Calgary

OPINION | Calgary can become a cleantech capital within a decade. Here's how

Imagine in 2020, in the midst of both a pandemic and oil-price crash, that Calgary made a big bet — a bet that its future would honour its past, leverage its strengths and overcome its challenges.

We must secure our future by implementing specific and actionable ideas now

Calgary is already a leader in clean technology, due to large and successful research investments by the energy industry and government. Let’s become a cleantech capital. (Robson Fletcher/CBC)

This column is an opinion from Jeremy Barretto, a Calgary-based environmental lawyer.

Imagine Calgary a decade from now, thriving, with near-zero office vacancy, full employment, and robust public finances.

Top students are flocking to the city from other provinces and our young people are staying or returning home. Green energy companies are multiplying and thriving. Now ask yourself: How did we get there?

This future may seem like a long way from where we are. The triple whammy of the prolonged economic downturn, the crash in oil prices and COVID-19 have resulted in serious pain for the Alberta economy.

Premier Jason Kenney has spoken about Alberta providing the "last barrel" of oil as the world's most responsible producer at the end of the ongoing and decades-long energy transition. But what will we do next?

We must secure our future by implementing specific and actionable ideas now. Here is mine.

The idea

Imagine in 2020, in the midst of both a pandemic and oil-price crash, that Calgary made a big bet — a bet that its future would honour its past, leverage its strengths and overcome its challenges.

We launched a competition and invited the world's best universities to set up a leading clean technology research institute in Calgary.

I'll describe what this future could look like.

The competition was backed by a sizeable investment — equally contributed by the federal government, the provincial government and a joint industry-municipal funding effort. Bids poured in from universities across the country and around the world, including Alberta's own universities. 

A joint bid from MIT and SAIT won the competition in 2021. The institute transformed the empty but iconic 37-story former Nexen office tower downtown into a modern research hub, connected to the LRT, bike lanes and surrounded by a new urban park. 

The institute had the ethos of Silicon Valley, with open floor plans, labs open 24/7, but with panoramic mountain views. The school immediately created hundreds of jobs for its staff, which were mostly local, and dozens of new faculty, who came from the best schools around the world. 

Entrepreneurial and cleantech-focused graduate students and faculty flocked to the institute. They tapped into Alberta's expertise in providing energy to the world. The graduates went on to start companies to commercialize technology.

Hundreds of new companies were established by 2030, including a couple that went on to become global corporations, headquartered in Calgary. Our local energy companies absorbed some of the talent coming out of the institute and prospered, developing new profit centres and more efficient processes. 

Calgary learned from the growing pains of other tech hubs and ensured that the prosperity was shared with the community, with Calgary nearly eliminating homelessness and expanding all of its cultural institutions. 

This is a dream, but Calgarians can make it happen by 2030.

Learning from others

New York City did this over the past 10 years. In 2010, Mayor Michael Bloomberg launched the Applied Sciences NYC competition to establish a state-of-the-art engineering and applied sciences campus.

Cornell Tech, a graduate school on Roosevelt Island in New York City, opened in 2017. Calgary can make the same thing happen here. (The Associated Press)

Bloomberg wanted to attract entrepreneurial engineers to create tech companies. New York City provided the land and infrastructure upgrades, with a capital investment of approximately $100 million US to build the $2-billion campus.

In 2011, Bloomberg estimated that the new campus would generate up to 8,000 permanent jobs, hundreds of spinoff companies and more than $23 billion in economic activity over a period of 35 years.

New York City received bids from among the best technology universities around the word. Cornell Tech won the competition. 

Cornell Tech, and technology-focused schools, have been described by technology executives as a "virtuous cycle," whereby the schools attract faculty and invest in research, which both draw more students, attract companies and create more jobs. 

Learning from the past

There are already numerous energy companies headquartered in Calgary. Our oil and gas companies make large investments in cleantech. They would be natural supporters of an institute dedicated to the commercialization of such technology. 

The combination of public and private investments in research have led to new industries.

For example, investment by the U.S. military helped lead to the development of Silicon Valley. In Alberta, federal and provincial government investments helped spark the oilsands. A top-notch technical university and local talent helped Waterloo, Ont., bounce back after Blackberry shrank. A Cornell Tech-type investment could make Calgary a cleantech capital. 

Alberta needs pipelines — both export pipelines for our natural resources and talent pipelines for our future workers and entrepreneurs.

Recent investments in pipelines and well-liability programs are important. However, we must also invest in a conduit to our future economy. And any such investment must start with our present strengths and include a plan for ensuring Calgary's prosperity.

General platitudes about diversification or the tech sector will not address our challenges. 

Cleantech companies are essential as the world transitions to a low carbon economy. Calgary is already a leader in clean technology, due to large and successful research investments by the energy industry and government.

Let's become a cleantech capital and help ensure our economic security for generations to come.


This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Jeremy Barretto is a Calgary-based environmental lawyer and a partner at Cassels. He is a member of the City of Calgary’s Economic Resiliency Task Force.

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