by Rob Greenwood, Ph.D., Executive Director, Office of Engagement and Harris Centre, Memorial University of Newfoundland.

Regional innovation in the major centres in this province comes down to one activity: sharing knowledge. In one sentence that sums up what we discovered as part of a national study led by David Wolfe at the University of Toronto.

The aim of the Wolfe Project was to investigate regional innovation under three themes—innovation, talent attraction and retention, and governance and civic inclusion. They targeted 15 city regions across Canada including St. John’s. I was asked to lead the research on the St. John’s City Region in all three themes. With a team of Memorial faculty, students and research assistants we expanded that investigation to include Clarenville, Corner Brook, and Labrador West. We interviewed more than 150 business, government, industry and community organizations as well as individuals employed in a cross section of economic sectors.

As a result of this research the Harris Centre has just released A Commitment to Place: the Social Foundations of Innovation in Newfoundland and Labrador. This report takes an in-depth look at regional innovation which, we discovered, is strongly rooted in collaboration and knowledge sharing.  Within a region, that cooperation can come from the spontaneous flow of knowledge generated by a positive buzz or it can come from what is called the global pipeline. Global pipelines come into play when you interact with your market, or your supply chain, or your partners, at trade shows, or with government agencies, research facilities, and post secondary institutions. The more of these pipelines you have, the more freely knowledge flows and the more likely you are to be an innovator in your region.  

In all our research it quickly became obvious that the members of the ocean technology cluster in St. John’s not only understand the advantages of knowledge flow, but are putting it to work—and taking the lead in business and in governance in this province.

Learning to Innovate

To foster innovation for any given sector in a region and for individual firms to develop the innovative strength to compete internationally, research shows a constant flow of employees is required. They leave one firm to work for local competitors or other firms in the supply chain. Firms with specialized workers in NL, for the most part, don’t have that “problem” of other competitors stealing employees. And they see that as a good thing as far as employee retention is concerned. But the flip side of that can be stagnation, something that we uncovered in all the interviews we did in every sector across the province with the exception of the ocean technology cluster in the capital region. That sector seems to have sufficient scale to profit from this flow of highly qualified people among the firms.

The link with the postsecondary institutions is a critical piece of all this and another leading source of highly qualified people with new ideas. There is a lot of collaboration in the ocean technology sector among graduate students, faculty members, and OT firms. Graduates are key contributors taking their knowledge and global connections and bringing that into the firms where they go to work. Interacting with students during the undergraduate years, as well in their graduate years, adds to the innovative momentum by creating a gain with another type of knowledge flow—one that moves in both directions.

In A Commitment to Place, the technology firms in the St. John’s area are in many cases driven by young people who have made it part of their corporate mission to attract NLs back to the province. This is extraordinary, something not likely to be encountered anywhere else Canada. In the interviews they said that attracting the highly qualified people that they need is not easy but if they can get the people they need to move back home, then retention is easy because they want to be here. What was also interesting is that they are not using the national newspapers or the big job finding websites to find these people. They are using the networks of Memorial alumni often polling their current employees to ask them, “Who else do you know?”

Leading by Example

Of the report’s three themes, governance and civic engagement is the one on which I think the ocean technology cluster has the best opportunity to exercise its strength as an organization and build for future growth. Ocean technology has an unprecedented record of ongoing sustained, municipal, provincial, and federal alignment. There is a shared vision of ocean technology as an area of strength for the St. John’s Region. Those governments are collaboratively channelling investment and programs and infrastructure to support it. Contrast this with most other sectors in all the regions where we conducted interviews (including St. John’s). In each of these areas, people complained that federal/provincial battles have and continue to hinder collaboration.  

When a sector has its act together, has a plan, it can have a resilience that enables it to withstand dysfunctional governance. (Governance relates to the relations of all three orders of government, industry associations, and the wide range of non-government organizations). But if you are trying to start up something new or get inter-organizational or inter-community collaboration or partnering, then there is a lack of co-operation among levels of government. The St. John’s City Region for example is quite weak on collaborative governance at the regional level. The constant threat from the City to amalgamate surrounding communities hinders the very cooperation the City seeks to achieve.

Providing Leadership for Growth

The Ocean technology cluster has the expertise to find a new, more collaborative approach to intergovernmental support for regional development. This may be hard at the firm level but is possible at the cluster or organizational level.  And there is a very valid business reason for them to do so.

Governance is critical in creating  a sustainable, competitive advantage for a region. But, as we heard loud and clear during the research, Regional Economic Development Boards (REDBs) and municipalities do not have the resources to do their job. They feel they don’t get the respect or the funding from the federal or provincial governments. That translates into a lack of capacity at the sub-provincial level for good governance of the regional geography—look at the traffic issues, look at the air transportation issues, look at the labour market, look at  access issues, look at the industrial parks, look at the quality of life. That is all about municipal and regional governance: all essential components that firms depend on implicitly to support the success of their business initiatives.

We have a very rich, strong provincial government right now and Canada has an extremely high capacity government even as the federal model is undergoing some changes. But compared to our competitors elsewhere in Canada, in the US, in the Nordic countries, in Europe, Japan, Australia, we have very weak local governance capacity. That has implications for the strength and expansion of the cluster. We are all going to need the workers. We all need the infrastructure, the airport, the port facilities, all those resources on which businesses depend but over which they have no direct control.

If OceansAdvance and the ocean technology cluster want to bring their game to the next level, they need to have a more proactive voice in supporting the municipality and the REDBs because they are the fundamental instruments for making the right decisions. I encourage the cluster to take a look at our report, A Commitment to Place, look at the national project, and think about how they can, collectively, help to guide regional governance.