Cyber Summit 2018: How to Fix the Future

Andrew Keen was the keynote speaker on the first day of the Cyber Summit last month, an annual technology conference organized by Cybera. They were gracious enough to host me this year as a guest. The theme for 2018’s event was “Mind the Gap: Surviving (and Thriving) in the Age of Disruption”. That’s exactly where Keen began.

“We are living through the age of disruption,” he said.

Andrew Keen

Keen is an entrepreneur who founded Audiocafe.com back in 1995, but he’s best known as an author and critic of Internet culture. I remember reading his first book, The Cult of the Amateur, shortly after it was published in 2007. As an entrepreneur myself (in podcasting) not to mention an early and enthusiastic adopter of Twitter, I remember strongly disagreeing with his critique of Web 2.0 and user generated content. It made me angry. I had read James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds around the same time and I couldn’t believe how different Keen’s perspective was. Why couldn’t he see?!

So, it’s no surprise that I started reading Keen’s latest book, How to Fix the Future, with some hesitation. Would it rankle me as well? I hadn’t finished it by the time the keynote rolled around, but I had read enough to have an idea of what to expect. And I was looking forward to it.

“Is technology shaping us or are we shaping it?” he asked. Keen spoke about Marshall McLuhan, lamenting that technology was supposed to create a global village. “We were promised that the new business models were truly revolutionary,” he said. We’d have greater cultural understanding, more jobs, and more equality. But, “something has gone wrong” and that promise “for the most part, has not been realized.” There have been other unforeseen effects too. He thought McLuhan would be “amused by the unintended consequences of technology.”

“I’m not a Luddite,” Keen protested. “I’m not suggesting there aren’t benefits of technology, that’s self-evident.” He also knows that there’s no going back. “Digital is the reality, for better or worse, and we need to make it work,” he said.

Not only has the promise of a better future not been realized, we’ve found ourselves with new problems to deal with. Inequality, the demise of expertise, the echo chamber, and privacy are all among the concerns Keen raised. “The inequality in economic terms is astonishing,” he said, predicting that there is a great jobs crisis on the horizon. Describing “surveillance capitalism” Keen suggested that “privacy itself is a potentially fundamental casualty.”

So, what to do about it? “We’ve been through this before” with the industrial revolution, he said. “We break the future and then we fix it; that’s what we do.”

In his keynote as in his book, Keen spoke about Utopia, written by Thomas More in 1516. It was “a call to arms, to make the world a better place,” he told us. It’s a useful way to frame his argument that each of us has a responsibility to be a part of the solution. “We have to be careful not to fall into the utopian discourse of the first generation of web tech,” he warned.

Keen suggests we have five tools with which to fix the future: regulation, competitive innovation, worker and consumer choice, social responsibility, and education. He only spent a few minutes on these in his keynote, but elaborates on each in the book.

The section on regulation stood out for me. He compares the current state of technology to that of the automobile in the 1960s when the lack of safety regulations resulted in high numbers of auto-related deaths and injuries. He shared the story of how Ralph Nader’s bestselling book Unsafe at Any Speed brought the issue of traffic safety into the national discourse and led to the passage of seat-belt laws and other traffic safety measures.

Could something similar happen in tech today? I don’t know what the digital equivalent of the seat-belt might be, but I do know that not a day has gone by since I read the book that some sort of big tech-related problem hasn’t been in the news. New privacy breaches, new abuses of power, and new unintended consequences seem to dominate Techmeme these days, usually in reference to Facebook and Google.

“There’s no app to fix the future,” Keen told the audience. “The only way we fix the future is in a human way.” In the book he says, “technology doesn’t solve technological problems; people do.” It won’t happen overnight, and Keen was upfront about that. “It will take a generation or two, just like it did for the industrial revolution,” he said. “But we have to begin to address it now.”

Andrew Keen

I have since finished reading How to Fix the Future and would recommend it. I think Keen raises some important issues and does indeed provide some thoughtful commentary on potential solutions.

Many in the audience found Keen’s keynote to be a downer, and there were plenty of comments about it being a pessimistic start to the conference. He certainly prompted a lot of discussion among attendees, which is all you can really ask for from a keynote.

But I found myself on common ground. Maybe in the decade since I read his first book I’d become more critical of technology, or at least more aware of the possible negative consequences. Maybe Keen had mellowed somewhat, adopting a more pragmatic approach in the hopes of effecting change. Or maybe, it was a bit of both!

Thank you to Cybera for hosting me at Cyber Summit 2018!

Mayor Don Iveson looks back on 2018

“I believe this was the year we made a shift to building Edmonton for the next generation,” said Mayor Don Iveson last week as he hosted the media at City Hall for a briefing and roundtable discussion on 2018.

Asked for a highlight from the past year, Mayor Iveson cited the new funding deal with the Province. The City Charters Fiscal Framework Act will provide Edmonton and Calgary with “infrastructure funding tied to provincial revenues, meaning they would share in Alberta’s future revenue growth.” It is both a replacement for Municipal Sustainability Initiative (MSI) funding and a new source of long-term transit funding. “We’re legislated now into long-term growth,” the mayor said. Last month he wrote that “the deal reflects the province’s economic reality now.”

