Driving regional economic development through talent and innovation
December 13, 2019

As new technologies are changing how we live and work, access to these technologies is critical to create regional, provincial and global opportunities.

Through connected regions that are able to build new innovations, scale businesses and provide essential services and infrastructure, Ontario can become a globally competitive province – ready for the rapidly changing economy of the future.

Last week, Ontario’s Universities brought together government, policymakers and industry to discuss how the province can boost local economies to ensure that our regions can be connected and competitive. The panel was the third in the Ontario University Public Policy Discussion Series, where solutions-driven conversations aim to tackle the province’s most pressing issues.

Minister of Colleges and Universities Ross Romano, welcomed everyone to the event: “Today, youth are the engine of economic development and the global leaders of tomorrow. It’s people, talent, innovation and growth that will lead us into the future.”

MPP Chris Glover, Critic, Colleges and Universities, Mitzie Hunter, MPP for Scarborough-Guildwood and Michael Schreiner, Leader of the Green Party, spoke about the opportunities to build on our collective strengths and to apply the creativity and innovation coming out of Ontario’s universities to all of the province’s industries.

The thought-provoking discussion highlighted some of the ways we can work together and also generated important conversation about how Ontario can retain talent, drive innovation and attract investment through strong regional ecosystems.

“I am excited to be part of this conversation,” said moderator, Larysa Harapyn from the Financial Post. “Rarely do we speak of regional diversity and the opportunities at the regional level to create thriving communities.”

Harapyn highlighted the importance of these regional perspectives in any conversation about Ontario or Canada’s competitiveness.

Each panelist brought their own unique perspective and covered a wide range of topics, including: workforce alignment to address the future demands of the labour market, access to technology and infrastructure so that all communities can remain competitive, and partnerships between government, communities, industry and universities in order to fully leverage the province’s existing strengths.

“It’s not about how we make all regions of Ontario equal, it’s about how we make all regions globally competitive,” said Ashley Challinor, Vice-President, Policy at the Ontario Chamber of Commerce (OCC). “Recognizing the diversity of our industries, how do we build on existing competitive advantages?”

Shelley Hirstwood, President of the Ontario East Economic Development Commission, noted some of the challenges rural Ontario is facing and some of the barriers that might be preventing these communities from competing on a global level.

“Workforce comes up predominantly,” she said. “There is no simple solution. Two of the key issues are finding the right skills to match the job needs and learning to work with new generations. One example of how we are connecting skilled workers to employers is through the Queen’s university apprenticeship program, through philanthropic funding students are paid for 4 month internships and gain valuable on-the-job skills. So far, all of the graduates have been offered permanent jobs. Companies quickly realized that while the students may not have 3-5 years work experience, they do have a wealth of knowledge and bring value to the organization.”

Click on the image above to scroll through a slideshow of photos from the regional economic development event at Queen’s Park.

Keith Currie, President of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA), discussed the importance of fostering research and innovation throughout the province’s regions – both in attracting talent and in addressing regionally specific challenges – in order to create a globally competitive Ontario.

“These investments in things like innovation centres across the province are important, where people might be able to specialize in what’s going on in those regional areas, to attract not only businesses, but the employees that come to them,” Currie said.

“The investment in people, in particular, regionally, people – understanding what you need in each area of the province, as much as it’s similar, it’s different. But things like the innovation centres that they have in Eastern Ontario, those kinds of things can really enhance what’s going on in the region. To me, that’s the way to start.”

Around the room, participants had the opportunity to engage with some of the ground-breaking research occurring on university campuses and impacting communities across Ontario.

From commercializing innovations in agriculture, water testing, to finding low-cost alternatives in mining and the automotive sector – university researchers are helping stimulate Ontario’s regional ability to innovate, scale local businesses and create opportunities.

This type of research displayed in the room only highlighted a small sample of the many ways Ontario’s universities are partnering with industry to stimulate local economies. There are many more examples in our booklet, Partnering for a Better Future for Ontario’s Regional Economies.

“Our universities are contributing to their communities to attract investment and grow local entrepreneurs,” said David Lindsay, President and CEO of the Council of Ontario Universities. “The conversation needs to continue. We’re all part of an ecosystem, and that’s why we need to be partners and work collectively to advance the social, economic and cultural infrastructure of our province, so it’s the best place to live and work and raise a family.”

Driving Regional Economic Development: Talent, Innovation and Opportunity was the third in a series hosted by Ontario’s Universities, following policy discussions on hallway health care and the future of advanced manufacturing.