My May 10th, 2011 column in the Telegraph Journal “Bricklin saga has a lesson for province” outlined how the New Brunswick government’s experiment with direct investment in the manufacturing of Bricklin automobiles was a public policy failure. But the column also highlighted that it is important to ensure that as a consequence of that failure that we don’t diminish our capacity to support aggressive and ambitious initiatives that are outside our historical legacy. Entrepreneurs can break the mold to create a competitive enterprise in ways that is wholly unanticipated. My examples of Colin Chapman, Erik Buell and John Britten were textbook cases of individuals who developed world-class products and organizations when virtually everyone was telling them that it could not be done.
Entrepreneurship relies in part on the ability of individuals and teams to recognize paradigm shifts in advance of their occurrence. Apple designed and engineered a product before there existed a market for it. In many ways, Facebook, eBay, Amazon were swimming against the current. For years the business press published articles about how Amazon was not generating revenue and how that constituted its failure. Today, we know better. These firms were all operating on the basis of their ability to identify discontinuities and capitalize on them. Their bets were on how the world was changing, not on its stability.
Could companies achieve success in New Brunswick outside the mainstream? While we don’t have a definitive answer to that, it’s important to not say that it is impossible. We have pockets of capability and expertise and even natural resources in industries not currently on our radar that may bear fruit tomorrow. Thirty years ago, no-one thought that the Annapolis Valley could be the location for a growing group of grape growers and wine makers that would capture gold medals in wine competitions around the world. New Brunswick’s Kennebecasis Valley may have many of the necessary natural characteristics that exist in Nova Scotia. Whether there are sufficient heat units to grow current grape varieties is a key question, but viticultural expertise exists to potentially address that issue. In Nova Scotia, the wine making industry is transforming small centres such as Wolfville, New Minas and Gran Pre in large measure in relation to the tourism industry that has grown around it.
So yes, from an economic development perspective we should focus on what we are good at. My point is that decisions about what we are good at should not be left to committees, whether government or private sector. Funneling scarce resources into a half dozen industries that are prominent today is not the answer. Neither is picking potential winners based on the views of today’s business leaders, many of whom have vested interests. The government has a role to play to provide a competitive infrastructure and adjustment programs for industry to grow. Trade, industry and professional associations have another role to support their members within their industry. The rest of the energy, initiative and ambition needs to come from corporations and emerging entrepreneurs.
Let’s not hold anyone back.