Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Uncertainty breeds Creativity:
Now is the time to reinvent Ottawa

With the Federal Government being the biggest employer in Ottawa the budget means much more to our city than other cities in Canada. The recent announcement that the Federal Government will be making $4 billion dollars in cuts has our city wondering about job security and the state of our local economy.

In a recent article by the Ottawa Business Journal entitled "The feds’ loosening grip on the downtown core" we learned that as the Federal Government looks to shed one million square feet of downtown office space it will slowly raise vacancy rates to eight or nine percent. The article went on to provide a scenario surrounding the new Export Development Canada building whereby the vacancy could rise to 7.7% which would be a 10-year high.

With the possibility of job losses and rising vacancy rates, people may find reason to worry. I don't mean to seem insensitive, but I actually get excited in these circumstances. I think it's the entrepreneur in me. It provides an opportunity to reinvent and think outside of the box.

In 2005 my mother was laid off from her University Avenue insurance company in Toronto when it was acquired by a Quebec-based insurance company. She had spent over 30 years in the life insurance industry as a pension administrator, over 20 years at her most recent employer. She was the only person in her department that was laid off. She eventually got licensed in life insurance and is now an agent with a small financial services firm (she's acutally selling the products of her former employer).

Since I was a child my mother had me reading finance books and playing finance board games. When my friends came over she would talk to them about their personal finances. That was her passion, but she was comfortable as a pension administrator. The uncertainty of losing her job that she had for two decades propelled her into what she really loved.

I had a similar experience last May. After interning in Parliament as a communications assistant my contract wasn't renewed after being extended in the past. I didn't have enough hours under my belt to qualify for EI and my wife was on maternity leave. I've been out of a full-time job every since. Talk about pressure!

After many months of being at home I realized my real passion was for media and communications. I decided to start writing and volunteering as a camera operator at RogersTV. I contacted a few websites, one local and one international, to see if I could write for them and now I spend all my time writing. I've even made a few dollars doing it. I've been pretty good at writing since elementary school and have worked with publications in the past. Now I'm looking to go back to school to immerse myself completely in media. The uncertainty of losing my job actually put me in a position where I could discover my true passions and focus on them full-time.

Looking back I would've never taken these steps if I had the certainty of a full-time job. Now as I look to go back into the workforce I'm not just doing it with a need to put food on the table, but with a knowledge of my passions. In other words, just as my mother did a few years earlier, I've reinvented myself.

Ottawa's most recent economic development strategy says that one of the main challenges facing our local economy is high economic dependence on the federal government presence. As a strategic solution it proposes that we diversify our business sectors, meaning we need a variety of industries contributing to our economy. The strategy also says that another challenge facing our city's economy is the "Perception nationally and internationally of Ottawa being 'just a government city' that acts as an obstacle to attracting investment". Its strategic solution is for Ottawa to rebrand its image.

As the capital deals with probable job losses, I'm excited for the people who may have to reinvent themselves. Some of the people losing their jobs will find their true passions, potentially even starting businesses. Some will find jobs in another industry or sector. Some may continue in a similar line of work for a non-profit or for-profit. Some will go back to school. Unfortunately, for some people it won't work out as well.

As the Federal Government leaves office space vacant I'm excited about the new tenants that may occupy the space, perhaps bringing new industries with them. Who knows what the downtown core could look like in 10 years! Perhaps we need to reinvent our downtown core!

Is this the opportunity that we were looking for to rebrand and to be seen as more than a government city? Is this forcing us to no longer be economically dependent on the Federal Government? We will now take a serious look at diversification of the business sector?

This may be a wake up call for us, but this is everyday life in cities like Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver that aren't economically dependent on the Federal Government. Under those circumstances they have become entrepreneurial and creative hubs and we can too!

Certainty tends to breed Complacency, while Uncertainty tends to breed Creativity. In the past Ottawa has called itself, "Canada's Creative Economy". This is the time when that tagline will leap from the pages and be tested.

In these times we can either worry or we can use the Uncertainty to fuel Creativity as we reinvent Ottawa.

Kevin Bourne

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