By Tony Patterson
(Published originally in Ottawa Business Journal, September 3, 2012.)
Despite the prejudices of outsiders against government and bureaucracy, Ottawa has been the best place in Canada to incubate big ideas and visionaries during my lifetime and even before.
The town was started by the greatest engineering project of the age before railways, the building of the everlasting Rideau Canal. That was before my lifetime, of course, but I feel a certain connection. One of my ancestors was a sapper who came with Lt. Colonel By to help blast, cut, dig and construct that magnificent waterway.
My lifetime was getting underway around the time of WWII when Ottawa was the nerve centre of the greatest growth explosion the country has ever seen. There was an engineer in charge, the controversial “minister of everything,” C. D. Howe. Most particularly Ottawa was where the technology to run the engines of war was conceived. The National Research Council emerged from the shadows under a brilliant scientist-soldier, General Andrew McNaughton, inventor of an artillery targeting device that was a forerunner of radar. From the NRC since have emerged hundreds of devices, systems, ideas and even seeds that have contributed to the betterment of humankind everywhere. Canola (a name made up of Canada and oil) is worth $2 billion a year to Prairie farmers, second only to wheat as an agricultural export. The motorized wheelchair. The first cardiac pacemaker. The crash position indicator, which guides rescue workers directly to isolated airplane crash sites before survivors perish of injuries or starvation. These are Ottawa inventions. The vaccine against infant meningitis. The first electronic music synthesizer. The best way to do computer animation of film. All got started here, at the NRC.
Of course there were some escapees of the ambitiously independent from NRC and its offshoots, even though they were often depending on government contracts to get their fledglings off the ground. Joe Norton founded Computing Devices. His son Mark is still actively supporting various high tech enterprises about town. Denny Doyle threw down his labcoat to establish Digital Equipment Corporation in Canada. It would vie with Nortel as the backbone of the tech-centric west end from Nepean through Kanata.
Nortel arrived as Bell-Northern Research in the early 1960s, attracted by NRC and its offshoot the Communications Research Centre at Shirley’s Bay. CRC would be the heart of Canada’s space adventures, starting with the Alouette program in the early 1960s. Alouette 1 made Canada the third nation to have a satellite circling. BNR became the single most important influence in moving the world’s telecom from analog to digital. This key innovation allowed Mike Cowpland and Terry Matthews to produce the fabulously successful PBX machines at Mitel. Then there was a quarter century run-up to Silicon Valley North, an intoxicating, almost giddy era. The likes of Systemhouse, Fulcrum, Jetform, Mosaid, JDS and Cognos were blooming.
Mitel does different things today, but in the meantime Matthews started Newbridge, now part of Alcatel, and Cowpland founded Corel. Nortel (which assumed BNR in 1996) is gone, the victim of awful business decisions. But the $5 billion patent portfolio it revealed in its death throes was dramatic evidence of the quality of thinking that went on there. There, of course, was here. Ottawa.
Where are the dreamers, the visionaries of yesteryear? As a matter of fact, a lot of them are still around, still dreaming dreams, still trying to make them real. Rod Bryden at Plasco. Terry Matthews at the re-acquired Mitel and a score of startups, Michael Cowpland at Zim, Adam Chowaniec, the Foody family, David Luxton. Denny Doyle still consults with the community out of Doyletech. And the young turks: Alfred Jay at Ramius, Tobias Lütke at Shopify, Paul Vallée and Andrew Waitman at Pythian. Space only prevents a much longer list.
It’s been my pleasure to write about these people through the years. Now I take leave, supremely confident that the end is not here, not even near. There will be a new resurgence of the technology gene. It may even have begun without our noticing. I can’t say precisely what it will bring but whatever it is will rise from a foundation of two solid centuries of technological achievement. Right here in government city.
Summer of coooperatives
By Tony Patterson
(Published originally in Ottawa Business Journal, August 6, 2012.)
May was memorable for Mauril Bélanger, the honourable Member forever of Ottawa-Vanier (eight elections and counting).
He had a really bad day mid-month when he took on the case of the vanishing Confederation Park subway station. Big mistake. His intrusion into the affairs of another level of government was brutally slapped down by Mayor Jim in a rare public chastisement. Wounded, the MP quietly backed off.
But by end-May Mauril was a star among his parliamentary peers. Appointed May 6 by interim party leader Bob Rae as “advocate” for the co-operative sector in Canada, within days he had conceived a daring – some would say impossible – strategy and got it approved in the Liberal caucus. May 30 was an “opposition day” in the House of Commons. The newly minted co-op advocate would use the time to speak positively about the sector, point out that 2012 is the UN’s International Year of Co-operatives and issue a call to action.
