Edmonton Global officially launches to attract investment to the Edmonton Metro Region

Last week Edmonton Global held a launch event outside its offices on the main floor of TELUS House.

“Edmonton Global’s goal is to attract investment and jobs to the Edmonton Metro Region by developing a regional brand, a regional database, and a strategic plan to ensure the Region takes its rightful place amongst ~300 comparable world communities.”

The event was emceed by Randy Boissonnault, MP for Edmonton Centre, who talked about the Edmonton region being a great place to work, live, and invest. The other speakers included Deron Bilous, Minister of Economic Development and Trade, Mayor Don Iveson, Edmonton Global Board Chair John Day, and Stantec’s Simon O’Byrne.

Edmonton Global Launch

Minister Deron Bilous said:

“With over 1.4 million people, Edmonton is one of the fastest growing metropolitan regions in Canada. We are proud to provide Edmonton Global $2.5 million to support projects that will attract new investment and create jobs.”

Mayor Don Iveson called Edmonton Global “a profound game changer” and said:

“This is the most important thing we need to do-pull the region together. But that would not be possible without all of you agreeing that that was what we needed to do.”

John Day said:

“We aren’t going to be successful unless we do it together. And that’s what this is all about… we have opportunities and challenges.”

Simon O’Byrne wrote following the event:

“I spoke to the audience about how places like Edmonton are ideally situated in a VUCA age (i.e. a time of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity). Markets seek certainty and stability. Edmonton is that place. It has, perhaps, the best public education system on the planet. It is a meritocracy where refugee children go to school with children that fly first class. That just doesn’t happen almost anywhere on Earth. Edmonton is one of the most inclusionary cities. 1/3 of us was born outside of Canada. Almost 40% of Edmonton are visible minorities. 1/3 of us can speak a language other than English or French. We have some of the best higher education institutions. We are also an affluent region, where ¼ households makes more than $100,000 a year. Almost 80% of households spend less than 30% of their income on housing, which is an enormous competitive advantage over many coastal cities. So why does this all matter? Because in a VUCA world, we are the model to follow. We are the safe, resilient and surest bet. We are the place you want to invest. To move to and raise a family. The place where the business climate is fertile for growth.”

I’ll give Edmonton Global itself the last word on the launch:

“A big thank you to everyone who came to our official launch event last night in Edmonton! If the attendance was any indication, there is huge support for the work we are doing to bring business here and position the Edmonton Metropolitan Region as a location of choice for global investment. We have so much to offer, including strong collaboration from regional leaders.”

A brief history of Edmonton Global

In September 2015, the mayors of nine municipalities in the region (Edmonton, Strathcona County, St. Albert, the City of Leduc, Fort Saskatchewan, Spruce Grove, Sturgeon County, Parkland County, and Leduc County) announced the Metro Mayors Alliance. Together, they represented 95% of the region’s population, 96% of its assessment base, and 80% of its land base. They contributed a total of $600,000 to conduct a study on how to make sure the Edmonton region is globally competitive. This was done at a time when the Capital Region Board (CRB), created in 2008, was still an unwieldy 24 members. It wasn’t until October 2017 that the CRB became the Edmonton Metropolitan Region Board (EMRB) and reduced its size to 13 members.

Mayors at MOU signing
Photo courtesy of the Metro Mayors Alliance

The Edmonton Metro Advisory Panel, the body formed to lead the study, released its report called Be Ready or Be Left Behind in June 2016. “We can’t just hunker down in our municipalities and milk the cows that we have,” said Don Lowry, who chaired the panel. The report warned that “as much as 87,700 additional hectares of agricultural land and 50,200 hectares of natural areas could be lost to uncooordinated development over the next 50 years” with the settlement footprint across the region growing to “as much as 273,900 hectares.” The report further warned that “taxpayers could be on the hook for an additional $8.2 billion to service that larger footprint with roads and other public infrastructure.”

The report made three cornerstone recommendations:

  1. Develop a collaborative, focused economic development strategy for the Edmonton Metro Region.
  2. Create a new inter-municipal mass transit entity in order to plan and deliver the smooth flow of people and goods between communities and across the region.
  3. Establish a mechanism with the capacity and authority to integrate and act on Metro Region land use plans and infrastructure development.

A few months earlier, in March 2016, the Capital Region Board had passed a motion to “incubate a formal regional economic development model, which would be independent of the CRB.” So when the Metro Advisory Panel’s report came out, there was a lot of overlap. The CRB pushed ahead with the new entity, adopting some aspects of the report along the way, and established an interim board of directors in February 2017, and followed that up with articles of association in April 2017. The City of Edmonton signed on to the entity the following month. Though all 24 members of the CRB were invited to join the new entity, just 15 signed on (the 13 members of what would become EMRB, plus Bon Accord and Gibbons).

The interim board phased out its work over the next month and the new organization was incorporated on June 9, 2017 as the “Edmonton Metropolitan Region Economic Development Company” now known as Edmonton Global, “the first fully regional economic development company for the Edmonton Metropolitan Region.” In September 2017, the inaugural Edmonton Global board of directors was announced, with John Day selected as board chair. They met for the first time a few days later and announced a target of July 1, 2018 to be fully operational.

In November 2017, Mayor Stuart Houston of Spruce Grove was named Chair of the Shareholders Group and Mayor Gale Katchur of Fort Saskatchewan was named Vice Chair. In April 2018, the organization announced that Malcolm Bruce would serve as CEO on a full-time basis starting July 1, 2018. He had been serving as interim CEO since the organization was formed, and was the CEO of the Edmonton Metropolitan Region Board since January 2015.

And that brings us to September 6, when the official launch event for Edmonton Global was held.

Edmonton Global Launch

What’s next?

In 2016, I wondered who was responsible for the Edmonton metro region. While there’s still a lot of overlap and jockeying for position going on, it seems that EMRB will be responsible for long-term planning while Edmonton Global will be responsible for economic development. In an interview in May 2018, Malcolm Bruce said “when we hunt as a pack on the world stage, we offer a far more compelling package to investors.” Still to come is that new regional transit authority.