Mayor Don Iveson

Here are some of the highlights from the roundtable discussion:

Budget Savings

Given the budget hadn’t yet passed when the roundtable took place, there were some questions related to cost savings. Acknowledging there were valid questions about the size of the City organization and in particular the size of management, Mayor Iveson said “it will be a continuing conversation for us.” He noted there are pros and cons to reducing the size of management that need further discussion.

In terms of savings, the mayor said that through innovation the City has harvested $68 million in savings in the last five years. And he indicated there was more to come. “I suspect there will be things over the next year that we close or significantly adjust our approach to,” he said. “We’re prepared to declare certain things no longer relevant.”

Culture of Confidence

Asked about his frustration this summer over the way Administration handled things like the bench plaques program, the mayor said “mistakes are going to happen given the complexity of what we do.” He acknowledged that Council had given Administration competing direction to both save money and to be as helpful as possible. “Both are values this organization has and they conflicted with one another,” he said.

The mayor made it clear he doesn’t want to micromanage things. “I don’t think every complex decision needs to come from Council,” he said. “It’s not an effective use of the thirteen members of Council.” Instead what he’d like to see is a “culture of confidence”.

“My expectation is that anyone working at the City with an idea that could lead to savings has the opportunity to bring that forward as opposed to being afraid to suggest it due to risk management,” he explained. That requires “a tolerance for failure and innovation” that won’t come easily. “We have to give some permission for it to not work out,” he said.

Mayor Iveson did say that he thought the “long-term culture change is moving in a good direction” at the City of Edmonton.

Edmonton Coliseum

On the question of what will happen to the Coliseum (formerly Rexall Place) the mayor said “it has no practical use or reuse that is economically viable” and as a result “it will be torn down.” He noted there are ongoing costs related to keeping the building secure and said, “I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to find a cost-effective and timely way to deal with the Coliseum.”

And what about the land? “We’re going to have some interesting discussions about how to redevelop those lands,” the mayor said. He’s not in a rush to sell the land, though. “In this market the land is probably not worth as much,” he said. “Where we try to rush land decisions that generally doesn’t go well for us.”

Media

Unsurprisingly, some of the journalists in the room were curious about the mayor’s thoughts on the media. He has made suggestions throughout the year that the City needs to do more of its own storytelling, and of course he continues to be active on Twitter and his own website.

“I think people expect a certain amount of direct content from their city,” the mayor said. “I think for most people the City of Edmonton is a credible source.” He doesn’t see direct communication from the City being the only channel, however. He talked about the importance of transparency and opening up multiple channels to the public. “Earned media is always going to be part of our day-to-day connecting with people,” he assured everyone.

Mayor Don Iveson

Innovation

Many of Mayor Iveson’s comments touched on innovation, but he used a question about the city’s economic outlook to share the majority of his thoughts on the subject. “We can fear the future or we can chart our own destiny,” he said. “This is why I put so much focus on the innovation economy.”

The mayor said he’s “excited” to work with EEDC’s Derek Hudson and Cheryll Watson further on a culture of innovation and said the recent scrutiny of EEDC “is really, really good.” He said the SingularityU conference that Edmonton is hosting next year “will be a platform for that culture to grow in our city.”

“As the world faces a lot of uncertainty, we can be problem-solvers for the world,” he said. “That’s not incompatible with our DNA as a city at all.”

Region

We didn’t have as much time to discuss the region as I’d have liked, but Mayor Iveson did touch on the subject. “If the region can speak coherently to the provincial and federal governments we can have much greater impact than historically we’ve had,” he said. The mayor cited work on transit, the regional growth plan, and economic development as recent successes in the region.

Mayor Iveson also spoke briefly about “shared investment for shared benefit” saying “it’s about the region getting to the point where we fix problems together.” He explained that the idea is “some of the new money that comes from new development goes into a pot that helps to pay for the next thing to attract jobs and prosperity to the region.”

Thoughts on Council

During the budget discussions Mayor Iveson expressed frustration with his colleagues on Council bringing forward ward-specific items to essentially try to “queue-jump”. He told us that he was talking to former mayor Stephen Mandel about it recently and realized, “I was doing the same things 7 years ago!” He added that “what we have ultimately is a Council that has come together remarkably well around this budget.”

“We have a group of very bright Councillors who have a desire to serve and to have their service noticed,” the mayor said. “It’s not a bad thing to have councillors with ambition to make an impact on the city.”

Third Term

“I really like being Mayor of Edmonton and I have no plans to enter federal politics, other than to stay on as chair of the Big City Mayor’s caucus,” he said in response to a question about running for another office. “I’ve got more work to do here.” Mayor Iveson told us “the City Plan is going to be a lot of fun” and that representing Edmonton through the upcoming provincial and federal elections would be “a great challenge”.

Noting “it’s a really long way to the next election,” he did acknowledge that others might be thinking about making a run for his chair. “I think it’s fair to say that some of them have their own political aspirations.” His advice to those Councillors? “Don’t get started too early.”

