4Front Atlantic Conference

Innovation imperative in Atlantic Canada

October 13, 2011

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Thu, Oct 13 – 5:03 AM

Poet and lawyer F.R. Scott once implored us to be “citizens of the world who live in a country of the mind.” It was in the spirit of globalism and innovative thinking that I participated in the Atlantic 4Front Conference last week at Halifax’s historic Pier 21.

This conference brought together business and community leaders from across Atlantic Canada to discuss the region’s place in our rapidly changing world, and to stimulate creative ideas for the future. It is an important topic for all Canadians.

Atlantic Canada has long been renowned as a gateway to opportunity, perhaps most notably for the one million immigrants who disembarked at Pier 21 in the mid-20th century, seeking a better life. People in the Atlantic region have shown great ingenuity and resilience living in far-flung communities and dealing with harsh environments, all while looking outward and trading with the Caribbean, Europe and the Eastern United States.

Today, the tremendous changes being wrought by globalization and the world economy once again present Atlantic Canadians with a challenge and an opportunity. Like those intrepid early Canadians who embraced change and supported one another in building a future together, we have entered a new world. And fortunately, a growing number of firms and institutions in fields such as education, health sciences, aerospace engineering and alternative energy are leading the way for Atlantic Canada.

The way that markets, supply chains, information and labour are organized is undergoing a massive transformation due to globalization. Trade opportunities are becoming more diffuse, shifting away from the U.S. and Europe to include countries in Asia, South America and the Middle East. Our aging population and other demographic trends require new responses by governments, educational institutions and businesses. Knowing this, it is imperative for us to understand that our continued economic and regional viability hinges upon our willingness and ability to change and to innovate.

Innovation, whether social, economic or technological, is simply about crafting new ideas to improve the way we do things. It is about seeing things differently and imagining what could be. Canadians have long been innovators, partly in response to the challenges posed by our vast geography, but also as an expression of our values and aspirations as a society. Think of railway building in the late 1800s, or the introduction of new communications technologies in the decades that followed. Or consider our social innovations in education and health care that remain in many ways the envy of the world. Each of these advances helped to knit our country together and create the conditions for future success.

Atlantic Canada has a deep-rooted trading mentality, respect for education, community cohesiveness and resources from land and sea. The challenge will be to bring these together in ways that foster greater innovation.

Today, we must gather our existing strengths and foster new clusters of knowledge and activity — especially those that embrace pioneering research and exploit modern communications technologies. One of the best ways to create knowledge and find innovative ways to apply it is to engage every Atlantic Canadian in its pursuit through learning and education. And the best way to enhance knowledge is to share it as widely as possible.

That means taking what we’ve learned abroad, and inviting the world to share in and extend our discoveries here at home.

I have been privileged during the first year of my mandate as Governor General to visit many communities in the Atlantic region that are building upon their strengths and breaking new ground. An outstanding example is Newfoundland and Labrador’s College of the North Atlantic and its partnership with Qatar. The college’s campus in Doha employs more than 600 Canadians and is home to thousands of students from around the world. It is now Qatar’s leading comprehensive technical school. The college secured its place in this remarkable experiment by making a commitment to continuous innovation in research and education, and to exceptional collaboration with the State of Qatar and with local employers.

Despite the challenges posed by demographics and the shifting global economy, this region can compete with any other. Innovation often happens at the intersections between communities, universities and businesses, and all three exist in abundance in Atlantic Canada. The quality is very high.

Our challenge now is to develop a regional strategy aimed at enhancing and sharing these and other strengths, while fostering world-class clusters of knowledge and innovation here at home. The trick is to identify and broadly share specific needs and goals, and to constantly, relentlessly communicate.

I often say the most practical thing in the world is a good general theory, when continuously tested and refined against reality. Let our theory be that Atlantic Canada can again be renowned as a gateway to opportunity, one that flows inward and outward between Canada and the world.

David Johnston is Governor General of Canada.

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