The specific action he proposed was something of a Hail Mary pass, not to say a non-starter. He called for creation of a committee that would sit through the summer to study the status of co-ops in Canada.
But he and other opposition Members in the House of whatever party were gobsmacked when the Harperites caught the pass and said, in effect, “Let’s get to it.” Turns out Conservatives know there are co-ops in every riding, not least in the west, where co-ops have a dominant position in the economies of Alberta and Saskatchewan. The committee was named. An agenda was set July 10 and witnesses scheduled. Hearings ran through the last week of July. A report is to be ready for the House when it returns from recess in September.
There are a surprisingly large number of players in the co-op sector. Not to mention big bucks. Co-operatives including credit unions control assets of more than $250 billion and employ 150,000 people. More than 18 million Canadians are members of about 9,000 co-operatives, including 2,200 housing co-ops, which are home to more than 250,000 people (full disclosure: I’m one of them). There are more than 1,300 agricultural co-ops, 650 retail co-operatives, 900 credit unions and caisses populaires, about 450 co-ops offering childcare or early childhood education, more than 600 worker co-ops — owned by the employees — with a total membership of over 13,000, and more than 100 healthcare co-operatives.
There are many rural and northern communities where the co-op is the only game in town, for child care, health, supplies, financial services. More than 1,100 communities rely on a local co-operative credit union as their only financial institution. But co-op signs are also large and many in major cities across Canada. Here in Ottawa as throughout Quebec, Caisse Desjardins takes a back seat to none in financial matters. A huge co-op more than a century old, it ranks just behind the big five chartered banks.
While it’s useless to predict the outcome of the current parliamentary initiative, you have to respect whatever will bring MPs to meet in Ottawa in July. Mauril, whose riding runs right up beside Parliament Hill and has never elected anyone unLiberal, asked for the co-op portfolio, which hadn’t existed in any party before. He also had himself named “advocate” rather than “critic”, a crucial and original distinction. No dummy he. In an age of questionable economic models, some of which have tipped the world toward financial panic and gridlock, there is something stable, solid and community-supportive in co-operatives. Their value may be about to be rediscovered. If so, a whack of credit will have to go to the Member for Canada’s most predictable constituency.
By Tony Patterson
(Published originally in Ottawa Business Journal, July 9, 2012.)
Pay attention Ottawa. On the bank of the Ottawa River three hundred acres of your choicest land are about to be in play.
As choice as LeBreton Flats, Rockcliffe is many times the size of that historic neighbourhood, which was devastated by fire in 1900 and is still struggling to revive despite its recent acquisition of the swooping architectural masterpiece that encloses the Canadian War Museum. Essentially undeveloped land running in a huge rectangle bordered by St. Laurent Boulevard on the west, the NRC campus at Blair Road on the east, Montreal Road to the south and the Ottawa River, Rockcliffe is the site of a former RCAF airbase.
DND declared the property surplus in 1984, though there were military families still living there a quarter century later. Rockcliffe has been a question all that time. There were problems with property transfers and a land claim by an Algonquin first nation that apparently has been settled with a payment of $10 million. Algonquins may still be involved since they retain a right of first refusal on parcels to be sold from Rockcliffe. But it’s yet to be seen how willing they are to trade cash-in-hand for ancestral land.
The owner-of-record today is the Canada Lands Company. CLC’s mandate is to develop or dispose of properties the government owns but doesn’t use. It’s a player in major cities, such as Montreal (Old Port area and the Benny Farm residential district) and Toronto (Downsview Park, also a disused airfield). At Rockcliffe, a lead manager is to be named this month who will assemble a team of professionals to envision how this extraordinary landscape will be reshaped. Their starting mission is “to develop an exemplary diverse contemporary neighbourhood offering a choice in housing, employment, commercial, institutional and leisure activities which will be defined by the site’s unique setting, along with a commitment to environmental sustainability and long term economic viability.”
Now this will make a fine extension for Rockcliffe Park, one of the wealthiest enclaves in Canada, which the airfield was carved from nearly a century ago. After all, there are only two thousand people living there now. The airfield would essentially double the area of this ex-village where average salaries are twice what other Ottawa residents get paid. It’s a beautiful site. Should go to the most beautiful people. No?
That’s almost certainly what’s going to happen on the present path to decision. If there are other ideas out there, now’s the time to bring them forward. Two that I’ve heard deserve at least to be exposed:
The main campus of NRC, Canada’s primary research agency, abuts Rockcliffe. How about a technology park to bring commercial and entrepreneurial talent close to scientific teams that have global reputations and have won awards from the Nobel to Killam to Oscar?