Edmonton Global’s 2018-2023 Strategic Plan includes four priorities:

  1. Serve as a catalyst for investment and job attraction and retention for the Edmonton Metropolitan Region.
  2. Be the voice of the Edmonton Metropolitan Region’s economic development activities.
  3. Leverage partnerships to enhance Edmonton Global’s success.
  4. Organizational Excellence.

The organization started with a budget of $1 million 2017 which grew to $3 million this year and will expand further to $5 million in 2019. Over the next six months or so, Edmonton Global anticipates adding up to 20 staff.

The City of Edmonton contributed $330,000 to Edmonton Global in 2017, which came out of the Corporate Expenditures Management Initiatives budget. This year it contributed $668,000, which came out of the EEDC budget. Next year the City will contribute $1.346 million, but the funding source is yet to be determined. Each shareholder contributes funds based on a formula tied to its population and assessment base, which means the City of Edmonton is funding about 75% of the organization’s total budget.

The big question then is what this means for the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation (EEDC), which was responsible for nearly everything that Edmonton Global will now be tackling. A report to City Council last year promised “a broader reflection on role clarity relative to areas of investment by the City of Edmonton’s in economic development will be undertaken.” The City also said in November 2017 that “discussions are ongoing with the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation regarding the roles and responsibilities between the two organizations.”

That work is still ongoing. I asked EEDC CEO Derek Hudson about it last month just after he was named to the role. “I don’t see us stepping back in much of the work we do,” he told me. He pointed out that capacity-wise, there’s no comparison. EEDC has a budget of nearly $50 million and more than 200 employees, so it simply has a greater ability than Edmonton Global to get things done.

That said, he sees a need to work together, and told me the boards of the two organizations have a subcommittee to sort through it all. “One of the things that is critical is what’s the experience of someone coming from outside,” he said. “Ideally an investor from Asia gets a coherent experience from the time they first hear about the Edmonton metro region to when they participate in an investment,” no matter where in the region it is.

#yeg turns ten

Today marks the tenth anniversary of the #yeg hashtag on Twitter. Here is the first #yeg tweet:

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That’s probably the only time I have used #Edmonton! Ever since then, it has been nothing but #yeg. Here’s what I wrote about that tweet back in 2009:

“If I remember correctly, I found about the #yyc hashtag while I was in Calgary for BarCampCalgary2 on June 14th, 2008. I learned from @wintr that a few Calgarians had started using the hashtag to tweet about things related to their city. I thought it might be a good idea to do something similar here in Edmonton.”

Timing counts for a lot, and my Twitter story is no different. I was in the right place at the right time and joined Twitter early, on July 14, 2006. It was a fun and frustrating time (remember the fail whale) to be on Twitter. I convinced Sharon to join Twitter fairly early on, in October 2006. Her first tweet, fittingly, was about food. (Her second tweet the next day was an attempt to turn off Twitter, which at the time worked via text message).

Being one of the first people in the world on Twitter meant I was one of the few people to follow when others joined. It also probably meant I was just statistically more likely to be the one to post the first #yeg tweet, though looking back now it is kind of amazing to me that it took two years to do so. On the other hand, it wasn’t until August 2007 that Chris Messina suggested using the # symbol for groups on Twitter and posted the first hashtag in a tweet. Tagging was popular on the web already at that point but the word “hashtag” was new. Its use grew so much that it was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in June 2014.

EdmontonTweetup
That’s me speaking at the first EdmontonTweetup in May 2008

On the fifth anniversary of the #yeg hashtag in 2013 I wrote:

“People from other cities often comment on how connected and tight-knit the online community in Edmonton seems to be, and I think the #yeg hashtag is really at the heart of that. We’ve used it to make new friends, to share the news, to raise money for important charitable causes, and for thousands of other interesting and important reasons.”

It didn’t take long for Edmonton’s Twitter community to grow beyond simply #yeg. Now people use all kinds of tags that start with #yeg like the ever-popular #yegfood. It used to surprise me to see #yeg used in places outside Twitter. Now, for better or worse, it’s part of the social fabric of our city.

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Still, it wouldn’t be the hashtag (and community) it is today without all of the people that have worked to support and grow it over the years. Especially Brittney, Adam, Jerry, Tamara, Linda, and Kathleen, to name just a few.

Oh, and it’s pronounced y-egg not why-e-gee. 🙂

Here’s to the next ten years of #yeg!

Recognizing child friendly businesses in Edmonton

Child Friendly Edmonton, a Council Initiative sponsored by Councillor Bev Esslinger, launched the new Child Friendly Business Recognition Program today at City Hall. The program “aims to promote businesses that are intentionally welcoming to children and their families.”

Child Friendly Edmonton
Councillors Esslinger and Paquette spoke at today’s launch event

“We want to share this new program with the city and highlight the current successes of local businesses who have become more child-friendly,” said Councillor Esslinger in a news release. “With more than 20 per cent of the population being under 18, it’s very important that kids feel welcomed and included in their city.”

Based on input from Edmontonians, Child Friendly Edmonton identifies three keys to being a child friendly business:

  • Attitude “is the most important way to become child friendly. Patient, friendly and understanding service from staff who take the time to greet and welcome their younger customers is a major factor in how welcoming a business feels to children and their families. A smile is a great place to start.”
  • Amenities “are generally for the benefit of the adult(s) accompanying a child. Amenities are choices that businesses can make to improve the experience for adults with children. Some amenities like providing seating for children and washrooms that can be used by all genders to change diapers are considered ‘must- haves’ for child friendly businesses.”
  • Activities “help occupy children throughout their visit. Children that remain calm and content make their, as well as their adults’ experience at the business more enjoyable. Activities can be anything from providing a coloring sheet to creating an area specifically for children.”

Nine different child friendly businesses were showcased at the launch event today, but there are already more than 65 businesses that have been recognized under the program. I was thrilled to see that they are all listed in the Open Data Catalogue! There’s also a map view which shows they are nicely spread around the city.

