BC Budget 2018 short on science and innovation measures
March 13, 2018
Tech skills development and a previously announced innovation commissioner were the sole STI highlights of the British Columbia Budget, which was announced February 20 and stands in stark contrast to the research and innovation-heavy federal Budget delivered a week later.
The Budget – the first by the governing New Democratic Party/Green Party coalition - made historic investments in universal childcare ($1 billion) and affordable rental housing ($1.6 billion). But there were only a few paragraphs about technology and innovation in the budget documents – the Budget and Fiscal Plan, the Strategic Plan, Finance Minister Carole James’ budget speech and the official press release.
In a statement posted on its website, the province’s BC Tech Association noted that the BC budget was silent on anything other than support for human resource build-up for the tech sector and the appointment of the province’s first Innovation Commissioner, which was announced last February 5.
“There was limited content on innovation other than a reference to the recent appointment of Dr Alan Winter as BC’s very first Innovation Commissioner. In the coming months, we hope to see the development of a comprehensive innovation policy,” said Jill Tipping, president & CEO of BC Tech, in a statement posted on their website. “Looking to the future, BC Tech will advocate that much more is needed: a budget for BC’s future needs serious investment in innovation and technology.”
Details about an innovation commission were revealed March 1 when the BC government announced that the mandate of the crown agency, BC Innovation Council (BCIC), was being expanded and the agency was being renamed Innovate BC. Minister of Jobs, Trade and Technology Bruce Ralston said in a statement that the new commission will be the single point of contact for entrepreneurs and businesses in the province. Innovate BC will recommend policies and programs on science and innovation that will promote the commercialization of BC technologies. The BC government said the innovation commission and innovation commissioner are two separate entities that will work together.
The Strategic Plan also mentions establishing the Emerging Economy Task Force and a Small Business Task Force. There were no further details provided, though there are some things to look forward to.
“We are working to establish BC as a preferred location for new and emerging technologies by supporting venture-capital investment in BC start-ups and taking measures to increase the growth of local tech companies. Supporting BC tech and innovation will also benefit BC’s resource-based industries, providing opportunities for modernization and improving their sustainability,” the Strategic Plan states.
The appointment of the innovation commissioner, and the establishment of the innovation commission and the Emerging Economy Task Force were part of the 2017 Confidence and Supply Agreement between the BC NDP caucus and BC Green Party caucus.
Matt Toner, former BC Green Party deputy leader, a serial tech entrepreneur and digital media professor, tells RE$EARCH MONEY that the three innovation initiatives put forth by the BC Green Party in the agreement and which are now part of the BC budget “change the fundamental direction about how we think strategically about innovation in the province.” He says the conversation around innovation and technology is going beyond simply tax credits for the digital media industry. “These three measures help government work with the private sector to identify disruptive innovations and understand them before they begin to make policy around them,” he says, adding that more details about the province’s innovation policy are yet to come.
Toner adds that the BC budget’s approach to investments is about scale rather than the sheer amount of dollars announced in the federal Budget. “Rather than billions and billions of dollars being splashed around without no way of measuring it, our approach in the BC government is we’re using smaller numbers to figure things out so that you can develop a solution that you can scale. … If you start thinking smaller, you can solve problems then you know the best way to invest more money to get the best results. That’s a strategic approach.”
Toner adds that the BC Green Party conducted consultations with stakeholders in the lead-up to forging the confidential and supply agreement with the provincial NDP.
The BC Tech Association noted some other good news in the Budget that augurs well for the industry – support for K-12 and post-secondary education to help expand the provincial talent pool, and the extension of the tax credits for interactive digital media through August 31, 2023.
The three-year Strategic Plan notes that the province needs to strengthen its knowledge-based sectors to grow an innovative economy that could benefit everyone. “Growing BC’s already strong technology sector will help create more life-sustaining jobs and further strengthen the province’s diverse economy,” the document reads.
Aside from these, the provincial Budget also mentioned support for the clean tech sector to address climate change. Minister James said the provincial government will introduce a clean growth incentive program to reward industry for innovating and changing the way it does business while maintaining competitiveness. This, along with other measures, such as increasing BC’s carbon tax rate, is in line with the provincial NDP’s agreement with the BC Green Party to create a cleaner and greener BC.
“By being open to innovation and bringing industry on board, we will build a stronger economy by being a leader on climate action,” James said, adding that the BC Environment and Climate Change Strategy minister will consult with stakeholders on the details of the clean tech program.
Silent on supercluster support
The BC Tech Association was also looking for details in the budget about the significance to the province of the recently awarded Digital Technology Supercluster, which the association co-led. The supercluster was among five Canada-wide superclusters that will receive part of the $950 million federal funding under the innovation supercluster initiative (ISI). The BC supercluster has raised more than $500 million in commitments, way beyond the requirement. With the federal funding, the supercluster has forecast to generate up to 50,000 new jobs in 10 years and an estimated $15 billion in incremental GDP. BC Tech said they “look forward” to details about government investment in the supercluster.
Prior to the Budget release, the government said it has committed nearly $1.3 billion in various programs over the last 10 years. In March 2017, the province updated its #BCTech Strategy, which was first launched in 2016 and recognizes the technology sector as a “major engine” of economic growth in the province. The new strategy focuses on the three pillars in the original strategy -- talent, capital and markets – plus a new pillar, data.