Could data be the new oil in Calgary?

The lofty days of $100-a-barrel oil are a distant memory, and thousands of skilled people are out of work in Calgary. The city thinks it can engineer a rebound by transforming Canada's energy capital into a high-tech hub.

City hopes to rebound by transforming from Canada's energy capital into a high-tech hub

A worker retrieves goods from shelves at Amazon's warehouse Hemel Hempstead, England. The tech giant is scouting locations for its second North American HQ, and Calgary is hoping to be it. (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

Originally published October 19.

The gleaming downtown Calgary office tower where Scott Hutcheson works has a basketball court on the 30th floor. It also has an indoor dog park and a craft beer sampling lounge.

None of those things were here just a few years ago, when the building was known as Encana Place and was home to Canada's largest natural gas company. But times have changed: the lofty days of $100-a-barrel oil are a distant memory, and thousands of skilled people are out of work in Calgary.

The city thinks it can engineer a rebound by transforming Canada's energy capital into a high-tech hub. And the owner of the Edison building, as it's now called, is trying to attract those tenants to the city's core.

"We were targeting what we were thinking was the future..." says Hutcheson, of Aspen Properties, in between shooting hoops in his blazer and brogues.

Scott Hutcheson, of Aspen Properties, shoots a basket on the 30th floor of his company's newly renovated Edison building, which is trying to attract tech company tenants to downtown Calgary. (Erin Collins/CBC)

So far so good, Silicon Valley firm, RocketSpace, will be moving in next year. The tech accelerator was recruited by Calgary Economic Development as part of a concerted push to woo more tech firms to the city.

Earlier this year the agency sent a task force to California as part of that effort, and it also put together a team to support the city's efforts to bid for Amazon's new, second headquarters. Amazon closes the bidding process Thursday.

Old and new work together

Hutcheson believes his city is well placed to land the Amazon deal.

"I think Calgary has a very good opportunity, and it is a once-in-a-generation kind of an opportunity," he says.

Calgary isn't the only Canadian city vying for Amazon's new HQ, and its chances are slim at best.

But just taking the shot may be what matters if Calgary is going to turn its fortunes around. 

There's even help from a more traditional segment of the economy.

Cenovus Energy is lending its newly renovated space at the former Chamber of Commerce building to Rainforest Alberta, a group that aims to improve the "innovation ecosystem" in Alberta.

"This is about the best of what makes Alberta, which is a great energy superpower, with the best of the new economy — and we are bringing those together," says Jim Gibson, who heads up the meeting of the Calgary chapter every Wednesday.

Cenovus hopes some tech startups born here could help the oil company innovate down the road.

'Calgary will bounce back'

One of the initiatives to come out of the weekly meetings is Pivot Tech, a conference designed to help laid-off oil and gas workers find new careers in the tech sector.

Calgary Economic Development says there are at least 5,000 unemployed engineers in Calgary, and scores of geologists, sales people and other professionals looking for work. 

A thousand of them snapped up the tickets to Pivot Tech, including Diana Wong-Doolan, who lost her job in the energy sector two years ago. She's hopeful that a tech job could be in the cards for her. 

"I am a bit of an optimist and I believe that Calgary will bounce back, but I think it won't look the same."

It is a transition that some Calgarians have already made.

Mike Morley, who founded Menome Technologies after losing his energy sector job, believes mining data could one day replace drilling for oil in Calgary's economy. (Erin Collins/CBC)

Mike Morley says it was scary when he lost his energy sector job during the downturn, but now the data mining company he started, Menome Technology, is taking off.

Morley believes mining data could one day replace drilling for oil in Calgary.

"Data is very much the driver of a new economy, so it has the same characteristics around being able to provide highly skilled people excellent jobs," Morley says. 

It's precisely because there are so many highly educated, tech-savvy people looking for work in Calgary that makes it perfect for a tech hub, Morley says.

The signature glass spheres of the Amazon corporate headquarters in Seattle while under construction in June. (David Ryder/Getty Images)

Mike Morrison, who founded Calgary's SocialWest, one of the country's largest social media and digital marketing conferences, agrees that the city's workforce is its biggest asset in the drive to grow its tech sector.

"We have an excited workforce, we have people who love this city and want to stay in this city and are willing to fight for this city — and I think the bigger tech companies are going to see that and love that."

5% employed in tech sector today

Of course, not everyone is as bullish on the city's tech future. For many, Calgary will always be an oil and gas town.

But University of Calgary economist Trevor Tombe says that hasn't been the case for a while now.

Tombe says that just six per cent of Alberta's workforce is directly employed by the mining, forestry and oil and gas sectors combined, while it is estimated that nearly five per cent of workers are employed by the province's existing tech sector.

"When you look at jobs and where workers are employed, in which sectors, we are extremely diverse," Tombe says. "Calgary is the second most diverse city in the country, and Alberta is the most diverse province," Tombe says.

Tech may very well play a key role in Calgary's future, but Tombe warns that the city has to be careful about offering incentives to attract the likes of Amazon.

"The subsidy itself shifts investment, and it shifts workers from other areas in Alberta," he says, which could just end up hurting other areas of the economy.

Still, with vacancy rates in the office towers of downtown Calgary hovering near 30 per cent and the price of oil stubbornly stuck around $50 per barrel, there is a sense that something — anything — has to be done to re-energize the city.


Erin Collins

Senior reporter

Erin Collins is an award-winning senior reporter with CBC National News based in Calgary.


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