Vancouver political pundits puzzled by small business question; evolving theory about science, innovation, and business in Canada

They gave me ‘Bambi eyes’ in response to my question about Vancouver city council’s performance vis a vis supporting small business. It happened on Saturday, Nov. 14, 2009, when I attended Michael Geller’s “That Was the Year That Was”  1st anniversary review of Vancouver’s city council performance since its election. (I will link this to my evolving theory about science, innovation, and business but first I have to tell the story.)

It was a very interesting and very civil discussion. I was particularly thankful for the civility since I have been to political meetings where people rant and scream at each other. It was also very much an insider’s meeting. Most people knew each other and the majority were from the NPA. As you’d expect with people who know each other a nicety or two was forgotten. The first speaker did not identify himself and he introduced the 1st panel’s moderator so quickly that I missed the name although I did remark that the moderator is an architect.

The first panel offered a good review of the projects and problems that have been addressed since the election and panel members (Michael Geller, Gordon Price, and Jim Green) provided contrasting insights into various situations. The presentation could have done with a little editing.  Too long and a bit repetitive.

The second panel was on Vancouver’s economic development and the green economy. The moderator was Peter Ladner and panel members were Gordon Price (again), John Tylee, and James Fletcher. I was a bit disappointed in this one. Fletcher’s comments were on the academic side and at times vague; Price was cogent although he didn’t have any big revelations; and Tylee was focused on attracting big business (technology industries, I think) and developing ‘sticky’ relationships. (sigh) Do the marketing types really want to reference Madonna and/or poor sanitation practices? Or are they more scientifically minded and going for a reference to particle physics? It’s beside the point anyway. Large businesses care about their bottom line and when times get tough they cut employee numbers and/or facilities regardless of ‘sticky’ relationships. Since many of the technology businesses in Vancouver have headquarters in the US where the newly elected Democratic administration has committed to a ‘Made in the USA’ policy/protectionism, you can assume that they will cut in Canada first and more deeply.

(For some insight into the new US protectionism check this story about the City of Sacramento digging up newly laid pipe that had Made in Canada stamped on it. The irony: the pipes were made of materials imported from Texas. Go here for more.)

There wasn’t much about the green economy and virtually no detail  was offered.

The third panel featured media pundits Miro Cernetig, Jonathan Ross, Monte Paulsen, and Mike Klassen as panelists and Frances Bula as the moderator. This was the panel that responded with ‘Bambi eyes’ when I asked a perfectly simple question which I have to paraphrase as I don’t recall the exact wording. “What is your take on city council’s support for small business?” In my preamble I referenced the previous panel’s focus on big business and noted that small business owners contribute hugely to neighbourhoods and their character.  Klassen was the only person who attempted a response or even seemed to grasp the nature of the question. While he didn’t have anything substantive, he did note some of the problems that come with a strong focus on hosting big business facilities (i.e. branch plants) mentioning Kodak. If y0u want more proof that there is no such thing as a ‘sticky’ relationship with larger enterprises, check out this blog entry from someone working at Kodak’s facility in Burnaby (before its purchase this was the local business,  Creo Products).

I was shocked. Quite frankly I expected more of this panel. If nothing else they could have noted that it’s not on the agenda at the moment or …  Although how they’ve missed the fact that a lot of small businesses are having problems (I’m seeing vacancies (Edie’s Hats, Big News, etc.), departures (Jackson’s Meats, McKinnon’s Bakery, etc.)  coupled with some very large US retailers (American Apparel, Williams and Sonoma,  etc.) moving into my neighbourhood).

On another matter, Bula’s moderation was problematic and I should note here that she had the most challenging panel of the morning. Back to the problems. First, she seated herself in the centre of the table with panelists on either side of her in contrast the other two moderators stood a little removed and to the side of their panels. (Sitting in the center of the panel makes it harder to establish eye contact with individual panelists and makes it harder to manage them.)  She had a difficult panel member with Klassen who highjacked the discussion a few times.

Another problem with sitting in the middle of the panel is that you tend to forget that you’re moderating and not a member of the panel and so,  Bula forgot a few times. However, my biggest disappointment was that she didn’t shut down questions and comments that really had nothing to do with the topic at hand, the pundits’ perspective on the current city council’s performance. Instead, there was a substantive period of time devoted to the state of journalism, newspapers and newspaper writing, the roles of bloggers vis a vis journalists, and the question of how one makes money by blogging. Then, she had to cut off questions at the end because there wasn’t enough time. (As for the two other moderators, the first one had a smoothly oiled machine as panels go and needed only to keep time [I think he could have been a little more aggressive about that] and the second one, Peter Ladner, gave a mediocre performance with a low energy panel. He could have dome more to provoke comments  and/or questions from the panel and the audience.)

This all got me to thinking about business, science, and innovation. I’ve discussed in the past my issues with Canadian businesses not having their own commercial research labs and their general reluctance to invest in innovation.

Until this meeting, I hadn’t realized how little interest there is in Canadian business of any size. The plan for Vancouver’s economic development is to attract big business which generally means a business from the US (or another country). How are we going to encourage innovation and risk taking if we don’t support business large and small? It seems to me that we need to create a kind of business ecosystem which supports businesses and we need to start with the small ones, those local retailers that add so much to the experience of a neighbourhood. I think we need to change the mindset about business at every level and that focusing on Canada’s larger businesses and asking how we can get them to take more risks and become more innovative misses the point. We need to develop a culture around all of our businesses.

For anyone who’s interested in more comments about Geller’s event or Vancouver politics, you can visit: civicscene.ca, citycaucus.com, Michael Geller’s blog, and Frances Bula’s blog. My reservations notwithstanding, it was a worthwhile event and as these things go, came off remarkably well, Bravo to the organizers!

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