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Time for some real diversification in Alberta

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  • Time for some real diversification in Alberta

    Time for some real diversification in Alberta
    New firms, new technology, new markets -- that's what's needed to balance oil dependency

    Stephen Murgatroyd

    Monday, March 27, 2006

    EDMONTON - During the last three months three sets of announcements should have called into action all those concerned with innovation in Canada.

    First, Intel, Cisco and Microsoft announced between them that they would be spending an additional $5 billion on the expansion of their existing research and development activities in India. India is now the hub for advanced technological developments in information technology -- these announcements just confirmed it.

    Second, China made clear that it would dedicate two per cent of its fast-growing economic wealth to innovations in science and technology -- especially energy, sustainability, agriculture, information technology, bio-technology and nanotechnology. China is doubling its investments in these fields.

    It is already a net exporter of high technology -- earning $218 billion in 2005 by doing so and expanding its trade surplus by five times over 2004 in these fields.

    Third, the United States, through President George Bush's State of the Union address and two bills working their way through Congress, is taking bold steps to strengthen its innovation base from schools right through to support for research and development by firms. Their focus: alternative energy, water, biotechnology, nanotechnology and information technologies.

    Their plan is to double the number of science and technology graduates entering the workforce by 2015, and to ease themselves from their addiction to oil.

    Canada continues to ignore its own predicament: flat productivity, falling global competitiveness and a failing innovation strategy.

    Canada produces less than three per cent of the world's new thinking in science and technology, and has a low proportion of science and technology graduates working in the labour force. Its innovation strategy is to pour more funds into universities. They badly need the aid and will make good use of them for basic research and some innovations which are socially desirable.

    But universities are not the route to industrial and commercial applications of science and technology, despite all their claims to the contrary. Their primary role is to produce highly qualified people, engage in valued research and be a base for partnerships with others that are able to convert ideas into revenue, research into jobs.

    What is needed is some bold new thinking about public/private partnerships for research; a clear challenge for a powerful agenda for commercially viable technologies and a strong, diversified economy.

    Alberta is where this could happen. If the provincial government really wanted to lead Canada's innovation agenda, it would do three things.

    First, it would work towards creating Canada as the world's sustainable energy superpower. It would focus a great deal of its resources on new sources of fuel, more efficient methods of extraction of existing fuels and a strong focus on "green" technologies.

    Rather than just produce raw product, Alberta should be the home of powerful new thinking and practice in the energy sector. The ingredients are all there to build on, someone just needs to invest in this work. Last week's budget did allocate new funds to the Alberta Energy Research Institute -- a positive sign.

    Second, Alberta should be the first to double its output of science, technology and engineering graduates from its colleges, polytechnics and universities -- from trades through to PhDs. To do this, it needs to rethink its maths and science curriculum radically to make these the most attractive subjects to study.

    At least last week's budget recognized the need to expand post-secondary education, but there is a need to focus this expansion.

    Third, there should be a strong and serious effort to diversify the economy. There are some signs that this is happening. The recent formation of the Alberta Chamber of Technologies, the new investments being made in medical research and the Alberta innovation foundations (Alberta Heritage Medical Foundation, The ICT Institute, Alberta Energy Research Institute, The Prion Institute, iCore, The Ingenuity Fund and others) are all signs that this could be beginning, but it doesn't look to be positioned as being about diversification. It should be.

    These are good times for the oilsands, but not a good time for the fibre industry or agriculture. It is time to focus again on diversification of the economy -- leveraging our natural resource strengths by invention and commercialization of new ways of using these resources, but also expanding our economic base.

    New firms, new technology, new markets -- that's what we need.

    Now is the time to support innovation and to think through its implications from kindergarten through economic development to the regional and local economy.

    It's time for a fresh look at diversification and it's time for innovation to be made concrete, not just to be used as a slogan.

    Stephen Murgatroyd is a freelance writer and management consultant based in Edmonton

    © The Edmonton Journal 2006


  • #2
    President and CEO - Airshow.


    • #3
      Yeah — what RichardS said.


      • #4
        I will third that.