Roundtable Four Summary: July 15th

Towards the end of July, we continued our conversation about Edmonton’s future economy with more representatives from our city’s private and non-profit sectors. This built upon the informative discussions we’ve been having throughout the summer. (To catch up, you can read about what people told us when our process kicked off with a summit in late May, and what they’ve said since at our workshops in mid June, late June, and early July.

Once again, the participants at our latest workshop were very forthright about they feel Edmonton’s economy can and should evolve. And they had some pointed advice regarding both the drivers our city needs in place to have a prosperous and resilient economy and the barriers that need to be addressed if we hope to achieve any kind of economic vision.

Describing an Ideal Economic Future

When asked to describe how Edmonton’s economy should look in 2050, participants echoed many of the same attributes that were offered by attendees at previous sessions. Interestingly, the concepts of diversity, inclusiveness, pride, and growth were all front-and-centre once again.

Participants said that a prosperous and resilient economy in Edmonton should feature the following characteristics:

  • Equal opportunity for all. For many people, the desire for inclusiveness is bound up with the goal of economic diversification. By having an economy with lots of different sectors generating lots of different opportunities, there will be much higher prospects that all Edmontonians will be able to participate in the economy to the extent they wish. This vision for economic participation allows for the inclusion of people of many different backgrounds, attainments, abilities and circumstances.
  • Regional collaboration. As the population of the area grows, it will be even more important for Edmonton to work collaboratively with other municipalities in the metropolitan region. Our city should be partnering with surrounding communities in ways that enable each municipality to leverage its strengths and assets in complementary fashion, so that the entire metro area is realizing success.
  • An innovation-friendly ecosystem. With technology expected to play an increasingly core role in the economy, Edmonton will need to be a place that’s attractive to innovators. To many people this means offering an ecosystem that encourages home-grown innovators to pursue their creativity here and attracts some “big fish” from elsewhere that can help our city retain critical innovation mass.
  • Affordable, in all respects. Organizations are cost-conscious, whether that stems from a desire to remain competitive or from limitations on available funding. Edmonton’s ideal economy should therefore feature affordability. Key inputs such as utilities, office space and taxes should be low-cost or cost-effective, such that it makes financial sense to operate out of Edmonton. Affordability is also crucial when it comes to costs of living, especially housing, so that our city is a place that can attract and retain workers.
  • Growth oriented. There needs to be respect for the fact that each owner has their own unique goals for their business; while some aspire to expand, others are content to run a successful but limited operation. That being said, Edmonton’s economy cannot be sustained by an endless number of “mom and pop” businesses. To be prosperous and resilient, our economy will need to be more growth-oriented than it is today, with a higher number of businesses in each sector working to be global exporters.
  • Flush with capital. Edmonton’s future economy must have far better access to capital than it has today. This capital should be available from a combination of different sources, including direct foreign investment, venture capital funds and local investors. Ideally, Edmonton’s financial services industry would expand in size such that our city is home to more funds under management and more headquarters of financial services firms. This would lead to a growing pool of local capital managed by people who are knowledgeable about Edmonton’s opportunities and have a stake in the city’s success.
  • Well-known globally. Investors across the world should have a broader view of Canada than simply ‘Toronto and Vancouver’. With the right efforts to build our international reputation, Edmonton could be one of the other Canadian cities that is top-of-mind to international audiences. This requires that we identify our unique value propositions (such as being the most youthful city in Canada), backing up those propositions with meaningful action, and marketing our city aggressively and with pride.

Identifying the Necessary Drivers

In discussing the drivers that Edmonton requires for a prosperous and resilient economy, participants again echoed many of the views offered at previous workshops. Investment, human resources and government policies were among the issues that were frequently raised.

Participants said that the following ingredients need to be in place to bring about our city’s desired future economy:

