Innovation meets conversation at the University of Calgary’s Schulich Connects speaker series, and this year’s season opened with Judy Fairburn, a double alum from the School of Engineering and a member of the Board of Directors for Calgary Economic Development, discussing how we are engineering our digital future.

0927 Engineering digital future

Artificial intelligence, robotics, 3D printing, nanotechnology, materials science, quantum computing and billions of people connected by mobile devices are just a small part of an unprecedented convergence of innovative technology. The World Economic Forum refers to this convergence as the “Fourth Industrial Revolution”.

“What’s different about this technological revolution is that with digital, the pace of the change is exponential,” said Fairburn. “Our next wave of economic growth in Calgary depends on the velocity and scale of which we deploy the opportunities that the digital economy provides us to strengthen the competitiveness of our existing sectors and be open to new opportunities.”

Facilitating important conversations about our future and engaging thoughtful dialogue about economic opportunities is a key element of the mandate for Calgary Economic Development.

Innovation has become such a catchall phrase, Fairburn cited a definition derived from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD): “Implementation of a new or significantly improved technology, product, process, service or business models that creates value.”

Fairburn shared the stage with Terry Rock, the CEO of Calgary Technologies Inc.,and they provided the students, faculty and alumni, an overview of the challenges and opportunities that Calgary faces in the increasingly competitive environment.

Their optimism is rooted in the truism ‘talent is king’ in the new economic order and the Schulich School of Engineering and Faculty of Science at the University of Calgary are producing top engineering and computer science grads. In fact, Living in a Digital World is an area of expertise for the university.

Paradoxically, “location” counts for little in the digital economy but “place” – being a city where people want to make a living and make a life – means the world.

People, place and innovation are three of the four pillars of the updated economic strategy for the city titled Calgary in the New Economy that City Council approved in June. A business-friendly environment is the fourth.

“Digital is all about people as the core asset, so digital firms can spring up anywhere in the world,” said Fairburn, who earned both a Bachelor of Science and Masters of Science (both in Chemical Engineering) from Schulich.

In the midst of a successful career in the energy sector, Fairburn deliberately shifted her career path to integrate digital. She is now helping chart Calgary’s next chapter – with digital at its core – in her role on the Board at Calgary Economic Development and as a mentor, director, and investor in digital start-up firms; including through U-of-C’s Creative Destruction Lab.

She is also recent past board chair for Alberta Innovates which is driving a new strategy centred on digital’s core role in advancing our health, agriculture, forestry, and energy sectors. The Economic Strategy for Calgary also focuses on innovation to drive productivity and competitiveness in our core sectors, including; energy, agribusiness, transportation and logistics, and in emerging industries such as health and life sciences, financial services, creative industries, and tourism.

“No economic sector is immune to digital disruption,” Fairburn said. “For the economic strategy to take hold, it requires all of us to embrace the change.”  

Given that half of the most in-demand skills in 2017 weren’t even in the Top 10 in 2013, it is vital that educational programming is able to respond to the fast-evolving world where automation is posed to create enduring workforce challenges.

“The world is on the verge of a digital revolution that will transform how we work, live and play, and it is our responsibility to prepare students for jobs that don’t even exist today,” noted Bill Rosehart, Dean of the Schulich School of Engineering.

Calgary has one of the best-educated populations in Canada. However, with the booming energy sector driving the economy for much of the last three decades our tech talent is over-represented in areas like petroleum engineers and geoscientists, but short on software engineers.

Most of our competitor cities in Canada have 50 per cent or more of their tech talent in fields such as software engineering, computer programmers and interactive media developers. In Calgary, that number is 25 per cent, so our population needs different skills to compete in a new economy.   In fact, this spring there were almost 1,000 unfilled tech jobs in the city.

As part of a province-wide effort to meet that tech talent demand, the first 60 students in a master’s degree in software engineering at the Schulich School of Engineering start classes this month.

In this time of ground-breaking change, Fairburn left the audience with three messages:

• “It’s a global innovation race – time is of the essence.”

• “Our next wave is critical to Calgary’s future – embrace what digital can do for your career, your business and take advantage of the digital skill programs available.”

• “Have confidence Calgary. We are a ‘just do it’ place. Let’s aspire, set milestones for ourselves and then work together – the young and the experienced – to make it happen.”

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