Child Friendly Edmonton

If you know of a business that is child friendly, you can nominate them to the program online. If you have visited a child friendly business recently, there’s an online survey you can fill out to share your experience.

Child Friendly Edmonton’s vision is “a welcoming city for all young Edmontonians; children are listened to, respected, and valued for their thoughts and ideas.” The new program supports all four of Child Friendly Edmonton’s goals, as outlined in the Working Plan: engagement, accessible spaces, inclusive city, and “downtown demonstration project.”

That last one is to use downtown as “a demonstration site to explore and showcase an urban area which is welcoming and supportive to children and their families/caregivers.” Ian O’Donnell, executive director of the Downtown Business Association, spoke today about the DBA’s support for the program. “We want to improve the family-friendly nature of downtown and continue to work with our member businesses towards a downtown for everyone.”

Baby's first media event
Baby’s first media event

As a downtown resident with a new baby I’m obviously happy to see the push for child friendly spaces. But I know the outcome will benefit more than just families. Often the same considerations that make families feel more welcome apply to other demographics as well. This is well-illustrated in the similarities between strollers and wheelchairs, for instance.

You can learn more about Child Friendly Edmonton here and on social media using the #ChildFriendlyYEG hashtag.

Roundhouse coworking space is now open inside MacEwan University’s Allard Hall

MacEwan University’s new coworking space Roundhouse held its grand opening celebration this afternoon inside Allard Hall. In addition to facilitating collaboration among students, faculty, staff, and alumni, the space is open to the broader community of local entrepreneurs, volunteers, and other “changemakers”, as Roundhouse calls them. “We’re a coworking space that is focused on building a community of changemakers through innovation and entrepreneurship,” said Amor Provins, senior manager at Roundhouse. “Together with MacEwan University’s Social Innovation Institute, we’ll be working to empower people and make a positive impact in our world.”

Roundhouse Grand Opening

Special guests at today’s event included Marlin Schmidt, Minister of Advanced Education, who made everyone laugh with his train-related “Dad jokes”, thanking the organizers “for choo-choo-choosing him to open the space” and noting it “will lay tracks for the next generation.” Scott McKeen, City Councillor for Ward 6, and Elder Francis Whiskeyjack both brought remarks as well.

Attendees learned about the Roundhouse name and logo, both of which have significance. “When excavating the site for what is now Allard Hall (where we will be located), a train roundhouse was unearthed.” It serves as a metaphor for going in a new direction. The logo is a 13-sided shape called a triskaidecagon. “This number, that is so often perceived as unlucky, is also of significance in Indigenous cultures.” It is meant to represent Indigenous talking circles, because “at Roundhouse we believe a life-changing idea can come from anyone.”

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MacEwan University’s Social Innovation Institute “provides leadership and support towards fostering a culture of social innovation, engaging MacEwan students in initiatives and opportunities that have impact locally, regionally and globally.” Founding director Leo Wong said “as a downtown university, we focus on creating meaningful relationships with our neighbours to improve the economic and social vibrancy of our city, as well as being an environmental steward.”

Allard Hall

Roundhouse is located in the southeast corner of Allard Hall, the newest building MacEwan’s campus. It looks as you might expect a modern coworking space to look, with clean lines, bright accent colors, and plenty of natural light.

Roundhouse Grand Opening

Roundhouse offers a Community Membership for $40/month that includes access to the common areas and all of its perks, including WiFi, the kitchen, special rates on programs and events, and of course coffee & tea “to fuel the magic.” Programs include office hour consulting sessions, mentorship opportunities, and workshops to build new skills.

The space includes plenty of meeting rooms, from small spaces for 2-4 people, all the way up to large conference rooms that can accommodate 20 people. The rooms can be rented by the community, and members have access to them for a certain number of hours per month.

Roundhouse Grand Opening

Hot desks can be rented starting at $80/month and dedicated desks rent for $400/month.

Roundhouse Grand Opening

They also offer private offices starting at $700/month for up to 4 people.

Roundhouse Grand Opening

There is lots of flexible seating scattered around the space, including some giant bean bags that are waiting to be put into use!

Roundhouse Grand Opening

It’s a functional space, with a print room, kitchen, lots of power outlets, and all of the typical amenities you’d expect. But it’s also a fun space, with features like these pedal-powered charging stations!

Roundhouse Grand Opening

Learn more about Roundhouse here, and be sure to follow them on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Roundhouse is celebrating its Launch Week with a number of “thought-provoking speakers, workshops, and community events” so there are plenty of opportunities to check out the space.

You can see more photos from the grand opening here.

The way to get a recession in Edmonton

John Rose, Chief Economist at the City of Edmonton, started his presentation at the Edmonton Real Estate Forum earlier this month with a bit of humor. “There are two kinds of forecasts,” he told the packed room. “Lucky and wrong!” He finished it on a much more serious note, saying “the way to get a recession in Edmonton is to have the provincial government make cuts.”

Edmonton Real Estate Forum

The general message from Rose was that because Edmonton’s economy is more diversified than Calgary’s or the rest of Alberta, we have handled the downturn better than those locations. “Lethbridge might be the only other jurisdiction that is less reliant on energy than Edmonton,” he said. But, there are reasons to be less optimistic about future growth.

Our unemployment rate went up during the economic downturn “primarily because our labour force grew faster than we could generate jobs,” Rose said, pointing to the increase in migration from other regions that fared worse. It has since gone down to 6.6% but that’s not necessarily a good thing. “The unemployment rate in Edmonton has been going down for exactly the wrong reason,” Rose said. Over 11,000 people have left the labour force in the last 12 months. “Nearly all the job gains we saw in 2017 have been eliminated in the first quarter” of 2018, Rose said. “Education, manufacturing, health care, and professional services have all gained jobs,” he said, while “trade, retail, public administration, transportation, and warehousing have all lost jobs” in the Edmonton area.

public sector employment

As the above chart shows, Edmonton’s public sector workers, which includes those in government, health, and education, make up about 25% of our workforce. The data hasn’t been updated yet for more recent years, but based on data from the 2016 census as well as the provincial Labour Force Statistics report for April 2018, I believe the trend holds.

