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New Brunswick’s economic future is digital

Author: Adrienne O’Pray

Posted on Mar 18, 2022

Category: UNB Saint John , UNB Fredericton

The last thing any of us wants to read is another article starting with, “The last two years have been…”

I get it.

These years have been challenging– but also enlightening and inspiring. We’ve had a chance to assess what matters most in our lives–at home, at work and in our public spheres. We’ve seen incredible resilience, ingenuity, and adaptability as individuals, institutions, and businesses responded to sudden, often dramatic, shifts and constraints by finding new ways to collaborate and get things done.

In New Brunswick, the pressures of the last two years have resulted in a variety of positive changes. That’s not to ignore the challenges. But there’s a lot we’re learned from this time we should seize and bring forward in the months and years ahead.

Perhaps more than anything, the past two years have brought into sharp focus the shifts that are shaping our world. Today, in New Brunswick, we understand as never before the power of digital to transform our economy and society.

It is time for our province to capitalize on this momentum.

The McKenna Institute at the University of New Brunswick was founded in September with this very goal. We’ve been busy since promoting the digital transformation agenda for New Brunswick, and it has been incredibly well-received. The Institute has already secured commitments of over $25 million from the private sector and generous donors who understand what a game-changer this could be for all industries in our region.

Along with our partners, we’re working on many fronts to amplify the ways digital can grow our economy and improve the standard of living for all New Brunswickers.

To scale our digital economy, we support the dual purpose of creating well-paying jobs right here at home and exporting world-changing, New Brunswick-made ideas internationally. We are attracting private-sector funding for applied research that we can pilot here and ship anywhere.

Digital opens up a world of experts, ideas, inspiration, and learning opportunities that were unimaginable even in the relatively recent past. It gives us the best of both worlds: we can transcend our traditional barriers, including a small population and relative distance to markets, to play and compete on a truly global scale–and without having to leave home.

We get to enjoy the incredible benefits of our New Brunswick lifestyle–supportive communities, abundant natural beauty, no traffic jams, room to move, rich cultures–and at the same time embrace the world of opportunity we see before us.

It is worth emphasizing that this digital revolution goes far beyond the IT sector. It’s not just for software companies or tech firms: it touches every company, sector, industry, and business area. The McKenna Institute is working to help make digital tools and data applications more accessible to industry, government and communities to ensure no one is left behind.

Companies in all sectors are using technology for communications, sales, marketing and other key functions, not just to sustain their business but to advance and grow.

A great example is Mrs. Dunster’s, the Sussex-based bakery, which leveraged digital technology to modernize its operations to overcome labour shortages and grow its business to meet increasing customer demand and expand into new markets. At the same time, private forest companies are discussing sharing data to develop better forest management policies and practices for sustainable operations in a changing environment.

Digital strength is not a new concept in New Brunswick. Our cybersecurity footprint is nationally recognized and gaining momentum. Global companies like Siemens are continuing to invest in Fredericton. Local success stories include Sonrai Security, which has raised over $50 million to grow its enterprise cloud security platform.

The federal government understands the value of moving projects like these forward, and it recently announced an $80-million investment in the National Cybersecurity Consortium. UNB, a founding partner, is one of five Canadian universities that started this federally-incorporated not-for-profit in 2020 to work with public and private sectors to lead world-class cybersecurity innovation and talent development.

The McKenna Institute recognizes we must invest in people to continue this momentum and achieve our vision of a prosperous, technology-enabled New Brunswick. We must support youth and job-seekers with digital training, skills programs, scholarships, and fellowships.

We must also equip our workforce to transition to a digitally-powered economy by providing upskilling and reskilling opportunities for workers and developing digitally-savvy leaders to help New Brunswick companies adapt to and reap the benefits of the digital economy.

One of the ways we measure success is through digital program enrolment. Undergraduate applications to UNB’s Faculty of Computer Science increased 30% over 2021. We also strive towards a more diverse workforce. The McKenna Institute has raised over $750,000 in scholarships to support students who face barriers and those from equity-deserving groups.

As we inspire New Brunswickers, both new and seasoned, to take on this exciting new world, we must also ensure access. By working with community partners, we aim to provide new programming opportunities, digital upskilling for educators, scholarships for women, newcomers, and Indigenous students, as well as community-based digital programs for Indigenous youth.

We have already seen success in these areas. The TD Ready Challenge awarded $750,000 to support digital skills programs for Indigenous youth and the provincial high school coding challenge hosted by UNB Saint John’s Faculty of Computer Science. This funding also goes towards the Digital Learning Network for teachers on which the McKenna Institute and Department of Education and Early Childhood Development have partnered.

None of this would be possible without the incredible partners with whom we have had the privilege to work. Partners such as TechImpact, the Joint Economic Development Initiative (JEDI), the Department of Post-Secondary Education, Training and Labour, Ulnooweg Education Centre, and various donors have stepped up to help us attract, retain and nurture the brightest minds from New Brunswick and beyond. Together we work to ensure that education and technology are accessible for all, knowing it is essential in moving New Brunswick forward.

New Brunswickers have never shied away from a little hard work, and these opportunities will undoubtedly create a future full of prosperity for our province. With multiple growing sectors, New Brunswick is the place where every person, business and industry can benefit from and contribute to a sustainable, future-forward economy. More to come!

Adrienne O’Pray executive director of the McKenna Institute at the University of New Brunswick.