If you want to know the future of Edmonton’s economy, a good place to start is with a question: What challenges does the world face and what does the Edmonton region have to offer as solutions?
Emerging markets need food for their burgeoning populations and energy to power their economic growth. The Edmonton Metropolitan Region and the rest of Western Canada produce food and energy in abundance.
Healthcare providers around the world need to find more cost-effective ways to care for aging populations while also providing better preventive health outcomes for the young. Leading innovators such as the pediatric surgeons at the U of A Stollery Children’s Hospital are collaborating to bring forth innovative — and scalable — new strategies in healthcare.
Economies around the world need to confront slowing growth and productivity. The region’s tech researchers and entrepreneurs are among those leading the way in bringing to market powerful new technologies such as machine learning and the internet of things.
“We have a great story to tell, but we don’t sell ourselves well enough,” says Malcolm Bruce, a retired senior military officer who is the CEO of Edmonton Global.
With a blue-chip board and staff with broad international connections, Edmonton Global works for the region’s 15 municipalities and in partnership with more than a dozen economic development agencies and educational institutions to help push the message out to the world.
Take for instance the region’s petrochemical industry. “We already have the largest petrochemical cluster in Canada with $40 billion in infrastructure and the potential for another $30 billion investment over the next 10 years,” says Bruce.
This isn’t pie in the sky stuff. Two polypropylene plants currently under construction are worth a combined $8 billion and they are prime examples of what people in Bruce’s business mean when they speak of “adding value” locally to Alberta’s resources. It means getting all the parts of the economy to work together, in this case turning petroleum byproducts such as propane into more valuable products.
Once those big plants begin producing millions of tonnes a year of plastic, the next step up this “value chain” is to upgrade plastic pellets into marketable materials, such as the clear wrap used to keep food fresh. Montreal-based Polykar is building a $30 million plant to produce packaging materials in the Discovery Business Park north of Edmonton International Airport. The company is one of several manufacturers investing in the regional value chain.
We aren’t done yet. We can apply the same idea to agriculture and upgrade Western farm commodities to higher-value products. How about a packaging plant to serve agri-food businesses in the area? Or a pulse fractionator to extract proteins from crops grown in Alberta? These things are coming.
Don’t forget, Bruce adds, the “incredible innovation” that will make the region’s new petrochemical facilities cleaner and more efficient. Green tech and skills developed locally will likely find markets around the world. As that happens, it will signal a major cultural shift for Alberta business.
If you exclude raw commodities, “Up to five years ago, 80 per cent of everything that was built or serviced in Alberta was consumed in Alberta,” Bruce says.
“This regional culture of export, getting out in the global world is not something most businesses had to think about. We’re harnessing all the partners in the region to help us identify companies that are ready for export.”
To attract more foreign direct investment, Edmonton Global has two priorities. One is to find opportunities to grow existing industries in which the region has an advantage, such as energy and agriculture.
Another is to position the region on the ground floor of emerging technologies.
Good things happen when you put the two together: applying technology to make industries cleaner and more productive. He cites numerous examples. Robots developed in Edmonton take people out of hazardous, menial jobs such as cleaning gunk out of petrochemical holding tanks. Drones help to keep airports safe and secure. Technological curiosities of a few years ago, such as 3D printing, are being put to work in Edmonton’s metal fabrication shops. Work done in Edmonton labs in the reinforced learning branch of artificial intelligence will help lead the way to autonomous vehicles and many other uses. Local startup AltaML is working with some of Edmonton’s largest companies to develop machine learning applications in healthcare, finance and other industries that will find markets all around the world.
In agriculture, the expanded Alberta agri-food incubator at Leduc is the largest lab of its kind in North America. It is helping to bring nutritious new products to market and finding ways to extract valuable proteins from pulses and other crops. An R&D lab in Morinville employs PhDs to develop premium products for Champion Pet Foods, a billion-dollar company that is building new production lines in the Edmonton region and Kentucky. By focusing on health-conscious consumers, The Little Potato Co. has grown sales to more than $200 million a year, boosting efficiency by selling production waste to a mushroom grower and a craft distiller.
Edmonton Global, which got up and running last year after a couple years of planning, is supported by the 15 communities of the Edmonton Metropolitan Region. While it was developing its business plan, it did a benchmark study with the Conference Board of Canada that compared Edmonton among 22 global cities.
Bruce describes the survey results as “good news, bad news.”
Most respondents were neither negative nor positive. A few thought the region is in the energy business, is remote and disconnected and that it’s cold in the winter.
“The bad news is they don’t think about us, but the good news is we don’t have to change the narrative because they don’t have a narrative anyway.”
Bruce dismisses the perception that the region is disconnected with the world. The reality is that Canada is a major trading partner with global business connections.
“We’ve got a trade agreement with every other G7 nation and we can trade with 1.5 billion people through these agreements,” he points out. “Canada can do a better job to harness those trade agreements and fully exploit them.”
Alberta and Canada maintain official trade presences worldwide backed by export and development banks. Individual Edmontonians have business and professional networks worldwide. Bruce wants them to be on the hunt for new opportunities as they travel the world.
“Our goal now is to weaponize everybody as an ambassador for the region.”