You can see that the public sector makes up a larger part of Edmonton’s workforce compared with Calgary or the rest of the province. Which means that cuts to public administration, health care, or education hit Edmonton harder than the rest of the province.

So what’s a likely reason the government would need to make cuts? Though Edmonton may be diversifying away from oil, Alberta as a whole is still dependent.

Rose spoke for a while about the price of oil, and it’s impact on the province. “While we have seen North American and Global oil prices accelerate,” he said, “it is only recently that we have seen any benefit from that in Alberta.” He explained the difference between the Brent (the global benchmark price), WTI (the North American benchmark price), and WCS (the Alberta benchmark price), and noted the price discount we’re experiencing “due to export capacity constraints.”

WTI vs WCS

“We are now producing more oil than we can move due to limited capacity,” he said, “which is why the pipelines are so important.” Rose said he was shocked at the speed with which energy companies began to cut back due to the decline in oil prices a few years ago, in contrast with Ontario where he spent most of his career. There he said the economy is “much more like an ocean liner, it’s slow to turn.”

WTI vs WCS

“Oil production in North America is at record levels,” Rose said, “and given our inability to move product out of Alberta, there’s a real risk of oil prices continuing to decline, which would put the provincial government in an even worse position.” That could force it to look to cut costs, which could have a very negative impact on Edmonton’s economy.

Provided that doesn’t happen, Rose expects Edmonton’s economy to do quite well. He expects the unemployment rate to continue to drift downward over the year. “Population growth will continue but at a slower rate,” he said. Vacancy rates at about 7% have driven rental rates down, and thanks to a potential overbuild of single family homes in 2015, “there might be too much inventory”, helping to keep prices in check. “Low inflation will boost real incomes for Edmonton residents as average weekly wages are rising again,” he said.

Rose forecasts that Edmonton and the region “will grow more rapidly than Alberta and Canada” through 2023. Let’s hope he’s lucky, not wrong.

The two oil-related charts above come from Alberta Energy. Canada is the fourth largest producer and third largest exporter of oil in the world, with the oil sands accounting for 62% of Canada’s oil production, according to Natural Resources Canada. There’s more on Alberta’s energy industry at the National Energy Board.

Mayor Don Iveson calls on Edmonton investors to get in the game

In his State of the City address (available here in PDF) yesterday at the Shaw Conference Centre, Mayor Don Iveson said there are four crucial “pipelines” that must be established in order to actively shape Edmonton’s economic future. The “export” pipeline, the “investment” pipeline, the “talent” pipeline, and the “innovation” pipeline are what we need for growth in Edmonton.

2018 State of the City Address

Most of what Mayor Iveson told the packed room was simply a rehash of ideas he and other local leaders have been sharing for years, updated to use the startup language of the day. What was different this time was the very specific audience he was speaking to. It wasn’t a speech for all Edmontonians, or for community leaders, or even for the business community. Yesterday’s speech was targeted squarely at local investors.

“As it stands right now, we don’t have enough local investment committed to our local innovation ecosystem,” Mayor Iveson said. He noted that too much local money is being sent out of the city to be invested elsewhere. “I’d like to change that dynamic.”

We need Edmonton’s investor class to get engaged

Mayor Iveson started by describing Edmonton’s investor class:

“It doesn’t always look like one might expect. It’s not always dressed in bankers’ suits. It’s not always flashy like in other cities. It’s more reserved and quiet. But it’s deeply committed to this community.”

“A lot of you are in the room today,” he said. “You’ve built your companies in dynamic and creative ways, you employ thousands of Edmontonians and you are proud to call this city home.” Mayor Iveson outlined three key reasons why the investor class should invest locally:

  1. “This is very doable,” he told them. “A lot of early-stage companies in Edmonton don’t require cash in the millions.” Instead, typical seed funding requirements are in the tends of thousands.

  2. “More local, private investment will give our innovation ecosystem more rigour.” Compared to institutional investors, private investors put “a premium on commercial viability and outcomes.”

  3. “Investing in the growth of local companies means actively shaping Edmonton’s economic future.” He appealed to their love of Edmonton. “You care about what happens to this community over the long run.”

“There must be a willingness from our community to place some bets on local innovations, on local entrepreneurs, on local talent,” Mayor Iveson said.

There are billions of dollars under management right here in Edmonton, but startup funding remains elusive. As one example, AngelList currently shows 16 investors from Edmonton with only 11 of those having actually made investments. Mayor Iveson mentioned just one seed fund by name, Panache Ventures. The situation is much better than it was back in 2006, but to say there’s room for improvement would be a huge understatement.

“I recognize I’m asking a lot of you, especially in this fragile economic climate,” he said. “But this is Edmonton’s moment, and your city needs your engagement and support more than ever.”

We need a bigger startup funnel

Noting that Startup Edmonton currently assists about 65 companies per year in their startup phase, Mayor Iveson said “we need to drastically increase the number of companies coming into the ecosystem funnel.” By this time next year, the mayor wants “to at least double the number of start-up companies that are assisted on an annual basis.” To do this, he will be asking City Council and both public and private sector parterns “to make sizeable investments” to help expand the size of the startup funnel.

This is a familiar refrain locally, especially in the tech sector. Increasing the number of startups in Edmonton is of course the whole reason for Startup Edmonton, an initiative that Mayor Iveson has long been a supporter of. Many other initiatives in recent years have focused on increasing the number of local entrepreneurs. Even in last year’s State of the City address, Mayor Iveson talked about the need “to focus on how we take local start-ups to the next level — to zero-in on adopting a scale-up mindset and build a scale-up community that helps our small enterprises grow confidently.”

This time, Mayor Iveson reiterated the importance of local investment. Edmonton needs more than just more companies, he said. “It also needs larger amounts of early-stage capital to help our entrepreneurs go from start-up to scale-up and beyond.”

