Ottawa – Branch Plant City or New Model Time

Back in the days of strut and bluster Ottawa called its self Silicon Valley North. That seems a little hollow now, as one more Ottawa tech company, its largest – Cognos – surrenders control of its destiny to IBM.

What this latest sale makes clear is just how little depth the Ottawa tech sector has. Unlike our perceived rivals we lack diversity in company size which provide the customers, partners and mentors that grow small companies into large ones. We also lack the head offices which train mangers into visionaries and leaders.

Scratch below the surface and something else become clear – the cities current OCRI focused economic development model isn’t working. 

Whether that is due to fuzzy vision at OCRI,  who’s mission statement is all things to all people, or equally fuzzy vision from the city which sole sources most of its economic development dollars to a “member-based … corporation” somehow believing that the memberships interest is synonymous  with civic interest. 

What ever the reason it’s time to try something else – because what we’ve been doing seem to be leading us to an economic destiny as a branch plant city – churning out code and research and shipping that, and value it creates, out of town.

The answer I believe is not more funding – but more diverse funding. What’s needed is more organizations vying with each other to develop more and better programs.

This democratization of economic development does several things – First it encourages groups to have clearly defined targets and measurable outcomes. But is it does more – buy spreading funding among a multitude of groups the city benefits by being able to test multiple approaches simultaneously – a tremendous competitive advantage during times of change such as is happening both in Ottawa and globally.

Unlike the current central planning approach diversity works best at discovering new models and approaches – in part because it organizes and leverages more relationships to build on broader strengths and connections within the community– and those very connections also spread to knowledge that helps everyone become slightly more competitive.

One needs to look no further than the tremendous resurgence in small software companies whose needs are largely met by volunteers – first through Venture Creation Group and latter through an evolving network of BarCamps and Meet-ups. These groups could be significantly more valuable as engines of economic development if they were able to implement more ambitious programs, using the same technology and enthusiasm that connects them to address systemic issue they face as companies and economic contributors to this city. 

My vote is for a new model.