The University of Ottawa is constrained for space. Located in the heart of the city, it has no way to grow physically to accommodate more students. Also it occupies properties that the federal government could use as it grows to manage the nation that, last I heard, was heading for a population of a hundred million this century.
A previous uO president talked of establishing a satellite campus at Rockcliffe for science faculties. The notion was dismissed by CLC, which didn’t have control then but knew it would some day. The current uO prez has reportedly canvassed profs at the university and found no support for the idea. But it’s not altogether crazed. Université Laval moved from its three century old campus in downtown Quebec City to Sainte-Foy in the 1950s. The Université de Montréal is relocating science faculties to the old train yards in Outremont.
The clock is running on Rockcliffe. Municipal approvals will take two or three years at least. Public consultations are to start this fall, presenting what CLC calls “a once-in-a-life-time opportunity to discuss and address issues of urban reintegration, quality of life and factors important in designing the place where you live, work, learn and play.”
That’s once in our lifetime, Ottawa. Prête attention
No, no I/O
By Tony Patterson
(Published originally in Ottawa Business Journal, June 4, 2012.)
I don’t know who the directors of the recently inaugurated Invest Ottawa (I/O, formerly OCRI) will be. I’ve asked a couple of times. Most recently (May 26) I had this response via email, “Directors being selected soon — watch for ads in local papers.”
Nor do I know how they’re being chosen or by whom. I’ve asked a couple of times. The question has been ignored.
But I think I can assume the I/O directors aren’t on board yet, so to speak. Which means that the troika pulling Ottawa’s new economic development engine — the Mayor, the Chair and the CEO — have free rein. Or to put it another way, there’s no-one else to blame.
Blame? For what?
Well they’ve moved to a building where there’s no parking. I can’t begin to describe the inconvenience this causes all kinds of people and is certain to cause many more every day I/O is open for business. It was a stupid place to put any office that expects significant traffic and if I/O doesn’t expect traffic I don’t know what business it’s in.
But hey, the CEO hadn’t even been appointed when the lease was signed. He has to live with it but it’s not his fault. The City picked the building. Perhaps the Mayor will accept blame for parking.
And while personnel change is to be expected, it’s somewhat jarring when the three most senior executives are summarily displaced. It’s tempting to point to the long association of these three in particular with OCRI’s techno-centric orientation and connect their departure with the relative diminution of tech within the I/O culture a-borning.
But hey, it’s a new CEO’s prerogative to re-assess and re-align the team he’s been hired to lead. Let’s watch who he recruits and how they perform. Time will tell.
Then I received notice of the first ever (first I’d heard of anyway) “Invest Ottawa Partnered Event”. It took place last Thursday at I/O’s parking-challenged office on Aberdeen Street. The “event” at a cost of $199+HST (deep discounted to $59+HST for the now disbanded OCRI membership) was about selling out. To quote the promo from I/O, “2012 will be a banner year for M&A in software, IT and related technology companies, due to a perfect storm of favorable (sic) conditions, in particular the large amount of cash held abroad by major US strategic buyers. It’s the perfect time to sell, but are you ready?”
I don’t object to any entrepreneur selling what she has built at any stage in the process to anybody in the world who wants to buy. A loonie in hand is worth a toonie in future. But is it the job of the local economic development agency to encourage her to do so? I don’t think so. Somebody needs to be blamed for this I/O-partnered event. Not fired. Not disgraced. Just told not to do it again. Because “selling out” is the wrong message for I/O to be delivering. At a time when more and more industry leaders are decrying the “hollowing out” of Canada’s undervalued and vulnerable tech sector, the I/O message should be, “Don’t go, Julie, don’t go. If you need help to stay, we can help.”
I asked I/O about it in an email: “This event is about helping companies sell themselves advantageously, often to buyers in other places. Yet I/O’s business is to help these same companies grow and develop to maturity right here with local ownership if possible. Is there not a shade of counterproductivity in this?”
The question was ignored.
Let’s fill RIM’s app gap!
By Tony Patterson
(Published originally in Ottawa Business Journal, Apr. 30, 2012.)
I don’t know how to resuscitate RIM. Maybe you don’t either. We have to place our bets on the devils we know about: founding genius Mike Lazaridis, new CEO Thorsten Heins and the Ottawa connection.
