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Bill WhitelawAlberta claims to have a functioning innovation ecosystem. In fact, we don’t.

Ecosystems are actually systems, not just notions.

Their parts “connect” to each other in an interdependent fashion. It’s what makes them ecosystems in terms of input, function and output.

It’s almost (too) easy to describe something as an ecosystem notionally when the reality is that its putative parts are in no practical way connected to each other. Pretenders to ecosystem status are the opposite: non-systems aspiring to function like true ecosystems but largely failing. Something of a faux system, in other words.

In Alberta, we have some, if not many, of the component parts of an ecosystem in the innovation space. Yet, at a time of tectonic shift in the shape and form of key sectors, like energy and agri-foods, a true innovation ecosystem would be playing a more measurable role in driving evolution of our sectors forward.

Indeed, for a smallish jurisdiction, Alberta is pretty good at creating more complexity than clarity around the idea of an innovation ecosystem. If we’re honest with ourselves, what we contend is our innovation ecosystem is in reality a bunch of unaligned innovation entities. Sometimes they touch, talk and connect; more often than not they don’t.

To invoke a geological metaphor, we have great (innovation) pores but poor permeability. In other words, we have lots of innovation groups but their lack of connectivity precludes the synergistic actions that can produce the global innovation brand to which other places have laid claim.

Think about it: At just more than four million people, the entire province has a population base smaller than dozens and dozens of cities and regional centres around the globe, many of which we aspire to match reputationally for innovation. And so despite our aspirations to be more prominent on domestic and global stages, our failure to synchronize our competencies more effectively is our Achilles heel.

We’re good at creating “acronyms and agencies”; what we’re not so good at is synthesizing the various voices and mandates associated with those innovation enterprises.

There doesn’t seem to be a “master list” or “database” or “catalogue” via which interested parties can begin to navigate the innovation landscape. But the issue goes deeper than that. Indeed, our core competency sometimes seems to be creating solitudes rather than synergies.

This applies to everything from government agencies in the innovation space to industry associations focused on particular innovation initiatives.

The people who know these groups know them intimately. But if you’re an individual or company outside the tight inner circle, it’s often difficult to ascertain who is who. And that’s for people who live and work here in Alberta. If you’re outside the province, it’s doubly confounding to figure out how to navigate to the source capable of providing the most timely help.

This is especially true of a recent phenomenon: the thousands of engineering and geoscience folks tossed unceremoniously on to the street. Looking to put their talents to work, they naturally turn to the “innovation ecosystem” which they’ve been told is at the foundation of Alberta’s next-gen energy economy. Except it’s not there to be found.

It’s also difficult to pinpoint why such fragmentation persists, because typically, most of the folks involved are well-intentioned. There’s politics, of course, but doesn’t typically trump common sense. There are also competitive dynamics associated with funding sources – and there’s even sometimes interpersonal conflicts that muddy the waters. Part of it also stems from conflicting visions of what Alberta “should be when it grows up.”

But all is not lost. The key message is this: We need to think and act differently around innovation in Alberta if innovation is truly going to be the engine driving our next-gen economy.

There is some good news. There are two very intriguing initiatives driven by some very intriguing people with a passion for innovation and getting it right.

Watch out for the Alberta Innovation Engine being tuned up by Managing Director Melanie Popp. And get yourself a copy of The Rainforest: The Secret to Building the Next Silicon Valley. The thinking around its concepts are already rooting themselves in Alberta.

Stay tuned to this space for a deeper dive into their efforts.

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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