First of all what would prompt such a remark, other than people from Toronto enjoy poking fun at the nation’s capital, but hey after all TO is only a provincial capital ... envy perhaps. The more likely reason is that it is indeed a decent metaphor for the Ottawa Lifestyle. . . When you consider that 20% of the 660,000 direct workforce in Ottawa (roughly 145,000 of the working population) are employed by one level of government (Feds or City of Ottawa). Add in the service organizations that make a living doing business with the government and you likely have roughly 50% of the working population in Ottawa tied directly to the government as their source of income. The numbers get even more interesting when you consider other public institutions like Universities, Colleges and the public education system and you probably have an additional 10% - 20% making their living in the public sector for a total of 70% of the local workforce. Public sector employment is comfortable (decent wages, work hours, great benefits, pension ...) and in comparison to say the technology sector relatively secure.
This to a large extent explains Ottawa’s ability to withstand the current global recession so well, certainly in comparison to other Canadian cities and those anywhere in the world. This is a really good thing about living in our fair town and provides a level of comfort with stability.
The downside, however, is that stability in fact discourages some potential entrepreneurs because after being burned the safety and security of those comfortable brown shoes can be quite alluring. Comfort in fact is the enemy of innovation. Most of the rest of the world is being forced to change rapidly in order to survive; disruption and pain are innovation catalysts.
If Ottawa is indeed the city of comfortable brown shoes we may benefit in the short term with the public sector providing a breakwater and safe haven. However, other global villages in stress and turmoil are literally being forced to innovative for survival. Those villagers in other global cities are wearing bare feet, old shoes or running shoes and marching to the beat of the new order drum.
In Ottawa we need to investigate new and innovative ways to deal with the changing global economic upheaval and economic development. The more we cling to that pair of comfortable brown shoes the more we stay the same. Times are changing rapidly and we should consider appropriate footwear for the challenge. If everyone around you is in a running and you continue to stroll in comfortable brown shoes, you will fall behind the pack.
- Ian Graham