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Can the Edmonton region turn itself into a global competitor?

Innovation will be key to turning economic disruption into opportunity, says Edmonton Global
hand sanitizer black diamond distillary CC 0003
David Scade, co-owner of St. Albert's Black Diamond Distillery, pivoted his business to begin producing hand sanitizer to address shortages across the province and the country. CHRIS COLBOURNE/St. Albert Gazette

The Edmonton region will need to become globally competitive through innovation as the province recovers from COVID-19, says one Edmonton-area expert.

The St. Albert Rotary Club invited Malcolm Bruce, the CEO of Edmonton Global, to speak to members via Zoom on May 22. Edmonton Global is a regional economic development corporation working to create local, regional, provincial, national and global partnerships to attract investment and quality jobs to the Edmonton Metropolitan Region. 

"Importantly, they were creating a company to work at the speed of business," Bruce said.

Stakeholders in the Edmonton region have spent too much time competing amongst themselves instead of with international competitors, Bruce said. He noted 82 per cent of the 22 international site selectors interviewed by Edmonton Global said they didn't think about the Edmonton region at all when they were looking to expand or open new facilities.

The remaining 18 per cent only thought of the region in terms of energy, calling the area "cold, remote and disconnected."

“This then gave us a very useful starting point to start to change the dialogue and create a new, compelling regional narrative about who we are and what we represent,” he said. "We are young, we are educated and we are growing."

To figure out which sectors will find opportunity amid the pandemic, Edmonton Global conducted a risk assessment should COVID-19 trigger a global recession.

"All companies and sectors in the stock market are being hit by the current economic crisis, but not all are being hit the same degree and in the same way. The reality is, investors are parking their money on the sidelines waiting for the storm to pass," Bruce said. 

Real estate, mining, hotel and tourism, auto and electronic components, transportation and aerospace would all be considered high risk, while food and beverages, leisure and entertainment, renewable energy and pharmaceuticals are low risk. 

For example, videoconferencing platform Zoom doubled in value in March to $35 billion – currently, Zoom is worth three times more than Fiat Chrysler.  

Now is the time for Alberta to be bold in its actions to create solutions for the world's most pressing problems, writes Lynette Tremblay, Edmonton Global vice-president of strategy and innovation.

Opportunities for Alberta exist in energy and agricultural sustainability, food security, healthcare and pharmaceutical innovation, artificial intelligence and machine learning applications for manufacturing and construction. 

Focusing on development of local supply chains for critical products will help meet immediate demand and stabilize businesses in the short term, according to a recent Edmonton Global report.

"Innovation will be the key to turning this economic disruption into opportunity, but it will require significant and immediate investments in talent and digital infrastructure to support our businesses in adopting the next generation of tools that will help them become more globally competitive," Tremblay wrote. 

Light at the end of the tunnel  

The Site Selectors Guild, which helps multinationals find new or expansion locations, identified three key trends to watch going forward.

Technology and digitization will accelerate, Bruce said, pointing to Alberta Health Services as an example of this.

The province's integrated supply chain with full visibility of the supply side of what they had in stock gave Alberta the ability to provide medical supplies to Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia. 

"On a go-forward basis, you will not be part of the supply chain unless you are digitizing and using technology to integrate in a more comprehensive, transparent way," he said. 

There will be a national move to onshore certain supply chains as well, he said.

An increase in onshoring, especially in the pharmaceutical and life science industries, increased activity in warehouse and distribution, and production post-COVID-19 were among findings of a survey released by the Site Selectors Guild.  

Finally, the third trend, which Bruce said he found the most interesting, was seeing businesses move to lower cost jurisdictions. 

"That means that places like the Edmonton metropolitan region, that have incredible livability and affordability, will become more attractive to those that are looking to do business."

Edmonton Global has conducted research and worked with businesses and stakeholders to develop a set of suggested measures for the government to take to make sure the province is ready to take advantage.

These include measures to stabilize and grow the province's supply chains, invest in digital infrastructure, and finance technology adoption and productivity improvements.

"Activating our networks will be a key consideration for regional businesses and other networks that we have to be able to promote and create opportunity in this region," he said.

"What we're really talking about is for us all to become ambassadors for why this is a great place to invest, and a great place to live."