Yedlin: Calgary takes big step forward with Platform project

Posted by Calgary Herald | January 24, 2018

The evolution of Calgary’s innovation ecosystem took an important step forward Tuesday with the unveiling of Platform, a planned new space for innovators, collaborators and entrepreneurs.

Platform will occupy two floors of an $80-million, five-storey structure to be built in the East Village. The remaining three levels will function as a parkade for the nearby National Music Centre and Studio Bell and the soon-to-be completed New Central Library.

The unique structure is designed with the future in mind, when autonomous vehicles and increased ride sharing will diminish or even eliminate the need for parking stalls and parkades.

The announced partnership between Platform and the Calgary Parking Authority was brought to life by Calgary Municipal Land Corporation, the City of Calgary’s visionary development arm.

So, why build something new when there’s hundreds of thousands of square feet of unoccupied office space downtown?

There are many reasons, including that spaces to foster interaction between innovators and entrepreneurs need to be small enough to facilitate those synergies, and yet big enough to attract a critical mass of individuals.

Platform will also have ‘maker’ space, where early prototypes can be developed and used for marketing purposes.

“To really activate all of Calgary, sometimes you need to put new hardware in. A spot like this is a bit like the hardware and software analogy,” said Brad Zumwalt, a longtime Calgary tech entrepreneur who will contribute to Platform’s $20-million price tag. “The hardware is important, but we really interact with the programs; with the software.

“We have to do some catalytic activity to make a difference. The allows us to have all this happen in one place — the East Village.”

Many of those attracted to the innovation space are younger and don’t tend to work in the environments their parents did.

Platform will connect activity at the University of Calgary in terms of research and development to the downtown core, where it’s arguably more visible.

“Every city that is going to thrive in this disrupted age is going to have a big successful, research-based university as part of it. The city has grown a lot and we have more needs that we can accomplish in one innovation research centre at the university,” said Zumwalt.

In other words, this is all about adding to the landscape. Turf wars have no place in the goal to establish a strong innovation system in Calgary.

But, as Zumwalt pointed out, Platform and Calgary’s innovation ecosystem are only in the very early stages.

Attracting businesses and building the city’s talent pool will help both grow, as Economic Development and Trade Minister Deron Bilous emphasized Tuesday.

Bilous said his government recognizes the need to support the development of strong economic drivers outside the energy sector and is looking to learn from the recent bid process for Amazon’s second headquarters.

“I completely appreciate the urgency. We can’t afford to continue to wait,” he said.

Bilous was not in a position to state how the province might respond to the B.C. government’s recent decision to fund 2,900 new post-secondary tech spaces. B.C. is striving to create the workforce of the future despite lacking the space to cost-effectively accommodate new businesses or their employees.

Alberta has the opposite problem — lots of space, not enough talent.

If B.C. is willing to forge ahead on education and create the talent, Alberta should be paying close attention and ready to respond when the legislature reconvenes.

Meanwhile, there is the challenge to not only keep the momentum going, but also provide space for innovators, entrepreneurs and investors.

That’s already happening at places like Innovate Calgary, our post-secondary schools and the 17,000-square-foot Nucleus space donated by Cenovus.

“It is important to emphasize that this (innovation agenda) isn’t owned by anyone. It includes the entire community. There should be no doubt that if you are part of the Calgary or Alberta innovation ecosystem that we want you to be part of this and make the future happen together,” said Keiver Tremblay, community manager at Nucleus, where more than 1,000 people have been active in just two months.

“We are only scratching the surface.”

For a city and business community seeking to redefine and reignite the potential of this city and province, Platform is another important step in a deliberate journey that will contribute to significant economic transformation.

As Apple co-founder Steve Jobs once said, “Here’s to the dreamers … the ones who see things differently … because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

This is that time.

Deborah Yedlin is a Calgary Herald columnist

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