Yellowknife's Economic Diversification Must Include A Commitment To Innovation

Yellowknife in 2018 is more connected to the rest of the world that it has ever been - by the obvious digital means but also thanks the Deh Cho bridge over the Mackenzie River and an increasing number of direct flights out of our airport.  And yet, because we’re pretty far from the nearest city, we don’t often take a close look at our neighbours and compare and contrast our activities, communities and economies with theirs.  This is understandable, given that our neighbours are so far away from us, and in most cases, much larger, but comparing and contrasting is something that we must do more of.  There are strategies being employed by our neighbours that we must now borrow if we are going to be ready for the challenges that will come from declining activity in the diamond mining sector.

When we do make comparisons with our neighbours, we usually talk about Whitehorse.  Our two cities are of similar size, we are both territorial capitals, we have similar climates, and as far as many southern Canadians are concerned, we are interchangeable.  Both our cities have their relative strengths and weaknesses, and as much as I love to talk about the reasons why we are the greater city, there is value in taking a close look at the things Whitehorse is doing better than Yellowknife.  Yesterday while knocking on doors on Borden Drive I told one resident who was concerned about the future of our economy, that if all the next Council were to do is borrow and implement ideas from Whitehorse for four years, I would consider that a great success.  And I was only half joking.

Comparisons to Whitehorse often centre on tourism, festivals, post-secondary education, and arts and culture infrastructure.  These are valuable comparisons to make of course and there is a lot we must to in these areas, but the area that I think we need to look more closely at is innovation, and innovation centres. For your consideration, here is the very first line on the “About” page of the website of Whitehorse non-profit, YuKonstruct:

“We are the first Canadian makerspace north of 60”

 And here is their explanation of the term “makerspace:”

 “Simply put, it’s a community workshop.

makerspace is a community-operated workspace incorporating elements of machine shops, workshops, and / or studios where ‘makers’ come together to share resources and knowledge to build and make things happen.  These Makerspaces evolved because would-be entrepreneurs and hobbyists were missing the space, tools, or expertise they needed to get their ideas off the ground. Interests generally include computers, technology, science, art, and other tactile endeavours, (like wood and metal work). There are 30+ makerspaces in Canada and 900+ around the world. We are the first Canadian makerspace north of 60.”

YuKonstruct began with their makerspace in 2014 and then only a year later opened a coworking space in downtown Whitehorse.  As you can tell by the statistics in the excerpt above, Whitehorse did not invent the idea of creating innovation centres, they observed the benefits such centres were providing to 900+ other cities around the word, and they borrowed and implemented those pre-existing concepts. We must now do the same.

The benefits of innovation centres are pretty obvious to anyone who has ever opened or dreamed of opening a small business.  Simply put, they make it easier for entrepreneurs to get their concepts off the ground.  And the reason this is so important for Yellowknife right now is that we are in serious need of economic diversification – and entrepreneurs are the agents of economic diversification; they try new things, explore new technologies, investigate new markets. They, not the City of Yellowknife, are the ones who will discover whether our City can be a centre for craftmaking, birch syrup manufacturing, energy-efficient construction, mobile app development or some other cool new thing that I’m not hip enough to know about yet.

And innovation centres don’t just help cities diversify their economies one time, as we must do in the coming decade, they are engines of continual diversification.

Fortunately we neither have to re-invent the wheel, nor are we starting from scratch.  Two local groups that I’m aware of have been experimenting with these concepts.  Good Company Co-Working and Innovation Centre opened in downtown Yellowknife in 2016, and just a couple of weeks ago a company called Music Exchange won a year’s free rent and other support to open what will effectively be an arts innovation centre in the heart of downtown Yellowknife.  These enterprises will need assistance if they are to achieve their objectives. The City of Yellowknife has a central role to play in making sure they succeed.

And at the City of Yellowknife, helping these groups and other innovation centres has to start with re-allocating resources to get serious about economic development.  Right now, the City’s economic development function is carried out by two hardworking individuals who split their time between economic development and communications, and they work within a department whose main focus is policy and legal services.  This is not a model for success, and if elected Mayor on October 15th it is something I would endeavour to change within the first 100 days of the new term.

It’s time we got serious about economic development and diversification, and that can’t be done properly without a commitment to innovation.


To read more about my platform, you can find it here:

Additional information on innovation centres:

TEC Edmonton