Emerging tech sector promises better economic balance

Edmonton at night
Edmonton at night
Edmonton is home to the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute and is becoming a hub for Artificial Intelligence.

Laura Kilcrease is on a mission to change the way the rest of Canada – and the world – perceive Alberta’s economy.

The CEO of Alberta Innovates, a provincially funded corporation with a mandate to deliver 21st-century solutions for the most compelling challenges facing Albertans, says there is far more to Alberta’s economy than just the energy sector.

“When we host people who have never been to Alberta before, they are absolutely blown away by what’s happening here, particularly in the tech sector,” says Ms. Kilcrease. “For example, Alberta is a global leader in the research and development of artificial intelligence, but that’s hardly known in Canada, let alone the rest of the world.”

Laura Kilcrease, CEO, Alberta Innovates

For example, she points out that Deepmind, a world leader in AI research and its application founded in London, England, and acquired by Google in 2014, has one of its two research centres in Edmonton.

“It was initially meant to be a small research centre with a handful of staff, but that’s grown to 50 people in just over a year. I believe that’s going to happen more and more, both with multinational companies and new startups,” adds Ms. Kilcrease.

One of her goals is to help Alberta earn the respect she believes it deserves for a diverse and innovative economy that’s benefiting not only the province, but Canada as a whole in sectors ranging from the creative arts to agriculture and digital health.

Recent research by IDC Canada for Calgary Economic Development shows that companies across the province will increase spending on digitization at a compound annual growth rate of 20 per cent over three years and that agribusiness is forecast to be the fastest adopter of the technology.

Lorraine Nicol, a senior research associate in water resources policy and management in the Department of Economics at the University of Lethbridge in southern Alberta, specializes in irrigation agriculture, a sector in the province that is being transformed by the implementation of new technology.

There are 1.7 million acres under irrigation in Alberta, which accounts for 70 per cent of irrigated land in Canada and is one of the main drivers of the provincial economy.

“Sixty different crops are grown under irrigation, including 28 speciality crops. Those crops, in turn, provide inputs into a vibrant processing industry. Sugar beet and potato processing, for example, are major industries here. Forages grown under irrigation provide input into a very large confined feedlot industry,” says Dr. Nicol.

And in keeping with Alberta’s overall focus on digital transformation, many farmers are adopting new agriculture technologies such as satellite imagery, GPS systems and drones – often called ‘precision agriculture’ – to enhance their operations. In a recent study of the Taber Irrigation District, Dr. Nicol found that 81 per cent of irrigators have implemented some form of precision agriculture.

This is important, she says, because irrigation agriculture contributes $3.6-billion to Alberta’s economy and accounts for an equivalent of 56,000 full-time direct and indirect jobs. More precise irrigation methods boost crop yields and quality, help conserve water and better protect the environment

In fact, Dr. Nicol’s research found that farmers who adopted precision agriculture reported yearly crop yields had increased an average of 20 per cent, crop quality had increased an average of 16 per cent, irrigation water use declined by 24 per cent, fertilizer use was down 21 per cent, herbicide use was down 14 per cent and pesticide use was down 19 per cent – all good news for Alberta’s economy and environment.

This post originally appeared in the Globe and Mail, and was produced by Randall Anthony Communications.

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