The B.C. economy has fundamentally changed. Are we ready for tomorrow?

Building a prosperous future for the province means putting people first as the fundamental driver of wealth, says BC Tech president and CEO Jill Tipping.

Building a prosperous future for the province means putting people first as the fundamental driver of wealth, says BC Tech president and CEO Jill Tipping

I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re 15 and 35 is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you’re 35 is against the natural order of things. 
–Douglas Adams

For Jill Tipping, that observation by late science fiction author Adams gets at the urgent need to shift our thinking about the B.C. economy and its future.

 Tipping is president and CEO of the BC Tech Association, which recently published A New Economic Narrative for British Columbia. The report’s thesis: Our economy isn’t what we tell ourselves it is. We still cling to the 20th-century image of B.C. as mostly an exporter of natural resources. But in fact, over the past three decades, we’ve become a knowledge and service-driven economy.

“How I would describe the call to action in this report is that it’s no longer enough to describe that we’re experiencing economic growth,” Tipping says. “We actually need to understand the why so that we can understand if it’s sustainable or not.”

The report presents B.C. as a small, open economy at an inflection point in a rapidly changing world. If physical assets drove economic growth, resilience and competitiveness during the previous century, the service economy of the 21st century hinges on intangible assets such as data and intellectual property.

Just look at B.C., where services now account for 75 percent of gross domestic product, 80 percent of jobs and 50 percent of exports. “To plan for the future, we have to understand where we came from, but we’ve got to get our feet grounded in where we are today,” Tipping says. “I think the conversation continues to be dominated by things that were true 30 years ago but actually aren’t true today and definitely won’t be true tomorrow.”

A global reality check

Despite growing affluence in North America, COVID has been a reality check for the world, Tipping notes. So have the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the 2016 election of Donald Trump, which could signal the end of the expansionist, globalist era, she says.

“I think today, we’re sort of at a place of, oh, I don’t know, maybe there’s more tension in the world than I thought there was, and perhaps the climate crisis is more serious than I thought, and the transition off oil and gas is sooner than I thought,” Tipping says.

“Economic growth is a good thing, but economic growth that doesn’t drive increased shared prosperity is going to be a challenging thing,” she adds. “And economic growth that’s based on industries that might be grandfathering or not growing as fast as they once did isn’t as good as economic growth that’s driven by industries that are globally growing and going to be sustainable sources of economic growth for the next 30 to 50 years.”

On that note, Tipping sees opportunity for B.C., whose technology industry keeps spilling over into other sectors. “Adjacent industries are becoming tech industries, and every industry is becoming tech,” she says. “As a consequence of that, it’s going to be a growing share of jobs.”

The provincial government projects that from 2019 through 2029, professional, scientific and technical services will see 2.5-percent annual job growth. But based on recent member surveys, BC Tech expects that category to expand by 10 to 15 percent annually during the same period—generating 88,000 more jobs than the government forecast of 98,800.

That’s good news, but when it comes to measuring the economic impact of the tech sector, we’re still using 20th-century methods, the report maintains. For example, the current North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) doesn’t separate technology and digital businesses from professional, scientific and technical services. At the same, time there’s little provincial and federal data on B.C. services exports.

Talking to civil servants at both levels of government, Tipping has found them interested in gathering better data. “It’s a challenge to find the time and the money and the teams to invest in the new,” she says. “But I do think there’s a shared understanding of the challenge and the need to adjust to this question.”

Talent, talent and talent

To help shape the new economic narrative, BC Tech lays out three steps. “First and foremost is to really embrace data,” Tipping says. “Let’s understand today’s economy, because we don’t have enough information is what is driving 80 percent of our economy.”

With that in mind, Tipping would like to see the provincial government make use of her organization’s report as it develops a new economic plan due this fall. “We’re hoping to be influential as part of that on the kinds of questions that need to be asked and answered, and specifically with a focus on the data capture piece.”

But her bigger ambition is to change the conversation, “so that hopefully, three years from now, it isn’t the case that 80 percent of the jobs get 5 percent of the conversation,” she says. “That’s something that’s a longer-term play, but even the way the report has been received so far and the conversations we’ve had so far, I am pleasantly surprised by the interest that we’re getting within government as well as in wider society.”

Step 2: Face reality. “Let’s just understand that technology innovation isn’t a choice, it isn’t an option anymore. It’s a fact, and it’s been a fact for 20 years, and it’s what is driving prosperity and growth globally,” she says. “Sometimes I think in B.C., it’s seen as icing on the cake—or, If we have time for that, we will. It’s the cake, OK? It’s become the cake.”

And Step 3? “There are three priorities in this new economic narrative, and they are talent, talent and talent,” Tipping says. “We must stop seeing people as a cost or an afterthought. They’re the fundamental unit and driver of wealth, of prosperity, of growth. And if we invest in people, whether that’s through education or infrastructure or their ideas or their entrepreneurship or their innovation about new ways to create value for old industries, whether it’s in B.C. or elsewhere, it’s the easiest money you could possibly make.”

Having previously spent several years with energy multinational Schneider Electric as VP operations and CFO of its solar business, Tipping knows about making money the hard way. “It is a really tough business,” she says. “It’s constantly focused on taking costs out. You will win in the energy business if you have the lowest-cost, most consistently efficient supplier.”

The drivers of the talent economy are completely different, Tipping notes. “You will win in the talent economy if you enable creativity and innovation and fast business cycles, and constant nourishment and enrichment and bringing in new ideas and products.”

Working in that new economy is more enjoyable, too, she says. “It’s more fun to earn your living in something that’s sustainably profitable and constantly interested in new ideas.”

Building the people economy

The BC Tech report also highlights the changing nature of economic competitiveness, which sees taxes play a smaller role than intangible assets, innovation and investment in people.

“I would say we’ve moved from a time when capital was constrained to a time when talent is constrained,” Tipping says. In other words, human labour and talent have become the scarce resource. “If you optimize for that resource, you will be a winner and a success in today’s economy and the future.”

Given its strong education and health-care systems, and the fact that generally speaking, it’s a safe and welcoming society, B.C. should be far ahead in that department, Tipping reckons. “It’s a bit hokey to say it, but if we can get as good as mining what’s in people’s minds as we were at mining what’s in the ground, that’s the source of value for the future.”

For Tipping, it comes back to what she calls the infrastructure of the people economy—education and re-skilling, but also affordable housing and good public transit.

“It’s important to have a stable and predictable environment,” she says. “But maybe that’s not the most important thing anymore. The most important thing—and this is certainly what I believe—is to be a great place for human talent to thrive. And if you are optimized for that, then industry and post-secondaries and governments and all players in the economy will find themselves with the wind at their backs.”