Western Canada has been working towards an economically diverse future since Preston Manning’s call of “reform” in the late 1980s. As host of Collisions YYC, a hyper-local Alberta podcast centered on economic transformation, this is a rallying cry I hear from every guest.
“We need to pivot by changing everything — our company and our mindset.”
And, with COVID-19 sweeping the globe, the call to “Pivot!” has been louder than ever. But how can we completely upend everything we have done in business up to this point? How can Alberta change the economy for a brighter future?
If you’re curious, keep reading to find out the three key avenues that economic transformation can occur through — and a sample of the highs and lows these three avenues might bring.
What does transformation mean for Calgary and our economy?
Before diving into the perspectives of Collisions YYC guests on economic transformation, it is worth noting what that really means.
Economic transformation is the process of moving labour and resources from lower- to higher-productivity sectors and raising within-sector growth.
This can occur in a variety of ways, but primarily through these three avenues:
- Adoption of technology
- Improving management practices
- Improving efficiency
Every guest on Collisions YYC has brought their own unique perspective to the conversation around economic transformation in Calgary. Considering the above framework, I want to share some key learnings from past guests on each of the three ways they see change happening right in our backyard.
Adoption of Technology
Canadians might be surprised to learn how progressive Alberta is in the area of technology. While our politics can sometimes create a negative perception, our technology can — and should — stop any negativity in its tracks.
One of my guests on Collisions YYC, Richard Simpson, is the VP of Business Development at ZeroKey. ZeroKey is the single most accurate positioning technology in the world, whose primary competitor — Ultra Wideband — is 100 times less accurate. Richard argues that we can thank the Oil & Gas industry — which drove Alberta’s economic growth for decades — for the rapid technological advancements we are making.
“They were spending a fortune on cutting-edge technologies. And were digitizing things long before other people were.”
The same could be said for the Agricultural vertical — another primary driver of Alberta’s economy. Technology has always been leveraged by farmers to find better ways to outsmart the weather, the market, and their competitors. Take canola oil for example. It quite literally means “Canada’s Oil”. It was developed after World War II by researchers at the University of Saskatchewan and the University of Manitoba.
Wilson Acton was a Collisions YYC guest and is the Chief Commercial Officer of Verge and Executive Vice President at Whipcord. Verge is playing a key role in pushing the boundaries of traditional farming practices through enabled, optimized, and autonomous farming operations, all while keeping growers connected to the land.
Consider that the next time you drive past a tractor working the fields — chances are, there is no human operator. Many tractors and pieces of farm equipment have become autonomous pieces of equipment, allowing farmers to better work their land and preserve their time.
Wilson posits that great times don’t facilitate technology adoption — because everyone is making money, and everyone is doing well.
“When things are tight, and you’re not sure you’re going to get by, that’s when you start fine-tuning the edges.”
There are countless success stories in every industry vertical right here in Calgary — including many gaining global recognition. Take Ryan Gill, for example. Ryan is an entrepreneur who has been in the marketing industry for decades. He co-founded a successful marketing conference, The Gathering, and is the CEO of Communo — a co-working space turned sharing economy app.
Ryan saw the shift happening from 9–5 corporations to fluid working hours where individuals come together to form project-based teams. Not to mention, these opportunities were happening on a global scale.
“The key point is we wanted to enable economic options for every person in business, leaving no one behind. GDP has been in decline for 20 plus years. “Big” rules and I think “small” is going to start to rule in the future, and platforms will enable that.”
Whether it is creating technology to suit gaps in the market, or adopting existing or emerging technologies to improve a business model, Calgary is leading the way nationally and has the opportunity to do so on a global scale.
I don’t mean to imply that total economic transformation is as simple as adopting emerging or existing technologies. We also need to ask ourselves one big, key question:
What does the adoption of technology mean from a human perspective?
There are a lot of organizations in Alberta aimed at transitioning employees from our traditional industries, like Agriculture and Oil & Gas, to technology. But how can you hire someone in a tech job who has only a few years in tech, but 30 years in Oil & Gas? To shift their career position from a senior leader to the bottom of a brand-new totem pole means taking a pay cut, having to truly start over at square one, and losing their senior position.
