Pathway to sustainability for Calgary

Sustainability expert and author Bob Willard was in Calgary a few weeks ago and I had the chance to meet with him for an article I wrote for UCalgary news. Here is a condensed version of our Q&A.

JC: We are facing some challenges in Calgary these days. What are our opportunities in these challenging times?

Bob Willard: First of all, when you face those challenges as a city or other organisation you feel like what you are experiencing is new and different from what anybody else has experienced.  But the reality is that there are other towns and cities that have gone through very, very severe challenges on the economic front especially. Of course, Calgary is reeling under the downturn in the oil and gas sector, which has been an incredible engine for the economy, but the dynamics that they need to be able to tap into to be able to get out of this are a little different than they would have been 10 years ago.

A downturn implies that at some time it’s going to upturn; it’s going to go back to the way it should be, always has been – back to “normal”. I think there is more and more evidence these days that this is not a downturn. It’s the beginning of a transition to a different kind of economy. And the way you handle it is very much governed by whether you think you will go back to “normal” or whether you create an upturn to a different kind of economy.

Calgary has an opportunity to explore what the next steps would be if it were to start that upturn towards a new economy – what it would look like, how to be smart about whatever economic stimulus the city can tap into, and how to use it to accelerate the journey toward that new destination – as opposed to wasting it on trying to get back to something which may not be possible any more.

So a lot of what I have been trying to do (during my visit to Calgary) to is to reassure folks that this is not new. That secondly, it’s doable. And thirdly, it’s really exciting because of the expertise within this jurisdiction. The non- governmental organisations and the city staff have a lot of these answers. You can also tap into the expertise at the University of Calgary, who have a declared intent to help the city as well as the province.

So the stars are really aligned if you are looking for a location that is perfectly positioned to capitalise on whatever stimulus the province and the feds want to put in to cities. Calgary has earned the right to be at the top of the list.


JC:  … as far as getting money from the government?

BW: So where would the feds want to put infrastructure money? Well Toronto needs some, Vancouver needs some. Calgary and Edmonton certainly need some. You go down the list and for different reasons they all need some. The question is: who needs it the most right now? And there is a strong case that Calgary should be pretty close to the top. Because they can use it in a way that proves that you can be successful as you move toward this new economy. For whatever reason, the image of Calgary is that it is probably a little bit more locked in to the previous mindset of the old economy than others and if we can we pull off this transformation in Calgary, we can pull it off anywhere.

There is no voice as powerful as a convert’s voice.

JC: what does a successful new economy look like?

BW: There are lots of schools of thought on the attributes of this so-called new economy. I call it Capitalism 2.0. It’s a different form of capitalism with different metrics, different ways in which the business model is oriented, and so on.

The way in which we measure the success of companies is evolving to be more inclusive of not only the financial success and financial capital they are generating but also tracks the intangible social capital they are generating, the human capital they are generating, the natural capital they are restoring or at least not negatively impacting.

The metrics around what a real fit-for-the-future, vibrant, resilient, sustainable company looks like are evolving. And there are some companies that are starting to embrace them and measure themselves against those metrics: Unilever, Ikea, The Body Shop. Large companies are starting to get with the program because they’ve tried it enough that they realize that this isn’t dangerous; it’s actually good for business.

JC: What role does Calgary play in terms of international sustainability opportunities?

BW: Calgary is a proof of concept opportunity for the federal government when they talk about investing billions of dollars in infrastructure.

JC: When you talk about infrastructures you talk about renewable energies…

BW: Green infrastructure is designed and built by architects and engineers who include environmental and social factors in their projects, such as buildings, bridges, roads, pipes and electrical lines.

Secondly, the built infrastructure is powered by renewable energy, as opposed to fossil fuels.

Thirdly, you engage communities so that when you propose these projects they are not going to throw up their hands in despair. The community engagement this city has been doing for years needs to be continued, with the help of perhaps experts from NGOs and academics. When we talk about infrastructures it is not only the physical stuff but also the soft stuff around the change management that is required. So you ensure that these changes are lasting changes.

Do you put your money in an energy east pipeline or do you put it into smarter renewable energy infrastructure? It depends on whether you think we are going to snap back out of this downturn to the old economic model or whether we need to work towards a new green economy in which fossil fuel might not be needed. So why would you build an empty pipeline? That is a very sensitive issue and it deserves better dialogue than we have heard so far.

JC: Conversations coming out of the oil patch these days are bleak at best. It’s a tough pill to swallow for a lot of people.

BW: The difficult part is the implications for the people who will be out of work tomorrow. A lot of smart planning needs to be invested in the retraining of these people, the support of these people during this transition so that they are going to be candidates for these new and better jobs; and in the meantime before they get those, they are going to be looked after during the transition, which is why the access to EI is so important.

Plus, there are a lot of transferable skills in the natural resources sector that can very easily by deployed in clean energy sectors.

JC: What was your biggest surprise during your trip here (in Calgary)?

BW: I guess my biggest surprise is that I am not surprised. I have come to know this part of the country as being far ahead of the rest of the country and misunderstood by the rest of the country. I have a lot of faith in what is going on in Alberta and Calgary. It’s in the eye of the storm. And if we can pull off the necessary transitions here, we can pull them off anywhere.

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