Is Alberta Innovates working?
A bureaucratic shuffle leaves some grasping for a bygone era of innovation
Four days into 2010, Ed Stelmach told Albertans history had been made. Or rather, he told them the future had been made. Coming years, he pledged, would be ones where prosperity would be built on the back of bold new research and where riches would flow from a new age of innovation.“Future generations will look back on 2010 as the year that Alberta’s next generation economy took a leap forward,” proclaimed the man who was then premier.
It was heady talk for something any outsider might have seen as a mere bureaucratic shuffling of the deck. But the creation of Alberta Innovates came at a time when Alberta was increasingly desperate to show the world that it was not merely a place where big trucks and even bigger shovels moved around blackened sand in the name of producing oil.
The chorus from industry leaders − from Suncor Energy Inc. president and CEO Rick George, down to smaller companies intent on trying new things − was that Alberta must face its critics, and face its own problems, with technology. Alberta needed to become the Silicon Valley of oil, a place where energy research ushered in new ways of doing business, and new ways of convincing naysayers that the province’s crude was not dirty. The vision extended far beyond the oil sands. Doug Horner, then-minister of advanced education and technology, talked about a province where the world would come to join “a culture of innovation at all levels.”
And so the province took a series of disparate funding and research agencies − 10 in total − and shoved them under one roof, calling it Alberta Innovates. Inside that roof, efforts were split into four streams, which would operate as separate corporations looking at bio solutions, energy and environment, health and technology. The idea was to chop away duplication, reduce complexity and make it easier for Alberta to find new ways to tackle the future.
It was, some say, a much-needed step. There were too many research organizations, and they were “tripping over each other,” each in its “own little fiefdom,” says Robert
Mansell, a professor at the University of Calgary School of Public Policy who is a director of the energy corporation. “Something had to be done.”
But two years after Alberta Innovates was formed, has it made good on its goals? Has Stelmach’s grand vision ushered in a new era? Or is it time for a new vision? Answering that question is difficult, in part because the province hasn’t done a thorough review of Alberta Innovates − or if it has, it won’t release it publicly.
Provincial officials also won’t discuss how well Alberta Innovates has achieved its goals of enhancing efficiency − such as how many people were let go, or how overall spending has been trimmed or enhanced. “It’s not just a case of dollars. You have to think of value added,” says Eoin Kenny, a government spokesman. “Is it better than it was? It certainly is. Does it still need improvement? It certainly does.”
The province’s auditor general, however, has suggested the need for improvement is substantial. In a report that focused on the organization’s technology arm, Merwyn Saher says, “The corporation has experienced significant business inefficiencies” and planned to spend a major sum − $2.5 million − to build its own corporate information system. That was after one of its predecessor organizations, the Alberta Research Council (ARC), had already spent $2.2 million on such a system that wasn’t completed. ARC simply wrote off that cost. The auditor general was highly critical of the organization’s project governance protocols.
There are signs that change is still needed elsewhere, too. When Premier Alison Redford wrote her mandate letter to Greg Weadick, the minister in charge of Alberta Innovates, she ordered him to “enhance” the way the system currently works, in areas beyond technology. She pointed specifically to a need for improvements in agriculture and energy research. Before she was selected as leader, Redford also pledged an entirely new way of coming up with new energy technologies, based on a successful model from the past that the province has since abandoned.
One thing is clear: building Alberta Innovates hasn’t been easy. For one, the forced marriage was rapid, and not carried out with a long-term integration plan − a fact that has created the same kind of issues involved in any corporate merger. “It’s almost a given that you’re going to have a lot of problems,” Mansell says. Eliminating overlap means cutting jobs. Changing power structures means demoting strong personalities. Bringing people together means inevitable culture clash. The organization’s efforts have, he says, “been going at pretty much the same pace as before.”
But has the transition been smooth? “I hear some stories that suggest not,” Mansell says. “You’re dealing with people and pensions and careers and egos, and a lot of things. It’s just difficult.”
The four arms of Alberta Innovates are involved in an almost breathtaking array of work. They are helping to build a new plant that will convert Edmonton’s waste to energy. They are supporting nano-research into new storage for wind and solar electricity. They are using stem cells to heal asthma. They are providing cash for researchers examining links between cancer drugs and hearing loss. They are aiding efforts to make better use of geospatial information from satellites. They are contributing to new ways of making pulp and paper with a lighter environmental footprint.
But a province as hydrocarbon-dependent as Alberta risks shutting out non-energy researchers − especially with a consolidated provincial funding arm. That, according to some who work in fields like technology development, has not happened − a credit to the province’s efforts to diversify. And despite the wide array of research interests, the reorganization seems to have simplified matters, says Arpad Barabas, the founder of Startup Calgary, a networking group for entrepreneurs. “It looks like they’ve reduced the amount of bureaucracy in the government, which I think is positive,” he says.
Alberta Innovates, with more than $150 million in annual funding, also has important advantages over similar efforts in other places. Both the Ontario Research Fund and the federal Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC) drew their funding from major one-time cash injections. When the money runs out − as it nearly has for SDTC − so does the work. Alberta Innovates faces no such issue.
The Alberta system has also become more effective at doling out that cash. One of its first moves was to launch a sort of 311 service for research funding called Connector. Rather than force entrepreneurs and academics to figure out how best to access cash, they can call one number and be directed to the right place. But, Barabas adds, “There’s still a lot they can do to be more effective.” He points to the different roles in developing new ideas played by companies and universities. “My feeling is that a lot of innovation comes from the people on the ground dealing with problems every day,” he says. “And Alberta has been very focused on university-derived research.”
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