Ottawa connection? For those who have been out of touch for the duration, the Ottawa connection comprises QNX, Alec Saunders (pictured right on stage at a European developers conference) and shades of Prem Watsa. You know the first two. QNX has built the new operating system, known as BlackBerry 10. But it’s not yet in the phones. They’re pushing for the fall. Alec Saunders is a Waterloo-cum-Microsoft grad who has been Ottawa-bled in a decade-long struggle to get voicetech startup Calliflower off the ground. Now VP of developer relations at QNX/RIM, his goal is to enlist 50,000 app developers this year to . . . . . . develop apps for RIM.
And how about Prem Watsa, 61, CEO of Fairfax Financial. Reserved but revered for his canny and fantastically successful investment record, he’s walking the talk, for sure, becoming a RIM director, laying his money down. That’s good for RIM and by extension good for Canada’s tech sector. Whatever is good for RIM is good for Canada’s tech sector. The worst thing conceivable these days is that RIM should follow Nortel into the crater. God forbid. Prem’s doing his part. When Lazaridis flamboyantly announced he’ll invest another $50 million in RIM, Prem allowed as how he might follow suit. (If either actually did it that day, he’d have lost $8 million in the past month.)
Fairfax is already the fourth largest investor in the company. And it’s here that the Ottawa connection resides. No. 2 and “lead director” at Fairfax is Anthony F. Griffiths. Through the early nineties Tony Griffiths was chair and CEO at Mitel and mentor of the CEO-in-waiting, Kirk Mandy. Griffiths went home to help Watsa become Canada’s Warren Buffet. (As a matter of interest and disclosure, Griffiths was a modest investor in a publication I founded, Silicon Valley NORTH, in the mid-nineties.)
QNX is doing its part. Watsa is doing his. So is Alec Saunders, which brings me back to apps. Alec might not put it this way but he could use some help. Not only is he playing catch up with Apple and Android, he doesn’t yet have in hand the product that developers are supposed to develop apps for. What he has is 95% there and what he needs now is the trust of the community. Developers have to believe that BlackBerry is coming back and that it’s worth diverting some effort from making iPhone apps, or Google apps or now Microsoft apps. BlackBerry created mobile and it’s still early days for mobile. BlackBerry’s still a good bet. BlackBerry’s coming back big time.
RIM is important to Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. We let Nortel slide with scarcely a sigh. It should never happen again and if we have anything to do about it, it never will. In this case there is something we can do. We can contribute enthusiastically to RIM’s app store. We can build the apps. RIM is us. Let’s get to it.
And here’s something to do right now. Tomorrow, May 1, RIM’s BlackBerry Jam 10 conference for app developers gets underway in Orlando, Florida. If you’re not going yourself, take a minute to let Alec know that we’re here for him and RIM. It’ll be good to share news down south that the home team is putting in extra effort. His eddress is firstname.lastname@example.org.
NRC president sends corrections, explanations
1 May 2012
Mr. Tony Patterson
4-108 Queen Elizabeth Driveway
Ottawa, ON K2P 1E5
Dear Mr. Patterson:
As you are aware, in the summer of 2011, I refused your request for interview. At the time, we were doing very few as I was very pre-occupied with internal matters. You subsequently published a blog painting me in a very poor light. I am more than willing to accept fair and even unfair criticism. However, erroneous and blatantly misleading commentary falls into a different category. Your blog contained errors of fact, some of which we discussed yesterday, and many other statements that were directly or indirectly very misleading.
Yesterday when I pointed those things out, you said you thought "the article would have elucidated an immediate response from me". I told you the tone of your article actually said much more about you than it did about me, so I didn't feel that it was worth my time to respond.
In spite of those issues, when you called again a few days ago for an interview, I agreed to speak with you. When we connected, I immediately expressed my concerns about your prior blog and asked for an apology before proceeding further. You refused. Even so I agreed to provide clarifications regarding some of the errors and misleading statements in your blog. I also told you your subsequent response and actions would form the basis for determining whether there was any point in future discussions.
As committed, a few specific issues related to your July 2011 blog are addressed below by providing your words in italics followed by my clarifications:
1. "It's an image he pushed toward conclusion on his home turf, until he pushed too hard and got himself turfed out." "When four provincial R&D initiatives were merged into one under the name Alberta Innovates in January 2010, he was invited out."
I advised the ARC Board in the fall of 2007 to start looking for a successor. Not long thereafter, Alberta began to redesign its innovation system. The ARC Board and I both agreed to stay on at the request of the Province to provide continuity and input while Alberta completed their design and completed the legal transitions of the system. That ultimately occurred January 1, 2010 at which time I and the Board both departed.