It’s incredibly important to remember — and acknowledge — the human element to the adoption of technology.
To consider this human element, one need only look at the second driver for economic transformation — improving management practices.
Improving management practices
Improving management practices is a key component of economic transformation since poor management practices can hamper innovation in a few key ways, including:
- Inability to monitor job performance, set targets, or provide performance-based incentives
- Inability to innovate and move past the notion of, “But, we’ve always done it that way.”
- Inability to leverage new technologies
- Inability to react to new challenges and opportunities
Furthermore, when management practices aren’t up to par, firms can appear chaotic (that’s a red flag for any investor) and struggle with quality assurance. All of these factors can combine into negative outcomes, significantly and negatively impacting the productivity of both firms and local markets.
When it came to discussing change management, especially in light of the global pandemic, I knew there was no better guest in Calgary to host than Chantal Milloy. Chantal is Co-Founder and COO of Levvel Inc.. Levvel is a local Alberta business focused on creating balance in business — fostering a place where stability and growth are in harmony by providing a clear path forward where companies can flex their core competencies and grow.
When considering how to improve your business, the human element cannot be ignored. Chantal reminded me,
“From a people perspective, find the people that are going to be impacted by change, figure out what their issues and concerns are going to be, and put strategies together to reduce that pain for them.”
Regardless of how your day-to-day has shifted in light of COVID-19, humans are still at the heart of business — whether they’re sitting in a cubicle at your high-rise office tower or working from their kitchen table with kids homeschooling beside them.
By putting your people first, you can find improvements to your organizational structure, culture, processes, and practices.
This sentiment was echoed by Lori Ell, Founder and President of Growing Ideas and a Calgary based TEC Chair. Lori brings over two decades of experience as a leader, business strategy coach, and board director to her clients.
So what’s her take on Calgary’s economic transformation? She believes it’s a two-sided coin with both opportunities and challenges — both of which we must keep in mind as we move forward.
When talking about diversification and transformation, Lori reminds us that we need to be careful.
“We say what do we have, what are we going to do, and how are we going to leverage it?”
Instead of looking longingly at other cities, we want to emulate, we need to stay grounded. Why try to be something else? Why not be who we are supposed to be?
Improving management practices requires an uncomfortably honest examination of your organization. It requires the “why” (the planning) and the “how” (the execution). Many organizations, in Lori’s opinion, tend to fail on one or the other — leading to a larger failure. They either get to execution way too quickly or they sit and plan and contemplate what they could be without ever taking drastic action.
What most intrigues me about economic transformation is that we are truly all in this together. When leaders in Alberta don’t take advantage of new technology, opportunities, or innovative thinking, we all suffer. On the flip side, when leaders at organizations embrace the wild and the new — we all win. There can often be a bigger risk when we do nothing — if we don’t take risks, we will never advance or find new in-roads to economic transformation.
Take, for example, Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (AMII). AMII is a global leader in machine learning, and it’s right here in Edmonton. Alberta, by some accident or incredible foresight, began investing in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning when essentially nobody else in the world was — some 15+ years ago. Thanks to our ability to innovate, we were able to attract top global talent (and retain them) and foster a true economic transformation around machine learning.
I sat down with Cam Linke, AMII’s CEO for a candid discussion on the topic of technology adoption and AI. His perspective hits the nail on the head:
“One of the big things for [AMII] is, where do companies exist on the adoption spectrum? And how can we help move them up the adoption spectrum? Because the more companies we have at that higher level, the more people they’re going to hire, the more competitive advantage they’re gonna have.”
Alberta is one of the top three global leaders in machine learning — arguably, one of the most important technologies in the world. By creating a landscape that fosters innovation — and adoption — Alberta can continue to carve out its unique economic niche.
Improving management practices through innovative thinking and adoption of emerging technologies contributes to wins for all Albertans. Yet there is one final piece to the economic transformation puzzle — improving efficiency.
