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Opinion Gord Lambert on the oil sands: Canada could be ‘a resource-development economy that is an engine of innovation’

In a six-week series of interviews, Canadians with a variety of experiences discuss the major challenges our country is facing and how best to address them. This instalment deals with increasing the innovativeness of our economy.

Gord Lambert, executive adviser for sustainability and innovation at Suncor Energy Inc., was interviewed on July 17 by Monica Pohlmann, a consultant with Reos Partners.

Pohlmann: What is energizing you these days?

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Lambert: I am excited about a new model we have created to accelerate the pace of environmental performance through innovation and collaboration. COSIA – Canada's Oil Sands Innovation Alliance – is a network of 13 companies that represent more than 90 per cent of Canada's oil sands production. And we have 40 associate members from academia, government and business who are also supporting the effort. By pooling our resources and sharing knowledge, best practices and even intellectual property, we hope to improve our economic, social and environmental performance as individual companies and as an industry. To date, member companies have shared approximately $1-billion of intellectual property related to environmental technologies in the areas of water, land, greenhouse gases and tailings. Michael Porter, a leading authority on competitive strategy, has visited Calgary twice and has declared COSIA as a unique initiative in the world.

Pohlmann: What is happening in Canada that has caught your attention?

Lambert: We have a resource-based economy. We have an opportunity to serve as a world-class example of a resource-development economy that is an engine of innovation through engaging collectively, across disciplinary, organizational, cultural and governmental boundaries to achieve environmental, social and economic outcomes that benefit all Canadians. A dialogue on desired outcomes – defining what success looks like – is a powerful conversation, which is hard to have amidst polarization.

Pohlmann: If you could ask a clairvoyant about the future of Canada, what would you want to know?

Lambert: Is our economy and our access to markets going to diversify? If so, what will that look like? Currently, nearly all of our oil exports go to the U.S. As an exporting nation, reliance on any single market creates risk or lost opportunity. The developing world and China need to elevate their families from poverty and require energy and other resources to do so. Canada needs to be part of their development journey.

In addition, are we going to have progress toward creating an innovation economy? Alberta and B.C. have the potential to be a node for innovation in how we produce and process and extract value from oil and gas resources. To make this happen, we need academia and other inventors and pioneers to be feeding more ideas into the innovation landscape to be tested. We need the best ideas to be supported and funded, and connected to venture capitalists and businesses that enable those ideas to be commercialized and deployed at an accelerated pace.

Pohlmann: What about your personal story has shaped what you do and the perspective you have?

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Lambert: From early on, I sensed the connection between the environment and the economy. Growing up in Sarnia, I saw the impact of industrial development on the environment, especially the "blob" in the St. Clair River in the 1980s. I went to the University of Guelph, where I trained as a biologist, but I did all of my electives in economics. I don't see environment and social aspirations as being in conflict with economic aspirations. I strongly believe our aspirations for a strong economy, a healthy environment and social well-being are interdependent. You can't achieve one aspiration without the others. This is foundational to sustainable development.

My first job out of school was in Cold Lake, Alberta, and I worked with the community, including First Nations and local business. I was working on Imperial Oil's Cold Lake project as an environment specialist. I began to learn what it takes to create the human-to-human relationships and trust that enable constructive and mutually beneficial collaboration. We had areas of agreement, areas of concern and disagreements, but it was through dialogue and mutual respect at a personal level that we began to resolve differences and created solutions. How we engage with one another is essential to what we want to achieve.

Possible Canadas is a project created by Reos Partners, the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation and a diverse coalition of philanthropic and community organizations. For longer versions of these interviews, or to join the conversation, visit possiblecanadas.ca.

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