is New Brunswick a welcoming place for outsiders? We have had positive headlines about welcoming Syrian refugees (which is a good thing).

However, can outsiders genuinely have a substantial role here or do old family networks dominate? Are women and visible minorities excluded from the halls of power or just patronized? Do youth feel they have a genuine role to be included and "break the mould?"

There is an amazing and innovative generation of under-30s coming of age, and it would be unfortunate if they felt ignored and/or stifled.

There needs to be a space for new ideas on economic development to be heard, not themes from decades ago from the same voices.

Cities are important centres of innovation and collaboration, they are important economic engines. There needs to be a provincial urban policy. It is key for provincial policy makers to listen to municipal councillors and mayors, there are many innovative thinkers among them and they know firsthand the needs of their municipalities and neighbourhoods.

This urban strategy needs to focus on the importance of walkable city and town centres which are increasingly popular among young people to live and work. The challenges of suburbanization and transit also need to be addressed.

There needs to be long-term thinking from policy-makers -- it cannot just be about the next election or cutting a few costs for the next budget.

A Brookings Institution report on Maine emphasizes that while the state has an image of being rural, the growth of city regions is increasingly characteristic of the state.

The report emphasized urbanization and suburbanization (with the need to curb sprawl) as important policy priorities in the state. This is applicable to New Brunswick, where Dieppe and suburban Quispamsis are among the fastest-growing municipalities in the province, as per the 2011 census.

Rural areas and small communities are important, too, there is a need for innovative thinking on agriculture and tourism. Research from the University of Toronto's Martin Prosperity Institute, on rural Ontario and the creative economy, highlights the importance of "branding" in building a competitive advantage in rural food products and in catering to a growing demand for healthy and sustainably produced foods.

The research also highlights the role of universities -- research and development -- in spurring a creative rural economy. An example cited is the partnership between the University of Guelph and peach and wine producers in the rural Niagara region, promoting innovation in agriculture.

This highlights the importance of investing in universities and in research and development (a benefit in agriculture and in many other economic sectors).

New Brunswick needs innovative thinking, it needs to take advantages of opportunities in green technology and in the 21st century knowledge-economy. There needs to be a place for new voices and new ideas, and an environment where people from a range of backgrounds feel welcome.

There needs to be long-term thinking from policy-makers -- it cannot just be about the next election or cutting a few costs for the next budget.

New Brunswick faces serious challenges, but there is potential. Let's hope this potential can be seized upon.

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