Let's quit saying we have an innovation ecosystem in Alberta. Because we don't.
Here's the thing about ecosystems: they are actually systems, not eco-notions.
Their constituent parts "connect" to each other in a symbiotic interdependent fashion. That connectivity is 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.
Aspirers and pretenders to ecosystem status are just the opposite: asynchronous non-systems aspiring to function like true ecosystems but largely failing. Something of a faux system, in other words.
This is especially true of Alberta's claim to have a functioning innovation ecosystem.
We have some, if not many, of the component parts of such a system in the innovation space. But it’s not an ecosystem, strictly speaking.
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 discernible and measurable role in driving sectoral evolution 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 innovation entities moving in asynchronous non-alignment. Sometimes they touch, talk and connect; more often than not they don't.
To invoke a crude but appropriate geological metaphor: we have great (innovation) pores but just poor permeability. In other words, we have lots of innovation groups but their typical non-connectivity prevents and precludes the truly synergistic results that can produce the global innovation brand to which other places have laid claim.
Think about it: at just over 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 around innovation. And so despite our aspirations to be more dominant and prominent on domestic and global stages, our failure to more effectively synchronize our competencies remains 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.
A common lament: there doesn't seem to be a "master list" or "database" or "catalogue" via which interested parties can begin to explore and navigate the innovation landscape. But the question goes deeper than that. Indeed, our core competency sometimes seems to be creating solitudes rather than synergies when it comes to collaborating around innovation.
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 intimately know them. But if you're an individual or company outside the tight inner circle, so to speak, it's often difficult to ascertain who is who in the zoo. And that's for people who live and work here in Alberta. If you're outside the province, indeed, the country, it's doubly confounding to figure out how to navigate to the source capable of providing the most timely and efficacious 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 foundational to Alberta's next-gen energy economy. Except it wasn't there to be found—not in the holistic way they had been led to believe it is.
It's also difficult to pinpoint why such fragmentation still persists, because typically, most of the folks involved are singularly well intentioned. There's politics, of course, but that doesn't typically trump common sense. There are also competitive dynamics associated with funding sources, of course—and there are 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..."
It's not too much of a stretch to equate this dynamic to the stories you hear about the "criminal who got away" because various police didn't coordinate or communicate effectively.
But all is not lost and admittedly, I have stretched some points to make some points. But 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.
On the good news front: there is a bright light at the end of the tunnel—and it’s not a train. 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 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.