Trust the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to refresh the discussion about the competitiveness of Canadian cities. In a wide-ranging territorial review, the Paris-based think tank said that boosting innovation in the Toronto region is vital for improving Canada’s economic prospects.

Toronto generates 45% of Ontario’s GDP, one-fifth of national GDP and is headquarters for 40% of the country’s largest businesses. Yet, despite being an economic powerhouse domestically, Toronto’s international economic ranking is middling. Between 1995 and 2005, Toronto experienced below-average economic growth compared to other OECD metropolitan areas. Underlying the comparative disadvantage is labour productivity which is growing at half the rate of comparable OECD cities. When it comes to organizing work efficiently, investing in R&D and incorporating technology in business,Toronto lags behind its global rivals.

OECD’s vantage point as a policy forum for 30 world democracies gives it unique access to international performance indicators. This enabled it to evaluate Toronto’s competitive position in a global context on a range of economic, social and environmental factors.

The diagnosis: a better future for Toronto lies in an integrated competitiveness agenda aimed at improving innovation outputs, leveraging cultural diversity and infrastructure development. This means:

  • increasing the numbers of patents, high tech jobs, technology entrepreneurs and networks linking industry and academic institutions;
  • maximizing the skills of newcomers by recognizing foreign credentials, addressing housing affordability issues and utilizing immigrant entrepreneurs to diversify trade relations; and
  • building a sustainable transportation infrastructure with a “green overlay” to reduce Toronto’s carbon footprint and stimulate employment through green industries.

Toronto can do better. The region has impressive scientific assets, a strong labour force and a variety of government programs at all levels that invest in research, technology commercialization, newcomer integration and public infrastructure. A number of initiatives have the capacity to provide boundary-spanning leadership in priority areas. These include MaRS in innovation, TRIEC in employment bridging programs for newcomers and Metrolinx in regional transportation. In addition, Ontario’s Green Energy Act offers a promising legislative framework to stimulate the greening of existing economic sectors.

For the OECD, Toronto’s biggest challenge may be the absence of regional coordinating authorities that create bridges between local, provincial and national efforts. Innovative governance models are needed to support policy coherence, funding, civic engagement and program coordination in Canada’s largest economic cluster.

No new advice here. But  worth a listen when offered by a credible voice from outside our borders.

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Earl Miller

Earl Miller was the Director, Global Initiatives at MaRS. He led international partnering activities designed to open strategic markets for MaRS technology ventures. See more…