January 13, 2020

To stimulate innovation and growth in Alberta, we need the A-Prize

Over 300 years ago, one of the greatest challenges facing nations was the ability to determine a ship’s location at sea. Naval, and therefore global, power was the bounty for such knowledge. Yet it eluded experts.

To solve the grand challenge, the Longitude Prize of 1714 was created. It was the world’s first recorded successful incentive prize. Essentially, a sum of money was put up by the British government as an award to anyone who could find a way to precisely determine a ship’s longitude at sea. Innovative solutions flowed in, a solution was found, and more than 200 years of naval supremacy followed.

Today, Alberta, too, faces grand challenges. After five of the most difficult years we’ve had in a generation, this decade will be filled with more. Human challenges, unemployment challenges, energy challenges, food challenges, environmental challenges, policy challenges and the list goes on. Alberta is not unique in its reality facing these challenges. They are global. Yet within these challenges lies opportunity — one to be a truly different place in the world.

Every day I see Alberta businesses, CEOs and entrepreneurs in every sector tackling the world’s most important and complex challenges. Getting emissions out of fossil fuels, finding alternative uses for bitumen, trying to improve health, digging deep into data with AI, growing more food on less land. These are what companies in Alberta and around the world are grappling with.

What if we could make Alberta the place where these problems get solved? What if we actively focused on making Alberta the place to solve the world’s biggest challenges? That Alberta was THE place for those who wanted to do hard and difficult work. Paraphrasing John F. Kennedy, what if people came to Alberta not because the work was easy, but because it was hard?

As 2020 gets rolling, there is an opportunity for us to make Alberta a different kind of place. One that actively and proudly takes on big challenges facing the world — essentially as our brand and our image. Not to try and compete on individual sectors, but on a belief, a spirit and a passion with the proven talent and track record to back it up.

Imagine this. Alberta is the place to tackle the world’s biggest challenges. Let’s say you are a business or entrepreneur and you have identified a grand challenge, or you are the best in your field and you want to solve a big problem, or what if you have the capital to deploy to solve these challenges? You come to Alberta.

Our positioning to do this is incredibly strong. We have a history of global excellence in energy and agriculture. In Alberta, we have a dynamic transportation sector and are strategically located for air, road and rail systems. We have one of the top three artificial intelligence hubs on earth, and we have nurtured technology talent that has created world-class innovation companies like iStockphoto, Shareworks by Morgan Stanley, Benevity, Bioware, Attabotics, AltaML and more. We don’t need to build something out of nothing; we can build our purpose on existing strengths and assets.

How do we do that? Here’s an idea: The A-Prize.

Recalling the Longitude Prize from earlier, I propose creating the A-Prize. Alberta companies, institutions and governments put their grand challenges out to the world to solve, and find ways to get them to solve them in Alberta. Incentive prizes often result in multiple company formations, large investments, and scale-ups of research and development. Alberta’s history with COSIA’s Carbon XPrize and CRIN’s grand challenges are important legacies to build on.

Net-zero energy. Bitumen beyond combustion. Plant-based protein. Clean air. Healthier populations. Machine learning in health care. These challenges are no match for Albertan innovation.

We can do it. We have been doing it for years.

When we wanted to figure out how to extract oil from oilsands, it was Albertans who solved it. When we wanted to do the same with a smaller environmental footprint, it was Albertans who solved it. When the world needed a Hepatitis C vaccine, it was an Albertan who solved it. When the world needed a new programming language, it was an Albertan who developed JavaScript. When we needed to fend off the common cold, it was an Albertan who developed Cold-Fx.

We have a long and rich history of solving grand challenges in Alberta. It is part of our DNA. This year, lets vigorously and visibly reclaim this. That would really say something about the Alberta of the future.

Adam Legge is president of the Business Council of Alberta.

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