Saturday, February 24, 2007

Reflections on Role for COINPacific in Developing an Ocean Information Technology Cluster

As presented at the COINPacific Forum in Victoria on June 27, 2005, numerous coastal and oceans information and knowledge databases and platforms are either available or planned for British Columbia. Many of these repositories are leading edge. Some, though not all, are already available to the public in one form or another, while others will be made available in the future. There would appear to be a tremendous opportunity to add value to these databases, through partnerships involving government, universities, NGOs and the private sector. COINPacific could play a central role as a catalyst in promoting and fostering the commercialisation of these knowledge sources, taking advantage of synergies, establishing what amounts to an ocean information cluster, and generally championing the development and dissemination of ocean knowledge in the province of British Columbia and beyond.

The Role for the Private Sector

There are obviously many more high tech firms involved in the ocean information technology sector in BC than were represented at the COINPacific Forum. Just a cursory look at the directory on the VIATEC web site ( ) reveals a host of ocean-related companies, many of them world class. Victoria is also a hotbed of information technology firms, including my own, as another VIATEC web page indicates ( ).

The private sector is the driver of the economy, and the high tech sector is the engine of the new economy. Governments can foster growth, but Canada's future wellbeing lies in the development of new technologies, in researching and developing innovative solutions to emerging problems and challenges, and in creating wealth on a sustainable basis. The private sector, however, cannot and should not work alone in identifying and developing this potential: partnerships will be required to fully exploit these opportunities.

Leveraging the Traditional, Resource Sector Economy

Embracing information technology in the new economy does not by any means amount to the rejection of the "old economy" as represented by fishing, logging, mining and other extractive industries such as oil and gas. In other words, we do not have to turn our backs on these sectors in favour of, for instance, renewable energy technologies such as wind, wave and tidal power. The economic future of BC is likely to be characterised by a healthy balance among all these sectors, old and new. In fact, high tech advances are already transforming the more traditional sectors, thereby adding value to the economy and making these sectors world-beaters in a competitive, global economy. In the decades to come, however, only those traditional sectors that have managed to adapt themselves to the knowledge-based economy will survive and prosper.

Overcoming a Mistrust of Business in BC in General, and on Vancouver Island in Particular

For COINPacific to succeed in creating a vibrant, creative ocean information technology cluster, one of the big hurdles to overcome will be an abiding suspicion of the private sector and private sector initiatives. In Victoria and on Vancouver Island in general, this latent hostility to anything that has to do with new ideas, change, progress and development is legendary. There is nothing inherently wrong with leveraging technology that was originally developed with taxpayers' money, with capitalising on that wealth of knowledge, and with taking it a step or two further. British Columbia needs an ocean information technology champion, someone who can articulate the benefits of technology transfer, someone with the vision to promote it, establish partnerships and generally create the conditions under which this emerging sector can flourish.

What COINPacific Is and Is Not

The BC oceans community is faced with a number of contentious public policy issues at the present time, and the author has himself been deeply involved in a number of these struggles. In a free and open society, debate on these issues is to be encouraged. However, COINPacific is not the most appropriate forum in which to conduct this debate. Rather, the primary purpose of CoinPacific should be to provide a forum for the:

  • sharing of information and knowledge on ocean information technology
  • identification of knowledge gaps and priorities for investigation
  • exploration and development of commercial opportunities and technology transfer
  • establishment of public/private sector partnerships to add value to ocean information technology products and services, thereby maximising the potential of the information databases at hand

Opportunity Knocks

The establishment of a COINPacific office housed within the Innovation and Development Corporation ( IDC ) [ ] at the University of Victoria is a welcome event. The IDC has a proven track record in technology transfer, establishment of joint ventures and spin-off firms, nurturing of incubator companies, etc. The university is also one of Canada's premier centres for ocean-related teaching and research. COINPacific should capitalise on these strengths of the University of Victoria, which give it a competitive edge, all the while ensuring that other universities, the private sector, the NGO community and other users of information technology are fully involved, as equal partners in this exciting and innovative initiative. At the same time, the public needs to be reassured that free and open access to the original ocean information databases, which were developed with taxpayers' money, will be maintained.

The Challenge

From an industry perspective, the task will be to draw in ocean information technology firms which are often competing with one another, and which are therefore often sceptical of any initiative to share information, especially that which may or may not be subject to intellectual property restrictions. The trick will be to convince local partners that we are not so much competing against each other as working with each other in competition with the rest of the world, and that the more we collaborate, the better able we are to create a sustainable, world-class ocean information technology sector of benefit to us all- our children, their children, as well as society in general. Let this be our legacy to them all.


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