Alberta’s Innovation Advantage

Getting around at Calgary International Airport

The Canadian province of Alberta has a reputation for fostering innovation. From strategic foresight to systemic design this reputation is well-earned.

Alberta is a province in Western Canada known internationally for its expansive landscape of prairie and mountains, oil industry, and prehistoric riches. Its weather can be extreme — from large temperature swings (including the Chinook winds) to plenty of sunshine and snow — and the position as a place where the relationship between humans and the natural world is made obvious.

This connection between humans and their environment has prompted much innovative thinking and in this post, we profile a three innovation resources that this province has produced.


Policy Innovation: Eliminating Homelessness

Homelessness is often mistakenly viewed as a complex issue when it is not; it’s the implications and causes that are complex. That’s how the city of Medicine Hat approached the problem as they developed and enacted a comprehensive housing plan in their city to eliminate chronic homelessness. The answer to homelessness is building homes. Innovative policy solutions don’t have to be complicated and can save money and lives with simplicity.

What can we learn from this? The biggest lesson is that homelessness is a problem that can be solved. The language of ‘complexity’ has mistakenly crept into the discussion of homelessness as a way that recognizes the effects of having nowhere to live, but ignores the causes and potential solutions. By recognizing that a housing policy that addresses a simple — but not always easy — relationship between supply and need, Medicine Hat has created a policy that addresses an issue that affects cities worldwide.

Cattle ranching

The Alberta CoLab was developed by the provincial government to address some of the systemic design challenges facing the province. The need to transition itself away from an economic and cultural dependence on oil and other resources are one of the major reasons why Alberta needs an ability to address systemic issues and see potential options in the future.

To address both of these, the CoLab has developed two resources that can assist systems designers and policy makers worldwide.

Strategic Foresight Field Guide

Ever wonder how to better see trends and support your decision-making in light of what is coming, not just what’s in front of us? Ever wonder how to deal with zombies? If one or both of those are true, the Alberta Co-Lab has developed the resource for you. This clever, useful, and sometimes funny guide is an accessible tool to help orient anyone working in complex policy spaces to envision future options for strategy and programming.

Why use this? All kidding aside, the zombie-fighting theme can be used to stand in for ‘dead’ thinking. Foresight can help us see trends happening now to make strategic decisions moving forward. It isn’t guesswork, but a structured set of methods and tools to do well. This guide provides an accessible, practical means to apply strategic foresight to complicated and complex problems.

Blue Alberta skies

Systemic Design Toolkit

Systemic Design is the application of systems thinking, strategic foresight, and service design to addressing complex, systemic problems. These are the big, thorny issues that policymakers grapple with and often have no answer, rather more useful and less harmful ways of addressing them. Alberta CoLab’s former director, Alex Ryan, has written an accessible introduction on the topic and is a collaborating partner in a larger set of initiatives aimed at promoting systemic design practice.

While he was there, CoLab developed a toolkit to help people learn about and practice systemic design. Follow The Rabbit is a systemic design toolkit that is designed for practitioners and researchers looking to see, scope, and tackle systemic social and policy issues.

What will this do for me? This toolkit provides the basic building blocks for how to think in systems while exploring and creating potential problem solving strategies for systemic issues. Systems issues are particularly thorny because in our attempts to address them there are always far-reaching consequences that we may not be aware of or intend. Systemic design, practiced well, can allow us to account for and mitigate the effects of our interventions into the system and maximize beneficial value while minimizing harm.

Geographic Innovation

Alberta’s history, geography, and resource-base have provided a perspective on innovation that is distinct. We can learn from places like this. There are confluences of people, space, policy, and happenstance that make certain environments more conducive to innovation than others. Sometimes this is out of need other times out of opportunity.

This is the first in a periodic series that will profile places and spaces that offer perspectives that challenge us to see things and do things differently. If you’re interested in more of this or just innovation resources in general, subscribe to the Censemaking Innovation Newsletter and get these delivered to your inbox every 2 weeks.

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