Mayor Iveson said he has not made any decisions about seeking a third term as mayor. “I want to focus on governing, and implementing the things I ran on,” he said. “If I can think of four more years worth of stuff to do, then I would look at running again.”

Mayor Don Iveson

Looking ahead to 2019, Mayor Iveson said “we must continue to rally for our city.”

Recap: DemoCamp Edmonton 42

Edmonton’s 42nd 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.

DemoCamp Edmonton 42

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.”

Here’s my Twitter thread for the event. We had six demos, in order of appearance:

The first demo of the evening was from the team at Gabbi. Sherman and Bryan showed us the app which helps real estate agents organize their messages and collaborate with their team. Like the rest of us, real estate agents are always on their phones and Gabbi can help them respond to messages, transfer conversations between agents, and more. Building on top of that foundation is an AI assistant, to “get the agents to the next level.” Gabbi uses Microsoft’s LUIS behind-the-scenes for understanding intent. Essentially, they’re building an AI-assisted CRM for real estate agents. Neat!

Next up was Permit Tool, which is a Microsoft Power BI-based data crunching tool that can help you visualize and understand development permits in the City of Edmonton. Brandon wanted to build the tool to help him apply for a job in the commercial real estate industry, and once he found the data available in the Open Data Catalogue, he was off and running. “There’s so much interesting information that we didn’t even know existed!” During the demo, Brandon used the tool to filter for people that had applied for permits to build hot tubs. “Go make friends with these people,” he joked. In addition to being a useful tool, his approach worked: he got the job!

Our third demo was from the team at What’s The Deal?, a web app that tells you about happy hour deals nearby. The site lets you view deals by day, or you can use the search feature to filter by characteristics like whether or not there’s a patio or free Wi-Fi. The website is built on WordPress but is really more of a proof-of-concept; they’re planning to launch a native mobile application next month. Currently the team manually curates all the data, but they hope to have restaurants take on that role themselves in the future.

Next up was Brendan who shared yegsecrets.ca. He got the idea for the site after participating in a Reddit discussion about the hidden gems in our city. “It really bugs me when people say Edmonton is boring or ugly or Deadmonton!” The site is basically a big map full of pins that represent interesting locations. You can click on a pin to see a brief description and photos of the location. There are no plans to add businesses to the site, because there’s already a lot of places to find those. The idea is to showcase great views, inspiring art, that sort of thing. Brendan, who took part in Startup Edmonton’s Summer Student Program, has seeded the locations based on input from others, and there is a suggest feature if you know of a hidden gem.

DemoCamp Edmonton 42

Our fifth demo was from Dean who showed off Forkdrop.io, which is an information and educational resource for Bitcoin holders. And specifically, forks or projects that give value to holders of Bitcoin in the form of newly created coins. The site contains a giant table with the latest information on all of the different projects, but also features in-depth guides for people to follow. Since launching the site has attracted about 28,000 users and has received a bunch of press in the Bitcoin industry. It’s all open source too.

The final demo of the evening was from Dana who showed us Tadum.app, a new app that helps you have more effective meetings. The name “Tadum” works two ways: it sounds like the noise a to-do list might make when you complete a task, and it’s an acronym for the key features of the app: To-Dos, Actions, Discussions, Updates, and Metrics. Dana said his experience has shown that the best meetings follow a routine, have a structure, and have forced accountability, so those are all aspects of the way Tadum works. It will work best if you buy into the process. Dana and the team have focused on ensuring the agenda experience is great, but have plans to add integrations in the future.

All of the demos went fairly smoothly! As an Edmonton fan myself, I love the spirit of yegsecrets.ca, and as someone who has had my share of bad meetings, I’m intrigued by what Tadum offers. And yes, I’m always interested to see how others are using open data, so I found Permit Tool pretty cool as well.

Here are the events and other announcements that were mentioned in-between demos:

  • You can now pre-order Nathan Youngman’s new book, Get Programming with Go. He had a couple of signed copies to show off last night. Congratulations Nathan!
  • Preflight is Startup Edmonton’s flagship program and it helps entrepreneurs “reach a global market, harness your ambition, and structure your business to grow right from the start.” New sessions are starting in October and November.
  • Edmonton Startup Week takes place October 15-19. Launch Party Edmonton 9 will take place on October 18.
  • If you’re a student, be sure to check out the free Student Membership from Startup Edmonton.
  • Save the date for the Student Development Conference, taking place March 23, 2019 at the Shaw Conference Centre.
  • There are plenty of other upcoming community meetups listed at the Startup Edmonton meetup site.

You can also check out the Tech Roundup for the latest headlines & happenings in Edmonton’s technology community every Tuesday. Here’s the latest edition.

See you at DemoCamp Edmonton 43!

Edmonton Public Library (EPL) continues to write the book on innovation

Back in February I had the opportunity to attend a Lunch & Learn event at the Edmonton Public Library. I joined nearly two dozen Edmontonians at the Stanley Milner library downtown to find out more about EPL and what they have been working on. Pilar Martinez, EPL’s Deputy CEO and Tina Thomas, Director of Marketing & Fund Development at EPL, led us through a brief presentation about EPL’s history and then told us more about two key initiatives they are raising money for. We finished with a tour of the Makerspace.

