BC Liberals misplace province’s road map to high-tech economy

Wait.

What? That’s it?

This is the province’s plan for the knowledge economy?

Last week’s BC Tech Summit was the ideal opportunity for the BC Liberals to claim political and economic territory: an eager and innovative audience of 3,000, a chance to steal back the show from Justin Trudeau and a window to signal intentions to gradually wean the province from the challenges of the resource sector.

This was the moment to set the stage for the next decade, to take a fast-growing sector and accelerate it.

Sound the trumpets – er, the bugle. Either the cupboard is bare or the party is out of gas.

In journalism we note that the most noteworthy news is often placed near the end, not at the start, of a press release. We call it “burying the lede.”

In the case of the B.C. strategy, the most noteworthy development came a month earlier: a $100 million venture capital fund of funds, by far the biggest strategic element. Let’s call last week “exhuming the lede.”

But it, like other elements, is still about as vague as can be.

My experience in Ottawa was that governments rarely stepped forward with a strategy unless it was cost-clear, comprehensive and capable of withstanding withering questions.

Had there not been a glossy publication and online presence for the premier’s announcement, one might have concluded the B.C. tech strategy was hatched over breakfast that day.

To wit: a commitment to amend curriculum to teach students coding, but no detail of who will teach, how it will be taught or how quickly it will be in classes for particular grades. Punted to the education minister to start figuring it out. Journalists were told there were no earmarked resources for the additional task, which hardly inspires confidence we are about to become the world’s coding mecca.

To wit: a pledge to work with the federal government to whisk tech workers into the province to meet the skills need, but no detail on targets or sectors or locales or extra funds to carry out the job of improved immigration pathways.

To wit: nothing to staunch the flow of the best and brightest talent to the more lucrative job markets in an era of a comparably devalued dollar. The work may be more intense, America may be in the hands soon of Donald Trump, but a $100,000 salary there beats a $100,000 salary here by nearly a mere half.

The premier and her technology minister’s mantra on recruitment and retention were good-vibe lines about how people will come here because of low taxes, nice health care, pretty mountains and ocean. What they didn’t note were the so-so public transit and the so-crazy price of housing.

To wit: a rehashing announcement of the venture capital fund, which is admittedly no chump change, but still carries no timeline on how much money will be rolled out next or in subsequent fiscal years. Naturally, there is no guarantee that the province’s “investment” will secure the presence of those companies for any determined period. Presumably Silicon Valley will send a thank-you note. We are months away from the selection of a fund manager, thus many months away from criteria and many more from the disbursals.

At pre-election time, a strategy tells people what is to come, not what has happened – what they will get, not what they have, more PowerPoint plans than back-of-the-napkin notions.

Trouble brews because the dream-merchant liquefied natural gas strategy of the 2013 campaign is rapidly meeting a darker reality. Much as she was an inspired campaigner then, Christy Clark will need more gusto and more goodies next time because she will be fighting a fire-breather in John Horgan and not a wallflower in Adrian Dix. It is startling to believe the NDP could adopt a more future-leaning economic strategy, but the opening is there.

Tech leaders weren’t tripping over each other to commend the strategy; rather, they were looking at their shoes when asked to pump the tires of the scheme.

Let’s try this one again. 

Kirk LaPointe is Business in Vancouver’s vice-president of audience and business development.