Greater Victoria’s battle for economic recovery and the ingredients that will take us to a better future.

In November 2020, our region rallied together to launch Reboot: Greater Victoria’s Economic Recovery Plan 2020-2022. This was eight months into the global pandemic. Eight months of uncertainty, confusion, anxiety, and economic hardship (the latter of which was buoyed by governments to prevent absolute catastrophe —programs like CERB, CEWS and the RRRF were used to bridge people and businesses through the storm). 

The Reboot plan was launched during a multifaceted series of events we branded as “Rising Economy Week” — conjuring a phoenix, rising from the ashes. But in addition to being a solid analogy for recovering from the pandemic effects, rising is also a play on the acronym RISE, which we developed based on the valuable lessons and insights gained over the previous eight months. We distilled these lessons and insights into four key ingredients that would be needed in order for our region to move forward successfully. They also contain all elements of the Reboot Plan’s 10 Recovery Pillars.

Going forward, these four ingredients are the recipe for 21st-century cities. They are mandatory, not optional. Some cities will combine them well and improve over time. Others will revert to old 20th-century approaches and be left with the same problems they had before our world changed. 

What are the four ingredients and where did they come from? 

I’ll get to that in a moment. First, we have to go back to March 2020. We all remember what was going on: fights over toilet paper in the supermarket, hand sanitizer sold out across the region, then a complete shut-down of non-essential services. At South Island Prosperity Partnership (SIPP), we watched as governments, businesses, non-profit organizations, etc. (including ourselves!) scrambled to respond. The result was a hodge-podge of new programs, updates from the government that seemed to change every two hours, daily case counts, endless press releases and a whole bunch of panic. 

After several weeks of meeting with various stakeholders and evaluating options, our SIPP team determined that the best use of our strengths and resources would be to play a “regional coordination” role. At the very least duplicative efforts could be reduced by getting everyone into the same (virtual) room so we could all see what everyone else was doing. 

Doing this regionally made the most sense since our economy — within the Greater Victoria metropolitan region at least — is integrated. This means that even though you may work in Victoria or Central Saanich, live in Sooke or View Royal and do your shopping in Saanich or Colwood, the local economy is really just an aggregate of all of this behaviour. This includes businesses and their trade patterns, which include where their employees or customers come from or where their suppliers are located.  

The fluid nature of our regional economy is why SIPP’s convening activity quickly evolved into the Rising Economy Taskforce, launched on April 16, 2020. The taskforce was a cross-section of governments (at all levels, including First Nations), post-secondary institutions, non-profits, industry associations and chambers of commerce, and some of the region’s top employers and other major stakeholders organizations like the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority, the Victoria Airport Authority, BC Ferries and BC Transit.

One Region, One Economy

To demonstrate the regional nature of our economy, this map shows an example of a major employer based in Langford (orange) with the other points being the postal codes of where their employees live. You’ll quickly see that we’re all in this together.

The Four Ingredients: Resilience. Innovation. Sustainability. Equity.

So here are the four ingredients that we distilled from this process. These four elements — Resiliency, Innovation, Sustainability and Equity —are mandatory requirements for successful 21st-century regional economies. Here’s why:

Resilience

Resilience is at the heart of all healthy and vibrant cities and communities. It permeates through the connective tissue among neighbours and results in a multiplier effect that can only be created by working together across jurisdictions, classes, public institutions, private businesses and NGOs, with people from all walks of life. I’ll explain why resilience goes way beyond the limited definition that the BC Business magazine uses for its resilient communities awards

The word resilience comes from the Latin verb resilire, which means to rebound. Humans have resilience, be it emotional or physical (rebounding from a health setback or a major life disruption), but so do communities and their economies. 

One of the first calls we made when the pandemic hit was to a former city councillor in Christchurch, New Zealand named Mike Fisher. Mike had the terrifying and remarkable experience of helping to lead his community from under the piles of rubble that resulted from a major earthquake in 2012. Now, you may wonder, what does an earthquake have to do with a pandemic? A pandemic is little different in that it is prolonged (and by definition, it impacts the entire world at once), but it’s similar in that it represents a major external force that wreaks havoc on the communities — and economies — it touches. 

Mike offered us valuable lessons from his experience about the role of citizens, the value of collaboration and leadership and the powerful force that working together brings to recovery. This ultimately makes the community more hopeful and resilient.  

Building on these lessons from Mike, in order to be truly resilient, a community must develop the following attributes:

  • More local ownership and local capital (as opposed to foreign ownership and capital). This means more wealth is retained and (more importantly!) circulated within the local commerce system, which benefits more local people. For example: you probably noticed during the early months of the pandemic that many Starbucks locations were the first to close up and leave town, whereas our local coffee shops — like Discovery and Habit (and many others) — were here for the long haul. 
  • Increasingly diversified trade. Having multiple sources (and markets) for local businesses means that an economy is more resistant to disruptions. This is similar to the old saying, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” Having diverse sources of supplies (like PPE or respirators, as we all witnessed!) or diverse customers, means more stability and thus a quicker rebound when the time comes. 
  • Connected and engaged residents. Sociologist Eric Klinenberg wrote an award-winning account of the 1995 Chicago heat wave. His account demonstrated that social cohesion within neighbourhoods had a direct impact on the survival rate of residents in those neighbourhoods. The results revealed a staggeringly high correlation between how “social infrastructure” like neighbourhood resource centres, libraries and other programs like Neighbourhood Watch can kick into high gear in the event of a major disruption. They can mean life or death.
  • Less wealth disparity. As measured by the Gini Coefficient, the amount of wealth within a community is only important to resiliency so long as it is spread across a greater number of people. Not surprisingly, economies that have high unemployment and high rates of poverty must rely extensively on outsider assistance (like foreigh aid or government-led responses) whereas communities with low unemployment and solid social safety nets can “weather the storm” and come out further ahead.
  • Responsive and collaborative leadership and institutions. Institutional capacity was at the heart of the pandemic response. We saw some agencies and governments pivot or completely drop lower-level priorities in order to deal with the health crisis first. This will mean months or even years of lag-time as those “lower priorities” like housing or non-essential healthcare catch up. The most important factor for resiliency is not population growth or sales of residential housing; it is actually our collective ability to organize, coordinate, and offer targeted response at a pace that the challenge-at-hand demands. B.C.’s high credit rating, for example, demonstrates a certain institutional capacity to weather these sorts of storms.    