Normally I’d start with a photo of the library, but instead I want to share this colorful application of EPL’s Spread the words brand.

EPL Parkade
EPL Parkade by Ian McKenzie

I’m a regular user of the library so I feel like I know it well. But I still learned quite a bit during the lunchtime session! “Our history is all about innovation,” Pilar told us. To gain a better understanding of that history, we watched this video which was made to celebrate EPL being named Library of the Year in 2014:

Being named “Library of the Year” is the equivalent of winning the Stanley Cup in the world of libraries. EPL is the first ever Canadian library to receive the accolade.

Technology

The library is about more than books. It has been for a long time.

If you take a look at the EPL website today you’ll find the Digital Content tab. That’s your gateway to a whole other world of resources, including e-books, audiobooks, magazines, databases, open data, online learning, and more. In fact, EPL says they offer more than 5 million digital resources.

Here are some of the ones I use most frequently:

I’m continually amazed that I can access these resources for free using my computer without ever having to step into a branch. And I’m barely scratching the surface of what’s available!

Makerspace

The other non-book resource that I use all the time is the Makerspace, especially now that it features two recording booths. You won’t find any books in the Makerspace, unless of course you print one using the Espresso Book Machine! It’s a place for technology, exploration, and fun. Graham and I meet there every week to record Mack & Cheese and we always find it busy and full of activity.

On the tour we learned about the space from Peter Schoenberg, EPL’s Manager of Digital Literacy and Web Services. He explained that the Makerspace offers tools and resources to help people learn about things like 3D printing, graphic design, and more. And while you could in theory use the resources there to start a business, you’d quickly outgrow the space (and EPL is happy to help you get to that point).

Inside you’ll find computers and workstations in an open concept. The space works well for hackathons! You’ll also find the aforementioned Espresso Book Machine and a green wall for photography and video work:

EPL Makerspace

There are three 3D printers (they had to add another recently to keep up with demand):

EPL Makerspace

There are a couple of gaming spaces with Xboxes and these incredible overhead cone speakers that keep the sound minimized to the local area:

EPL Makerspace

And there are two sound-proof recording booths with computers, mics, mixers, amps, and instruments:

EPL Makerspace

The Makerspace is an incredible resource and if you couldn’t tell, I’m a big fan. Check it out if you haven’t already done so! You can request a tour here.

Welcome Baby

One of the programs I didn’t know about before the luncheon was Welcome Baby, a program that puts books and early literacy resources in the hands of newborns and their parents. “A library card, books and story times are the first steps to a love of reading and success later in life.”

Through a partnership with AHS, the program is being brought to parents when they visit a clinic for their child’s two month immunizations. Babies also receive a library card, free of course. “Early literacy is the foundation and EPL is focused on it,” Pilar told us.

Each Welcome Baby Early Literacy Kit costs $25 and EPL is hoping to raise $1.5 million total. You can donate to Welcome Baby here.

epl2go

The other program we learned a lot about was epl2go, a new literacy van initiative. Before I spoil it, watch this entertaining promotional video:

The idea is actually an old one (EPL used to have book mobiles that would travel to different neighbourhoods). epl2go vans will bring programs and services from the library to Edmontonians who don’t have easy access to an existing branch. In today’s parlance, we might describe epl2go as a pop-up library!

EPL is looking to raise $1 million to have four epl2go vans – one for each quadrant of the city. You can donate to epl2go here.

Facelift and more for Stanley Milner downtown

Let’s face it, the Stanley Milner library downtown isn’t incredibly attractive. It certainly doesn’t fit with the Art Gallery of Alberta, the Winspear Centre, City Hall, and it’ll look even more out of place when the LRT starts running past the front door. It’s also not super functional, with poor connections to Churchill Station and an insanely congested sidewalk/bus stop out front. We’ve been talking about this for years in Edmonton, with ideas for renovations and updates frequently being proposed (here’s one from 2010 for instance).

Edmonton Downtown Library
Edmonton Downtown Library by IQRemix

The good news is that the building is going to be renewed thanks to Council’s decision to fund the $61.5 million project last December. The City is providing $51.5 million of that while EPL will need to fundraise the remaining $10 million. The goal is to open the doors of the new facility in late fall of 2018 so they’ll have to move quickly. EPL hasn’t yet figured out what the donation campaign will look like, but they’re working on it.

We’ll have to wait until the full plan for the building renewal is revealed to know everything that’s going to change, but we do know that internal systems will be upgraded so the library can achieve a LEED silver designation at minimum. We also learned at the luncheon that EPL intends to use the opportunity to greatly improve the utility of the interior of the building too, with lots of work spaces, meeting rooms, and other community facilities. And yes, the Makerspace will also receive upgrades and additions, like potentially a kitchen space.

