Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Building the Alberta the World Needs

Alberta is an important place in the world. Our schools are amongst the best in the world according to an analysis of standard test data – we rank second only to Finland. As oil from other sources begins to decline, Alberta oil will be in high demand – whatever Whole Foods wants to think. Our scientists and technologists are in high demand world-wide – they are innovative, creative and successful. Our musicians, ballet dancers, artists and theatre companies are recognized worldwide for their talents – over a billion people watched Alberta Ballet perform at the Olympics. But Alberta is at a tipping point – the smell of real change is in the air.

Politically, a tired and lacklustre conservative government is finding it difficult to capture the hearts and minds of Albertan’s. After thirty nine years in office, the party seems to have run out of ideas and is sticking to its “no new taxes” and spend our way out of trouble when the mood is one which favours austerity and realignment. Two new political parties – The Wild Rose Alliance and the Alberta Party – are hoping to capture the minds of Albertan’s followed by their votes when the election is called for March 2012. Progressives are meeting in various rooms across Alberta in an attempt to Reboot the Province – positioning policy and thinking for a twenty first century Province ready to take its place in the world.

Significant reforms are planned for Alberta’s school system by the widely respected Minister for Education, Dave Hancock. What these reforms will be is not yet clear, but the expectation is for a significant change in terms of curriculum, assessment and the use of technology. Hancock talks frequently about new skills for a new century – a century that is already approaching the end of its first decade. Many within the system are enthusiastic about the potential for change, but fearful that it will not be substantive. They fear a missed opportunity – one that comes only every thirty or forty years.

The Premiers Economic Council, which has members from Alberta, other parts of Canada and elsewhere in the world, is beginning to look at what Alberta could be like in 2040 and what it needs to do now so as to make 2040 a “preferred future” for the Province. It is likely to challenge the Province to see people and skills as its core assets, not oil and gas, and challenge the Province to do more to leverage its natural resources to lead the world in green technologies for agriculture, forestry, oil and gas. It also needs to push the case for Alberta, which after all is a small jurisdiction, to focus its resources and energies on those areas where it can build jurisdictional advantage.

The oil sands companies, not deaf to challenges as to the environmental impact of their work, have been working collaboratively for some time to share environmental solutions and leverage the skills available to them from around the world to solve key problems – water use, air quality, emissions, tailings and wetlands reclamation. Real progress is being made, though few know about the work they are doing.

Alberta’s reputation in key fields of health care – rehabilitation, heart disease, diabetes, head and neck reconstruction – is world class and many other fields, notably nanotechnology and medicine and metabalomics are quickly emerging as areas in which Alberta has an emerging reputation. What is needed here is a strong focus on solving some key public health issues – obesity and the health of our aboriginal peoples being at the forefront – and an effective focus on wellness as the cornerstone of a twenty first century health strategy.

Commercially, we have emerging sectors of the economy which show considerable promise. Alberta’s geometrics sector accounts for almost half of Canada’s GDP revenues from this sector and is the Canadian leader in innovation. New investments mechanisms, innovation vouchers and the role of strategic R&D investments are beginning to pay off.

Alberta is poised to take its deserved place in the world. What is missing is leadership. That is leadership across all sectors, not just political leadership.

Alberta politicians are very inward focused on securing their local mandates and see the status of Alberta in Canada as their prime motivation for looking beyond the next vote. It is short sighted. We should be looking at our place in North America, our partnerships with European nations and our standing in the world as drivers for decisions.

In business, there is a real need for leadership. Where is the Richard Branson of Alberta – the leader who inspires a generation of entrepreneurs, who leads the charge for market share, who champions real innovation, not just in one field? Where are the oil and gas leaders who speak up every week about what they are doing for the environment, what they plan to do and what others can do to help? Where are the champions of the next economy ? Who in business is speaking up about the skills they need to see our schools, colleges and Universities producing?

In education, there is silence from community organizations, industry, non profits and school boards about changes that are needed. While many participated in forums and local conversations managed by the Government, no one is speaking out about the future of our schools and what it is we need them to be.

Without focused, passionate and committed leadership, Alberta may not take its rightful place as a leading jurisdiction in the world. Yet we could. Finland, seen by all observers as the world leader in both innovation and education, did it and continues to do so. Why cant we? What we need are leaders who have a compelling vision which a truly progressive population can rally behind.

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