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Alberta’s economic future starts with innovation

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 past two years has created hardship for the industry, the province and many Albertans. This is not the first time depressed commodity prices have hit us. 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.

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Recently, a diverse group of Albertans representing all major sectors of the provincial economy gathered 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 come up with ideas that create action now.

The shared challenge was to find a way to ensure that the economy is more resilient to the global pressures we face. It is clear that creating a robust economy will happen only 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.

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 on innovation in the world have always been built upon the strength of connection between their postsecondary institutions and the private sector – think Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., or Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley, in the Silicon Valley. This is what we must work to create in Alberta.

Alberta has 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 – these afford opportunity for economic growth.

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 are essential.

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 co-ordinating the organizations focused on innovation and research in the 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 co-ordinate and prioritize between our public sector research and innovation branches to try to deliver a higher return on investment among our research organizations.

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Going one step further, the innovation champion should establish innovation hubs that focus on specific areas of research by leveraging existing public assets at postsecondary institutions across Alberta. These hubs should include mentorship networks that help to bridge the gap between our postsecondary 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 postsecondary students.

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.

Doug Black is an Alberta-based senator; Joseph Doucet is the dean of the Alberta School of Business. They are the co-chairs of Alberta 2.0, a think tank focused on the future of the provincial economy.

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