Mayor Don Iveson

We need to hustle

One of the key messages Mayor Iveson focused on was the need to hustle. “Edmonton has experienced incredible external pressures before, and we have always managed to adapt and get by,” but that’s not good enough anymore, he said. Recent trips to San Francisco and Asia showed the mayor just how hard we need to work just to keep up, let alone get ahead. “From the moment you hit the ground in these places, the hustle is on.”

We have heard this before. When Brad Ferguson took over as President & CEO of EEDC in 2012, he was already sounding the alarm about complacency, calling it “our number enemy.”

This time though, the mayor got a bit more specific. “Today, we have one of the best AI research institutions in the world but we risk being outspent and out-hustled by other provinces and other cities,” he said. While there’s a role for government, “there’s also a significant role for local investors and philanthropists.”

We’re a world leader in the science of artificial intelligence, and we need to aggressively build on that.

We need a bigger talent pipeline

More talent is going to be critical for Edmonton’s growth. “We know we have work to do in terms of developing skilled talent — both locally grown, and talent that we attract from elsewhere,” Mayor Iveson said.

Again, this is not new. At the EEDC Impact Luncheon in January 2016, Brad Ferguson told the crowd that “the most important thing we can do is continue to invest in talent.” In September 2014, the Edmonton in a New Light event touched on the same ideas – be less humble, go tell the world, attract people and investment – but used different language. “The opportunity before us is to let the rest of the world in on the secret of why we’re all here,” Mayor Iveson said at the time.

The mayor did announce yesterday a new partnership with EEDC and LinkedIn “to do a deep dive on Edmonton’s talent landscape” to better understand “the kinds of skills we’re missing to grow our innovation ecosystem.” Based on that, the City will craft “an Edmonton story that is compelling, honest and attractive” and that highlights “the incredible quality of life we have here.” Plenty has been written about our city’s branding efforts and missteps, so while I applaud a more data-driven approach, I find it hard to believe this time will be different.

2018 State of the City Address

We need to sell to the world

Mayor Iveson said that for sustained growth in Edmonton, we need more businesses with a focus on exports. “Companies that aren’t satisfied to stay local, but want to scale up and take their product or service to customers around the world,” he said, and cited Stantec, PCL, Yardstick, Showbie, and BioWare as examples of local companies that “opened global markets through relentless quality and ambition.”

This focus on global should be very familiar by now. Shortly after he won the 2013 election Mayor Iveson started using some new language, “innovative” and “globally competitive” in particular. And even then Mayor Iveson was talking about solving local problems and exporting the solutions to the world:

“As problem solvers, we can do our business cleaner, greener, cheaper, faster and safer – and sell those solutions to the world. This is how we will ensure that Edmonton will compete globally, and endure long into the future, no matter the price of oil.”

He mentioned the new direct flight to San Francisco as one of the ways to enable more exports. “Although we’re in a digital world, the face-to-face meeting is still a vital commodity when it comes to engaging advisors, connecting with partners and making deals,” he said. The flight will be “a tremendous enabler for more Edmonton-made businesses, with global ambitions, to reach beyond Canada.”

We need to use the City as a lab

After talking about the challenges the City faces, Mayor Iveson said “I want to take the burgeoning community of technology minds in our backyard and unleash them on those City problems.” Earlier this month he introduced a motion to have City Administration outline a draft policy or program to make this a reality. And he said he would pursue a “Startup in Residence” program to connect startups with local government.

As early as 2009 the City was trying and failing to accomplish this goal, first with the Leveraging Technical Expertise Locally program. In his 2015 State of the City address, Mayor Iveson talked about Open Lab, “a new partnership with Startup Edmonton that aims to solve municipal challenges in a more entrepreneurial way.” It sounded promising, but it has gone nowhere, and the City even took down its web page about the program.

“Let’s actively shape Edmonton’s economic future by leveraging our local tech talent to help make our established companies become as competitive and innovative as they can be,” the mayor said. He talked about his idea for an “Innovation Hub” downtown, a place to bring together “entrepreneurs, service providers, mentors, investors, talent and business experts in an environment specifically designed to encourage the creation and growth of companies.” In contrast to the manufactured office parks seen elsewhere, the mayor promised it would reflect “Edmonton’s lifestyle where innovation, entrepreneurship, the arts, creativity and vibrant urban life intersect.”

Mayor Don Iveson

Growing Edmonton’s economy is the focus

Mayor Iveson made growing the economy a key election promise last year, so it makes sense that economic development was his focus for this year’s State of the City. Earlier this month he released a report on the Mayor’s Economic Development Summit, and his remarks yesterday built on that. Again, none of the ideas are particularly new, but perhaps by better involving local investors they’ll have a much greater chance of success.

“Edmonton is ready for this,” the mayor said. “Ready to get off the bench and play at a global level.”

Recap: PodSummit 2018

I was really glad to have had the opportunity to attend PodSummit 2018 on Saturday, May 5 at CKUA in downtown Edmonton. About 100 “podcasters and the podcast-curious” attended the event to learn about starting a podcast, making it sound amazing, growing an audience, and creating content that listeners will love. Organized by Ernest Barbaric, the sold out event featured six sessions punctuated by ice-breakers and other fun activities. Every single talk was interesting and informative, so well done to the organizers and speakers on knocking it out of the park!

PodSummit

Before I share some of my notes from the day, you might be wondering why I (as primarily a blogger) would attend an event about podcasting!

My podcasting story

I started a podcast in 2013 with Graham Hicks called Mack & Cheese. We published 59 episodes before calling it quits and moving on to other projects. But my history with podcasting goes back much further, to 2004 when I launched a podcast called Blogosphere Radio before we even called them podcasts (we just called it a show). That helped me to see an opportunity, and in 2006 I launched Podcast Spot, a hosting service for podcasters. We ended up shutting it down a couple of years later.

Reflecting in October 2008 on what I might have done differently, I wrote:

“There’s a ton of things I might have done differently, but two things in particular: I would have avoided using the word “podcast” in the name of our service; and, I would have focused on sharing audio and video for a specific niche.”

