Naheed Nenshi on how Calgary can thrive in a low-carbon future

With Alberta in recession following a long slide in oil prices, Calgary’s mayor says leaner times can spur economic creativity

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/CP)

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/CP)

In his six years as Mayor of Calgary, Naheed Nenshi has dealt with his fair share of damage control, from catastrophic flooding in 2013, wildfires this spring in the neighbouring communities, and the ongoing fallout from the province’s recession. We asked him to share his ideas for how Calgary can recover from its current economic slump and reinvent itself:

We’re starting to see shifts away from oil and gas and towards low carbon energy initiatives in Canada and around the world. Where does Calgary fit into this transition?

We all know that we’re moving towards lower carbon energy. At some point our children and our grandchildren are going to say: ‘you burnt that stuff?’ But the question is what do we do between now and then? What we don’t want to do is turn off the switch. We have a resource that is very valuable and we know that at some point it will be less valuable. We also know there’s a very, very long transition period. We’re sitting on a resource that we need to monetize and turn into something that will appreciate in value, whether that’s investing in infrastructure, or making cold hard cash like Norway’s sovereign wealth fund. We don’t want to be selling it on the cheap and not get anything out of it. Or leave it in the ground and get it from some other place that doesn’t have as good environmental, labour, and human rights standards. Fifty per cent of the oil and gas used in Canada is imported. That’s crazy. Why aren’t we supplying our own energy needs with the energy we have in this country and finding new markets as well?

What new markets does the city plan to pursue?

We have few areas we’re focusing on: renewables and cleantech, transportation and logistics, agribusiness, and creative industries. We just opened a new film studio and I am so happy to take away some of the business from Toronto. I’m happy to open up some of [Toronto’s] roads so they’re not closed for filming all the time. You’re welcome.

We need to focus in on these things, but we also need to create an environment that makes it easier for ideas to bloom in lots of different industries. We need to create a cultural shift that really values startups even more than we do now. Part of that comes through all the stuff people talk about: building incubators and accelerators, places for ideas to collide with one another. And part of it is about the macroeconomics around regulations and taxes, which I think we do an excellent job on already. But the other thing is attracting the attention of investors and customers for these businesses. Frankly, that’s a problem—or a challenge or an opportunity, depending on your perspective—that we have everywhere in Canada.

Has that become more difficult—attracting business and investors—with Calgary’s economic downturn?

I feel a bit the opposite. When you’re doing really, really well, it can sometimes be hard to think about doing new things. And when you’re not doing as well, it creates an opportunity to be creative. So that’s where we really have a chance. It’s no fun that our vacancy rate has gone from 0% to 20% in one year—but it means there’s remarkable opportunity for people who were priced out of downtown Calgary, or who simply could not get space. Now they have the opportunity to locate in the place they want to at a really decent price. They have access to talented, really educated people who may be available now.

Do you think investors are still concerned that Alberta is too risky a place to invest in?

We’re seeing anecdotally a lot of people in real estate and development saying it’s been harder for them to be able to attract financing because people are nervous about the future of Calgary. And I say, let the entrepreneurs take the risk. We have really, really big global investment funds making big bets on Calgary, and it would be a shame if Canadian financial institutions miss that boat because they’re too nervous about the future of the community.

What role do small and mid-sized businesses have in reviving Calgary’s economy?

Something nobody seems to know is that Calgary has the highest rate of startups per capita in Canada by far. The challenge is that they tend to live on a business model where they get big enough to get noticed by someone big, who then buys them. We don’t have a tradition of growing medium and large businesses out of small businesses, and that’s a mindset shift we have to make. Like anywhere, we have challenges with venture capital, challenges with capital in the second and mezzanine stages. I spent some time last month in Silicon Valley and one of the things I was told constantly is that Canada has brilliant engineering talent. What we don’t have is business development talent. The business development people are in the Valley looking for money, looking for customers. So we need to learn from that and figure out how we can build talent in Canada so we can grow our startups and build more global champions.