Creating a Robust Alberta – We call it Alberta 2.0

Creating a Robust Alberta – We call it Alberta 2.0

By Senator Black and Dean Doucet

Alberta’s energy and resource industries have been the financial backbone of our Province and will continue to be a major economic generator.

Yet, Albertans cannot sit back and rely on these industries for investment, job creation, and economic growth to the degree we have in the past. The oil price plunge of the last two years, notwithstanding some recent upswing, has created hardship for the industry, the province, and many Albertans. This is not the first time depressed commodity prices impacted us and it will not be the last time either. But we must act now so we are not as vulnerable to oil price swings as we have been in the past.

The question is, how do we do this in a way that leverages the energy sector, as well as “diversifies” the economy? We don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Recently a diverse group of Albertans gathered representing all major sectors of the Alberta economy to consider what we need to do to drive an innovative, robust, and resilient economy. There was a sense of urgency to tackle the questions and to land on ideas that create action now.

The shared challenge was to find a way to ensure the economy is more resilient to the global pressures we face – the rise and fall of oil prices, a lack of market access for our energy resources, increasing global competition for investment dollars, and technology development across all areas of the economy.

It is clear – creating a robust economy will only happen through a focused agenda involving industry, government and academia.  Through this type of collaboration many of the barriers, especially for entrepreneurial advancement, can be removed.  This partnership will be pivotal to selecting the best opportunities and then guiding their implementation.

There is a disconnect among the government, business, and post-secondary sectors – and to move to Alberta 2.0 bringing these sectors together is crucial. Let’s begin this process by finding ways to commercialize research and then take that collaboration a step further to create opportunities for student development, applied research, and other new approaches that increase jobs at home and export opportunities. The most successful economies based around innovation in the world have always been built upon the strength of connection between their post-secondary institutions and the private sector – think Harvard and M.I.T. in Boston or Stanford and Berkeley in the Silicon Valley. This is what we must work to create in Alberta.

Alberta has many strengths and these are the attributes that should drive innovative thinking. The province has experience and knowledge in the energy industry and by exporting technology, knowledge and experience will continue to drive this sector. Alberta is very sophisticated in its agriculture industry, with water geomatics, health sciences, forestry and education and these afford opportunity for economic growth.

The key will be to focus and pick the areas that capitalize on our human resources, technological knowledge and have pathways to global opportunities.

It all begins with a razor sharp focus on prioritizing activities. Instead of spreading  efforts across every possible opportunity,  deliberate decisions to choose the four or five areas where Alberta has a global competitive advantage is essential. Let’s build on these strengths, prioritize actions, and be innovative to ensure our goals are achieved.

We propose establishing a Provincial Innovation Champion whose job is to focus research, financing, and innovation efforts to achieve results in our areas of focus. This champion’s job will be to create the ecosystem in which Alberta can attract both private and public investment by streamlining regulations and coordinating the organizations focused on innovation and research in our province.

For example, publicly funded organizations across Alberta are competing for national resources instead of working together to achieve the same goals. The Innovation Champion could undertake the effort to coordinate and prioritize between our public sector research and innovation branches to try and deliver a higher return on investment among our research organizations.

Going one step further the Innovation Champion should establish innovation hubs that focus on specific areas of research by leveraging existing public assets at post-secondary institutions across Alberta. These hubs should include mentorship networks that help bridge the gap between our post-secondary and private sector while providing important learning opportunities to students. Alberta’s greatest resource is our people and we need to do a better job leveraging private sector expertise and activity into opportunities for post-secondary students in Alberta.

Finally, our Innovation Champion must work to ensure that Alberta is maintaining a competitive tax regime and eliminating unnecessary regulations. By providing the right ecosystem for economic development we can be more attractive to global and local business.

Alberta’s good fortune is its energy industry, but we can’t continue to count on one industry to ensure our prosperity. Alberta 2.0 is about developing a robust economy of intent rather than one of circumstance.

Senator Doug Black and Dean Joseph Doucet are the co-chairs of Alberta 2.0 – a think tank focused on the future of the Alberta economy.