At the time, podcasts were very associated with the iPod, and they were fairly difficult to work with. You still had to plug your device into a computer to sync the audio files! It was far from certain that podcasting would take off. Today it seems almost silly to question the success of podcasting, given the popularity of podcasts like Serial and The Daily, the latter of which apparently averages about 1 million listeners a day (and I am one of them).

Here’s what we learned at PodSummit

PodSummit reflected the current state of podcasting with a much more diverse audience than the geeks and old white guys that were common a decade ago. There was a good mix of podcasting vets and newbies.

The day started with Rob Greenlee‘s State of the Podcasting Union. He noted there has been “steady growth” but thanks to media coverage there’s “a perception that things are exploding.” Rob cited The Infinite Dial Canada, a new study of consumer behavior and media consumption, and noted that 61% of Canadians 18+ are familiar with the term podcast. There are something like 525,000 podcasts in existence, about half of which are active, with maybe 2,000 new ones added each month. The number of listeners for all of those podcasts could get much bigger in the months ahead as both Google and Spotify are ramping up their activities in the space. Rob finished by suggesting that dynamic ad insertion will be a big thing for podcasting in the year ahead.

PodSummit

Next up was Roger Kingkade who shared tips on how to design a successful podcast. “People will listen,” he said, noting that both David Letterman and Howard Stern amassed large audiences even though their topics don’t at first seem that interesting. “You are what will connect with the audience.” Here are his tips for podcasting success:

  • Your topic should be about someone else’s problem or interest. Start from a place of servitude, and know you’re filling a gap in your listener’s life.
  • You can find an existing community and learn about their wants and needs, then answer their questions on your podcast.
  • Make a perspective statement, and run every episode through it, to ensure that you stay on track.
  • Think about your approach: will be you be the Jedi teacher, the explorer, or the guide?
  • Ask your audience for ratings and reviews – they’re much more likely to do it if you ask!
  • You need to be consistent. Roger recommends recording a bunch of episodes before you launch, and publish the first three right away, to help develop a rapport with your audience.

Topic, Audience, and Perspective form the golden triangle for your podcast, he said. Roger suggested planning your podcast (one tool you could use is Karen’s Podcast Canvas) to ensure you focus on answering the right questions.

PodSummit

The final session of the morning was from Andrea Beça, who shared her tips on growth & promotion strategies. She echoed the importance of fulfilling a need or solving a problem with your podcast. “Podcasts are not an ‘if you build it they will come’ kind of thing,” she told us. It takes work, and you will put “way too many” hours into creating your podcast! Building your community is key to building your podcast, and Andrea shared a number of useful suggestions like choosing the right social media channels for your audience, thinking about visuals to help promote your work, and keeping tabs on previous guests to support them (and have them support you back). Speaking of guests, Andrea said to choose them wisely, and noted that the first 40 listeners will do more for you than your next 400, so honor them! She also said it is ok to reference past episodes, something that too many people are surprisingly reluctant to do. “Don’t let your content die,” she said.

PodSummit

I skipped lunch, but I understand that Ernest himself gave a great talk on how to start a podcast.

After lunch we heard from Mike Russell, who gave a masterclass on editing and production. His tool of choice is Adobe Audition, so that’s what he used to illustrate his tips:

  • Don’t edit out every pause or breath, otherwise it’ll sound unnatural.
  • Start with good audio – you can’t fix a terrible recording!
  • Don’t worry about mistakes: just be you.
  • You can make a voice sound better using the parametric equalizer tool.
  • You can also compress a voice a little, which will even out the loud and quiet parts of your voice.
  • You can add a noise gate to help get rid of background noises.
  • Use ripple deletes to trip an edit without leaving a gap.
  • If you’re interviewing someone via Skype, adaptive noise reduction can be very useful.

Mike was a great presenter, and I loved the approach he used, handing off to his pre-recorded self to demo things.

PodSummit

Next up was Andreas Schwabe who spoke about the art of podcasting. He’s a former teacher at NAIT and was the Director of Digital Media for the Oilers. He had some fantastic tips and suggestions:

  • Sound like you mean it!
  • Planning ahead is key. Reinforce the three phases: what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then recap it.
  • Writing for the ear is a different thing than normal writing. You can find this out by recording yourself and then transcribing the audio.
  • Keep it short using declarative sentences.
  • Avoid cliches like Monday soup. (Because the Friday leftovers go into the Monday soup!)
  • Play with turns of phrase. “You can lead a chicken to ice but you can’t make it skate.”
  • Sound provides a lot of information, including location, speed, material, mass, and density.
  • You can convey a lot with your voice through pacing, tension, etc.
  • Talk to an audience of one, not many.
  • Refer to events rather than dates or times, and rough figures rather than exact numbers (unless you need to be specific for a reason).
  • Identify your crutches like “so” or “ok” or “um” and work to reduce them.
  • Listen to lots of podcasts to find out what you hate about them so you can avoid that in your own podcast!
  • Remember that no one sets out to make a bad podcast.

Such a fantastic talk.

PodSummit

The final session of the day was a monetization campfire chat featuring Andrea Beça, Erika Ensign, and Karen Unland. It was a great chat on the three legs of the podcast monetization stool: sponsorship/ads, listener support, and feeding your business. They noted the chances are good that while you might earn enough to cover your costs, earning enough to cover your time is a whole other thing. The fact is, many podcasts are labors of love.

Wrap-up

As mentioned there were some great activities throughout the day, like Podcast Bingo. It was a fun way to move around the room meeting other people and learning a thing or two about them or their podcast. I also liked the Pitch It Forward activity that Karen from the Alberta Podcast Network hosted, which got people to pitch other people’s podcasts!

It’s really encouraging to see such a strong podcast community here in Edmonton. If you’re pod-curious, I encourage you to check out the Edmonton Podcasting Meetup. And if you’re looking for some great local podcasts to listen to, be sure to read the Alberta Podcast Network’s regular roundups.

PodSummit

Congratulations to Ernest, his wife, their adorable daughter, and all of the other volunteers on hosting such a useful and successful event!