Connect with the library

Check out @EPLdotCA on Twitter, edmontonpl on YouTube, and EPLdotCA on Facebook. If you don’t already have your free library card, you can learn how to get one here.

Edmonton wants to tap into local creativity with labs

The City of Edmonton is hoping to tap into the creative ideas and energy of Edmontonians with two new lab initiatives. Open Lab aims to “create unique technological solutions for municipal challenges” while CITYlab will “advance conversations around urban planning.” Both initiatives, if successful, will change the way the City does business. The hope is that a healthy dose of innovation will be injected into the organization to ultimately result in better, more efficient outcomes for citizens.

Open Lab

The program room at Startup Edmonton was packed yesterday for the launch of Open Lab. Mayor Don Iveson, Startup Edmonton’s Ken Bautista, a few other speakers shared an overview of what the program is and what they’re hoping to achieve with it.

Open Lab Launch

So, what is Open Lab?

“A physical and virtual space where City employees and Startup communities can work together to create innovative solutions to municipal challenges. It is a unique continuous innovation program that combines local government, open data, smart creatives, and lean startup culture to build new products that improve the citizen experience.”

Open Lab is part of the Open City Initiative, which launched back in June. It’s also a partnership with Startup Edmonton, and that’s what makes it different from previous attempts at this same idea.

Startup Edmonton believes there are three main ingredients for a thriving entrepreneurial community: people & innovation, community & collision, and leadership & growth. They believe in the importance of thinking bigger, valuing community, and building to scale.

  • “Smart creatives solve big problems.”
  • “Entrepreneurship is a team sport.”
  • “Entrepreneurial leaders grow & scale companies.”

One of the ways Startup tries to implement these principles is via the lean startup approach. The goal with Open Lab is to add some of that lean startup culture into the City. There are three main components to the initiative:

  • Collision Days – Deep dive events where startups and SMEs discuss technologies, tools, and issues impacting a particular industry or community.
  • Open Lab Accelerator – Helping teams learn how to use lean startup methodologies, customer development, and validate what products to build in the first place.
  • Leadership Program – Developing product managers and leaders inside the city who build and test ideas like startups, using prototyping, behaviour science, and design thinking.

The Open Lab Accelerator is not unlike Preflight, the successful Startup Edmonton program that has helped local success stories like Poppy Barley.

Open Lab Launch

Michael Strong, a planner with the City of Edmonton, was one of the speakers at yesterday’s launch events. He was sort of the guinea pig for Open Lab, and he described how the approach helped his team think about new ways of achieving one of their objectives, which is to get people using and thinking about LRT in a different way. They have mocked up an app that would combine the “get me from A to B” and “what’s around me” approaches to help people more effectively use the LRT.

As I indicated above, this isn’t the first time the City has tried to tap into the local startup community. I am reminded somewhat of the lackluster Leveraging Technical Expertise Locally program, for instance. I think what’s different this time is that everyone involved recognizes the biggest hurdle is culture. And certainly Startup Edmonton has demonstrated success with getting people to think differently in a way that gets results.

Another big difference from the past is that the City has continue to embrace open data and there’s a lot more to work with now than there was six years ago. There’s a greater understanding of what open data is, what the benefits are, and how the City can work together with citizens to get things done. Indeed the news release highlights the recently launched 311 Explorer as one example of “how City data can be useful to everyone.”

So I am optimistic about Open Lab. If you want to find out more in person, Startup Edmonton is hosting a series of Open Lab Meetups on the last Thursday of the month from 2pm to 5pm. Open Lab representatives will be there to hear your ideas and visions and to help guide you.

CITYlab

I have been hearing about CITYlab for months now, but no one could give me a clear description of what it was. In retrospect, that’s probably because no one knew! They had an idea but weren’t sure where to take it. Now CITYlab has found an anchor, in the Open City Initiative, and the City is ready to start experimenting with a new approach to placemaking.

citylab

From the news release:

“CITYlab will partner with groups and individuals on projects and events that test or support the City’s urban planning goals. CityLab will serve as a resource for Edmontonians with creative and new urban planning ideas.”

The aim is to be a “laboratory to support and create small, temporary projects, activities and events to advance conversations around urban planning.” They want to make urban planning fun, as difficult as that might sound!

You might expect a project like this to rely heavily on techology, but CITYlab’s first experiment is decidedly analog. Starting on March 7, CITYlab will be distributing self-addressed stamped postcards across the city. If you get one, they want you to write down your urban planning ideas or projects and send it back. All of the returned postcards will be used to make a temporary art installation, and CITYlab is committing to undertaking at least one of the ideas or projects suggested. If you’re so inclined, you can also submit a project idea online.

citylab

One of the folks behind CITYlab is Jeff Chase, a senior planner who you might know from Edmonton’s NextGen or #yegsnowfight. He is a big supporter of Make Something Edmonton and understands the value of a different way to engage citizens on urban planning. “These creative new approaches to planning will help us meet the challenges that our city faces as it grows,” he said in the news release.

CITYlab still feels a little nebulous to me, but at least it’s out in the open now. If citizens are willing to get involved, it feels like there’s an opportunity to help shape and define the initiative further.

