OPINION | The signs of a long-term recovery are taking hold in Calgary

·6 min read

This column is an opinion from Mary Moran, the president and chief executive officer of Calgary Economic Development.

After this year of public health emergencies and economic hardship, and the likelihood of a bumpy road ahead, it can be hard to see the emergence of signs of a long-term recovery taking hold in Calgary.

But the signs are there. They may just be eclipsed by our immediate challenges and the one-step-forward, one-step-back reality of life in a global pandemic.

From my vantage point, working with many enterprising Calgarians every day, I'm reminded often that this city remains opportunity rich.

It's evident in the string of recent billion-dollar deals across diverse sectors. It's there in the record level of venture capital coming into Calgary to fund innovative companies. It's also clear in the growing strength of our post-secondary institutions as incubators of game-changing ideas and the next generation of bright minds to lead our city.

Problem solvers

In a world facing unprecedented challenges, Calgarians have a history of being problem solvers. I'm confident we will play a significant part in solving today's biggest global challenges — cleaner energy, safe and secure food, improved transportation of people and goods and better health solutions.

That doesn't mean our path forward will be easy, short, or even straight forward. Our challenges were large and complex before COVID-19. Now, they're even greater.

Most troubling to me is our city's double-digit unemployment. Economic development is about people, and it is a tragedy that so many talented people are sidelined when the city and country would benefit so much from what they can offer.

We all must adapt to the new economic reality.

We are fortunate to have a roadmap for our future in an economic strategy created by Calgarians titled Calgary in the New Economy. With the restructuring of the energy sector that began a half a decade ago, we started down the path of transformation ahead of other cities.

COVID accelerating the transformation

Advanced technology is transforming all industries like never before and it's been accelerated by COVID-19.

Digital transformation is having a profound impact on all aspects of the economy as companies and industries must become more predictive, more productive and more competitive. A study Calgary Economic Development released last year revealed Calgary companies will lead the $18.4 billion in spending on digital transformation in Alberta by the end of 2022.

Technology is the key differentiator in business these days. However, it requires people.

It is why developing, transitioning and recruiting key talent — starting with Calgarians — is a top priority for Calgary Economic Development.

Talent is one of the pillars of Calgary in the New Economy because our ability to attract investment and pursue business opportunities hinges on building out our talent pipeline. There was a 27 per cent increase in tech jobs filled in Calgary last year and still more than 2,000 tech positions currently open.

We need to recruit specific talent for companies to execute business plans, yet we know Calgarians remain the best option to meet that demand.

Richard White
Richard White

Business leader and philanthropist David Bissett recognized that when he gave $30 million to SAIT for a School for Advanced Digital Technology in 2018. In September, the Opportunity Calgary Investment Fund boosted his donation by funding SAIT's Digital Talent Hub to extend tech training opportunities to more Calgarians.

There's been a 65 per cent increase in tech training spaces at Calgary post-secondary institutions since 2018. We have a STEM-skills oriented workforce so it's not too difficult to transition to tech for many people, and to support them there's been an increase in micro-credentialing courses available through the post-secondaries and programs like EDGEUP, EvolveU, Lighthouse Labs and NPower Canada.

Calgarians want to be disruptors in the new economy — not the disrupted.

And the world is starting to take notice.

While some will tell you cool neighbourhoods and hip coffee shops attract talent and capital, the reality is that smart capital follows smart people with good ideas.

Four Calgary companies have been involved in $1 billion-plus deals in 22 months. The latest was Benevity — a global leader in corporate purpose cloud software for organizations that include Nike, Coca-Cola and Apple. The other "unicorns" are fintech company Solium Capital, Parvus Therapeutics in health, and data analytics firm RS Energy Group.

Record volumes of capital

It's not surprising then we've had record volumes of venture capital this year even while dealing with the challenges of COVID-19.

Calgary attracted $286 million in 27 vencap investments in the first nine months of 2020 while Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto saw declines. Scaling companies like Symend, Exro Technologies, Attabotics, Neo Financial and many others have been leading the charge in attracting capital and creating jobs for Calgarians.

The impact of the capital and innovative thinking is showing up in dozens of incubators and accelerators — including CDL Rockies, Zone Startups, Hunter Hub, Harvest Builders, Platform Calgary — now supporting local entrepreneurs.

Calgary has the second highest number of corporate heads offices in Canada and they are critical to our economy, but we know many of these companies won't be the mega job creators they once were. And tech jobs alone won't fill our office towers.

The heart and vibrancy of the downtown is a key focus for all cities. The downtown location for SAIT's DX Talent Hub is important to add to the vibrancy but we need to find a path forward with more office-to-residential conversions and pursue creative ideas like vertical farming or micro distribution centres, right in downtown.

Our approach of embracing technology and building upon our existing industries is how resilient cities like Denver, Houston, Austin, Pittsburgh and Dublin have rebuilt their economies.

Our cleantech sector is a Top 15 ecosystem globally as companies work to achieve net zero energy. We have companies doing remarkable things with artificial intelligence and machine learning, augmented and virtual reality, robotics and autonomous systems.

This game-changing work is happening in energy, agribusiness, aerospace and logistics, life sciences and other emerging sectors. It's vital that we have an environment that allows local companies to thrive while we attract new companies.

Those companies with new opportunities have something in common.They all need people. Tech talent in particular. Calgary has one of the youngest, most culturally diverse and highly educated populations in Canada, and we need to find more ways to enable that talent.

Our people are the differentiator that will get us ahead of the curve on the digital economy.

Challenges can be overcome

Yes, we have challenges. The pandemic, the recession and depressed oil and gas prices have taken a toll on Calgary.

We will need all orders of government to work together — and work with business — to succeed. But there's no denying, we remain well positioned to evolve and grow.

We have an enviable lifestyle. We have low corporate taxes. We have an abundance of affordable office space. And most importantly, we have smart people.

Calgary has always been an entrepreneurial city and entrepreneurs thrive on challenges. It is why I'm confident our future will be what we choose to make it.

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