One of the most important things about the offshore oil industry is not the oil and the revenues, even though they made us a have province. But in the long term they are a by-product and the real leave-behind is the smart technology we develop. That technology, and the expertise behind it, can be exported. That premise extends into segments of other industries like offshore safety, navigation, shipping, and even into the fishing industry. It is not technology to harvest; it is smart technology to harvest intelligently.

When Mary Williams first started as the director general of the NRC here I met with her on behalf of the City of St. John’s. She found it intriguing that a city would get involved in ocean technology. Usually when municipalities do get involved in supporting industry it is the standard ones—retail, manufacturing, but not ocean technology. For other regions it is an unknown entity and so may be seen as risky. When she asked about NRC’s profile in the local community I told her they are not widely known outside the ocean technology sector. And we were both in agreement that raising that profile should be a priority for a number of reasons, not the least of which is attracting and retaining young people to the province and to the ocean technology sector.

Facilities like NRC’s Institute of Ocean Technology, and the new technologies and exciting start-up companies that spin out of them will attract younger people –giving them a reason to stay in the first place, bringing them back home, or attracting young people from elsewhere. And I can’t overstate how important such a strategy is because the problem of our demographics, in terms of an aging population, is huge.

We had a population report prepared and the implications, unless we make changes, are sobering. Our biggest issue in this city, this region, and this province, bar none, is our aging demographic. And that is why one of our goals in Roadmap 2021 is about newcomers and young people. So if we have a technology that is interesting and unique and leading edge, one would hope this becomes an attractive thing, attracting people to go to school here, or to invest here, or to start a business, or to become an employee here.

For many years the ocean was the industry of last resort.  But now people are looking around and saying, “The offshore oil industry made us a have-province but once those revenues are gone it’s the legacy of that activity that will carry us forward.”  Part of that legacy is our expertise at developing technology in a place that has access to some of the harshest conditions on the planet. That becomes our niche and our opportunity. That is how St. John’s is different from other cities. And as a result exciting things continue to happen.

We are working with the sector locally to help fuel that creativity. Among the things the City is driving is the Speakers Series with OceansAdvance. It is a true cluster activity. You get 30 -100 people from the sector in a room. They exchange what is going on in their world. They learn about new programs and activities and then have a dialogue in a non-issue based environment. That is a very healthy thing to do.” There are no fees, it is not complicated, and it just seems to work.

We are changing our attitudes in some ways too. For example, our approach to marketing our environmental conditions has gone full circle: not too many years ago we shunned the concept of “harsh conditions” here in the northwest Atlantic. But now we recognize that these challenging conditions are now a cornerstone for our sales message. Today much of the world wants a piece of the action as far as the commercialization of new technologies for exploration, development and production in the Arctic are concerned. Even places as far afield as China and India are looking to get in on the action.

And the local community is very proactive in its efforts to lead in this deal. A prime example of forward thinking to capitalize on the growing interest in the polar region is the arctic research facility that C-CORE is establishing. It is a direct result of astute, practical-minded people seeing a real opportunity and bringing together the resources to make things happen. They are going to position themselves as leaders in Arctic R&D.

Government at all three levels has a role to play in encouraging this kind of forward thinking and initiative. The City of St. John’s is a match maker. We identify gaps in the industry and find players who can fill them. For example we felt that the innovative technologies here deserve international attention but there was very little play in the international technology media. So we set out to encourage technology media to find out about us and learn more. That is happening. We are no longer an unknown entity. I expect we’ll be seeing more developments like the joint venture between Pan Geo and GGS that was announced in January.

In another initiative the City of St. John’s has been working with oceans-related agencies and organizations to try to get people to think about hosting their meetings or events or conferences here.

There are the immediate benefits of filling hotels and restaurants but, long term, it’s the infrastructure and the expertise that impresses people when they come here and see what we have in such a small city. That goes a long way to selling our location and the ocean technology sector. That, in part, is the role of the city: work with organizations to generate positive exposure and continue to help raise the profile of the cluster internationally. 

The key to doing this right is being strategic. Doing the right things. Not everything has to be big and international. One of the simplest things we did has been a great success locally. The Speakers Series with OceansAdvance now seems to be on everyone’s agenda. It is a true cluster activity. You get 30 – 100 people from the sector in a room. They exchange what is going on in their world. They learn about new programs and activities and then have a dialogue in a non-issue based environment. That is a very healthy thing to do.” There are no fees. It is not complicated.  It just works.

And even the conferences don’t have to be big; they just have to be right for what we are doing.  Having said that I will admit that big doesn’t hurt either—but it also has to be right. For example, the Oceans 2014 Conference it is both. The city raised the question about hosting that conference more than a decade ago. We asked, “What if…” So we brought all the players together and started a brainstorming session that had the right people thinking about it for a long time. So by the time the opportunity came for us to bid on hosting the event, the community was ready and we actually landed it. That is very significant. 

Our role in the 2014 conference is not to organize or to stage it. Our role is to raise the profile and awareness of the potential and get the message out to, “consider hosting your ocean conference here.”

In our Roadmap which we just released in November of 2011, one of our five goals is focused around ocean technology and offshore resources. In the plan we recognize that in that area, many of the things we are doing are right but we’ve added a few new twists.

For example we recognize that we should be working with other coastal and northern communities and creating a dialogue to see where the opportunities are for us as municipalities to work together.

We also think there is an opportunity to strike a thinkers forum, to bring some thinkers or policy makers here to talk about what the opportunities are. Again, our role is not really to drive it. Our role is to bring potential partners into the room and say, “What do you think? They did this last year in Iqaluit and the Conference Board of Canada was behind it. Why isn’t that happening here? It is time for us to have that kind of big dialogue on the big issues that lie ahead of us in this sector.