Rennie and the rest
By Tony Patterson
(Published originally in Ottawa Business Journal, Apr. 02, 2012.)
News of the passing on March 12 of Rennie Whitehead (pictured below with wife Nesta and PM "Mike" Pearson) is a moment most apt to recognize the immense contributions of the British to Canadian science and technology.
Rennie was 94. For generations of British scientists and engineers coming from Britain through the post world war decades he was the dean, an unofficial title he inherited when W.B. Lewis died in 1987. Rennie always deferred to the brilliant W.B., who had worked with Ernest Rutherford, became head of Atomic Energy of Canada research and was known as the “father of the CANDU” reactor. These two were perhaps the biggest names in tech to set sail for the land of the maple since John By of the Royal Engineers came to cut the canal and set Ottawa en route for Silicon Valley North. But they were far from alone.
Peter Hackett brought a Ph.D. from the University of Southampton to the National Research Council, became VP there and later founding CEO at the National Institute for Nanotechnology. He remembers evaluation forms for applicants at NRC that “had a line for postgraduate degree with three boxes to check: Oxford, Cambridge and Other.” The story has been often enough told of the comings of Michael Cowpland and Terry Matthews to Microsystems International, which failed, and their subsequent successes with Mitel, Corel and Newbridge. They were not the only ones. Don Smith ran a later version of Mitel. Bob Harland and Dick Foss co-founded Mosaid. Peter Leach became CEO of CITO (Communications and Information Technologies Ontario).
Rennie Whitehead stood out, though, in the sheer diversity of his impacts. One of the pioneers of radar pre-WWII, he came to be associate professor of physics at McGill, despite a warning that he was emigrating to an “ill-developed country where scientific research is in its infancy.” He would later allow that “there was some truth” in these remarks, but promptly set out to give them the lie.
He led design and installation of the Mid-Canada Line of radar defence. It was Cold War time after all, an era of missiles and defence systems, requiring leading edge electronics skill. Joining RCA Victor Canada as head of R&D, he hired research physicists by the bunch, possibly for the first time in Canadian industry (Northern Electric Research Lab was established in 1957, but Bell-Northern Research wasn’t underway until 1971). RCA Canada would get a good slice of work on the ISIS and Alouette satellite programs. By 1960 RCA labs in Montreal had more Ph.D. physicists on staff than any other company in Canada and was winning research contracts here, in the U.S. and further afield.
Then Ottawa called and Rennie became principal science advisor to two prime ministers (Pearson, Trudeau), wrote terms of reference for the newborn Science Council of Canada, which was unfortunately, misguidedly canned by another PM (Mulroney) and sat for the country on the most prestigious international science councils. He left to finish his career as a consultant after responsibility for advising government on science policy was moved from the Privy Council Office to a newly minted but powerless ministry of state in the mid-1970s.
If you’re not old enough to remember Rennie in his prime, perhaps you’ll recall Arthur Carty. He was also science advisor to a couple of prime ministers (Martin, Harper), appointed in 2004, the first since Rennie. And he came to much the same end in 2008, ushered out of PCO to marginalization in a department. He now heads the Institute for Quantum Computing, one of Mike Lazaridis’ philanthropies, at the University of Waterloo. He too is a Brit.
OCRI finally gets a name
By Tony Patterson
(Published originally in Ottawa Business Journal, Mar. 05, 2012.)
I/O in digital speak — input/output — describes communication between a tech system and the world outside. Last month Ottawa got its own I/O connector. Invest Ottawa will help develop Ottawa’s goods and services, present them to the world and bring local business what it needs (talent, capital, recognition) from away.
I/O is the third vitalization of OCRI, a good idea gone awry. Born in the 1980s as the Ottawa-Carleton Research Institute, OCRI was the heart of a tech community that grew to be known around the world as Silicon Valley North. For two decades it was the builder of networks, applauding success, featuring leaders, encouraging mentors, facilitating partnerships. It was a model of its kind and much imitated. You can see its modern iteration at Communitech in Waterloo, a direct descendant.
The first column ever I wrote for OBJ (April 2, 2001) concerned OCRI’s merger with Ottawa’s economic development agency, OED. My instinct was to take a swing at the union, because I thought I saw a winner taking on a loser, risking dilution of its essence in the deal. But I didn’t swing. I gave a “cautious benefit of the doubt” to the takeover. I should have trusted my instinct. Dilution was exactly what happened.
My comment to the new CEO at that time, Jeffrey Dale, was “OCRI is now an acronym in search of a name.” He reminded me of this recently and said, “Now it has a name.”
