A mission for many: changing the face of economic development

Emilie de Rosenroll is changing the face of economic development. Her focus on resilience, public and private partnerships, and an inclusive economy is shaping the South Island as it strives to reach its full potential.

Emilie de Rosenroll, South Island Prosperity Partnership
“We’re still considered a 20-minute city, which is amazing and completely desirable. That’s definitely part of the attraction for a place like this: a wonderful quality of life; amazing post-secondary institutions; access to a highly talented, very educated workforce — so much entrepreneurship and creativity and innovation.” - Emilie de Rosenroll, South Island Prosperity Partnership. Photo by Jeffrey Bosdet.

Emilie de Rosenroll has taken South Island Prosperity Partnership (SIPP) from a fledgling idea, incubated in Victoria’s Chamber of Commerce and founded with 29 members, to the organization it is today — an ambitious and collaborative non-profit organization of 70-plus members, who represent nine local municipalities, 10 First Nations groups, five Chambers of Commerce and many of the region’s major employers. The collective champions future industry and impactful economic growth for the South Island, within the Cascadia mega region.

In 2015, de Rosenroll arrived in Victoria from Halifax with her husband and first-born, then only a few weeks old, and “no anticipation of having another job in economic development, because there really wasn’t an organization here dedicated to economic development.” Something that was broadly true of British Columbia, she adds.

De Rosenroll was named one of Atlantic Canada’s Top 21 leaders for the 21st century in 2016 and one of Business in Vancouver’s Top Forty under 40 in 2020.

She worked in Nova Scotia for over a decade, as executive director of the Nova Scotia Association of Regional Development Authorities and as a management consultant for clients including the province of Nova Scotia’s Department of Economic Development as they rebuilt the regional enterprise network model. Serendipitously for her, the economic development strategy she worked on there influenced the model that was being designed in Victoria.

Her restless nature keeps her on her toes, and her service-oriented approach motivates her to create and maintain momentum for SIPP’s many initiatives, which currently include: the Rising Economy Taskforce, the Indigenous Prosperity Centre, the Telling our New Story initiative and The Centre for Ocean Applied Sustainable Technologies (COAST).

What does economic development look like at SIPP?

We did not have a long history with economic development, so it’s allowed us to be a lot more creative — like having a tabula rasa. We’re doing it in a way that’s more contemporary, probably not very conventional. From the start, we have always focused on resilience and building public and private partnerships, win-win situations and an inclusive economy. How to weave those threads into your economic development plan? Not inviting, for example, Indigenous communities at the very end. We made that part of our DNA — it’s never been an afterthought.

What are the most important considerations in (progressive) economic development today?

It’s a commitment to what Mariana Mazzucato [economics of innovation and public value professor at University College London] calls remission-driven economies or mission economies. More contemporary economic development shouldn’t be just about growth, for the sake of growth. Not all growth is desirable. You think about Silicon Valley as this great story about investment and capital and prosperity. But the underbelly to that has been a lot of social inequity, a lot of governance problems, a lot of transportation problems, a lot of housing, unaffordability, congestion and pollution. That’s a pretty strong parable for the rest of the world.

How do you build economies by design, not default, with growth that doesn’t throw off the balance of quality of life, living wages and inclusivity (the next generation, newcomers and Indigenous communities)? Ultimately, if they’re not part of your fundamental approach, then you’re just constantly hollow at the centre.

What does economy by design mean?

Sometimes you end up hearing people talk about pro-growth or anti-growth, pro-development or anti-development, and to me those are a false dichotomy. It’s not really one or the other. We’re growing — you look at our population numbers on the planet Earth — but there are choices we can make about how we want to grow. Oftentimes, we’re not very deliberate about the type or the quality of growth.

There are some major shifts that businesses are going to have to make. The government is creating targets to be net neutral by 2050. There’s going to be all kinds of different policy changes and regulatory changes. We are proactively looking at helping businesses adapt to that new reality. There’s definitely lots of sectors that are going to be required to help us think through how to do that.

What are some of the biggest challenges?

Some of our biggest challenges are going to be the lack of affordable housing. That’s so massive. We’re already hearing from major companies in Greater Victoria that they just can’t recruit and keep the talent they need. At some point, that becomes really acute and critical because companies can’t grow at a rate that they need to grow to stay competitive. And so they’ll leave, or they’ll become static, in terms of their growth level. That will, in turn, impact our productivity. If that becomes at risk, then you lose other things like your service levels, so your amenities can also dip down. We have to really think about how we are actually replenishing the workforce. Not just producing the sort of businesses that will withstand tomorrow, but also creating the workforce that’s going to be needed tomorrow — that’s even bigger.

What makes it attractive for businesses to work in Victoria?

We’re right in the middle of this Cascadia mega region, which is a huge powerhouse global economy. Most of our economy is much more tied north-south than it is east-west.

We’re still considered a 20-minute city, which is amazing and completely desirable. That’s definitely part of the attraction for a place like this: a wonderful quality of life; amazing post-secondary institutions; access to a highly talented, very educated workforce — so much entrepreneurship and creativity and innovation.

What is the emerging role of the mid-size city?

Coming out of the pandemic, there’s a lot of talk about how it’s really the era of the mid-size city. Some of the difficulty of having a lot of prosperity concentrated without thinking about social capital, social equity or environmental protection — it can just turn into sort of unaffordable sprawl with a lot of social disparity, a lot of polarization and a lot of political instability. We actually need to have a deliberate plan to be sustainable. I think the mid-size city has a lot more promise in terms of size, not massively putting so much burden on everybody.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing multiple times and expecting a different result. That’s a little bit like economic development. You still hear everybody around the world fighting for the same kind of pieces. Take Miami, for example, trying to be an alternative to Silicon Valley. They want to be this hub of digital assets and cryptocurrency, and attract all of these start-up companies to be there. But you don’t hear them ever saying, “Well, how are we going to not just end up being exactly like Silicon Valley?”

How can Victoria stand out?

We can be leaders and see what the world needs, which is a lot of solutions. How to actually include more inclusion in your economic development; how to bring First Nations to the table in true economic reconciliation, where there’s been such marginalization; how to put sustainability on the agenda and incorporate the decarbonization goals as part of our targets for public and private sectors; and diversity — we’re joining the 50 – 30 challenge from the Government of Canada, which is having 50 per cent gender equity on your board and senior management and 30 per cent representation from underrepresented groups and LGBTQ.

How do we start tracking diversity metrics and setting targets for our region so that we can see how much we’re actually making changes? I think that so much of what’s important is a vision that is aspirational and inspiring.

Did the pandemic present opportunities for Rising Economy Week?

One hundred per cent. We would never have had the opportunity to engage with such a broad audience. It made it clear that we’re all dealing with a lot of the same challenges and all looking at some of those same opportunities. But it allowed that conversation to be broader, not just Island-wide, but also British Columbia-wide and Cascadia region-wide. We had almost 1,100 attendees and participants from all around the world. The pandemic has forced that sort of digital engagement, showing us that the world is a lot smaller again, ironically, as we haven’t been able to travel. With Rising Economy Week, we showcased some of our region’s thought leadership and brought in more thought leadership from outside [the region]. I think that allowed us to be more open minded, more open to evolution and more tolerant.

SIPP’s Rising Economy Week is designed to move the needle on economic recovery. This in-person and virtual event will be from November 22 to 25.

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