A city with two distinct economies, Sherbrooke is pursuing a development strategy to create a future of opportunity for all of its people and institutions. Like many successful cities in North America, the city experienced the worst of industrial decline in the Seventies through the Nineties. Despite the success of local businesses including Bombardier Recreational Products and Cascade, its economy was founded on low-cost, low-skilled labor that was ill-equipped to compete in the rising digital age. Local culture actually viewed entrepreneurs as people generating profits at the expense of workers, which would prove a further obstacle to economic growth.
Redefining the Soul of a City
At the same time, however, Sherbrooke boasts remarkable educational assets. Eight institutions educate 47,000 students and employ 11,000 workers, together constituting 34% of the population. Beginning in 2007, the city set out to exploit the potential of those assets to revitalize the local economy. Three hundred local stakeholders attended the Sherbrooke Summit, which began to redefine the city as a center for innovation. Three organizations were created: Commerce Sherbrooke for retail and service industries, Destination Sherbrooke for tourism and Sherbrooke Innopole to drive the development of clusters in advanced manufacturing, clean tech, life science, nanotech and ICT. A similar cross-sector collaboration, the Intelligent Community Roundtable, focused on improving city services and citizen engagement using ICT.
Together, the groups attacked the obstacles standing in the way of a better future for the city. At the high-tech end of the spectrum, the university developed a low-volume fabrication and packaging facility where semiconductor firms could prove new designs. The city launched start-up weekends and hackathons to give its young ICT talent a compelling reason to stay in Sherbrooke. Other programs trained businesses in using ICT to improve productivity, develop intellectual property strategies and step up their rate of innovation. The city discovered that a low percentage of its retail businesses were online and created training and education programs to boost Web engagement. Broadband access is not an obstacle – the city is well-served by private-sector carriers and saw a fiber-to-the-premise network begin deployment in 2014.
Results in Numbers
Collaboration and hard work on multiple fronts is producing results. The clean tech cluster grew 5% in the number of companies (to 100) and 10% in employment (to 3,000) in 2013. In the same year, the number of IT companies grew 8% to 96 and IT employment grew 6% to 1,600. More growth is in the pipeline as a new committee of community leader mulls a long-term strategy vision for a city on the move.