Invest Ottawa will tighten focus and add capabilities, while shedding non-core activities such as school breakfasts, secondary school programs, recruiting members and staging events. Mayor Jim Watson is putting his hands on as co-chair. The city will pump in $3.6 million annually, an increase of better than 50%. I’m going to risk the same mistake and give I/O an optimistic wave of welcome. But I think it bears close watching to make sure our baby doesn’t disappear with the disposables.
Bruce Lazenby and his team, not all of whom have been hired, have a powerful new tool to work with. The city’s money has bought incubation space for as many as 90 startups at 80 Aberdeen in Little Italy, the new I/O headquarters. They’ll have access to growth accelerators such as financial, legal and marketing assistance, mentorship, export intelligence and trade missions. This model has proved successful in Waterloo and Toronto and had been on OCRI’s “to accomplish” list for five years or more.
Of course it makes sense to shuck the ed programs and school breakfasts. Worthy as they are, they’ll find other sponsors. And they’re tangential at best to economic development, at least in the short run. But shedding membership and events gives rise to other considerations.
You might notice, for instance, that they don’t talk much about technology at Invest Ottawa. It’s knowledge-based business they’re concerned with, which when you get down to it is just about any business. As Mr. Lazenby has famously said, “If you get off the bus in Ottawa and say, ‘I want to start a barbershop’, we’ll help you out.”
There was a time when OCRI membership and participation in its programs and events were part of the fabric of the tech community in Ottawa. I/O will not give that same impetus to community and connection.
On the other hand there will likely be tight cohesion among the 90 startups in I/O’s accelerator program. They may well become evangelists for a new era of clusters and networks. And while any new knowledge-based startup will be welcome at 80 Aberdeen, nine out of every ten are pretty certain to be technology-based. Because that’s what Ottawa does best. That’s our natural advantage. Even if we speak it softly these days.
Bad business trumps great tech
By Tony Patterson
(Published originally in Ottawa Business Journal, Feb. 06, 2012.)
Nortel was a business failure. The sad evidence now piled in the Toronto courtroom will prove that. But here’s something worth remembering. Nortel was not a technology failure. The sale of its patent portfolio for a record setting $4.5 billion must end all argument on this point.
Nortel’s business problem was twofold.
It failed to capitalize on advances in its own shop. For instance the tech team had a smart phone ready in 1998. Ten years ahead of the iPhone, let alone Android, Nortel’s Orbitor handset was on display at an international trade show. But John Roth (pictured), then the CEO, said the company had no experience with consumer products. He didn’t think mobile units could be produced cheaply enough. He canned the project. The lead designer of the user interface later left for Apple where he led the team that designed UI for the iPhone.
The muddling of accounts, which is at the heart of the Toronto trial, was endemic. Finagling was part of Nortel culture, at least as far back as Microsystems International Limited (MIL). Originally established by Nortel in 1969 to manufacture semiconductors, with millions of dollars in federal grants, MIL was shut down after five years to realize the tax benefits of $50 million in losses. Ottawa paid coming and going. It was very clever. But in retrospect the culmination of such cleverness was the financial loopiness that pushed Nortel into the crater of 2010.
This Nortel, the business of Nortel, was run from Brampton. That’s where John Roth retired from and Frank Dunn operated, with a little help from the long-serving chair in Montreal, Red Wilson. But Brampton and Montreal were not where Nortel got its gusto.
Anyone involved with Bell-Northern Research (BNR) knew in the seventies what it would be like to work at Apple in the eighties, Microsoft in the nineties or Google today. BNR, which became Nortel’s tech division, was a community of high achievers, where creativity and intelligence combined to produce telecom innovations such as computer-controlled switching. Nortel introduced the world to digital communication and phone users to handy extras like voice mail and call forwarding, as well as much reduced costs. This was no little thing. It was paradigm-shifting in one of the world’s essential industries.
This Nortel, the tech of Nortel, was run in Ottawa, where it was a pillar of what became known as Silicon Valley North, which was growing up all around it. Nortel didn’t build Silicon Valley North. That was being done, ironically, by survivors of the imploded MIL. But Nortel drew strength from the community of tech entrepreneurs such as Doyle, O’Brien, Cowpland, Bryden, Foss and Matthews. And it supported their growth.
Now that Nortel itself has imploded, a new generation is let loose in the valley. The shape of things to come is not altogether clear. But the alignment is not unlike what’s been seen before. There’s this huge company, RIM. It’s not Nortel but it’s not insignificant. It could use a new product line based on next generation technology. It’s looking to Ottawa’s QNX to supply it. It’s also bulking up R&D in the capital to soak up some of the creativity on offer.
