Let’s be realistic about ICT in Saint John

Despite the hype around ICT in Saint John and New Brunswick, R&D spending here is the second lowest in the country ($422/capita 2007, beating out PEI by a hairs breath at $420, and way under Ontario and Quebec at $1069 and $1022 respectively) [link].

While there are some solid ICT players in Saint John, the prospects for long-term or scalable success in that sector are not assured. ICT jobs are also much more mobile than other types of employment, and jobs and even companies can disappear overnight unless there is a larger synergy or incubator in play.

Traditionally, that incubator was NBTel; today, there is no anchoring company to take over that role. We have some solid, successful local companies — Radian 6, for example — but none on the scale needed to incubate a full economy around ICT. It doesn’t help that we don’t have much of a local academic presence in that space (with UNB’s focus on Fredericton instead).

I’m not suggesting that Saint John ignore opportunities in the ICT sector. Just the opposite. We should grab every chance at harbouring these types of jobs, and try to hold on to this industry like grim death. And there may be real opportunities to grow a niche industry around e-health and health industry ICT. But let’s be realistic about the role that ICT is likely to play in the future of this community. It will hopefully bring high quality jobs to this region, but it won’t become solid bedrock to build an economy upon.

What does that mean in terms of municipal planning? It means we need to remain open to other kinds of businesses, the harder, heavier industries that Saint John has of late been turning away from. We can’t afford the illusion that we have a natural advantage in ICT, because we don’t. We have good people and wonderful entrepreneurs. We have a good quality of life (though you wouldn’t believe it speaking with many Saint Johners), which can attract talent from away and make it easier for businesses to relocate here. But we don’t have the educational or government investments needed to trigger a burst of innovation, we don’t have a critical mass of technology players, and we don’t have the connectivity — in terms of broadband, business or transportation — that might make us stand out from all the other communities in North America and the world who now also think they’re ICT centres of excellence.

And thus, we don’t have the luxury of saying no to dirtier, less sexy industries. Let’s keep that in mind as we try to find ways to make Saint John sustainable again.

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