  • Steady stream of incoming investment. People noted that Edmonton (and Alberta) have enjoyed prosperity when there is a steady level of investment flowing into the city (and province). Recognizing this, Edmonton needs to do what it can to maintain a business climate that successfully attracts outside investment.
  • Infrastructure that enables market access and supply chain efficiency. Goods and people need to move efficiently in order for Edmonton businesses to have competitive supply chains and access markets. Connections within the Edmonton Metro Region, (notably roads and highways) need to be more free-flowing, while connections between Edmonton and the rest of the world need to be enhanced (such as improved rail corridors and more direct international flights).
  • The ability to retain top talent. Edmonton’s post-secondary institutions need to be producing a range of graduates who have the skills needed for today’s and tomorrow’s jobs. Ideally, companies can source all of their skilled talent locally. This requires good collaboration between industry and post-secondary institutions (e.g., dialogue about what the economy needs) and, at the same time, companies in Edmonton creating more opportunities so that graduates do not have to leave the city in order to pursue careers.
  • Established companies and industries that fuel a middle class. People recognize the importance and economic potential of technology in Edmonton (such as potential for greater leadership on artificial intelligence). At the same time, people recognize this could inadvertently lead to a huge gulf between rich and poor, with a small cluster of technology mavens among the rich, and everyone else being unemployed or under-employed. To avoid this, Edmonton needs to continue building and fuelling a middle class. This means maintaining a commitment to established industries (such as construction, oil and gas, manufacturing, agriculture, etc.) and being more aggressive in attracting head offices to the city, which generate lots of different kinds of opportunities and spin-off economic effects. There is a sense that our city has willingly ceded too much ground to Calgary when it comes building a strong base of “brains of corporations” in the form of head office attraction.
  • Specialized industries that carve out a niche. Edmonton also needs to identify and grow its niche businesses and industries that differentiate our city and economy from others. This could be in areas that have strong potential (such as artificial intelligence), or burgeoning clusters of activity (such as the cannabis industry), or unique skills due to our experience and geography (such as cold weather construction). Importantly, action needs to be taken soon to take advantage of these identifiable niches, before they leave the city for somewhere else.
  • Policies that support growth and development. Policies and processes in the City of Edmonton must be aligned with the economy vision. For example, if Edmonton is to have a growth-oriented economy, then there must be speedier and smoother approvals of developments. There should also be policies that enable innovation and allow businesses and organizations to try lots of different approaches to meet an expectation rather than rigidly prescribing how things much be done.
  • A community that offers high quality of life. There is also an “x factor” in Edmonton that is cultural in nature. Some individuals come to Edmonton intending it to be a temporary phase of their career, but end up staying forever because they fall in love with the city. This is likely because of ‘quality of life’ elements such as a clean environment, excellent access to high quality education and health services, liveability, excellent parks and public spaces, and a strong festival culture. These elements can set Edmonton apart from other places and, in so doing, support the development of an economy that is prosperous and resilient.

Talking About Barriers

When asked about issues or challenges that stand in the way of evolving Edmonton’s economy, participants focused on a few. While others undoubtedly exist, they explained, these issues are the most serious and, thus, most urgent to address. The following barriers were identified by participants:

  • Complex regulatory frameworks. There is a sense among private and non-profit organizations that regulatory frameworks have grown too complex and, consequently, increasingly costly. While participants agreed that strict regulation is needed to protect the environment, consumers, and public health and safety, the approach to date has caused more processes and rules to be layered on top of one another. The better approach, people argue, is to have smart regulations that are more outcome-based, allow for creativity and innovation and do not lead to duplication of administrative onerousness.
  • A lack of required talent. More home-grown skilled talent is required by Edmonton’s economy. However, people caution this does not simply mean more of the same graduates. Currently there is a misalignment between the skills of the graduates coming out of Edmonton’s post-secondary institutions and the skills required by local businesses and industries. This leads to disappointment all on all fronts: organizations cannot source skilled talent locally, and graduates cannot find local opportunities that match their skill sets and desired career paths. Better alignment needs to be brought about, with better dialogue between industry, government and post-secondary institutions.
  • A lack of differentiation. Most other cities are also interested in growing their economies and bringing prosperity to their residents. Those cities will likely be trying to develop similar drivers such as a growth-friendly climate, a pool of skilled talent, and access to capital. Against this backdrop, Edmonton suffers from a lack of differentiation for positive reasons. Our city is easily distinguishable on factors that are not always seen as positive, such as it’s relatively small population, its distance from markets, and its cold climate, all of which add to the structural costs of operating. Edmonton needs to identify, nurture and market positive points of differentiation that will set it apart from other cities.
  • Short-sighted planning. For many years, our city had an infrastructure deficit brought on partly by a lack of funding and a lack of will. People note that while Calgary has gone through booms and busts, it has developed efficient and extensive highway and transit networks, while Edmonton did not choose to do so. This kind of short-sighted planning needs to be thrown out, and city planners and administrators need to take a longer-term, growth-oriented view to planning and capital development. For example, when a major road and highway is built or rehabilitated, it should be expanded to accommodate larger capacity. When a bridge is constructed, it should be built for the next 50 years of traffic, not simply replaced for today’s needs. When transit lines are built, they should be developed in recognition of growing ridership and designed to co-exist with all other forms of transportation that will also grow.

This represented the final, formal stakeholder workshop during this phase of our conversation about Edmonton’s future economy. However, the conversation is continuing through other mechanisms. This includes a series of interviews with representatives in key sectors of the Edmonton economy, and an ongoing public dialogue through our online tool.

We encourage all Edmontonians to join this conversation here in the FutureYEG Community. Tell us what you think Edmonton’s economy should look like in 2050. What do you think are the crucial pieces of the puzzle that we need in place to achieve that vision? And what kinds of barriers and challenges do we need to bring down or address, in order to realize success?