Pincher Creek 'maker space' encourages innovation at social level in divided community

James Van Leeuwen and his comrades have created a space for teens to come and learn coding, robotics and other skills not taught in schools. Their hope is to create an innovative drive at a grassroots level, but progress is slow in small-town Alberta.

Co-founder says tech aspirations need to be supported the same way hockey players are

Matthias Eden programs a humanoid robot made by the Calgary-based company called EZ-Robot during the Coder Rodeo in August. (James Van Leeuwen)

Some entrepreneurs in Pincher Creek, Alta. have their sights set on creating innovation in their community, the only thing they believe will keep their town and region viable as the economy in southern Alberta continues to change. 

Regional Centres for Arts, Design and Entrepreneurship (RCADE), opened its space in early February and as it currently exists, it is a small room in the basement of the local art gallery and gift shop.

Elementary school groups use the space part time as a craft room, but RCADE also uses it as a place where teens can come and learn how to code, use robotics, pursue computer or game programming, as well as a variety of other technology-based interests.

"It's a creative space. The purpose is basically to duplicate, for creative and technical talent, the role that an arena plays for athletic talent," co-founder James Van Leeuwen said. 

The minds behind RCADE – all of whom are working as volunteers – say this is just the beginning. Their vision for the space and the RCADE program is much bigger than this "maker space" alone. 

Dangers of a 'siloed' small town

The Waterton Gas Complex, operated by Shell, has been a job and wealth generator for Pincher Creek for half a century, but the plant is set to reduce production over the next few years, and the company estimates it will close completely within the next decade, by the early 2030s at the absolute latest. 

The closure of the plant will create a demand for new jobs in new industries. In response to similar scenarios across the province and country, the call for innovation and diversification has gone out, and rural areas in Alberta are in need more than anywhere else, Van Leeuwen says.

"Generally, people are going to say economic innovation, that we need to create new jobs and new businesses to replace the jobs and industries that have been steadily declining," he said.

"We can't just turn to the government and say 'you have to fix this problem for us.' It really has to come from the grassroots up. Under that economic innovation challenge, there's a social innovation challenge."

Van Leeuwen hopes to see RCADE be a catalyst for that innovation, but it's hard to change minds overnight. As he describes it, Pincher Creek is a town where people are used to creating wealth with their hands, physical labour. It's difficult for people to accept that new opportunities might exist in their children's intellect alone.

"Starting anything new is a challenge," said fellow co-founder Dan Crawford. "If they don't understand, they don't want to help."

Another factor in Pincher Creek that Van Leeuwen has seen replicated in other communities – people and groups have become 'siloed' and they're hesitant to work together to meet current economic challenges. 
Elijah Schuler took part in the Coder Rodeo last summer. Youth engaged in RCADE range in age from 12 to 17. (James Van Leeuwen)

"There's been a growing fragmentation across any number of different lines. Ethnic, religious lines, economic fragmentation as well. There are things that keep groups apart. People come together in a crisis, but what really matters now – in any community – is what we're doing when there isn't a crisis. How effectively can you collaborate?"

The goal is to have youth be able to imagine and create new ways to stay and live in the community as they grow up, without it there is no future for the town, he said. 

New 'frontiers of opportunity'

In the hopes of rising to that challenge, RCADE's raison d'être is to introduce youth to new job opportunities that they may have never heard of.

"Our schools aren't in the position to offer all of the career and technology instruction that you would get in the big city like Lethbridge or Calgary," said John Taylor with the Livingstone Range School Division. 

"RCADE is able to hook up the community of people that have the same passions and interests, with the young people so they have somewhere to go."

Individuals from the community have started to come forward to offer their expertise, including a local journalist as well as a local coder who works internationally as a freelancer to develop firmware. 

"To be able to bring kids in the community together with someone who has that kind of experience and that kind of story; local guy, grew up here, still works here by way of the Internet," Van Leeuwen said. 

"It's making it real and it's helping the kids to develop an appreciation for what those frontiers of opportunity actually look like."

The substantial costs for the RCADE was purchasing the robots and laptops for the teens to use in the space. (James Van Leeuwen)

No clear way forward

RCADE is meant to develop into a self-sustaining ecosytem, where interest drives demand for new technology and services in the community, such as broadband Internet.

RCADE is already branching out into FIRST Lego League robotics competitions, educational collaborations with the local high school called experiential learning weeks, as well as a tech event pegged to the local rodeo called Coder Rodeo. 

All of this has been done on a very tight budget. RCADE has only received $10,000 in funding so far from the Alberta Real Estate Foundation, but that money has all but dried up since they received the money in 2015. There have also been contributions made from parents and some of the entrepreneurs involved in getting RCADE off the ground.

In the meantime, Van Leeuwen is busy writing grant applications for further funding, hoping to see what is next for RCADE. 

About the Author

Sarah Lawrynuik is a freelance journalist based in Calgary. Sarah has worked for CBC in Halifax, Winnipeg and Calgary before deciding to travel as a freelancer, reporting from different corners of the world including France, Hungary and Iraq.