You can follow @PlanEdmonton on Twitter for updates, or check out the #yegcitylab hashtag. You can also email citylab@edmonton.ca if you want more information or two request a postcard.

Taking steps to become an Open City

Here’s what I wrote about the Open City Initiative back in June:

“I like the direction outlined in the Open City Initiative, unfortunately I just don’t have much confidence that it’ll go beyond a report and lots of talk.”

I questioned whether the report would sit on a shelf or if its goals and objectives would be resourced and actioned. With the launch of Open Lab and CITYlab, I’m now a bit more confident that the Open City Initiative will have a real impact. These are tangible projects that I think will make a difference.

I’m excited to see how this unfolds!

Recap: 2012 EEDC Annual Luncheon

Yesterday was EEDC’s Annual Luncheon at the Shaw Conference Centre. Now in its 17th year, the event was just as well attended as it was last year! Hosted by Manfred Kalk, Client Services Manager of the SCC, the event was an opportunity to learn about some recent changes at EEDC, to get an update on Edmonton’s economy, and to recognize three organizations that have made significant achievements in recognition, innovation, and community leadership.

First up was EEDC board chair Henry Yip, who talked about some recent successes in our province and about how Alberta can continue to succeed in the future. He also provided some updates on EEDC itself, thanking outgoing president Ron Gilbertson for all of his hard work over the last few years. Outgoing board members include Laura Schuler, Bob Gomes, and Peter Kiss, not to mention Henry Yip himself. The incoming board chair is Peter Silverstone.

EEDC board member Richard Brommeland was up next to hand out the annual achievement awards. The three winners were:

  • Donovan Creative Communications for recognition (those who bring extensive positive awareness and sustained name recognition of Edmonton).
  • Quantiam Technologies for innovation (those who have created or changed a product, process or business practice creating the broadest impact).
  • Homeward Trust Edmonton for community leadership (those who best engage our community or industry to achieve impactful positive change).

Each had the opportunity to speak for a few minutes after receiving their award, and a video was played for each organization as well. From the press release:

"Shortlisting the submissions was not an easy task," notes Richard Brommeland, EEDC board member and chair of the award selection committee. "The award winners do amazing work, and we are the better for them calling Edmonton home."

I know Donovan’s work fairly well. Among other things, they are responsible for EPL’s Spread the words campaign as well as EIA’s Stop the Calgary Habit. It’s great to see them recognized for bringing greater recognition to Edmonton. Quantiam I was not familiar with, but I learned that they are a nanotechnology company that recently created a joint venture with BSAF, the world’s largest chemical company. Exciting to hear that kind of thing happening here in Edmonton! And finally, Homeward Trust is an organization that is doing such important work in our city, so it’s completely appropriate that they were singled out for community leadership. Susan and her team have set the bar high. Congratulations to all three! You can see their videos here.

The keynote speaker was Ron Gilbertson himself, and he spent his time giving us an update on Edmonton’s economic report card (which you can look at here in PDF).

"Edmonton has a remarkable economic story. In 2011, our economy grew and showed momentum, and we are poised for a bright future," says Gilbertson. "Combine that with our quality of life, we are well on our way to becoming recognized as one of the world’s top mid-sized cities."

Overall, we received an “A-Minus” on our report card. The four main areas we need to work on are Office Vacancy Rates (C+), Inflation Rate (C), Annual Growth of Passenger Traffic at EIA (B), and Unemployment Rate (B+).

As everyone knows, our economy is built on oil and gas. Current and planned investment in the oil sands is around $290 billion, and that number is expected to grow. But we know it can’t last forever, something Ron acknowledged. “Should oil ever lose its lustre, we don’t really have a plan B.”

For the most part though, everyone was pretty upbeat about the local economy and our prospects for the future.

My thanks again to EEDC for hosting me at the luncheon! Be sure to follow @EEDC on Twitter for updates.

Recap: 2011 EEDC Annual Luncheon

I was once again fortunate to attend EEDC’s Annual Luncheon, which took place yesterday at the Shaw Conference Centre. After 16 years, the luncheon has become a popular fixture downtown, and it showed yesterday with an absolutely packed Hall D. EEDC uses the event to highlight the work it is doing to help make Edmonton one of the world’s top five mid-sized cities by 2030, and also to honor local businesses making a difference with the EEDC Awards of Excellence. I enjoyed last year’s luncheon, but aside from the length, I thought this year’s was better. The production quality was much improved, with some great looking graphics and videos displayed on the giant screens. EEDC’s own Brent Beatty did an excellent job as the event’s emcee.

This year I was asked by EEDC if I would spend some time with Andrea Wahbe, a journalist visiting from Toronto to learn more about Edmonton’s tech scene. I readily agreed, and enjoyed sharing my take on Edmonton with her. Our conversation naturally touched on more than just technology, so hopefully I was able to provide some useful context. Andrea was only here a short time but she seemed to enjoy downtown, and got to make stops at the Art Gallery of Alberta, Transcend Jasper, and the Edmonton Research Park before heading home.

