July 30, 2013

Maine Voices: The good old days aren't returning, so Maine must innovate to compete

The clean technology sector offers a chance to use our natural resources in new and exciting ways.

Special to the Press Herald

- BRUNSWICK - In the last few weeks, I have seen two Maine leaders who ought to know better opine that the solution to our economic woes is to revert to our natural resource base and focus on agriculture, fishing, forestry and tourism. I was shocked. This is the same as saying that we ought to be in the buggy whip business as long as possible.

While nostalgia for the past feels comforting, it's synonymous with stagnation. I believe that Mainers want an economy that has good jobs for them and their children.

Those who can remember the "good old days" know that they had more than their fair share of poverty, limited opportunities and hard times. And the manufacturing jobs many people had in the textile mills and, later, in the paper mills involved hard, physical work. So maybe those days weren't as rosy as our memories. And those jobs aren't coming back, at least not in the same guise as before.

Perhaps the desire for the "good old days" is really the yearning for a simpler life, "the way life should be," as the sign announces. I'm all for that. But the simpler life also needs economic vitality to survive. And that means innovation.

Here are the facts. Innovation drives as much as 80 percent of economic growth. The other 20 percent comes from labor and capital. With our shrinking labor force, that is not going to be a driver unless we suddenly attract a slew of young, talented and educated immigrants. Capital isn't our strong suit, either, so that leaves innovation.

With a few exceptions, we don't see a lot of innovation happening in our agriculture, fishing, forestry or tourism sectors. Instead, we see a lot of hand-wringing as years of benign neglect make each of these industries less and less competitive in the global markets. We're losing jobs in most, if not all, of these sectors.

There are not a lot of new ideas, but rather a focus on cost-cutting and retrenchment. We see calls for protection, sweet deals and last-ditch efforts to save businesses that are really zombies. This is what happens when a sector is dying, not growing. You can't cost-cut your way to prosperity. It just doesn't work.

There are great opportunities, however, to use our natural resources in new and exciting ways.

One sector that is growing is clean technology. This encompasses renewable energy, such as wind, tidal and biomass, to name a few examples, as well as advanced materials, environmental services and energy efficiency. This sector grew 30 percent from 2003 to 2010, while the entire Maine economy grew only 1 percent. And all of these depend upon our oceans, our forests and our agricultural heritage.

The good news is that this growth has been encouraged by public policy. We have expanded our policy support for all types of renewable energy, supported investments in research and development that have enabled major, international leadership positions in tidal and offshore wind power and bio-based materials, and ramped up our entrepreneurial support programs.

Just a few weeks ago, at a Massachusetts-based clean technology entrepreneurship competition, two prizes were awarded to Maine companies. We are supporting Maine entrepreneurs who can compete with the best in clean technology.

Innovation means finding ways to do things better, or doing new things that create value, and some folks seem to think that Mainers can't be innovative.

But being innovative requires the willingness to acknowledge that there are things to learn, and information and perspectives to be gained from those around us, especially folks who are different from us. It also means being willing to fail, and then to try again. I think these are Maine traits; we call them resourcefulness, ingenuity and persistence.

The challenge is to make sure the leaders who are out there shaping public opinion actually know about the positive, innovative things that are happening in our economy and don't revert to the politically safe but economically disastrous support for the "good old days."

 

Catherine S. Renault, Ph.D., is principal and owner of Innovation Policyworks, LLC, a Brunswick-based economic development consulting firm. She was director of the Office of Innovation and science adviser to Gov. Baldacci.

 

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