Friday, November 06, 2015

A More Resilient Alberta

Since January 2014, we can observe some major changes in Alberta: 
  • 50,000+ job losses
  • 17 oil and gas projects worth $50 billion mothballed or cancelled
  • A change of government at the Provincial and Federal level
  • A new focus on climate change and environmental responsibility 

Which has lead our Premier to really focus on strengthening key industries and diversifying the economy.

Things don't look good. We need $60 - $65 dollar oil to stabilize (not grow) the oil and gas sector, clear access to markets through pipelines which in turn require us to act on climate change and environmental responsibility and new rules for direct foreign capital investment to enable strengthened investment in oil, gas, agriculture and forestry. We also need a sales tax to strengthen the long-term revenue base for Government services and a strong renewed focus on effective and efficient management of public services.

But what about diversification or, more accurately, broadening the economic base. Alberta needs to recognize five things:

  1. Most Alberta firms (95%) are small firms with less than ten employees. This makes diversification difficult – supporting these firms produces small gains in employment and GDP growth.
  2. We have strong agriculture, forestry, ICT, health, education and design / creative industry sectors that should be better understood as engines of economic growth and harbingers of spin-off’s and spill-overs.
  3. The biggest single asset we have is land. Alberta needs to see increasing the value secured from land use (especially Crown land) as a primary economic development strategy. New approaches to eco-system services using market-based instruments could see significant growth of land reclamation, land services and agribusiness.
  4. Innovation depends as much on creativity, design and imagination as it does on science, technology, engineering, maths and problem solving: problem finding starts the innovation process. Our schools, colleges and universities need to ensure that every graduate has the critical thinking, problem finding and design skills to become innovators and change agents in their workplaces and community.
  5. Community resilience is as important to our future as building successful firms. The closure of coal mining in Grande Cache with the loss of a total of 470 jobs in a town with a population of 4,319 (2011 census) shows us what global economic change and shifts in core commodity prices can do for a community. Strengthening resilience and the adaptive capacity of towns and regions is a key task for government, non-government organizations and firms.

Governments play a key role in innovation. Just look at your smartphone. There is not a  component of that phone (touch screen, GPS, internet access, SIRI) that was not funded by Government. Investments in science, design, learning and technology are key to our future products and services. Adding funds to university, college and school budgets which our Government has done and which it looks like the Federal government will do makes sense.

But we can not be all things to all people: focusing is better than letting a thousand blossoms bloom. We need to focus a great deal of our energy on three to five big bets that will build jurisdictional advantage. As Churchill said, “we have run out of money, so now we have to use our brains!”.

  • What is it that we can do with our oil and gas technology to dramatically change the cost structure of the oil and gas industry?
  • How can we leverage our expertise in ICT and big data to build new opportunities?
  • What can we do with our investments is nanotechnology, genomics, ICT and design to focus our energies on new developments in areas like environmental management and monitoring, diagnostics or new value added products and services?
  • How can we leverage the strengths and expertise of our health care professionals to both improve the performance and lower the costs of health care and create new products and services?
  • How can we take our world-leading geomatics technologies and geological analysis technologies and create next-generation uses for these?
  • How can we reimagine SAGD technologies as water treatment technologies and export these to areas of the world that need them?
  • How can we leverage our skills in online and distance learning to create new approaches to skills development that we can export to the world?

It is time to really push some creative thinking about broadening our economic base, strengthening our core industries and becoming really focused on creating resilient and focused communities.

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