Ottawa’s Vision: Leading with Economic Development

February 12, 2024

As a long-standing resident of Ottawa since first moving here in 1984 and the Founder and CEO of local company contributing to the city, my personal and professional journey has been deeply intertwined with the city’s evolving narrative. Ottawa is not just a backdrop for our lives; it’s the stage upon which the future of our collective prosperity is being crafted. This city, with its dual identity as both the Nation’s Capital and a vibrant local community, offers a unique vantage point from which to view the challenges and opportunities of economic development. This post, though Ottawa-specific, aims to highlight the potential for economic growth and innovation that can inspire cities and communities worldwide.

Ottawa boasts a healthy diversity of economic strengths, from having the second highest concentration of tech talent in North America to being home to a robust federal public service, which has seen a remarkable 40% growth in employees since 2015. This city’s economy is not one-dimensional; it thrives on a multifaceted foundation that includes technology, government, healthcare, education, and tourism, among others. Each sector contributes to Ottawa’s unique economic profile, offering stability, innovation, a balance between urban and rural, and a myriad of opportunities for growth and development. While the technology industry has been a headline-grabber with over 1750 firms, the expansion of the federal public service underlines Ottawa’s role as the administrative heart of Canada, providing a steady influx of talent and economic activity. This diversification is Ottawa’s strength, ensuring resilience against economic uncertainty and positioning the city as a vibrant hub for professionals across various industries.

However, Ottawa, like many industrialized cities across the world, faces its own set of challenges amidst these strengths. Notably, Canada has experienced a net investment outflow, meaning more capital is leaving the country than is coming in. This trend highlights the need for enhanced strategies to attract and retain investment within Ottawa and beyond. Additionally, Ottawa is grappling with growing affordability challenges, as the cost of living and housing prices continue to rise, putting pressure on residents and potentially limiting the city’s ability to attract diverse talent. Productivity challenges also persist, with Canadian businesses, including those in Ottawa, often facing hurdles in scaling up and innovating at the pace of global competitors.

Canada’s overall productivity trend requires an all-hands approach.

Despite these challenges, Ottawa’s future looks bright, particularly compared to other similar-sized cities around the world. Our diverse economic base, coupled with a strong commitment from both public and private sectors to address these issues, lays the groundwork for innovative solutions and sustainable growth. By leveraging its unique strengths and confronting its challenges head-on, Ottawa is poised to not only navigate the complexities of the modern economy but to thrive in it. The continued expansion of the technology sector, alongside strategic investments in infrastructure, education, and healthcare, promises to bolster Ottawa’s resilience and enhance its attractiveness as a place to live, work, and do business.

Our city’s economic development strategies hinge on sustainable growth, inclusiveness, and innovation, underpinned by robust public-private partnerships. The Economic Development Strategy for 2023-2026 lays a foundation for resilience and growth, emphasizing the need for preparedness, diversity, and environmental sustainability. However, with economies around the world evolving at an unprecedented rate, driven by the emergence of new technologies, shifting working habits, and intensifying competition for top talent, the urgency for Ottawa to envision and lay out its economic development strategy beyond 2026 cannot be overstated.

The global economic landscape is transforming rapidly, with advancements in AI, biotechnology, and clean energy reshaping industries and creating new paradigms for work and collaboration. The rise of remote work and the digital nomad lifestyle present both challenges and opportunities for cities vying to attract and retain skilled professionals. In this context, Ottawa’s economic development strategy must be forward-looking, agile, and comprehensive, anticipating changes and positioning the city to harness new opportunities while mitigating risks.

Ottawa is uniquely positioned as a desirable destination for top talent, thanks to its safety, incredible access to nature, high-quality infrastructure and city services, the stabilizing effect of the federal public service, and a community that takes pride in calling this city home. These strengths must be at the forefront of our economic development initiatives, underscoring the city’s appeal not just as a place to work, but as a place to live and thrive.

The time is now for Ottawa to embark on a robust process of strategizing for our economic future beyond 2026. This involves not only extending our current successes but also reimagining what our economy could look like in the face of global changes. By embracing our strengths and working together as “Team Ottawa”, we can ensure that our home not only adapts to the changing world but leads by example, setting a benchmark for economic excellence, innovation, and quality of life on the global stage.

Looking ahead, Ottawa’s journey towards economic resilience and growth must leverage emerging technologies within frameworks like cluster development models, export-oriented industrialization, and the triple helix model of innovation. For example, Ottawa’s inherent labour talent can help position the city to embrace Artificial Intelligence, not only because of its transformational qualities, but because of its ability to address aspects of our productivity challenges. Our focus on knowledge-based businesses, the federal public service, tourism, creative industries, and urban services provides a fertile ground for such adoption.

The advent of the AI revolution signals an era of accelerated innovation that will undoubtably delineate global “winners and losers.” Ottawa’s stated ambition to lead in transformative innovation necessitates fostering a dynamic ecosystem that integrates academia, industry, and government to spur innovations from research to ethics. This approach, coupled with cluster development strategies, could aim to make Ottawa a global centre for AI-first companies and a pioneer in integrating AI across many sectors and industries.

Moreover, Ottawa’s economic strategy could embrace more export-oriented industrialization, looking beyond domestic borders to position its innovations on the world stage. Rural communities play a pivotal role in this transformation, embodying unique AI applications in agriculture and sustainability.

In the face of both challenges and opportunities, Ottawa’s journey towards economic development is teeming with potential. Our city, rich in diversity and innovation, stands ready to adapt and evolve, recognizing that the road ahead requires thoughtful navigation. The blend of knowledge-based sectors, government stability, and vibrant community life forms a solid foundation upon which we can build. Yet, the success of our economic future hinges on our ability to come together as “Team Ottawa”.

By fostering a culture of innovation and inclusivity, we can ensure that our economic development is sustainable and reflective of our collective aspirations. Let’s engage in this endeavour with open minds and a commitment to excellence, driving Ottawa towards a future where everyone can thrive. Our collective efforts today will shape the Ottawa of tomorrow, making it a city that not only adapts to change but flourishes in it.