August 28, 2015 - In Northern Ontario, the environment is one of the largest economic drivers, and at first glance, extracting a living from the land could appear as fertile grounds for a poverty of ideas. In a hyper-digitized global context, Northern Ontario’s traditional industries may fail to be thought of as sectors that are capable of creating new ways to earn a profit while building on cultural capital (Hall & Donald, 11), better known as non-financial assets, such as education, ideas, and knowledge that arm individuals with a social advantage (Crossman).
“Much of the research on the contemporary-knowledge economy starts from the assumption that economic inputs have shifted away from traditional resources and physical attributes towards new knowledge and innovations,” says Heather Hall and Betsy Donald.. “Ideas-generation, then, is what drives the new knowledge economy” (2). As an economy steeped in the natural resource industries, Northern Ontario’s strengths can be said to lie in incremental innovation - generating new value from its demonstrably strong markets. To vie with other countries for the badge of techno-centricity and the holder of the newest idea would be a disservice to Northern Ontario, as it is through fully pursuing its geographic advantage that the North will set itself apart from global competitors with respect to innovation (Hawkins, 18).
Although some of the larger Canadian urban centres have been stamped as having the upper hand in terms of creative capacity, they too, have reaped economic benefits from the natural resource industry. Metro Vancouver directly employs around 15,000 workers in woods products manufacturing, while in Toronto, 60 percent of the Stock Exchange listings are in mining, energy, clean tech, utility or forest product companies (Canadian Chamber of Commerce, 2).These gentrified, urban centres do not necessarily sustain themselves off the commercialization of mere ideas.
The term innovation is quite hazy, and lacks universal definition. “In common use” writes Dr. Richard Hawkins, “innovation is used interchangeably with invention [and] often used synonymously with technology,” which he argues is a misapplication (9). He writes, “[t]o this day, virtually all of the strategies, programs and measures undertaken by the Federal and Provincial governments in Canada[. . .] remain oriented to promoting industrial R&D and/or supporting the growth of start-up companies, mainly in the technology goods sectors” (Hawkins, 10).
The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) defines innovation as “the introduction of a new or significantly improved product, process or method [that] holds the key to boosting productivity” (OECD Ministerial Report, 1). In 2008, the Ontario Budget pooled $250 million into Ontario’s Research Fund, intended to be distributed over a period of five years. This would fund new research infrastructure, such as labs and necessary equipment to enhance the capacity of Ontario’s academic research institutions, upon which the government relies to spur innovation (Ontario’s Innovation Agenda, 8). For 2007, the OECD revealed that Canada had the second highest level of indirect government support for innovation by way of research and development tax incentives, and that about 53 percent of new-to-market product innovators blossomed out of in-house research and development from 2004 – 2006 (Ministerial Report on the OECD Innovation Strategy, 7, 15). In 2014, Canada’s gross domestic expenditures on research and development were anticipated to reach $30.6 billion, comparable to $30.7 billion in 2013 (Statistics Canada, spending on research and development, 2014 (intentions). While, Canadian businesses falter at the bottom of the scale for investment in terms of research and development, when compared to other OECD countries. Business funding in research and development receives 0.88 percent of the GDP – a number that can easily be considered an underinvestment (Mckenna).
How does Northern Ontario look from this techno-centric lens? In December of 2014, FedNor announced a $3.1 million investment into the Private-Sector Youth Internship Program, which Lake of the Woods Business Incentive Corporation and Nord-Aski Regional Economic Development Corporation has been delegated to administer. So far, the Northeast has attracted 10 successful applicants, with interest mostly garnered through direct outreach strategies, such as going out on the frontiers to speak with business owners personally. The program was initially marketed in local newspapers, which had not captured any interest. With generic advertising forms, and an inherent apprehension about the administrative and reporting duties associated with government funding, business owners are suspected to feel that the odds can be sometimes stacked against them in terms of funding accessibility. On top of this, is the three-tiered criterion: in order to qualify, the intern’s duties must fall within the vein of innovation, information and communication technology, or export/trade (Lake of the Woods Business Incentive Corporation). First impressions of these categories seem exclusive, and may suggest on its face that many small and medium businesses may, by nature of their operations, be ineligible.
Business operators do not need to transform the originally envisioned duties of an intern to be eligible for the program, rather, they only need to consider capturing the nature of one of these sectors to fall within the intern’s realm of responsibility. Research that is intended to diversify a business’s product line is innovative, creating a database or information reservoir for tracking business trends or consumer patterns is a form of information technology. Establishing good trade relationships, or a strategy on how to strengthen those relationships, is within the vein of trade. You do not need to be a living and breathing exemplar of the sector itself. All that is needed from business owners is an openness to the idea and a degree of flexibility that will allow their business the opportunity to expand. In terms of numbers, FedNor will fund up to 50 percent, up to a maximum amount of $31,500 of eligible costs for an internship period of 12 months for small-medium business (FedNor, Lake of the Woods Business Incentive Corporation).
Internships enable Northern communities to hold on to their highest valued assets – its people, by creating opportunity for them. In the Northwest, internships such as mold index database development, ICT and website development, and electronic marketing have been approved for the program, among other positions in the areas of tourism and retail. In Statistics Canada’s 2011 Survey on Financing and Growth of Small-Medium Sized Business, it was noted that one-third of respondents from Northern Ontario cited labour shortages as an impediment to growth and expansion (FedNor). The Private Sector Youth Internship not only arms business owners with the human capital necessary to expand their business, but also supports the modernization of their operations which will help strengthen their competitive edge in new markets. “Human capital is the essence of innovation” OECD writes, “[. . .] Innovation requires a wide variety of skills, as well as the capacity to learn, adapt, or retrain, particularly following the introduction of radically new products or processes (Ministerial report on the OECD Innovation Strategy, 9).
”Policy attitudes and actions” Dr. Hawkins says, “remain oddly wedded to a much earlier incarnation of the innovation conversation” – at a time when technology was making great strides alongside national innovation policy development in the 1980s – 1990s (7-8). Perhaps the misgivings that the public have with the criteria for the Private-Sector Youth Internship Program speaks to this socially pervasive idea that innovation means technology, and that innovation and invention are the same thing. This is not the case. For Northern Ontario’s businesses to be able to expand their markets beyond local boundaries, they first need to be given the opportunity to build capacity in their local market – that is, to build civic capital, which begins with access to a skilled workforce. The Private Sector Youth Internship provides this opportunity to business owners who have the potential and willingness to grow – not abandoning their local roots, but naturalizing their market in new climates, while blooming where they are planted.
By Mandy Masse, policy intern with Northern Policy Institute
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