No buzz implies nothing to speak about

Tennis%20August%2016%2C%202009%20057Mugshot400X400.jpg 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.

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