Roundtable Two Summary: June 24th

As we continue engaging Edmontonians about our city’s economic future, we are spending several weeks discussing the drivers we need in place, and the barriers we need to address, in order to bring about a prosperous and resilient economy.

You can read what people have been saying since we kicked-off our engagement activities and started deeper conversations about what can and should be done.

Last week we again had the opportunity to speak with new groups of Edmontonians and solicit their thoughts. These groups featured individuals representing the education sector, cultural institutions, charities, and a variety of industries including construction, real estate, manufacturing, transportation, financial services and engineering.

In what’s become our custom, we asked participants to describe what a prosperous and resilient economy should look like. They identified several key attributes, namely:

  • Diverse – with lots of different industries beyond our traditional staples such as oil and gas and agriculture, to make the economy less volatile;
  • Sustainable – developed in ways that enable Edmontonians to enjoy prosperity while also maintaining the health of our natural environment;
  • Inclusive – where there is room for everyone to participate and enables people with different levels of education and different backgrounds to be involved;
  • Connected to global markets – because the domestic market is just too small, and we need lots of different customers in lots of different places to be resilient;
  • Export-oriented – having an economy heavily tilted toward exports enables us to bring in new wealth from elsewhere, which is critical for long term prosperity;
  • Stable – and, as we heard about in detail during the session, being a place that is also perceived to be stable by external audiences;
  • Educated – with a strong education system that promotes and facilitates lifelong learning and churns out plenty of skilled talent;
  • Supported by infrastructure – such that goods and people can flow fast and freely within the region and onward to access other domestic and international markets;
  • Creative and innovative – where ideas are enabling the development of new approaches, processes and services that are marketable;
  • Technological – with a strong ecosystem that enables the development, scaling up and adoption of technological solutions.

Perhaps not surprisingly, many of these attributes are consistent with what we’ve heard from participants in previous engagement meetings. Certain characteristics – such as economic diversity, inclusiveness, educated and globally-connected – are emerging to be top-of-mind for many Edmontonians.

Hot on the heels of describing their ideal economy, participants were asked to share their thoughts about the drivers behind such an economy. In other words, what are the fundamental ingredients that need to be in place to bring about the kind of economy that they described? A series of five major types of drivers emerged from these discussions:

  • A growth-friendly policy climate. People talked about the many specific elements of such a climate, such as a tax regime that attracts investment, policies that encourage competitiveness, and pro-growth fiscal policies. They also emphasized the importance of a sensible and stable regulatory regime. Stability is critical so that businesses have the ability to plan ahead and can have confidence investing in the city. In terms of sensibility, people recognize that regulations are needed to protect consumers and the environment, but feel this should be done in smart and nimble ways that allow for innovation.
  • Infrastructure that supports prosperity. Participants said that to have a prosperous economy, Edmonton needs to have physical infrastructure that enables the free and fast movement of goods and people. Top of mind here was transportation infrastructure, including free-flowing streets and highways. People said our city needs to future-proof itself by building not for today’s level of activity, but for a higher level of activity in the years to come. With opportunities in logistics and distribution, our city needs to get serious about enabling freight movement and efficient vehicle traffic.
  • Favourable inputs. Any economy needs inputs to grow and prosper. Two in particular that came up are energy costs, which participants think should be kept as low as possible, and skilled talent. In this context, people said companies need easy access to a broad pool of skilled talent.
  • Quality of life. When deciding where to invest and locate their businesses, owners will consider quality of life factors. These not only stand to impact their own families, but also their ability to recruit and retain employees. Consequently, elements such as a well-funded education system, quality health care, a secure food supply, and an inclusive community are all important. There also needs to be a health non-profit sector, as these organizations are overwhelmingly responsible for aspects of community such as arts and culture, sports and recreation, and social services.
  • Skilled talent. A high-quality K-12 education system and a well-funded post-secondary education system are both seen as critical to generating the steady stream of young minds that Edmonton needs to be resilient and prosperous. People said that our education sector must support lifelong learning and have the capacity to empower students with critical thinking skills, problem solving skills, creativity and an entrepreneurial mindset. At the same time, participants suggested our city should be working hard to attract some “big fish” in the form of company headquarters with experienced business leaders. This would give our talent ecosystem a larger pool of seasoned talent who can serve as thought leaders, aspirational examples and mentors.
  • A compelling and positive reputation on the world stage. Edmonton needs to be known internationally. Some of this will come organically as the city evolves and grows. However, there is also a need to be proactive and energetic in promoting ourselves, lest we be left in the shadow of other Canadian cities. Our city needs to enhance international awareness of Edmonton, its investment opportunities and its unique advantages. Strong relationships need to be in place with global leaders.