If it achieves anything to rival BNR’s intro of Digital World in 1976 that “launched the telecommunications industry into a new era,” it could anchor a tech revival in the valley that will leave silicon in the sand and eclipse memory of that nasty Nortel business.
No buzz implies nothing to speak about
By Tony Patterson
(Published originally in Ottawa Business Journal, Jan. 09, 2012.)
This column is not about OCRI. OCRI is as OCRI does and what it’s doing now is quite different from what it used to do. But let me remind you that it began life as the Ottawa Carleton Research Institute. It is now, purportedly, Invest Ottawa. At Queen’s Park, until the recent re-election, there was a Ministry of Research and Innovation (MRI). MRI in fact has ceased to be, folded back into the econdev ministry in a penny pinching move. Today, neither of these government outlets pretends any involvement with research. Both are tilling the broad fields of economic development. Best of luck to them.
It’s intriguing that the research focus has disappeared. It appears we’re not as proud of our technology sector as we once were. We’re embarrassed by Nortel and increasingly uncertain about RIM, which is now on a lifeline to Ottawa’s QNX for a new operating system. Those years when Ottawa shared mention in the international press with Route 128 Boston, Raleigh-Durham and Silicon Valley are almost a generation ago. It was last century, an old story. Who cares? High tech is passé. Ottawa isn’t a high tech capital any longer. It’s now a knowledge-based economy.
It may surprise the authors of this mantra change that the knowledge-based economy is not a new concept. It was introduced by Fritz Machlup in the 1960s and I recall writing a brief for the Board of Broadcast Governors (later the CRTC) on the information society posited by Machlup. Knowledge as an economic resource, information expanding to solve more problems and fill more time, it’s all pretty much as he described.
But here’s something Machlup knew that seems to have eluded his current admirers among Ottawa’s economic development elite. Technology is not just part of the knowledge economy. Technology is the very foundation of the knowledge economy.
Not only that, technology is the very foundation of the Ottawa economy. This city was carved from the wilderness nearly two hundred years ago to be the primary work site for one of the great engineering accomplishments of the age. The Rideau Canal is a world heritage site today because it was, as the UNESCO application says, “a masterpiece of human creative genius, in its concept, design, and engineering.” That was the start. Since then we’ve known George Desbarats and lithography, one of the earliest colleges and engineering faculties in Ontario (now uOttawa), Thomas Ahearn and electric heating/cooking, Thomas ("Carbide") Willson and the invention of acetylene, the modern crew led by the likes of Denny Doyle, Mike Cowpland, Dick Foss, Terry Matthews and Rod Bryden. I haven’t touched on the federal government, Charles Saunders and the invention of rust-resistant Marquis wheat, Sanford Fleming’s universally applied time zones, the National Research Council (firebrick and hearing aids invented there), CRC (Alouette satellites), cobalt 60 cancer therapy units, world’s first automated electronic post office.
Technology gave Ottawa a global reputation as a place of achievement and opportunity. But if there’s no buzz about tech — if the people promoting Ottawa’s economy don’t feature it — it implies there’s no tech sector worth talking about. Perception shades reality and morale in the sector is impacted, as well as enrolment at colleges and universities and ultimately economic growth. Tech is a light we shouldn’t be hiding under a bushel of economic newspeak.
Another player finds NRC a sandbox
By Tony Patterson
(Published originally in Ottawa Business Journal, Nov. 28, 2011.)
There are a couple of things you may not know about the Jenkins Report — Innovation Canada: A Call To Action — which was released recently to much disdain and more yawns.
First, it wasn’t written by Tom Jenkins, chair of OpenText and of the panel that worked on the study. It was written by a team I’m tempted to call “the old guard,” except that such a label significantly understates its venerability. The pen was actually wielded by Peter Nicholson (right), an advisor to prime ministers and others back to and including John Turner. Lead researchers were John Curtis, first encountered in the late1970s when he was front man for the government’s run at regulatory reform, and Fred Gault, who was the S&T guru at StatCan until retirement a few years back.
Second, it doesn’t say what Tom Jenkins (below right) really thinks Canada needs in order to become more innovative and therefore more productive. Jenkins wrote what he really thinks a month before the report with his name on it was published. It’s in the September edition of Policy Options magazine and what he really thinks, to summarize ten pages of well-reasoned and very persuasive argument, is that Canada’s private sector has been protected long enough and must be opened to competition. Stacked against that macro-vision, the handful of recommendations in the Jenkins Report are inconsequential.