There are more factors to resiliency than just these few bullet points, but the important thing is that the elements above can be measured and even planned for well in advance of major disruptions. In the future, our economies will need to be more proactive by ensuring resiliency is baked into strategy and planning. 

This is why SIPP’s new three-year strategic plan is called “Rising to Resilience.” We know we’re not there yet, but we want to lead the efforts to help get us there.

Innovation

Adapting to and addressing climate change. Healthy aging. Affordable and low-emission buildings (housing). Integrated multi-modal transportation. Industry transformation toward low-carbon intensity. Food security and production. Poverty reduction.

These are all tough challenges that need to be addressed. 

That’s why the next major ingredient that will be essential to our region’s successful recovery is innovation. 

Often, when we talk about “innovation,” there’s a tendency to think about technology or “startups” — the Silicon Valley approach to starting businesses that scale very fast by injecting super-fuel venture capital and then selling to Google or Samsung to take the businesses global. This is not what we’re referring to here (though supporting innovative startups and “tech transfer” coming out of post-secondary research are both valuable to a healthy ecnomic ecosystem!).

Innovation in this sense applies to these tough challenges our region (and the world) faces in the coming years. These are challenges that necessitate innovative and novel approaches. Many of them cannot yet be solved. An example is BC Ferries’ push toward electrification. To do this requires technologies not yet invented and processes not yet understood or applied to vessels of their size. Addressing all these challenges along the path toward their clean future is innovation.

The bonus is that once we solve those challenges here, the solutions can be commercialized and not only help other regions of the world solve the same issues, but create local jobs and equity.

Sustainable

The era of endless “growth for growth’s sake” is over. The future of our region will be about quality — deliberate, targeted and sustainable growth. Basically, in the context of climate change and other environmental constraints (like water and waste management, food security, forest management, the survival of our natural ecosystems and their inhabitants), it makes more sense to focus on strategic improvement, industry transformation and cleaning up the supply-chains than to embrace the old or outdated model of tax havens for multinational corporations and the jobs they bring (while this approach might be outdated, it still dominates the global economic development mindset).

We know our region will face growth pressures for many decades to come. We have the weather, scenery, schools, amenities and safety that people want, but this growth pressure has led to some challenging factors that need to be addressed. Housing availability and affordability are constraints that will lead to more young people leaving and will make it more difficult to attract the types of people we need here like family doctors or in-home support professionals. Now add a rapidly ageing population to that already tough equation. 

Successful cities in the 21st century will embrace sustainability at the core of everything they do. This means difficult decisions need to be made around transportation planning and possibly putting an end to single-family-zoned “housing reserves”. At the very least, we need significant flexibility around how more diverse and dense forms of housing gets built in these neighbourhoods. We also need to invest heavily into active transportation and multi-modal integration — generally moving toward net zero emissions across the board. 

Equitable

The last ingredient for successful regional economic recovery is equity. This is an area that smacked us in the face through the pandemic. How could a black swan disruption like a pandemic lead to housing price increases of 30%? 

The reality for many cities — but especially West Coast cities — is that owning a home is no longer an option for an ever-growing number of people. So when prices go up this drastically, not only are those without equity losing a major chance to increase the value of that equity, but the barrier of entry is even further up the ladder-with-no-rungs. 

The other important point around equity is capital. In the resiliency section above, we looked at the role of local capital in making cities more resilient to disruptions. The pandemic highlighted a major issue: the global “billionaire class” gained $3.9 trillion (Oxfam) in net worth through the pandemic while the global middle class lost $3.7 trillion. An additional 500 million people worldwide falling into poverty in 2020 alone. This represents one of the largest and fastest wealth transfers in human history.

Billionaires are investing in space tourism while the majority of developing countries are barely (if at all) beginning to roll out their vaccine programs. This inequitable distribution of wealth does nothing to improve our quality of life. In fact, it makes it worse. It causes us to put up fences, distrust our neighbours or complain about flowers in the park being damaged by the homeless person sleeping on them (when we should be outraged that a human being is unhoused in the first place). 

An equitable economy, gender equality, addressing systemic barriers that impact radicalized people, people with disabilities, and those who may fall behind due to the digital divide or inaccessible infrastructure is what we should all be striving for. The pandemic put a spotlight on this in a major and visible way. 

So there you have it. These insights led SIPP to put the “RISE” in Rising Economy Week and focus on content and conversations that are not just about learning and talking for the sake of talking. These are strategic pillars that, when placed together, form the foundation of our region’s future economy. 

Are you ready to RISE to the challenge? 

We’re hosting the 2nd annual Rising Economy Week from November 22 to 25 to keep these issues front and centre as we all work toward increased action and progress. Visit ourrisingeconomy.com to make sure you’re in the conversation.