As a complementary exercise, we also asked participants to identify any existing barriers that will prevent our city from developing a prosperous and resilient economy. Interestingly, many of the barriers they described could be considered ‘flipsides’ to the drivers they identified.

Here are the major barriers that emerged from the conversation:

  • Inefficiencies in governments’ approaches. Government policies, actions and decision-making approaches will need to change in order to make resilience and prosperity possible. Participants said the current City administration is too often averse to creative thinking when it comes to development and tends to create layers of red tape, making it difficult for businesses to do things easily. People also pointed to decisions taken by other governments during the economic downturn as being counter to the goals of economic prosperity and resilience. (For example, changing employment laws, increasing costs on businesses and non-profits, and expanding the size of the public sector relative to the overall economy.) For Edmonton to have its ideal economy, they argued, governments will need to shift their approaches to pro-growth and pro-development.
     
  • Small population. It was pointed out that Edmonton’s relatively small population is a limiting factor. A much larger population would help make a lot of other things possible, including: the size of the available talent pool, the number of ideas that emerge, and the level of potential collaborations and collisions.
     
  • Few natural advantages. Being honest about what and where we are as a city will be important for success. People noted that Edmonton has few natural advantages. It is landlocked. It is not exceptionally close to the mountains (unlike to Vancouver or Calgary). It does not enjoy a picturesque ocean view. Its climate is not one that most people on Earth would consider particularly enjoyable. While it has plenty of arable land, the growing season is quite short, relatively speaking. Its main natural advantage is its proximity to non-renewal energy resources (oil, gas and coal) – the very things that we seem to want to diversify away from. Some participants noted this presents somewhat of an existential challenge for Edmonton when it comes to evolving our economy. With few natural advantages to exploit, our city will need to be extremely strategic in creating advantages.
     
  • A generally comfortable existence. People noted that our first-world lifestyle and decent quality of life are barriers, in that they undermine the collective ambition of the region. There is a sense that Edmontonians are content with keeping things the way they are, so long as most of us remain relatively comfortable. Since we are not struggling to survive, it is easier to avoid risks and look skeptically on big moves. This dynamic may make it more challenging for residents, organizations and governments to take steps to adapt and change, even though doing so is absolutely necessary to avoid a gradual but inevitable decline in our prosperity and quality of life.
     
  • Insufficient data. In too many cases, participants said, we do not have data to inform decision making. Many decisions by organizations and governments continue to be based on ideology or conjecture, rather than empirical or qualitative data. People noted that stakeholders have felt disengaged from the provincial and federal governments over the past few years; they would welcome broader public engagement opportunities to share their thoughts and knowledge and help governments make better decisions. Individuals and organizations are also wondering to what extent the City or others have undertaken data analysis and benchmarking to fully understand where Edmonton sits relative to others and what actions are crucial for bringing about a prosperous and resilient economy.
     
  • Timidity and humility. Other cities seem to have done a better job of shaking off classic Canadian humility and ‘tooting their own horns’ about their opportunities. Whether it has come from self-satisfaction, an inferiority complex, or something else, Edmonton has not been great at promoting itself on the international stage.  Participants argued that our city needs to become much more aggressive in marketing its advantages and its potential – even in no-holds-barred competition with other Canadian cities that will not hesitate to outflank us for jobs, wealth and opportunities. This will require us shaking off the timidity, humility, niceness, or whatever else has been holding us back to this point.

As you can see, our conversations about Edmonton’s economic future are getting meatier. More and more people are chiming with thoughts and advice about what our economy should look like, and what it will take to get us there.

We encourage you to contribute your thoughts – openly and frankly.