Bill WhitelawHere’s a word to add to your vocabulary: autopoiesis.

It’s not likely you’ll ever drop it in casual conversation but it should help frame any discussion about the next generation of Alberta innovation.

A Greek word, autopoiesis refers to systems that sustain and nurture themselves. The concept is rooted in biological systems but the underlying principles are now used to examine a broad range of thinking, right down to ecosystems.

Autopoiesis is a great way to grasp an innovation movement taking root in Alberta. This movement’s positive momentum bodes well for efforts to develop an inter-connected and self-sustaining system in which innovation can be systemic or random.

Rainforest Alberta is part of that movement. The idea for the initiative has been transplanted from Silicon Valley thanks to Albertans Justin Riemer, Brad Zumwalt and Jim Gibson, among others. They’re connecting Alberta innovators to create conversations and relationships that could be incredibly important to the province’s future.

Rainforest is a safe forum for innovators who prefer structure. For innovators who prefer more messy, serendipitous interaction, it’s also perfect.

The biological system parallels are useful for the Rainforest notion. It helps explain how a complex system with many seemingly disconnected parts can function in an harmonious way.

In Alberta, the movement is growing rapidly. Two summits have been held involving dozens of diverse individuals from tech entrepreneurs, seasoned and fresh, to academics and corporate types. A “slack” group meets every Wednesday to keep the conversation going.

All the folks are bound by a common interest in a better-connected innovation system in Alberta.

The Rainforest group is bound together by high degrees of collegiality and camaraderie.

And this bond has been created over a single word, innovation.

Innovation is the packhorse of our ambitions and frustrations. But like diversification, it often has the meaning stretched out of it. Politicians in particular like to pepper innovation liberally throughout their pandering to the public.

But innovation, in fact, requires a difficult, challenging, complex set of things and acts. For innovators, failure and frustration are just part of the race for success. And the race for success often has no discernible finish line.

Innovation is not a panacea. And innovation as a word won’t save Alberta’s beleaguered economy. Innovation as a crutch won’t help the energy and agricultural economies move purposefully into a future that appears to offer both uncertainty and opportunity.

Innovation as an ethos or an attitude, however, is entirely different and powerful.

The Rainforest crew must put definition and meaning into a word that’s much overworked – even mistrusted.

They seem well on their way to achieving both definition and trust.

Alberta’s economy is in trouble. In large part because the various elements of its economic system have never meshed very well. That’s because the notion of autopoiesis has never had a natural fit here.

Perhaps the folks responsible for the economic viability of this province should sign the social contract that Rainforest Alberta members commit to in search of a better future.

That social contract is worth adopting, so Alberta can move with innovation toward economic systems that sustain and nurture themselves – and all of us.

Bill Whitelaw is president and CEO at JuneWarren-Nickle’s Energy Group.

Bill is a Troy Media contributor. Why aren’t you?

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