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June 29 2020

Innovation in Calgary: An Interview with Dr. Terry Rock

Dr. Terry Rock was gracious enough to sit down with us (virtually) to discuss innovation and the future of Calgary. The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: How do we define innovation?

Innovation is about finding new ways of creating and capturing value. Ultimately, it’s a recombining of resources. The most important thing is that there has been some impact or some effect as a result; an invention isn’t an innovation until it’s in use and has changed patterns and behavior. Given this, every innovation is ultimately a social innovation because it brings about that change.

Even though we think of social innovation as a way to change massive social problems, when we’re in the business of innovation we’re actually in the business of changing society – that’s why we need to have an ethical framework to guide what we do.

For Calgary, I think there are a few imperatives behind this. At a higher level, Platform Calgary’s vision is to create shared prosperity by making Calgary a global hub for startups and innovation. To do this, the first imperative that we all need to understand is that new businesses (innovations) are the primary driver of new jobs, and new jobs come from new and innovating business.

Thinking innovatively also creates new industries. In Calgary, our large oil and gas sector meant that we had remote operations which in turn created new wireless and sensor-based solutions which can be applied to sensor-based “Internet of Things” solutions. It’s hard to foresee, but this innovation can then continue to create new industries.

We need a city-wide culture of innovation where we value and invest in people, infrastructure, networks, and capital to create these collisions.

Q: How would you describe the innovation ecosystem in our city? What can we do to improve it, from a policy perspective, in the future?

Compared to cities around the world, Calgary is currently in the “activation” phase of the ecosystem lifecycle, which is the first stage. Unfortunately, we are currently leaking our best talent, capital, and high-potential businesses to other markets. The tipping point we ’re trying to get to over the next 5-10 years is to become an attractor. You can envision process to get there as similar to a flywheel – we have to build momentum and attract talent on one side, and tell our story on the other side; the two sides feed off each other. To borrow another metaphor, we need to create our own engine.

And Calgary has what it takes.

The characteristics of a startup “hub” include corporations looking for ways to get an edge by innovating their business and local media who are actively telling the story of innovation. Then, you need tentpole companies, startups, and post-secondary institutions as a source of intellectual property and talent. Organizations like the Calgary Chamber are part of those incubators, accelerators, and community builders who foster innovation. And finally, a hub has investors – we believe Calgary has the potential to be the early stage investment wealth of Canada; and if we can teach these individuals how to invest, we can unleash that.

That’s the future of the ecosystem in Calgary. For now, we’re in the activation stage and need to focus on four key areas to move forward. We need to build culture and connectivity, bring new capital in with more people making small bets on starts ups, increase the rate of entrepreneurship, and foster legendary coaching and mentorship. These areas of growth are critical and can be nurtured by also engaging corporations and government in the ecosystem and continuing to focus on talent.

 Q: Are there broad strategies that companies can use to innovate regardless of sector?

Yes, it comes down to innovation mindset training: companies need an innovation strategy that dictates where and why they’re innovating and have a process in place to do it. In some cases, it must be a very disciplined process, in others it can be riskier. A very disciplined process, though, should be accompanied with a word of caution: if you start from a super closed mindset, and you need a well-tended “garden” the whole time, you won’t get the “rainforest” that allows for innovation to occur.

In terms of practical methods, both corporations and start-ups can utilize LEAN methodologies, or fast iteration experiment as well.

Q: In your career, how do you see the Calgary economy changing? And to what extent is that COVID-19 related?

We’re working towards a symbolic and practical home of innovation in the city –a hub of hubs or a “Cheers for Innovators” – in the emerging Platform Innovation Centre. We see this as essential to the future of the city and the engine of innovation.

We’ve heard the term “triple-whammy” [the economic collapse from COVID-19, the pandemic itself, and already low oil prices] – it’s clear we need a long term resiliency strategy for our city.

We need to focus on the fundamentals. When doing that, let’s take an inventory of what we have: a highly educated work force, a high concentration of wealth, a relatively young population, and the third-most ethnoculturally diverse city in Canada with a lot of people who have come here to create their life (Calgary’s an innate entrepreneurial city). When we look at this inventory of assets, we have a lot to work from. If we can get everybody lined up and working together, we’ve got all the tools.

Where does it go? We use these tools and fundamentals to find new ways of creating and capturing value. We think that if you take those core industries and say, for example: energy becomes clean technology (which is highly exportable), and maybe agriculture becomes agriculture technology. Even the hospitality industry needs to innovate to overcome the COVID-19 challenge – how can it use technology to provide new experiences and be efficient?

In term of the impact of COVID-19, we’ve learned that remote work can be very productive if done well. This means that our quality of life equation is now huge. We may not yet be seen as an innovation hub, but we have the perfect conditions and the ecosystem already in place – we know Calgary will get there.

About Dr. Terry Rock:

Dr. Terry Rock is President & CEO of Platform Calgary. He is a passionate promoter of Calgary’s potential as one of the world’s most dynamic cities, and has been fortunate to be involved in numerous community building initiatives in his hometown.

Terry’s previous experience has covered a wide variety of contexts and industries. He has been Executive Director of the Alberta Small Brewers Association and founding CEO of Calgary Arts Development Authority. He worked on Civic Partnerships at the City of Calgary and was an Assistant Professor in Strategy at the University of Calgary. Between gigs, he advised boards and senior management on strategy and governance.

Terry contributes to the community through volunteering on the TELUS Calgary Community Board, and has served on the boards of Sled Island Music & Arts Festival, Hillhurst United Church, Calgary Cultural Capital 2012, the 2008 and 2016 Calgary-hosted Juno Awards, and was on the founding board of cSPACE Projects. He was the Chair of the AIESEC Canada board where he had been President in the early 90’s.

Dr. Rock holds a PhD in Management with a focus on Strategic Management, Entrepreneurship and Innovation from Texas Tech University, and a Bachelor of Commerce in Marketing (with Distinction) from the University of Saskatchewan.

For more information about how you can get involved and help shape innovation in Calgary, visit