Alberta has always found a way to build a better and stronger economy out of a crisis, but it's never faced anything like this.
A global pandemic that has decimated demand for its biggest export. A price war launched by foreign countries. A growing movement to transform its production to help address climate change.
But where there are threats, there are also opportunities – for our best oil and gas producers to transform what they do and emerge as global leaders, while helping to build a new economy.
Alice Reimer and Marty Reed are two leading innovators in Western Canada. Reimer is the site lead for the Creative Destruction Lab in Calgary and co-founder of investment platform the51. Reed is the CEO of V.C. firm Evok Innovations backed by two of Canada’s biggest oil companies, Cenovus and Suncor, as well as the B.C. Tech Alliance. They joined the RBC Disruptors podcast to share why this could be Alberta’s and Canada’s moment to “recreate imaginatively” for a post-COVID economy – to transform Bow Valley into Alberta’s own Silicon Valley.
“We are not in a local race. We are in a global innovation race,” said Reimer. “This is not about us being the best in Canada. This is about us competing on a global scale.”
Reed imagines a bold future in which Alberta is truly a global energy sector titan – expanding beyond oil and gas – that could cultivate a trillion dollar energy-as-a-service company within a decade. To get there requires “a different lens and a different culture,” one that embraces new ideas and invention models.
“That’s the fundamental transition that needs to happen before we can see Calgary really embrace and start to accelerate into this new economy,” he said.
Part of that is creating “smart policy” that will help create an environment in which successful companies, solutions and technologies can emerge and thrive. Take California, home of Silicon Valley and an ambition to be carbon neutral by 2045. Reed describes the state as being at the forefront of policy that has delivered outsized benefits for the innovation sector, such as the Buy Clean California Act or the California waiver that enables it to promote zero emission vehicles. This creates a favourable environment to attract leading edge technologies, like B.C.-based Svante’s carbon-capture system, which is being explored for use in California industrial facilities.
“Right now, all of that work is being done in the U.S. and it would sure be nice to see some of that work being done here in Canada,” Reed said.
Calgary is considered one of the top 15 cleantech hubs globally, and has not suffered from a shortage of ideas. But it hasn’t yet scaled globally. Calgary had roughly the same number of tech deals last year as Kitchener-Waterloo — for less than a third of the money.
So what does Alberta, and Canada, need to do to move the dial?
1. Invest heavily in world-class higher education
“Great cities are built around great research universities,” said Reimer. “It is not good enough for us to be a top university in Canada, we need to have top universities in the world and compete on a global stage.”
Reed agreed. “I don’t know that as a society, anyone has ever said, ‘Boy, in hindsight, I wish we’d spent less on education.'”
2. Choose a few competitive advantages and double-down on them
We have a head start in carbon capture (see Svante) and abundant natural gas that we can decarbonize to produce hydrogen energy. Not to mention our leadership in artificial intelligence and machine learning. How do we own the global podium in these areas?
3. Attract the best and brightest from around the world through an ambitious immigration approach.
It’s not just about scientists and researchers either. Alberta will need more entrepreneurs and investors from around the world and yes, from across the country.
4. Attract risk capital to fund emerging innovations and companies, and corporate capital to scale them globally.
“There’s been a tremendous amount of wealth that’s been created in the oil and gas business over the decades,” said Reimer. “Many of the folks who have created that wealth are interested in helping to start and create and invest in these early stage companies that will help towards diversification.”
Alberta will need a lot more capital to finance this ambition. Venture capital to take on the big risks that entrepreneurs love, government capital for the infrastructure to build on, and institutional and corporate capital to take ideas to a global scale.
As Senior Vice-President, Office of the CEO, John advises the executive leadership on emerging trends in Canada’s economy, providing insights grounded in his travels across the country and around the world. His work focuses on technological change and innovation, examining how to successfully navigate the new economy so more people can thrive in the age of disruption. Prior to joining RBC, John spent nearly 25 years at the Globe and Mail, where he served as editor-in-chief, editor of Report on Business, and a foreign correspondent in New Delhi, India. He is the author of three books and has a fourth underway.
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