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Jun 06, 2011

The best investment in the world

June 6, 2011

The National Post feature editorial by John Austin & Matthew Mendelsohn on investing in the Great Lakes Region.

Regions will be just as important as nation-states in ensuring the wellbeing of communities in the coming decades. The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence region – made up of the eight states and two provinces (Quebec and Ontario) that surround these great waters – has everything necessary to succeed in this new world.

Regions are becoming more important because capital and talent tend to cluster geographically so that employers have easy access to potential partners and employees. Clusters emerge in regions that possess natural, cultural and place-defining attributes that make them attractive places to live and work. They also emerge near centres of public and private research and education.

The conventional narrative about the Great Lakes Region has been of a “rust belt” and the decline of the heavy industry that powered the region for decades. Many communities in the region have not fared well during the past three decades as globalized patterns of production and trade fundamentally restructured whole industries, including autos, steel, chemicals, machine tools, electronics, paper and durable goods manufacturing.

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However, this storyline ignores the fact that the massive innovation, production and trade infrastructure built in the region during the 20th century have also produced clusters of new industries, talent, and capital in the financial services, health services, food processing, energy, aerospace, information and communications technology, transportation and pharmaceutical sectors, among many others.

The conventional narrative also misses the educational facilities, research institutions, skilled human capital, and global knowledge and connections found in the region. The wealth and infrastructure built over the 20th century created the foundations for new emerging sectors.

These realities can, if leveraged and advanced, turn the conventional narrative on its head. But to do so requires that we recognize our common regional history and interdependence and think more consistently, and act much more purposefully, like a cross-border region with common interests

What visibly binds Canadians and Americans most closely together is our shared stewardship of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Basin. We overlook this enormous asset at our peril.

It is estimated that onethird of the world’s population will live in waterstressed communities by 2050. Is there a place on Earth more attractive to build and invest in the future than the coast of the Great Lakes, with its relatively healthy ecosystem and proximity to some of the world’s great educational institutions, financial institutions, world-leading cities, and a large, diverse and well-educated population?

One obstacle to this vision materializing is an inability to imagine our shared future. Other cross-border regions are beginning to act and think collectively, transcending national boundaries to address shared problems, manage share resources and take advantage of new economic opportunity.

A second obstacle is the thickening of the border, which has caused hardship for communities and businesses on both sides of the border. Federal governments are taking action. The Beyond the Border initiative on perimeter security and the Regulatory Cooperation Council are working on promoting harmonization without undermining security or sovereignty.

At the same time, other actors -provincial, state and municipal governments, the private sector, civic organizations, research institutions and others -should not sit back and wait for the outcomes of these federal processes. There are things that all of us can do to strengthen the cross-border region.

The Mowat Centre and the Brookings Institution have convened a bi-national summit next week in Windsor and Detroit to shape and define a collaborative cross-border, cross sectoral agenda for people in the region.

Discussions will focus on projects, like the creation of bi-national conservation areas; improving services, like establishing better common credit recognition across postsecondary institutions; joint planning of transportation infrastructure; and whether new institutions are necessary to help manage the cross-border region.

Communities across the Great Lakes -St. Lawrence region share common challenges. They are also rich with the assets needed to succeed in the global economy. Overcoming these challenges and leveraging those assets won’t be easy. But those gathering in Windsor this week are united in a basic understanding -we can achieve more together than alone.

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John Austin & Matthew Mendelsohn

Release Date

June 17, 2013


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