2011 EEDC Annual Luncheon2011 EEDC Annual Luncheon

The winners of the 2011 EEDC Awards of Excellence are:

From the press release:

“We have some of the best organizations in the country right here in Greater Edmonton that represent and reflect our corporate priority areas: leadership, innovation and recognition. It is an honour to acknowledge and recognize Stantec, Cleankeys and Master Flo Valve for the significant contribution to our community. They engage the community and act as a catalyst for change, while fostering innovation and increasing Edmonton’s visibility on a global level.”

The special mention award went to Hot To Huddle this year, for their work on the Grey Cup 2010 festival. EEDC Board Member Chris LaBossiere handed out the awards.

Ron Gilbertson, EEDC’s President and CEO, and Henry Yip, EEDC Board Chair, were both on hand to give remarks. Henry focused on recognizing the hard work that everyone at EEDC has done, and introduced the board. Ron spent his time discussing the economic situation here in Edmonton, though a little less formally than he did last year. The impending labour shortage was the hot topic, and Ron noted that our unemployment rate is about 5.8%, which is down from 7.3% just a year ago. “The days of Edmonton being a low-cost labour centre are gone,” he said.

One of the interesting things that EEDC did this year was text voting. Everyone in attendance was encouraged to answer three questions about Edmonton’s competitiveness via text message (they used Poll Everywhere). Unfortunately the event was running behind schedule so they only quickly flashed the results up on screen.

2011 EEDC Annual Luncheon

2011 EEDC Annual Luncheon2011 EEDC Annual Luncheon

Most people felt that Edmonton is “wandering” when it comes to competitiveness, we have strengths in some areas but not others, and we lack clear focus. The most critical issue affecting Edmonton’s future competitiveness was “labour supply”, with “investment in innovation” and “transportation and infrastructure” close behind. And finally, the vast majority of respondents said they have a plan to enhance competitiveness at their own companies.

The keynote speaker this year was Deborah L. Wince-Smith, President of the Council on Competitiveness (among other things). She spent her time talking about the revolution we’re experiencing in innovation. She cited things like Google, Facebook, and the iPad, but also talked about nanotechnology and high performance computing. I liked her catchphrase for the latter – “to outcompete you have to outcompute”. Though Deborah focused mainly on the United States, she did try to apply her comments to Edmonton a few times. She defined innovation as “I to the 5th power”: ideas, imagination, impact, individuals, and investment. I have to say that I felt mixed about Deborah’s keynote. Some of the things she said really resonated, while others (like her multiple comments about Facebook toppling dictatorial regimes) definitely did not. I liked the way she closed however, stating that “Edmonton is an energy hotspot, but the rest is up to you.”

Thanks to EEDC for inviting me to the annual luncheon. You can read the January update on Edmonton’s Economy in PDF here, and be sure to follow @EEDC on Twitter for updates.

Shifting the Alberta Advantage

The main thing we talked about yesterday at the ONEdmonton forum was economic development. In addition to breakouts and other discussion, we had two informative presentations that I hope to blog about over the next while. In her presentation on Diversifying Edmonton’s Economy, Tammy Fallowfield, EEDC’s Executive Director of Economic Development, touched on shifting the “Alberta Advantage”. Here’s what her slide said:

  • Remain relatively low tax
  • Not a low cost environment
  • Not a surplus of labour
  • Not a currency ‘bargain’

I think the phrase “Alberta Advantage” means different things to different people, but traditionally our low taxes, low cost of doing business, surplus of labour, and being attractive to investment, have all been considered important aspects. Here are a few notes on each.

Alberta’s low taxes remain a strength. From the Alberta Competitiveness Council’s 2010 report (PDF, 14 MB):

[Taxes and fiscal policy] represents the area of best performance for Alberta, with moderately low tax burdens for both corporations and individuals and a strong government financial position.

Of all the measures that report looks at, Alberta performs the best (unsurprisingly) in taxes and fiscal policy.

What about being a low-cost environment? From the same report:

Within Canada, business costs in Alberta (Edmonton) are lower than Ontario (Toronto), but higher than in each of the other provinces compared. This result is due to Alberta’s strong economy of recent years, which led to a much higher increase in business costs – especially labour, electricity, and facility costs – than seen in other provinces.

I haven’t yet found a good comparison of business costs with regions elsewhere in the world, so let me know if you come across something. I suspect the picture is not as rosy as it once was.

How about our labour force? All across Canada the population is aging, and that (along with our very low fertility rate) is going to lead to labour shortages. Here’s a graph from Alberta’s Occupational Demand & Supply Outlook, 2009-2019 (PDF), that shows this trend for our province:

There are many consequences as a result of this trend, not the least of which is Alberta’s challenge to attract and retain labour. Our taxes will likely also be impacted – an older population means higher costs for health care, and a slow growing labour force means a slow growing tax base.

Let’s look at the Canadian dollar (compared to the US dollar).

The strength of the Canadian dollar has an impact on foreign investment, among other things. As you can see, the dollar has been quite strong in recent years (aside from the dip in late 2008/early 2009), which may not be a good thing for Alberta.

