By David J. Finch, Mary Moran, Jason Ribeiro and Janet Lane
Published in the Calgary Herald

June 11, 2020

COVID-19 is teaching the world many painful lessons. A central lesson for Calgary is the critical skill of adaptability.

The pandemic is amplifying a fundamental change that has occurred in cities in recent decades. For millennia, a city’s proximity to natural resources, from rivers to forestry to mining, defined its prosperity.

Today, economic and social prosperity is defined by a city’s people. Prosperity depends on the capacity of a population to embrace uncertainty and adapt to new roles. Knowledge and skills must transcend industries and professions.

If there is a defining competency in 2020, it is adaptability.

For decades, there have been calls for Alberta and Calgary to diversify economically. Questions about “what” we should become date back to the Lougheed years. It’s time for a more fundamental question: “how” does Calgary adapt?

The answer isn’t complex. Calgary adapts when Calgarians learn how to adapt.

Adaptable people can adjust to the dynamic context of the world today. It can be reactive, learning to live with the restrictions of a pandemic. It can also be proactive and intentional; anticipating change and planning a response in advance.

We imagine a city of people who view disruption as opportunity, a city with a population whose talents and skills continuously evolve. We imagine a Calgary that attracts investment and talent from across the globe because it is known as a city that learns its way forward.

We know this is the future. The question is how will Calgary navigate the uncertainty that is suddenly upon us and realize our potential?

Embracing the disruption and adapting to new opportunities is at the heart of the economic strategy Calgary in the New Economy that was created by the community and unanimously approved by city council in 2018.

At the root of adaptation is learning. Calgary must become a city that can learn faster and better. How do we make that transformation? We start by changing the learning system.

How we choose to learn will define Calgary’s future social and economic prosperity. We are fortunate to be building from a position of strength. Alberta has one of the leading traditional education systems in the world.

Yet the ability for today’s learning system to transform to meet emerging demands is widely debated. Education is woven through society, not just in kindergarten to Grade 12 and accredited educational institutes, but also in workplaces, professional associations, business ecosystems and in the hands of individual learners. The ways people learn are complex and there is enormous potential to effect wider change by evolving our learning system.

To start re-envisioning our learning system and embrace the concept of life-long learning, a broad range of community partners, facilitated by Calgary Economic Development, established the LearningCITY Project to explore how a city-wide learning system could redefine the future. To kick-start community-wide discussion, we developed two reports, proposing a redefinition of our learning system based on five principles:

1. Transition to an open learning system: To become a LearningCITY, Calgary must transition from the traditional closed learning system — defined by isolated learning experiences from kindergarten to post-secondary to professional development — to an open, lifelong personalized learning system for continuous development.

2. Transition to purpose-based learning: Calgary needs a learning system that prioritizes empowerment and autonomy. The learner’s development pathway — their route through the learning system — becomes a personalized climbing wall instead of a predictable ladder. This system aims to develop adaptable people, so the system itself must be adaptable.

3. Commit to universal experiential learning: An empowered learner learns through a variety of media and experiences. Today, many learning experiences are not hands-on. We recommend Calgary become the first city in North America to adopt a universal experiential learning system incorporating a minimum level of experiential learning for undergraduates.

4. Develop enabling competencies:An individual who has a strong foundation of enabling competencies (skills useful regardless of the context, such as communication or citizenship) will be more adaptive than someone whose learning is anchored in domain-specific competencies (skills that serve a particular role, such as welding or cooking). We propose adopting a unified community competency model that contributes to a person’s ability to adapt.

5. Invest in community-level structural capital: An efficient, city-wide open learning system requires high-level co-ordination between many stakeholders. All partners in the learning system will need to ensure processes to advance collaboration and shared learning.

Transitioning to a world-leading learning system based on these five principles won’t be easy and will meet resistance. To invoke this level of change, the community needs leadership. To move forward, we are establishing a community Learning Task Force to define a new learning model and plan within 12 months. Change isn’t easy, but for a city standing on a precipice, it is time to embrace it as an opportunity and lead.

David J. Finch, professor and associate director, Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Mount Royal University; Mary Moran, president and CEO,Calgary Economic Development; Jason Ribeiro, director of strategy, Calgary Economic Development; and Janet Lane, director, Human Capital Centre, Canada West Foundation. 




Photo credit: Toni Reed on Unsplash