January 17, 2020

Why innovation matters: A Q&A with Tricia Shanahan

Illustration by Scott Carmichael

We love to talk about innovation — after all, it’s right in our name: Alberta Innovates. But why is innovation important? What makes it worthwhile for Albertan industries, entrepreneurs and researchers to pour time, effort and money into developing new technologies and platforms? 

The answer, in some ways, is straightforward: to find new ways of doing things that are more profitable, better for society and better for the world. Emerging technologies have the potential to create jobs, economic growth and a better tomorrow, but their development and eventual adoption requires significant investment.

For the past 20 years, Tricia Shanahan has been assisting organizations develop and implement new technologies. As Alberta Innovates’ Executive Director of Platforms and Emerging Technologies, she works with businesses, universities and laboratories across all of Alberta’s sectors to bring new technologies to market. Read on for Tricia’s thoughts on why innovation is important, and what impacts emerging technologies are having in Alberta.

Q. What is your role with Alberta Innovates?

A. As the Executive Director of Platforms and Emerging Technology, I’m responsible for facilitating the growth, development and execution of Alberta Innovates’ emerging technology programs and projects. It’s a relatively new business line – only a year old – but in a nutshell, my role is act as a champion to co-ordinate and develop emerging technology solutions across the corporation to ensure applications are adopted across multiple sectors, including health, clean energy, agriculture and others. The goal is to keep Alberta competitive in rapidly growing digital economy and successfully act as a central player that is a catalyst for the province’s innovation ecosystem.

Q. So, what exactly is an “emerging technology”?

A. That’s a great question. If I could find the golden answer, I would be rich. It’s a hard one to answer in the fact that it’s a relative term. It’s a term used to describe new technologies, but they aren’t necessarily totally new. They could already be in the marketplace, but they are under continuous development. For instance,

When we talk about emerging technologies, we’re talking about technologies that are either new or where the full potential of the technology hasn’t been fully realized. These technologies have the potential to bring significant advances in areas like health, social responsibility and economic growth.

Q. What are some of the key areas where emerging technologies are being developed in Alberta?

A. There are four areas where we see major opportunities for Alberta – we call them the “core four.” Those are data-enabled innovation, digital technology for business transformation, innovative production and distribution, and clean technology. What makes these four areas so important is that they’re enablers. They contribute to advancement and innovation in multiple sectors.

Data-enabled innovation is a group of technologies that is working with large quantities of complex data. So we’re talking about artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, quantum technologies and so on. Alberta is a global leader in AI, home to both the Alberta Machine Learning Institute and Google’s DeepMind lab. We also have projects like the Alberta Data Institute, which provides researchers and businesses with access to the enormous datasets that are required to develop applications like artificial intelligence. That could have an impact in a huge variety of sectors, including health, agriculture, environmental monitoring and more.

Examples of digital technology for businesses would be things like cybersecurity, geomatics, the Internet of Things, and geospatial technologies. These help businesses collect and analyze data, and implement systems that make them more efficient and profitable.

Innovative production and distribution technologies are those that allow us to develop new products and new ways to transport them. That includes robotics, autonomous transportation and the creation of advanced materials.

And finally, clean technology is obvious a huge area for us in Alberta. Oil and gas are an important part of our economy, but we’re looking at ways to minimize the environmental impact of oil extraction, create new value-added products and develop our renewable resources. One of the big areas for us right now is what we call “bitumen beyond combustion” – that is, using bitumen from the oil sands to develop materials that are potentially more profitable, such as carbon fibre, asphalt and plastic.

Q. What kind of new technologies are you expecting to see emerge?

A. Emerging technology is obviously very fluid and is evolving rapidly. But taking a high-level look at the near future, there are few areas where I see growth happening.

Right now, and in the immediate future, we’re seeing a lot of work in data enablement, personalized and predictive medicine, genomics, nanotechnology, extended reality, 3D printing, the Internet of Things, blockchain technology and machine learning. These are areas where some work has already been done, and I’d expect to see more development and new technologies coming out of these areas in the near future.

Beyond that, we’ve got some technologies that are starting to gain some traction. Things like smart robots, biometric technology, quantum computing, autonomous vehicles and augmented reality could reach their full potential somewhere in the next five to 10 years.

Q. Why is it important for Alberta to invest in these kinds of new technologies?

A. It’s pretty simple, really. Emerging technology is being adopted everywhere. It’s evolving rapidly in a lot of markets, and it’s moving into every sector, including travel and tourism. It’s ubiquitous, and if Alberta doesn’t invest, and doesn’t keep up competitively, we’re going to lose our traction in the marketplace. Business is changing, research is changing and our skillsets are changing. We’ve got a great, highly skilled workforce here, whether that’s in mechanical and chemical engineering or research in quantum computing. By marrying emerging technologies with those skill sets, we’re going to be able to take it to market and earn our place on the map as the innovators.

Q. What role do these technologies play in the province? How could they benefit the world beyond our borders?

A. We’ve got a lot of sectors in the province that are adopting some of the new technologies that are being developed.  The key thing is that these emerging technologies are enablers – they help us achieve better outcomes economically, environmentally and socially. Taking data as an example, when you’re able to use sensors to gather data, and then use tools like artificial intelligence and machine learning to better analyze that data, that can have enormous impacts. In hospitals, that means more effective, accurate treatment for patients. In agriculture, it’s better crop yields and reduced pesticide use.

That impact doesn’t end at our borders. We’re in a digital economy where everybody can compete, and the technologies we develop have benefits locally, nationally and globally. New technologies and products we develop in Alberta can be exported and sold across the world, providing the same benefits internationally while also allowing the province to grow and diversify its economy.

Q. What excites you the most about what’s happening with emerging technologies?

A. There’s so much! I’ve been working in this sector for 20 years, in the United States, Singapore and Canada. The ecosystem is changing. It used to be very silo-based, but we’re starting to see that you can’t do this alone. There’s more collaboration across universities, not-for-profits, government and private-sector start-ups. We’re building ecosystems, and there’s been a collision of knowledge that we can leverage for better innovation and understanding. We’re starting to speak the same language, and we’re going to raise that literacy on what emerging technology is and isn’t. I’m so excited to see citizens, patients and consumers starting to define and ask for some understanding of what’s happening in this space.