You can see the rest of my photos here.

Recap: AccelerateAB 2018

AccelerateAB 2018 took place in Edmonton on April 24. The sold-out conference explored the theme of artificial intelligence and machine learning. As A100 Executive Director Cynthia van Sundert said in her message to attendees:

“Our province is home to some of the world’s leading thinking, research, and startups around A.I. It is fortuitous that this year’s event is being held in Edmonton, where the world famous Alberta Machine Learning Institute (Amii) – the global academic leader in A.I. – is located within the University of Alberta.”

The annual conference alternates between Edmonton and Calgary, and always draws an interesting mix of leaders, investors, influencers, and entrepreneurs. The 450-ish in attendance at the Shaw Conference Centre this year were treated to an opening keynote from Scott Penberthy, Google’s Director of Applied AI, a series of AI-related panels, and a closing keynote with Dr. Richard Sutton, a Research Scientists with DeepMind at the University of Alberta.

AccelerateAB 2018
Photo by Pinstripe Productions

EEDC’s Cheryll Watson brought opening remarks, and encouraged everyone to “think of ways for Edmonton and Calgary to work together.” She spoke about having “an Alberta mindset” to be more competitive globally than just thinking about the two cities independently.

Rise of Software 2.0

Scott Penberthy opened his talk with some personal history, telling us how he was inspired by Marvin Minsky and Richard Stallman. It wasn’t long though until he was talking about scalars, vectors, tensors, matrices, and more. It was a bit technical for some in the audience I’m sure, but it served as a nice setup to the central premise of his talk: what if you could do math on thought?

“Artificial intelligence is an over-hyped but under-appreciated change,” he told the crowd. Noting that computing power has improved by a billion-fold since 1958, Penberthy highlighted some of the key advances in AI in recent years, including beating humans at image recognition in 2012 and winning at Go in 2016. He cited Ray Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns to help illustrate why further advances in AI will come more rapidly (and mentioned this video about a rock). Penberthy talked about AutoML, which is basically AI creating AI, as one such advance. He also showed some charts from the popular and accessible Wait But Why series on AI to really drive home the possibilities before us.

AccelerateAB 2018
Photo by Pinstripe Productions

“AI is going to be like having a database,” he said. “Soon every business will have this.” Penberthy devoted a good chunk of his time to explaining how AI will help businesses to be more competitive. He touched on TensorFlow, Google’s open source library for dataflow programming, and encouraged the audience to just start playing with the great tools that are now available. “Don’t build it from scratch, leverage existing AI technologies so you can focus on your differentiation,” he said. Kaggle is a good place to start, he suggested.

I appreciated Penberthy’s overview of AI, and also that he called out the success we’ve had here in Alberta in the field. “Canada saw it when no one else saw it.”

Key Takeaways: Panel Sessions

There were two AI-themed panels throughout the day: The Fundamentals of Artificial Intelligence and An Entrepreneurial Journey with Artificial Intelligence. Here are some key takeaways I noted:

  • AI is a very broad term, and machine learning is just one technique.
  • AI is at the nexus of many disciplines and fields, and provides us with techniques for intelligently making decisions using data.
  • Machine learning is useful when it is impossible to hard code a decision or when things are constantly changing, like in the real world.
  • Machine learning will find patterns in your data, but you can’t make inferences about the data that you don’t have.
  • You need to know why the data is important for the decision you’re trying to make.
  • Successful AI projects need both a well-defined problem and data in a usable format.
  • Opportunities include biomedical advances and personalized medicine, automation of boring, repetitive, and dangerous jobs, and ways for humans and machines to work better together.
  • The reason we have so much opportunity is because of the hardware – we simply didn’t have the power in the past.
  • Edmonton is the best place in the world to start a machine learning company!

AccelerateAB 2018
Photo by Pinstripe Productions

In the afternoon, the always popular Scaling Eff-Ups panel took place. Some key takeaways from that session:

  • Building a business is one of the most intense things you can do.
  • If you’re not making mistakes then you’re not reaching high enough.
  • Every industry is surrounded by patents so you need to do your homework.
  • Pay attention to the people around you and take action, but know that loyalty can be good too.

Much of the insight from the final panel could actually be boiled down to team selection. Many of the “eff-ups” the entrepreneurs discussed involved a member of the team who was selected hastily or who otherwise was not a good fit for the business.

Startup Pitches

The afternoon featured the startup pitch competition, a staple at the conference. There were pitches from 8 startups this year:

  • Fitset: “Experience fitness freedom with easy access to just about every studio & gym in Edmonton with Fitset.”
  • IronSight: “A service-hailing technology that strengthens the link between B2C through data-driven dispatching.”
  • MicroMech: “Redefining the auto service industry by sending auto mechanics directly to a customer’s door.”
  • Mikata Health: “Built a system sing machine learning that helps doctors and their administration teams to eliminate 1-2 hours of data entry each day.”
  • Paytickr: “A cloud-based service for small business that has combined time tracking and payroll distribution services into one platform.”
  • Skillpics: “A rich networking community where students can showcase their experience, portfolios, resumes and skills to potential employers.”
  • Symend: “A FinTech company that is successfully implementing recovery strategy by combining workflow and campaign automation with proven approaches in behavioural science.”
  • ShareSmart: “Mitigating costly healthcare data breaches with a system that allows healthcare professionals to take and share patient information securely.”

Each entrepreneur had a few minutes to deliver their elevator pitch, followed by a few minutes for questions from the three judges: James Keirstead, Kristina Milke, and Peter Calverley.

AccelerateAB 2018
Photo by Pinstripe Productions

Congratulations to ShareSmart on being named the winner! They took home more than $15,000 in cash and prizes, including a $10,000 micro-voucher from Alberta Innovates.

Wrap-up

I previously wrote about Dr. Richard Sutton’s closing keynote on how Edmonton is a world leader in the science of artificial intelligence. You can also check out this Twitter thread on his talk fro Alex Kearney.

