Alberta group offers a safe space to advance innovation as a culture and not just a buzzword

Signatures of people who have signed the social contract to advance Alberta's innovation ecosystem. Image: Rainforest Alberta

Here’s a fancy word to add to your vocabulary: autopoiesis.

It’s not likely you will ever drop it in casual conversation, but it's particularly important in the context of Alberta’s emerging next-gen innovation narrative.

The concept’s origins are rooted in the study of biological systems, but the underlying principles are now used to examine a broad range of systems thinking.

From the Greek, autopoiesis derives from “self” and “creation” and speaks to systems capable of sustaining and nurturing themselves.

Things like ecosystems.

Autopoiesis is a great way to describe and understand a new innovation movement taking root in Alberta—a movement whose positive momentum bodes well for efforts to develop an inter-connected and self-sustaining system through which innovation is both systemized yet simultaneously randomized.

It’s called the Rainforest, and it’s a Silicon Valley concept transplanted north of the 49th parallel thanks to the leadership of Albertans like Justin Riemer, Brad Zumwalt and Jim Gibson, among others. They’re invested in connecting innovators from across Alberta in a conversation (and ongoing relationship) that could be incredibly important to the province’s future.

The beauty of the Rainforest is this: it is a safe forum for innovators who prefer structure and clearly defined, coherent connectivity. For innovators who enjoy systems and relationships characterized by more messy, serendipitous interaction, it is also perfect.

The biological system parallels are useful for the Rainforest notion in that it isn't difficult to understand how a complex system with many seemingly disconnected parts can all function in a weirdly harmonious way.

In an Alberta context, the movement is growing rapidly; two “summits” have been held involving dozens of diverse individuals, from tech entrepreneurs—both seasoned and fresh—to academics and corporate types. There is a “slack” group that 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.

What’s even more promising about the Rainforest group is this: it is bound together by a high degree of both collegiality and camaraderie—two words people often use interchangeably, but which actually mean quite different things.

It’s good to have one or the other when people gather to collaborate, but when the two words are melded they form a very cool high-tensile bonding.

What’s even more interesting is that this bond has been created over a single word that itself is often the victim of differential definition: innovation.

It is the packhorse of our ambitions and frustrations. Like "diversification," it’s a word that often has the meaning stretched out of it.

Politicians in particular are prone to pepper “innovation” liberally throughout their pandering to the public. But innovation, as its true practitioners know, is a difficult and challenging, complex set of things. Failure and frustration for innovators are critical functions in the race for success—a race that itself often has no discernible finish line.

What innovation is not is a panacea. 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 forward into a future characterized by both uncertainty and opportunity.

Innovation as an ethos, however, is an entirely different notion. Innovation as an attitude is equally powerful.

The challenge facing the Rainforest crew is to put definition and meaning into a word that is currently much overworked—a word some would say is also mistrusted.

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

Back to autopoiesis: Alberta's economy is in trouble. In large part that's because as an economic system, its various elements have never meshed very well. Indeed, the gears and cogs often seemed to grind against each other. That’s because self and creation never fit comfortably into the same sentence.

Perhaps all the folks who are responsible for the economic viability of this province should consider signing the social contract used by the Rainforest process to commit to a better future.

It’s worth a read...and your signature.

(If you're interested in the Rainforest, and you should be, check out www.rainforestab.ca. There, you will find out the group and its raison d'etre, including its "slack" community.)