The final component required for economic transformation is improving efficiency. But what does that actually mean? Examining Alberta’s Economic Recovery Plan is one way to help us understand the provincial mandate to diversify and move our labour and resources into higher-value and production areas, something Albertans are already talented at.
The Alberta government aims to build upon key strengths, including:
- Our young and top-educated population
- Our valuable natural resources — many of which haven’t yet been developed
- Our low taxes
- Our vibrant historic industries, like Oil & Gas and Agriculture
- Our irrepressible entrepreneurial culture
By targeting key investments and bold policies, the government aims to:
- Create tens of thousands of jobs
- Ensure Alberta’s competitiveness into the future
- Accelerate economic diversification in future-proof industries
- Ensure a strong bedrock to our key industries
- Show investors around the world that we mean business
Alberta’s government has invested millions of dollars into the economy through various programs and agencies, such as the Invest Albertaprovincial agency, to lead an aggressive worldwide campaign to attract job-creating investment, retooling and expanding our network of international offices, while providing concierge service to prospective investors, and telling institutional investors the truth about Alberta’s environmentally responsible energy sector.
But improving efficiency for economic transformation doesn’t simply occur through government investments — although that is a key factor. Organizations and businesses must take it upon themselves to improve their organizational efficiency.
Considering our tech advancements in Alberta, we often are called “Silicon Valley North”. Past Collisions YYC Beyond The Echo guest, Joanne Fedeyko, CEO of Connection Silicon Valley, has been living and breathing the technology ecosystem and venture capitalist community in Silicon Valley for the past two decades.
She watched first-hand how improving efficiency in terms of resources and high-performing sectors has made Silicon Valley the high-tech global hub. Joanne works as a consultant to the Government of Alberta’s Economic Development and Trade Department, where she is bringing her in-depth knowledge back to Canadian start-ups to elevate our innovators to the same calibre of those in the tech capital of the world.
“Companies are really looking to be capital efficient now. [I am] able to introduce them to Alberta, which is cheaper than other regions in Canada, which has as great [a pool] of talent and a lifestyle that’s equal to or better than other regions, nine times out of ten, people say they’re interested [in doing business here].”
Helping organizations in Alberta — and around the world — to incentivize innovation and start-ups and company growth is something that can spur growth and help improve efficiency. Collisions YYC Beyond The Echo guest, Scott Montgomerie, is the Co-Founder and CEO of Scope AR. Scott is busy using augmented reality to solve some of the toughest problems. But this innovation cannot occur in a vacuum.
While he has built his business in the US, it was because he noticed a gap in the Alberta market — to be able to build a product that people want is the skill set, and it is lacking in our province. By improving the efficiency of resources — both talent and sector growth — we can avoid losing some of our brightest minds to the US brain drain.
Despite the lack of talent in Scott’s opinion, he did comment on one thing that Alberta does extremely well to bolster the economy — tax credits.
What they just did is great. There is nothing that will spur the growth of these companies more than capital. Bringing the right capital, helping these companies to grow and make the right decisions, and to hire the right people to grow internationally is important.
When you look around in Alberta, it’s impossible not to find innovation in each of our historic industries. This province has been made up of trailblazers and entrepreneurs from the beginning. Yet without our ability to adopt technology, improve management practices or efficiency, we would quickly be left behind on the world stage. Thankfully, due to the foresight of both the government and individuals, we are global leaders in many sectors — ones that are fundamental to our future.
What makes for a successful podcast?
“To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” — Buckminster Fuller
COVID-19 disrupted the concept of “being in the office” and proved that many companies and individuals had the ability to produce valuable outputs in a different setting. As the pandemic slowly begins to retreat, many organizations have shifted focus to discussing work from home versus work from the office. The conversation that needs to be had is about what creates value not where you are physically located.
“Work is a thing you do, not a place you go to.”
This does not mean that coming together in a fixed location can not create value; on the contrary, when done properly it can be an accelerant for new ideas and ways of thinking. The “heavy lifting” required on the part of not only the leadership team but of the entire organization is putting in the energy to personalize how this split of location-based value creation is used.