Our city’s leadership position in the field (and indeed, Alberta’s) is a key strength that we need to be proud of, and to leverage. It was great to see AccelerateAB shine a light on this. You can find out more about Edmonton’s AI pedigree at Edmonton.AI, a community-driven group with the goal of creating 100 AI and ML companies and projects.

AccelerateAB 2019 will be taking place in Calgary. Follow them on Twitter for updates!

Recap: DemoCamp Edmonton 41

Edmonton’s 41st DemoCamp took place last night at the Centennial Centre for Interdisciplinary Sciences (CCIS) on the University of Alberta campus. You can see my recap of DemoCamp Edmonton 41 here.

Centennial Centre for Interdisciplinary Science

If you’re new to DemoCamp, here’s what it’s all about:

“DemoCamp brings together developers, creatives, entrepreneurs and investors to share what they’ve been working on and to find others in the community interested in similar topics. For presenters, it’s a great way to get feedback on what you’re building from peers and the community, all in an informal setting. Started back in 2008, DemoCamp Edmonton has steadily grown into one of the largest in the country, with over 200 people attending each event. The rules for DemoCamp are simple: 7 minutes to demo real, working products, followed by a few minutes for questions, and no slides allowed.”

It was one of the quickest DemoCamps in recent memory – I guess everyone wanted to get to drinks! We had five demos, in order of appearance:

Paulie Blart is a Raspberry Pi-based robot that was built for the SF Hacks hackathon in just 24 hours – and it won! The robot uses IBM’s Watson services to do facial recognition and when an intruder is detected, it can send you a text that includes a picture of the intruder. The robot can also be controlled by sending it a “start” or “stop” text message. Cool stuff! In his post about the win, Megnath wrote: “A special thanks to the talented and vibrant Edmonton tech community (Startup Edmonton, UofA CompE Club, etc) for organizing local hackathons and encouraging students like me to aim bigger.”

The Bylaw Infraction Dashboard uses open data from the City of Edmonton’s open data catalogue to visualize bylaw infractions. The dashboard includes a number of visualizations and they’re connected – so you can slice and dice the data by clicking on one visualization and seeing the rest update. It reminds me a lot of the way that Power BI can work. I enjoyed Michael’s story about seeing other data visualizations and getting inspired to build his own. Whether he realized it or not, his demo was a good commercial for the open data catalogue too!

Go With the Flow is a fun project that controls an LED light strip based on the audio coming from your computer. Each LED represents a single frequency, so as the sound changes, the lights get brighter or dimmer, and the color changes. Curtis demoed it with some music and also the Avengers Infinity War trailer. Always fun when we get to turn the lights down at DemoCamp.

DemoCamp Edmonton 41

IdyaFlow is software for peer-to-peer marketplaces. It’s not another place to list your couch for rent, but it can help you build the site on which you might do that. If you have a community of buyers and suppliers, then IdyaFlow can provide the technology to help you connect them. It has a focus on real-time messaging to help facilitate those community interactions. At first I was wondering if there’s actually a market for this, but when you think about it, there are hundreds of “Uber for X” type businesses, and they all have more or less the same technical requirements/features. So building a generic backend that can service them all just might work.

I think Rewardful has a lot of potential, and I am eager to see how it evolves. The service provides “a simple way for SaaS companies to setup affiliate and referral programs with Stripe.” Currently it supports a commission-based approach, but there are plans to add other possibilities like extending an existing subscription or flat referral fees. There are some companies in this space already, but if Rewardful can keep it simple and developer-friendly (like Stripe itself) I think there’s plenty of opportunity.

I always enjoy when there are a mix of hardware and software demos, and also experiments or “for fun” projects vs. actual businesses.

Here are some upcoming events to note that were mentioned in-between demos:

See you at DemoCamp Edmonton 42 in September!

JW Marriott Edmonton tops off in ICE District

A topping off ceremony was held today for the new JW Marriott Edmonton ICE District, located on the corner of 102 Street and 104 Avenue downtown. The building is currently the tallest tower in Edmonton, though it will relinquish that title within the next month or so when the new Stantec Tower, currently under construction right next door, surpasses it. Media and VIPs were invited to the 46th floor for the ceremony, where the “topping off” was done symbolically with a cake from Whimsical Cake Studio.

Symbolic topping off

At 56 storeys high, the building will consist of 22 floors of hotel space topped by The Legends Private Residences above. The new hotel is currently slated to open in March 2019 and will be “the first modern luxury hotel built in Edmonton and one of only three JW Marriott branded hotels in Canada.” It will feature 346 rooms, roughly 22,000 square feet of meeting and conference space, a giant 10,500 square foot ballroom, a state-of-the-art fitness centre, and at least four different restaurants. The private residences above will feature 262 condo units and include access to the amenities offered by the hotel. They’re slated to open after the hotel, sometime in 2019, and are currently 90% sold.

“To be topping off the first luxury hotel alongside The Legends Private Residences in ICE District demonstrates the transformation that is occurring in our downtown core,” said Glen Scott, president of Katz Group Real Estate.

Glen Scott

Getting off the construction elevator on the 46th floor, I was struck by how small Manulife Place looks. For years it was the tallest building in Edmonton, but now it is dwarfed by the new towers.

Manulife Place

I mean, since when can you see the top of Manulife Place?!

JW Marriott

There wasn’t much to see inside as the building is very much under construction still (the topping off simply “marks the completion of the structural phase of the building”) but they did have some display boards setup to show renderings of what the final product might look like. Most people were happy enough to just take in the incredible views, however.

ICON Towers in front of the Legislature & High Level Bridge

From that vantage point you see just how flat and spread out Edmonton is. At the same time, it makes the city feel a little smaller, as if it is all within reach.

Blatchford, also under construction, is clearly visible:

Blatchford

From that height you get a very unique perspective on Commonwealth Stadium and Northlands Coliseum:

Commonwealth Stadium & Northlands Coliseum

I also enjoyed the view of 104 Avenue and Oliver:

104 Avenue

You can see more photos from the event and of the views here.