Business·Analysis

Signs of a rural renaissance as Canadian cities overheat: Don Pittis

There is a growing body of research that says the knowledge economy can move beyond Canada's high-price cities.

Can Canada's tech boom move to the boonies as millennials seek quality of life?

Brad Pommen started his high tech business Smrt1 Technologies in Nelson, B.C., population 10,000. (Smrt1 Technologies)

Over the last five years Canada has been a high-tech job creation machine. 

Year after year, the Toronto area alone has generated more technology jobs than San Francisco, Seattle or any other U.S. city. Vancouver has seen a similar economic boom.

Both cities, with top universities and hospitals, a high quality of life and an enormous pool of existing talent, act as magnets for tech startups and companies looking to expand.

But as rents rise and cities become more hectic, there is a group of Canadians who have been studying how to unlock an enormous national resource, the open spaces of rural Canada. And there are early hints of victory.

Brad Pommen, founder of Smrt1 Technologies, stands out as one example of a rural development success story. 

Pommen, a computer whiz from Alberta, did not move to the "Big Smoke" to launch his tech startup. Instead he founded his company in Nelson, B.C., a community with a population of about 10,000, half way between Calgary and Vancouver.

One of the things Pommen did after he arrived in the city about 10 years ago was to start the Nelson Tech Club, a place for computer enthusiasts — and wannabes — to congregate, learn and share ideas. As well as helping to make the community a dynamic technology-aware place, it paid off in another way.

People are moving to smaller communities like Nelson, B.C., for a better quality of life. (Nelson Chamber of Commerce)

"The membership was always asking me to for tools and parts," says Pommen. "So I started dreaming up a way that I might be able to automate that for schools."

His essential idea was to create touch screen technology linked to the internet that adds to the capabilities of existing vending machines. Customers can see images of the product being sold, everything from food to shoes to computer parts, and obtain detailed information about the products on offer.

"And once I'd invented the technology, I realized it didn't exist for the entire 15 million existing vending machines in the world," he said.

Pommen and his local team have assembled a prototype, linked up with distributors, suppliers and customers, all without leaving Nelson.

"We work with people all over the planet," says Pommen.

Rural, on purpose

Mary Doyle, founder of a network called Rural on Purpose, works from Belleville, Ont., a community on the highway between Toronto and Montreal that boomed in the 19th century during Canada's version of the first Industrial Revolution. 

Doyle is part of a Canadian and global network of people trying to share solutions to problems that have impeded smaller communities from attracting and keeping jobs (like many others she extends the term rural to include smaller cities that remain connected to the countryside). And while many communities are still shrinking, she says things may be turning around.

But she says Belleville, like Nelson, is a community poised to take advantage of the next industrial revolution, where the internet and technology, including 3D printing, allows work to be widely distributed. 

"If you have a company in an urban centre that is really trying to attract top talent and that top talent wants to be able to live wherever they want ...  the company has to be able to accommodate that," says Doyle.

"Nineteen per cent of freelancers currently live in rural communities," says Doyle. For freelancers and remote workers, high-speed internet is key.

One common problem is the loss of young people from rural communities as young adults head off to the city to seek their fortune, a phenomenon studied by Karen Foster, a professor at Dalhousie University. 

While there is evidence that many young people fail to grasp the diversity of employment opportunities in smaller communities, Foster says even parents have trouble encouraging their kids to forgo the advantages of leaving home.

"People who leave rural communities tend to earn more, they earn more over their lifetimes and they tend to get higher levels of education," says Foster. "So if those are good things, then hanging onto young people is not the answer."

To attract the growing number of remote and freelance workers to rural areas, high speed internet is key. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

More money, less quality

On the other hand, in large expensive cities, that higher lifetime income may buy a much poorer quality of life. 

"I don't miss the traffic," says Aimee Coueslan, who lived in Toronto for 13 years before moving to Brandon, Man., where her husband had accepted a job and where you can buy a comfortable three-bedroom detached home for less than $300,000.

Coueslan, who just started back to work herself last year after a decade-long break to raise three children, just can't imagine how she could have raised a family in the big city. Like many others wanting to have children, she was pleased to exchange the perceived advantages of the city for a better quality of life.

Wayne Kelly, who manages the Rural Policy Learning Commons, a network of experts studying how to extend the boom to the boonies, says many of the young people who settle in smaller communities seeking a rural lifestyle and rural recreation, are not the ones who left. 

"As you can imagine it can be difficult to attract somebody back once you've told them they have to leave to be successful," says Kelly.

Rural Canada is still growing, he says, just more slowly than the urban centres and while every community is different, communities like Nelson that have got the formula right are doing very well.

"We have to be careful about the narrative that rural Canada is dying and everybody's aging and moving out," says Kelly. "That is definitely happening in some cases, but there's lots of other cases of success and really rapid growth."

Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis

About the Author

Don Pittis

Business columnist

Don Pittis was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London. He is currently senior producer at CBC's business unit.

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