Friday, May 11, 2012

Adapting innovation programs to small urban and rural areas

Thanks to funding from the Ontario Ministry of Economic Development and Innovation, I got to spend five months over the fall and winter focused solely on bringing (and figuring out how to bring) Ontario Network of Excellence (ONE) resources supporting the commercialization of innovation to small urban and rural parts of Southwestern Ontario—specifically, the region from Goderich to Simcoe, excluding the City of London.

I've lived in a small urban area in that region for over a year now and spent a lot of time over the last five years travelling across Southwestern Ontario. We'd actually lived in Waterloo for more than a decade before cluing in that there was a whole world around us that we'd never seen. We quickly made up for lost time.

Connecting innovation and productivity programs to the economic development priorities of Southwestern Ontario became a priority for me and the last thing I did before leaving TechAlliance was create a project to reach out to the small urban and rural areas across the region. Since it was a personal priority more than an organizational one, there was never any discussion around lessons learned and recommendations, so that will be my theme across several upcoming posts.

I spent five months talking to companies and supporting organizations in seven counties or county-sized municipalities: Huron, Lambton, Chatham-Kent, Middlesex, Elgin, Oxford and Norfolk. Until I moved to Strathroy, the only places I'd ever lived were Toronto, Boston, and Waterloo—three internationally renowned innovation centres—and the strengths and challenges of the communities I was now working in were very different from anything I'd experienced.

But one thing was clear from the beginning. There was plenty of innovation going on throughout this region. When I looked through the disclosed NRC-IRAP contributions over the last few years, there were just as many (slightly more, in fact) companies in these smaller urban and rural areas that had received funding as there were in the City of London.

So the companies were there, the innovation was there, and yet these regions were clearly not the focal point of the provincial innovation programs. Yes, every area was assigned a Regional Innovation Centre, but they were almost all based in major urban centres and outreach was rarely a priority.

The key sectors of the programs were also not well aligned with small urban and rural needs. Unlike London, for example, these regions were generally not looking to digital gaming and medical devices as cornerstones of their future economic prosperity. Resources at the "regional" centres were nearly always weighted toward the innovation/technology priorities of their major urban centres. Medical device expertise is useful in the City of London, but not so much in Huron County. And the region I was covering has a population that's nearly double (1.8x) that of the City of London.

The provincial programs originally took a very narrow view of "innovation" and mostly used the word as a euphemism for inventions generated at universities. That's improved over the years, although there's still a long way to go. Some universities started out in small urban and rural areas, but all of Southwestern Ontario's universities are now in the largest urban areas. The University of Guelph has a good-sized campus in Ridgetown (part of Chatham-Kent) and a site in Simcoe, and Western has at least one research institute in Middlesex County, but it's mostly the colleges that have a presence in smaller urban centres. The colleges' share of innovation program resources has improved, but since they don't have a research focus, they don't play as integral a role within the programs as universities.

The university-centric view of innovation is a challenge for small urban and rural areas, which not only don't have university campuses but also typically have a smaller pool of university graduates. Here's a table taken from the last census showing the percentage of residents aged 25 to 64 with university degrees in selected parts of Ontario (the second number is the ratio of the percentage to the provincial average)—some of which overlap:

City of Waterloo40.3%1.55
GTA (Toronto CMA)33.6%1.29
City of London25.6%0.99
Middlesex & London23.8%0.92
Waterloo Region23.2%0.89
Lambton County13.3%0.51
Oxford County11.4%0.44
Elgin & St. Thomas11.0%0.42
Haldimand & Norfolk10.5%0.40
Huron County9.9%0.38

(For the graphically-inclined, I turned this into a bar graph in my next blog post.)

The City of Waterloo—with its two universities—is off the charts and the other large urban areas all score well, and then there's a huge drop once you get past Waterloo Region. The difference is large enough to raise questions about whether an approach that works in Waterloo and Toronto and London will be as effective in the less urbanized areas.

Now that provincial innovation programs have been merged into the economic development ministry, and with the increased emphasis on productivity—which requires a broader view of "innovation"—there looks to be an opportunity to rethink some of the programs to make them more applicable to companies and regions outside of the major urban areas.

There are some interesting initiatives and approaches throughout the region as municipalities look to enhance their economic development through entrepreneurship and innovation. That's what I'll be looking at in some upcoming posts.

Continues with: Education and age differences across Southwestern Ontario and implications for "innovation" support.