The Higher ED Blog: Is the knowledge economy in peripheral regions a low hanging fruit or a lost cause?
Tallia Damini / July 25, 2016
Economic developers in peripheral regions face some tough questions: How do I attract talent and investment away from core regions? How do I capitalize on new economic patterns like the growth of the knowledge economy? And how do I best allocate limited resources to economic development projects in order to maximize dividends?
These are all questions that the Timmins Economic Development Corporation (TEDC) struggles to answer. As communities like Timmins, Ontario watch the growth of the knowledge economy in core regions, they want the same economic benefits. However, communities in peripheral regions must carefully assess any strategic direction prior to embarking – human and capital resources are scarce, and community expectations are high.
I wrote a research paper on the feasibility of attracting a forestry research centre to the city of Timmins. This paper was developed for dual audiences: my Board and employers at the TEDC and my graduate program in Local Economic Development at the University of Waterloo. This research started with a literature review on the knowledge economy’s role in economic development, and used two approaches to assess feasibility. The first approach involved researching other research centres located in Canada, including their impacts on their host communities, their location (core vs. periphery), and how they are funded. The second approach examined Timmins and the surrounding region to assess attractive research features, impediments to attracting a research centre, and possible regional partners and assets.
A knowledge economy for Timmins?
This study found that academic researchers agree that the knowledge economy is a quickly growing economic driver with significant impacts on regional and economic economies (such as increased productivity and generation of spin-offs; however, they do not agree on how or why these impacts are occurring. Academics also disagree on whether growing the regional knowledge economy is an effective economic development strategy. Some argue that it is a growth-oriented outlook that fails to suit the needs of peripheral regions, which would benefit more from positive decline strategies. Others predict that the knowledge economy, if well established in a peripheral region, can help dilute the differences between the core and periphery over a long period of time. The challenges of understanding how the knowledge economy works has not stopped policy-makers, including those in Timmins, from pursuing it as an economic development strategy.
One of the biggest challenges of the research centre attraction project is that Timmins does not have a local university. It hosts two college campuses and a satellite campus of Université de Hearst (approximately 40 students in Timmins), but no university of its own. This is a serious impediment to the development of the local knowledge economy. Out of 104 identified research centres in Canada, the vast majority were located within or adjacent to university campuses. By winnowing those out (along with some other criteria) 17 were flagged as having characteristics of interest to this research. I contacted these research centres and learned that none were measuring their impacts on the local economy (not particularly surprising), but 100% believed that they had positive impacts, and 0% believed they had negative impacts (also not particularly surprising).
Next, I surveyed local knowledgeable people – conservation officers, foresters, mine environmental officers, First Nations chiefs, etc. – to develop a clear picture of Timmins’ knowledge assets and challenges. Thirty-six respondents from a variety of sectors identified many local flora and fauna that may be of interest to researchers. These potential projects frequently aligned well with current research projects being conducted at existing research centres. Specifically, unique research opportunities at disturbed mine and forestry sites were identified over and over again as having research potential. Many impediments were also identified – lack of funding, lack of a local university, and lack of a skilled talent pool were the top three.
By pooling the information collected in the secondary research, surveys, and interviews, the following recommendations were developed to guide the TEDC as it moves forward. These recommendations and actions could apply to most economic development projects.
Critically assess the project’s value
Since leveraging knowledge creators (i.e. universities and research centres) as economic engines has not been empirically justified for core OR peripheral regions, economic developers need to acknowledge and consider this red flag. Before investing time and money, they should not only ask whether they can do something, but also whether they should.
Narrow the project’s focus
The TEDC identified the Boreal forest as a unique attractor. However, the Boreal forest covers a massive portion of the northern hemisphere and other research centres already study it. Narrowing the proposed focus of the research centre to, for example, land reclamation post-mining and -forestry activities may create a larger draw as a unique factor.
Connect with potential funders early
If funders are invited into the project during its formative stages, there are two potential positive benefits: the project is more likely to be designed to meet government funding requirements/expectations, and funders (specifically, private funders) are more likely to feel ownership and commitment to the project.
Resources are difficult to commit for a project with uncertain outcomes and one that is likely to be heavily dependent on the collaboration of multiple partners. The creation of a seasonal or occasional research site, as opposed to a permanent research centre, may be a feasible first step to assess interest from researchers in other areas of the province and country; this precedent has been established by other research centres in Canada.
Establish a partnership with an experienced research institution
The effort and energies that it will take to establish the research centre could be applied more efficiently by working in partnership with an experienced research institution. Such an entity could funnel resources, tap into opportunities, provide administrative guidance, and connect with researchers, research champions, and research projects with much greater ease than an economic development agency.
Next Steps for the TEDC
- Critically evaluate the direction and scope of project to be pursued. A decision must be reached on whether the TEDC will pursue a research centre and what the centre will ‘look’ like.
- Reach out to potential funding organizations to discuss available funding, eligibility requirements and criteria, funder expectations, etc.
- Coordinate a round table with potential stakeholders to determine interest, gauge commitment, and identify available resources. Work with this group to develop a vision for the centre.
- Use the vision established by the stakeholders to develop a preliminary funding proposal for a resource person to develop a value proposition, write funding proposals, and coordinate activities.
- Communicate a value proposition to researchers in related fields to prompt interest and identify pilot projects to be pursued at the research centre. These pilots will help shape the research centre moving forward.
Conclusion: The knowledge economy is not a low-hanging fruit
Timmins hosts many physical sites that provide unique research opportunities, as well as a variety of partners and funding opportunities that could contribute significant resources to the project. However, the city is also located in a peripheral region and lacking in human capital and existing research infrastructure; all factors identified by academic researchers as impediments to the development of the knowledge economy.
The case for attracting a research centre is not straightforward and the obstacles to overcome are substantial. The feasibility of the project is dependent on the response of potential partners and stakeholders moving forward. As a result of this research, it has been recognized that pursuit of the knowledge economy is not a low-hanging fruit ready to be plucked for the benefit of Timmins. As with many other economic development strategies, peripheral regions have barriers to success and must cautiously and strategically analyze the best applications of their limited resources.
About the authors
Michelle Madden is the editor of Higher ED. She is also the Outreach Manager for the Economic Development Program and a graduate of the LED master’s program. She has authored many Higher ED articles sharing information relevant to economic development practitioners, and has written several on behalf of students. She has published several of her own blogs on economicdevelopment.org as well. Follow her on Twitter at @michelle_mad.
Tallia Damini is a recent graduate of the LED master’s program at the University of Waterloo. She worked for the Timmins Economic Development Corporation for two years as an Economic Development Officer and had firsthand experience working with various stakeholders on assessing economic development projects and their feasibility. She has recently joined the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines as a contract Northern Development Advisor. Tallia’s research interests focus on peripheral regions, entrepreneurship, and First Nations issues.
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