They are also controversial. To recalculate the way SRED credits are calculated. To set up a super coordinating agency within government. To elevate the minister of state for S&T to a real Minister for S&T. And my favourite, to reorganize the NRC. Recommendation No. 4: “Transform the institutes of the National Research Council (NRC) into a constellation of largescale, sectoral collaborative R&D centres involving business, the university sector and the provinces . . .”
Perhaps it escaped the notice of the Jenkins panel that Canada’s primary S&T agency is undergoing radical renovation even now under an enforcer from Edmonton, the first CEO at NRC to be appointed by the Conservative government. To remake it again within, say, the next decade would seem cruel punishment for several thousand highly skilled Canadian researchers who are trying to help Canadian industry stay technically hip.
That apart, the model that the report puts forward is remarkably like the Networks of Centres of Excellence. We know a great deal about NCEs because they’ve been around for more than twenty years. They’ve also been much promoted by the current government, almost as posters for its largely subliminal S&T policy. What is proposed essentially is to turn NRC into a “constellation of largescale” NCEs.
The distinguishing feature of the proposed NRC collaborative networks is that they would be largescale. The existing bunch of research networks, funded and overseen through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, get along on $2-$5 million a year. Presumably the transformed NRC centres would be an order of magnitude larger. This is in line with what’s going on already. NRC is allocating resources to projects bigger and better, in the eyes of the new CEO, than before.
The current remake will inevitably swing support to bigger enterprises at the expense of the small and medium-sized. The Jenkins Report talks the talk of support for SMEs, but in its walk around the NRC it stumbles into the same quandary. The nation needs big projects. Big projects need big players. Most Canadian players aren’t that big. Do we field imports and our few native stars? Or do we build for the future by supporting our up-and-comers? Sad to say, the brains trust behind the Jenkins Report has been unable to square this circle any better than the enforcer. The pity is they all have taken a jewel at the core of Canada’s S&T practice for their experimenting.
No will, no way
By James G. Hynes
Canada is saying no yet again to a project our history suggests we should be eagerly embracing. Since January, governments in Ottawa, Toronto and Quebec City have been sitting on a report that updates previous studies of proposed high-speed rail (HSR) lines from Quebec City to Windsor. Officially, it’s still under wraps; it only became public last month through the efforts of an advocacy group, High Speed Rail Canada.
Having commissioned the report a couple of years ago at a media conference where they expressed bubbling enthusiasm for the HSR concept, why are these governments now so unenthusiastic about it? They’ve paid $3 million to the independent EcoTrain consortium to tell them something they already knew, but now they don’t want to hear it.
The cheery outlook changed over the time it took to get the report, during which all three governments proceeded to run up huge deficits stimulating a flagging economy, while also discovering new liabilities, like massively leaky water mains and crumbling bridges. So now they don’t want to be told that an HSR line from Montreal through Ottawa to Toronto would be profitable at a cost of $9.1 billion for 200-kilometre-per-hour trains, or $11 billion for the real thing, 300-k.p.h. all-electric trains. Stretching the lines east to Quebec City and west as far as Windsor wouldn’t pay for itself, but still might be worth it due to non-financial benefits, such as reduced air pollution and highway congestion, and greater all-weather safety.
So what’s not to like about this? Well, in a booming economy with government balance sheets in a heathy condition, it looks like a no-brainer. Assuming a public-private joint venture, as has been done with many HSR projects elsewhere, the project looks like a horse many a savvy politician might ride to electoral victory. But oops, now the cupboards are getting bare, and there are all sorts of newly hungry mouths to feed. What previously might have been easily done will now take something that has become exceedingly rare in this country: the vision and daring that once built the CPR.
Bombardier CEO Laurent Beaudoin, certainly a knowledgeable observer of this scene, put it succinctly. “To do that kind of project,” he said, “you need political will.” That’s what it took to push Canadian rails across this continent, creating what would otherwise be an impossible country. That gargantuan achievement put us in the forefront of railway technology, and made possible the economic ties that still bind us today. Now a Canadian company is still in the forefront, but Bombardier is building its trains everywhere but here.
Faced with this situation, what would John A. Macdonald have done? I think his response might have been different from Dalton McGuinty’s when he was asked about the HSR report. He said he thought it was time to “pause and reflect on the merits” of such a project. Fortunately for all of us today, John A. wasn’t much good at pausing and reflecting. He was too busy getting things done, come hell or high water. Click here to read more of Jim Hynes on the compelling case for Canadian high speed rail.
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