So if being low-cost, having a surplus of labour, and being a relative currency ‘bargain’ are no longer part of the Alberta Advantage, what does that mean?

This diagram comes from the Institute for Competitiveness & Prosperity, based on a presentation that Professor Daniel Trefler of the University of Toronto gave here in Alberta on October 15, 2009. The diagram was originally used to illustrate the shift that China and India have yet to make.

On the same slide that listed the four points above, Tammy included this diagram. That’s the shift we need to make here in Alberta – from being a strong low-cost competitor, to being a strong innovation-based competitor.

How are we going to do that? By making strategic choices. Here’s (more or less) what Tammy showed next:

Tammy went on to talk about the industries that are important for us to focus on here in Edmonton, and a similar exercise would apply for Alberta. I’m not sure if what I have written above is exactly what she was trying to get across, but that’s how I interpreted it.

What do you think about shifting the Alberta Advantage?

Social Media and the City

We’ve all heard the stat: more than half of the world’s population now lives in cities and towns. Wellington E. Webb, former mayor of Denver, is credited as saying “The 19th century was a century of empires, the 20th century was a century of nation states. The 21st century will be a century of cities.” Urban areas are extremely important, for the allocation of resources (such as education and health care) and the creation of social and economic opportunity, among other things. As the UNFPA says: “The challenge for the next few decades is learning how to exploit the possibilities urbanization offers. The future of humanity depends on it.”

I believe that technology is vital for this challenge. It was technology that made the city possible, after all, by enabling and encouraging increased population densities. Urban settlements expose incredible network efficiencies because of this density, whether for trade, communication, or service delivery. It is these network efficiencies that, as strategy consultant and fellow Canadian Jeb Brugmann said, “make cities the world’s strategic centres of social innovation.”

Technology will be used in an endless number of ways to exploit the possibilities and to address the challenges of urbanization, but I think creating a sense of place will be key. Resilient cities, those that are sustainable, eco-efficient, and place-based, are one of the four possible outcomes for cities in a world of significant challenges like climate change, according to Dr. Peter Newman (PDF). Telling the story of a place is necessary for a city to become resilient, because creating a stronger sense of place increases the viability of the local economy and facilitates innovation. Social media is driving transparency in cities and is enabling citizens to tell the story of their place like never before.

One definition for social media comes from JD Lasica and Chris Heuer, and it goes like this: “Any online technology or practice that lets us share (content, opinions, insights, experiences, media) and have a conversation about the ideas we care about.” Put another way, you could say that social media tools and technologies are strengthening democracy.

Social media is becoming the best amplifier of a city that we’ve ever seen. True, social media makes it easy to spread the word beyond a single city and there’s definitely value in that, but it’s at the local level where social media truly shines, by taking the network efficiencies created by cities to the next level. Social media is helping to facilitate a new relationship between government and citizens, is enabling creatives inside cities to better connect with one another, and is empowering citizens like never before. In short, it improves a city’s social capital.

Natural capital is made up of the natural environment, such as the river valley here in Edmonton. On top of that we build infrastructure capital – roads, houses, buildings, lights, etc. Human capital and organizational capital refer to the individuals and organizations that use the natural and infrastructure capital to start and grow families, to build companies, and to otherwise create economic value. Social capital represents trust, social engagement, civic participation, reciprocity, and networks.

Social capital is critical for enabling innovation, making it possible to tackle tough problems. Within a city, social capital is vitally important because as Cameron Sinclair pointed out in his TED Wish, “all problems are local and all solutions are local.” Or as you’ve probably heard in the past, “think global, act local.” I think that applies quite broadly; for instance, to climate change. It’s a global problem, but it’s one that we need to approach locally. If we don’t succeed at reducing our impact on the environment at the local level, there’s no hope for solving the problem globally.

For these reasons, I’m extremely passionate about social media and the city. I’ve written a lot in the past about the impact social media is having on Edmonton and other cities, and I’ll continue to do so. Cities are increasingly important, and social media is making them stronger. I think that’s very exciting!

Related links worth clicking:

Thanks to Ted Gartside for the Creative Commons-licensed globe photo of New York.

Invention vs. Innovation

Post ImageToday Don Dodge posted about a Wall Street Journal article that asks whether Microsoft is driving innovation or playing catch-up with rivals. If I were to ask myself why I read Don’s blog, today’s post would be the answer. Don is careful not to fall into the “Microsoft copies everyone!” or “No they don’t they’re awesome!” traps, and instead gets right to the heart of the matter:

People tend to confuse invention with innovation, as the WSJ has here. They use the words interchangeably, but they are very different.

Invention is the creation of a technology that is totally new. Innovation takes a collection of prior inventions to the next level by combining them with existing products or technologies, and producing a commercially viable product that solves a customer problem.

Both invention and innovation are vitally important to our industry. Microsoft does both but rarely gets credit for it.

I have quoted quite liberally from his post, but I wanted to get all the main points. In the post he also explains how R&D are related to invention and innovation. Definitely go read the entire thing, it’s worth it.

Read: Don Dodge