It looks like tech and innovation - at least the kind that happens outside the oil patch - are only being seen as minor issues in Alberta's looming election.
Of the three polls that track the issues about which Alberta voters care most, respondents in a recent survey released by Leger showed the most support for issues such as diversifying the economy and alternative energy development. Nine per cent and 5 per cent of respondents, respectively, counted these issues as the most influential to their vote. (The survey's 1,003 participants chose two items from a list that were the most important to them in the upcoming election). Both of these categories could, in theory, include the tech sector.
“The economy” took a larger chunk as a key concern for voters, with 29 per cent counting it as a top issue. Surveys by Ipsos and Research Co. reported much the same, and while, as a broad category, “the economy” could include the tech sector, Evan Hu, chair of Platform Calgary - formerly Calgary Technologies Inc. - said that in Alberta this classification pretty much just means the oil and gas industry.
“The innovation file is basically missing-in-action, which is unfortunate,” Hu said.
He added that none of the parties have done much to include innovation outside of the energy industry in their platforms, and that it's too late in the game for this to change.
“I'm not willing to accept that diversification is a dirty word,” he said. “I think it's important we start talking publicly about pivoting our economy.”
While innovation in the province readily reaches the energy sector - and to a lesser extent, the green energy sector - it only trickles down to software and tech outside those fields. This happens despite the province's growing AI industry. (Although notable investments have been made here, they pale in comparison to the money still flowing to the oil market.)
Over the last few weeks, Alberta Party leader Stephen Mandel announced some of his party's positions that appear innovation-friendly. He proposed the creation of a test lane for autonomous vehicles on the QE2 and giving $375 million in funding to Alberta Innovates; the organization could not comment on this story as a publicly funded organization.
“I think we're one of the more creative parties out here,” said Winston Leung, Alberta Party candidate for Edmonton-West Henday.
“We're looking at innovative and pragmatic solutions that help move Alberta forward.”
According to Leung, the party hopes to create a “climate of entrepreneurship,” in Alberta, in part by doubling the allowable tax deduction for small- and medium-sized businesses from $500,000 to $1 million.
Alberta - with its harsh winters and long stretches of road - provides a thorough testing ground for autonomous vehicles, Leung said, and Alberta should pivot itself and leverage its STEM and AI talent to become a leader in these growing fields.
According to an email sent by Rachel Notley's NDP, Alberta's current government aims to focus on the AI industry through a five-year acceleration initiative which, it claims, would help direct investments to keep experts in the province.
“Alberta is a global leader in [AI] research and Machine Learning research. However, we have lagged behind in commercializing that research,” the email said.
The NDP's platforms also includes a $100 million investment over five years, which would see $8 million per year go to Alberta Innovates, and $2 million per year for the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (Amii), allowing it to open a Calgary office.
Neither the United Conservative Party nor the Alberta Liberal Party responded to requests for interviews. However, according to the UCP's platform, the party aims to turn Alberta into the "best business environment in Canada." It will attempt to do this by streamlining how start-ups and smaller companies secure private and public funding, engaging in pilot programs to determine a set of best practices, and drawing more entrepreneurs from abroad through the " creation of streams within the Alberta Immigrant Nominee Program."
The party also plans on implementing its Technology Innovation and Emissions Reductions (TIER) regime. The proposed plan will, among other things, create a fund to help companies use technology to reduce emissions.
The Alberta Liberal Party's platform proposes expanding STEM training in the province, and increasing the number of graduates in the field, which could include people working both in and outside the oil field, by 25 per cent within the next five years.
The new-ish Freedom Conservative Party (FCP), however, takes the stance that innovation should be driven by the private sector, “not the government picking winners and losers,” according to Alex McColl, Policy Director with the party.
“To encourage the private sector like they did historically under Ralph Klein, we're going to bring back the Alberta Advantage [marginal flat tax],” he said.
The FCP will also cut corporate business tax back to 10 per cent immediately and abolish all small business taxes in the province. Further, the party believes that completely removing the carbon tax will help big Canadian energy companies drive innovation.
Both the NDP and Alberta party put much of their faith in what Leung called “material innovations.” The NDP noted that if elected, the party would work “hard to innovate from within [Alberta's] most important sector.”
For instance, both parties support using bitumen pucks as a novel way of transporting and exporting oil sands bitumen by rail.
“If it [the pucks fall] off the rail cars, it's easy to pick them up and throw them back in. If there's an oil spill, it's hard to clean up,” Leung said.
The NDP's email said that the Notley government helped get the technology off the ground through supporting InnoTech, a subsidiary of Alberta Innovates. The email also touted the government's GreenSTEM entrepreneurial pilot and the Alberta Entrepreneur Incubator.
Hu, however, believes the province will need to further diversify its economy. Oil and gas have driven the province for the past 50-odd years, but the global shift toward green energy and carbon reduction will one day change the demand for Alberta's key industry.
According to Hu, these days may seem as far in the future, but it's more a matter 20 years or so, rather than 50.
“It's obvious that the way we've done business - the status quo is not going to carry,” he said. “It doesn't matter how we feel about it.”