Water Is Peterborough's Greatest Economic Opportunity In Decades

In times of economic turmoil, the tendency is often to look for ways to entrench and wait out the storm. However, this belies the fact that in tumultuous times great opportunities often emerge. Joseph Schumpeter, the late Harvard economist, claimed that times like these possess forces for "creative destruction." It is from the "creative" nature of economic change that opportunities arise. One such opportunity for the future of the Peterborough-area economy is emerging.

There is no doubt that the public sector has targeted water as a primary infrastructure and public health challenge. Over the past decade, the emphasis has changed from supplying water (e.g., transmitting large quantities of water) to one of water quality. Water quality is emerging as the fastest growing global issue of our time. 

Fortunately, it is in the area of water quality that the region has existing expertise. The recent Ontario Speech from the Throne (March 8, 2010) spoke directly to developing "clean-water" organizations in the private and public sectors. This is clear recognition of water as a public policy challenge and the growth that will be supported through public funding.

In 2010, the GPAEDC and Greater Peterborough Innovation Cluster released a major study that mapped and analyzed the energy and water sectors in the area. In the water field, there are fourteen active and five interested Peterborough-area firms in the water supply chain. It is a good sign that all segments of the supply chain are currently populated by Peterborough-area firms. 

Photo: Evan HoltIn addition to private sector firms, the water related research Fleming College (the Centre for Alternative Wastewater Treatment) and Trent University (the Trent Water Quality Centre) make the sector in our region that much stronger. 

All indications are that Peterborough could—should it act quickly and in a concerted way—become a global centre in the field. The challenge comes not from just growing locally, or attracting those from outside, but from combining existing technologies and expertise to better position it for future growth.

Thankfully we are not beginning from scratch. Along with existing businesses in the field, there is a high level of academic involvement in research centres and programs being offered at Trent University (10 centres/programs) and Fleming College (10 centres/programs) that are related to water. 

In each centre and program has faculty, research and students attached to them.  They represent a very significant resource—particularly human—in the field.  Combining these centres and programs with the private-sector activity that has been identified reveals a strong foundation upon which to build a comprehensive water cluster in the region.

As much as the analysis of the private- and public-sector strengths that exist in the area's water sector, it is clear that it is made up of several successful, but rather isolated elements—there are few interconnections across the sector. With the considerable technological capacities, and high-level expertise, and a growing market, it is apparent that the region's water sector is less than the sum of its parts. That is, it is possible for the region to take a stronger position in the water sector if it were able to better utilize its existing technologies and expertise. 

To shift the situation to one where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, the water sector resources available in the region must be combined in such a way to improve its overall productivity and innovativeness to better position it to grow in this burgeoning, national and international market.

The greatest challenge is not in getting skilled people or technologies in place. The challenge is to create an organizational structure that can help the relatively isolated organizations identify and create new collaborations that can strength the region’s place in the national and global water market. In effect, we need to create an organization that can provide the overarching, coordinating services that were once provided by the "umbrella" organization of a multi-divisional corporation. 

When new market opportunities arise, there needs to be an organizational mechanism by which the existing technologies and expertise can be assessed relative to the opportunity. Should the technologies and expertise exist, a new business entity must be created to exploit it. 

In the past, when a large corporation was faced with a new market opportunity, it would pursue it by re-combining its existing expertise and technologies by simply creating a new division. Our current circumstances call for the creation of innovative business partnerships across—not within—organizations (e.g., joint ventures, strategic alliances) that promote growth, jobs, and the creation of wealth in the region.

There is absolutely no doubt that water will be a global issue in the twenty-first century. It will be a thriving international business sector. For Peterborough, taking a key role in that growing sector is an opportunity that we either proactively move on soon or lose to a less well equipped, but more organized community.

Opportunities like this do not present themselves often. We must seize the day.


[Contributed by PtboCanada's Tom Phillips Ph. D. Phillips is Economist & Sustainability Director - Greater Ptbo Innovation Cluster.]

****[UPDATE BY TOM PHILLIPS: Here's Dan Taylor, President & CEO of the Greater Peterborough Innovation Cluster, speaking about the potential for a Water Cluster in the Peterborough Region]


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