ESTEVAN - One of Saskatchewan's top innovators, Dr. Aaron Genest – the president and founder of SaskTech and the representative for Siemens Software – was a guest speaker last Wednesday at the second Innovation Conversation, organized by Southeast TechHub, Southeast College and Access Now TV.
A big cheerleader for the Energy City, Genest spoke about Estevan's progress in the field and the community’s advantages in the world of technological development, and explained how smaller communities can take leading roles in inventing and implementing innovations.
Genest started by touching on how Saskatchewan and other places have been surviving innovations when they disrupt some of the common ways people do things, causing job losses and changes. He also noted that while new technology continuously reshapes the labour market in Saskatchewan, the Prairies are home to many innovations that became widespread and have found successful implementation at home and internationally.
"We are considered leaders in agricultural technology. So as much as it's disrupted our own communities, it has also been bringing a change to communities around the world and fundamentally for the better. Things are safer now; we can grow enough food for everybody. And that story is not just on farms, it's in mines, which are a lot safer than they used to be, and it's in every aspect of energy production and distribution as well, from exploration all the way to our power plants and the way we use energy," Genest said.
It's been about 20 years since his last visit to Estevan, but he pays attention to things happening in and around the Energy City and also advocates for it on higher levels, as he believes Estevan and other smaller Saskatchewan cities can not only survive but thrive as an innovative hub.
"I have a belief that smaller cities and communities are actually better suited to initiating and using innovation than our large cities and existing technology hubs," Genest said.
He also spoke about how to find areas where labour is cheaper than technology and pointed out that communities have to understand the evolving needs and train for these jobs, as they are the ones that are going to survive as new technologies are implemented and become widespread.
He noted that at different times, innovations affected different industries more than others. In the 1970s and ’80s, it was automotive disruption; in the ’90s, it was finance and commerce; in the 2000s and 2010s, it was factory automation and transportation, and in the 2020s it's agriculture, mining and energy.
"Agriculture is now ag-tech, and if you have any doubts about that, all you have to do is look at GDP numbers in Saskatchewan for agriculture. The amount farmers are making has been flat for almost a decade and a half. We are not making any more money than we used to if you are a farmer, not really, not in real terms. But our ag numbers are going up a lot … That's all value added, that's all canola crushing, peas processing [etc.]. Those are all automation, those are factories … When we talk agricultural growth in this province, that's what we are talking about," Genest said, adding that Saskatchewan has the potential to keep the industry benefiting its people.
"What's going to change here is that autonomous farming, which is more of a precision farming and precision irrigation, is going to start to become a thing that has the potential to change the game for farmers. And it's going to be about who owns the technology stream, who owns the data that comes out of it, who owns the way in which it's being applied and it's going to be about who is in charge of those innovations that's going to have the biggest factor of whether or not the province continues to be profitable for farmers on the ground."
He continued by explaining his idea of the value of understanding the needs of the labour market that is fast to implement innovations through other examples from the mining and energy sectors. Estevan has a lot of human expertise in those areas, he noted, which is too costly or even impossible to substitute with technology. That can benefit and improve technology, which will help local people's skills to remain valuable for years to come.
"Right now, the technology is way more expensive than the people and so they have jobs. That's the equation. Any time that it's harder and more expensive to build something than it is just to hire somebody who knows what they are doing, then you are going to hire somebody."
Genest also noted that Estevan can take the knowledge that it has acquired through its history and local experience, and use that base as the foundation for innovation that will allow the city to continue with jobs in the next generation of innovations.
"The key here is understanding what are the transferrable skills or knowledge that can fuel innovation that allows them to pivot," Genest said.
He pointed out that innovative ideas become successful when there is a need, knowledge and when people actually get things done. Experience shows that smaller communities, unlike larger centres, tend to get things that matter to them done. This, in Genest's view, means Estevan has all the major components for successful development.
"I think all the ingredients are here more than in any other community in the Prairies. And I think it's because of the confluence of mining, agriculture and oil and gas and energy here. But I also think it's because of the intersection of municipal will, of the college that is willing to innovate and change and the K-12 education system that is nimble. Those are ingredients that do not exist in most other places," Genest remarked.
"Estevan is also unique because in a relatively small community you have the expertise in all the areas that are currently being disrupted."
He believes Estevan has all it takes and great potential to find solutions to challenges innovations pose to its main industries. And once that happens, he'd like to see the model exported to other communities, many of which have been struggling to co-ordinate their efforts and find success in current development.
"I think Estevan is the place to demonstrate how with the combination of knowledge, skills and disruption community effort can navigate rocky waters of innovation that is coming for us … And Saskatchewan needs a story like Estevan. We need to be able to tell the story of this community to inspire other communities to step up and look for in themselves how to collaborate," Genest said.