by Koleya Karringten
Along the confusing road to the post-pandemic reality, Albertans are navigating by signposts: open restaurants and shops, the permission of larger gatherings and for some, a return to the office, are all signals that we’re getting a little closer to normalcy.
Masks and social distance signs aside, the world is starting to seem more familiar. I think we’ve all had those moments where something really stands out as a sign that the crisis won’t last forever, and life is returning to normal. In my case, it was getting stuck in traffic for the first time in months. I was surprised how, instead of the usual annoyance, I felt a sense of relief I felt while waiting in a long line of cars as the light went from red to green, again and again.
But of course, we all know how far from the pre-crisis normal we are, and for Alberta in particular, our future looks very uncertain. After what seems like an endless series of challenges to our energy economy, agriculture sector and efforts at diversification, we haven’t felt normal here in a long time. For our future prosperity, Alberta needs a new path – and it might the be disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic that helps show us the way.
“COVID-19 will reshape our world. We don’t know yet when the crisis will end. But we can be sure that by the time it does, the world will look very different.”
Josef Borrell, High Representative of the European Union
Alberta’s industries have received an unprecedented shock, and change is now inevitable. On April 20th, the same day that low demand and storage capacities plunged US oil futures into the negative for the first time in history, two Alberta meat packing plants – the Cargill facility in High River, and the JBS plant in Brooks – respectively announced a temporary closure and major cut in production. Together, these two plants account for 70% of our beef processing capacity. In a day, our two main economic drivers were almost completely shut down.
The risks and volatility in our new environment are unlike anything Alberta has ever dealt with before, and with predictions that the pandemic might be cyclical, reoccurring periodically for up to three years, there is no time to lose in future-proofing our essential industries and building an economy that can survive and even thrive in our ‘New Normal’.
From my perspective in both Alberta’s cleantech industry, through my low-emissions combustion firm Absolute Combustion, and in our growing digital technology sector, through my Executive Directorship of the Canadian Blockchain Consortium, here are some of the key pivots I believe Alberta requires to move forward in our changing economy.
- Remote work is here to stay: It’s unfortunate news for Calgary’s empty office towers that many businesses simply won’t be returning full in-person operations once the crisis has passed. As companies successfully manage the security and technological risks of remote work, the cost savings make it more likely that for some employees, it will be a permanent situation. Our Canadian digital superpower Shopify recently announced that its 5,000 employees will stay permanently at home, and many other company across sectors are planning the same.
- It’s time to digitize or die: Remote work is a major contributor to a wave of digital adoption across our industries. Paper files and manual processes mean in a shutdown of physical office spaces, businesses simply can’t function – and remote workers need secure digital identities and safe access to cloud systems. All companies are experiencing struggles during the pandemic, but those with outdated technology are experiencing a rapidly widening digital divide.
- A faster push for automation: Similarly, the shutdown has heightened a wave of automation impacting industries like manufacturing, retail and agriculture. The need to reduce operational costs, an inability to depend on the availability of physical staff, and the dangers associated with crowd transmission of the virus, mean that automation is a growing priority for many businesses.
- Collaboration is critical: We’re all in this together, and our safety and economic survival relies on working together to manage community safety and enhancing data sharing between the public and private sector. Canada’s Competition Bureau has even issued a statement supporting new collaboration between competitors when it comes to securing PPE, sharing facilities and joining together in buying groups for materials and supplies. Industry collaboration is also the key to widespread digital adoption, and we can expect to see more consortiums and organizations that help companies, vendors and financial services join forces.
“We saw 27 per cent growth in the number of tech jobs in Calgary in 2019 alone and COVID-19 has proved the importance of the digital economy.”
Mary Moran, CEO, Calgary Economic Development
Technology, in particular advanced digital innovations like blockchain and IoT, are the hidden levers that can propel all of Alberta’s important economic sectors through this crisis and into a successful future. From energy and agriculture to emerging areas like medical technologies, we have an opportunity for transformation that requires our province to fully embrace the changes we’re been hearing so much about now, for so many years through our extended oil downturn.
The key is that most of the changes that the COVID-19 crisis has made urgent are changes that were always going to be necessary for Alberta – and for Canada. Our country has been falling lower in international innovation rankings over the last few years. Due to our lagging industrial and governmental adoption of digital technology and lack of major home-grown tech firms, in 2019 Canada dropped out of the global top 20 nations for innovation.
What does this mean for Canada? It says we’re at a critical inflection point where we can choose to take a risk on the investing in a digital future that the rest of the world clearly sees is coming, or we can fall further behind in our innovation and economic growth. Programs like the Digital Supercluster, which was created to spur innovation in industry that the government predicts will add $5B to our GDP over the next decade, are a good start – but we need to make digital adoption a core value of every sector.
Digital tools have already shown their value in helping us keep business functioning during the pandemic, and the more manual processes a business or industry has, the harder they’ve been hit by the shutdown. As the foundation our economy is now built on, it’s not just our tech companies that benefit from more support for this sector – as the COVID-19 crisis has clearly demonstrated, every single industry, from oil & gas to healthcare, can be safer, more efficient and prosperous if Canada aligns our New Normal with a digital future.