A Commitment to Place: The Social Foundations of Innovation in Newfoundland and Labrador

Lay Summary 

Innovation and creative capacity are at the very foundation of regional economic development. Competing in the international knowledge-based economy demands products, services and processes that are better than those produced elsewhere. Businesses, entrepreneurs, and creative workers must be able to access information on better ways of doing things, and develop their own unique approaches, if a region is to maximize its development potential.

This report draws from research in Newfoundland and Labrador (NL), part of a national project on the Social Foundations of Innovation in City Regions, led by David Wolfe at the University of Toronto. The national project conducted research in 15 urban regions of varying sizes of population. The research in NL expanded beyond the St. John's region to look at three smaller urban centres including the Clarenville region, the Comer Brook region, and the Labrador West region, which would be considered rural or remote centres within the national project. By including these smaller centres, researchers hoped to understand how innovation, talent attraction and retention, and governance would compare with the same research and analysis conducted across the country.

The urban centres studied in NL impose real limitations due to their small scale. Developing clusters, attracting and retaining skilled workers, accessing knowledge and research capacity from universities and other research and development institutions are bigger challenges for these centres. The St. John's region, a small urban area in the national project, faces similar challenges in retaining highly trained and creative workers in the arts and academic sectors. But these challenges are not insurmountable. The ocean technology cluster in St. John's is proof that a relatively small urban centre can succeed in building a globally competitive, innovative industrial and learning system.

The three smaller urban centres demonstrated success in creating a high quality of life for their residents through a range of resource-based and service-sector activity. It appears that the farther from St. John's, the better the level of collaborative regional governance. That may be due to the benefits of distance, which remove local governance from the federal and provincial political battles in the capital, allowing local leaders to focus on the job at hand. The two exceptions are the St. John's ocean technology cluster and the innovative social sector NGOs in the capital. Municipal and regional development organizations in all regions can learn from the trust and collaboration practiced by the social sector NGOs in St. John's.

All regions studied demonstrated the significance of commitment to place. People interviewed in the private, community, and public sectors spoke of their sense of home and belonging as a prime driver to live and work where they are. Some "CFAs" reported that sense of belonging could be hard to break into, although many noted they were “Newfoundlanders by Choice” (NBCs). And while visible minorities remain relatively few compared to Canada's largest urban centres, the high numbers of "been aways"- people from the province who have returned after studying and working away - introduces a rich hidden diversity of knowledge and contacts from which to draw innovative and creative ideas and opportunities.

The biggest deficiency to achieving the conditions identified by the national project is governance. This is within our power to change. It is a product of decision-making, not one of natural attributes or rare sectoral expertise or money. While political culture is difficult to change, it can happen. Those interviewed for the governance theme recognized that greater local capacity is needed to succeed. Municipalities, REDBs, and other local organizations want a greater role in fostering the conditions to drive the economy. The social foundations of innovation may find an opportunity to take hold in the regions of Newfoundland and Labrador if the existing strengths are exploited and the weaknesses addressed.

The Report can be located at: http://www.mun.ca/harriscentre/reports/research/2011/CommitmenttoPlace_H...

The Leslie Harris Centre of Regional Policy and Development
SSHRC Major Collaborative Research Initiatives
NL Industrial Research And Innovation Fund
NL Rural Secretariat
Corner Brook
Labrador City
St. John's
Newfoundland and Labrador
Business development
Economic Conditions
Regional Development
Industry Sectors 
Scientific Research and Development Services
Public Administration
Start date 
1 Jan 2011