When the British Columbia Lions and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers meet in the 99th staging of the Grey Cup, Canada’s professional football championship, in Vancouver this Sunday, both teams will have squads of cheerleaders jumping and shouting from the sidelines in a loud and colourful effort to get the B.C. Place crowd roaring for their side. But while the young women in short skirts waving pompoms might be interesting for some to look at, nothing that they do is actually going to move the ball even a single yard down the field. They will score not a single point. Their contribution to the spectacle will not be captured in a single game statistic.
This morning, I was at the second event in as many weeks where the whole game plan seemed to be on pumping up the volume of the cheerleading rather than on the fundamentals of moving the ball down the field.
Speaker after speaker at these two events — last week’s kick off to Ottawa Entrepreneur Week and this morning’s regular monthly execTALKS event, both organised by the Ottawa Centre for Regional Innovation — spoke of the imperative that more “buzz” be created around Ottawa’s moribund technology scene as though sheer enthusiasm alone could overcome the very real challenges that face this critical sector of the local economy.
Now, don’t get me wrong; both events were hugely successful if measured by the size of the turnout and the energy of the participants. Like many others who said as much, I haven’t been at such high-energy and well-subscribed Ottawa tech events since the heydays of the late 1990s and early 2000s. And full kudos to OCRI and its new chief executive Bruce Lazenby for making every good effort to reboot that sense that we can make great things happen here in Ottawa.
I fear, however, that the cheerleading is drawing attention away from just how badly our team is actually performing on the field, and what needs to be done to turn that around. In a somewhat frightening three-part series in the Ottawa Citizen this past weekend, veteran Ottawa tech writer James Bagnall detailed how the region has lost about 40 percent of its high-tech jobs over the past four years, with employment levels in the sector threatening to tumble further to the disastrous lows of the post-telecom-meltdown years.
More tellingly, we have lost ground to nearly every other significant technology cluster in the country. Over the same four years, tech-related employment has jumped more than 50 percent in Kitchener-Waterloo, more than nine percent in Toronto and about six percent in Calgary. Vancouver and Montreal have, like Ottawa, lost tech jobs but their decline has been nowhere near as steep as ours.
The second and third articles in Bagnall’s series sounded a more optimistic note with their profile of the next generation of entrepreneurs who are igniting Ottawa’s tech scene and a good prescription for what is needed to pull the region out of its profound slump. But these are still grim times. And yet, talk to some of the folk who turned out for the two events and to some senior OCRI people and you’d swear Bagnall was making stuff up and that the K-W region was mired in hopelessness. For example, many people I spoke to this morning dismissed out of hand the factual underpinning of the Citizen series in favour of a shoot-the-messenger attitude.
More critically, I recently had to listen to a very senior representative of OCRI tell a group I belong to that economic development in the K-W region is a dysfunctional mishmash of disconnected organisations that can’t work together to get anything done. By not being able to get anything done, he must have been referring to the Accelerator Centre that in five short years has graduated startups that have generated over $20-million in sales, raised $40-million in external funding and created more than 400 permanent jobs. By not being able to get anything done, he must have been referring to the Communitech Hub where startups, student entrepreneurs, established companies and the cream of the continent’s venture capitalists regularly collide in a process that, as previously stated, has driven a 50 percent increase in regional tech employment. By not being able to get anything done, he must have been referring to the innovative Velocity entrepreneurship residence at the University of Waterloo where a dozen or more student startups are incubated every single semester.
All these accomplishments might have been lost on the OCRI rep who spoke to my group but they most certainly were not lost on Deloitte Canada’s vice chair and Americas managing director of consulting Bill Currie, who was the speaker at this morning’s event. In the question-and-answer session that followed his thoughtful and provocative presentation of a seminal Deloitte study on the Canadian productivity gap, Currie praised the Communitech Hub and other efforts in Kitchener-Waterloo and said they were exactly what we needed to replicate in Ottawa.
I’m sure this post will do nothing to temper whatever reputation I might have as a nay-sayer and perpetual critic. It would be unfortunate if that were the lens through which what I’ve just written was viewed. I have lived in Ottawa for nearly 25 years. I have founded companies, created jobs and contributed wealth to this community. My PR agency over its 13 years has contributed thousands of pro bono hours to almost every technology group going, including OCRI. Ottawa is my home and it’s where my business and most of my employees are located. Unlike many in my sector, I have not fled for the safe harbour of government work as the tech sector has had its ups and downs. I am as committed as anyone in this city to the goal of seeing Ottawa thrive as a centre of innovation, technology and job creation. But we can’t let our enthusiasm for that objective blind us to the reality that we have been drastically losing ground and we need to reverse that trend. Building up our city doesn’t require that we tear down what others are doing; it requires that we study their successes and adopt the best bits for ourselves. And most of all, it means we must recognise that cheerleading is no substitute for a solid playbook full of fundamental strategies that are going to move the ball decisively down the field and into the end zone.
Photo: Vancouver Sun
Technorati Tags: Ottawa Entrepreneur Week, execTALKS, OCRI, Ottawa Centre for Regional Innovation, technology, local economy, tech jobs, Bruce Lazenby, Ottawa Citizen, James Bagnall, Accelerator Centre, Communitech Hub, Velocity, entrepreneurship, startup, Deloitte, Canadian productivity gap