By Tony Patterson
At Queen's Park, until the recent re-election, there was a Ministry of Research and Innovation. MRI, in fact, has ceased to be, folded back into the economic development ministry in a penny-pinching move. Today, neither of these government outlets pretends to have 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 Research in Motion, 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 Boston's Route 128, the Raleigh-Durham Research Triangle and Silicon Valley were 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 200 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-Edouard Desbarats and lithography; one of the earliest colleges and engineering faculties in Ontario (now the University of Ottawa); Thomas Ahearn and electric heating/cooking; Thomas L. Willson and the invention of acetylene; and the modern crew led by the likes of Doyle, Cowpland, Foss, Matthews and Bryden.
And I haven't even touched on the federal government and the invention of Marquis wheat, Sanford Fleming's universally applied time zones, the National Research Council (firebrick and hearing aids were invented there), Communications Research Centre (the Alouette Satellite program), cobalt-60 cancer therapy units and the 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, affecting morale in the sector, 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.
Tony Patterson is editor and CEO of SCAN. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.