Blog by Ken S. Coates, May 2013


Report from a Globe Trotting Social Innovator

I have been away from Fort McMurray for a year and a half - far too long - but I have been keeping busy!  Nor have I forgotten Fort McMurray. 

During my sabbatical year, my wife, daughter and I literally traveled the world.  We went to the far North of Norway, to an area being reshaped by oil and gas development, to the booming city of Doha in Qatar in the Middle East.  If you think Fort McMurray is growing fast and impressively, you should see what they are building on the edge of the desert!  Our travels also took us through Japan and China, to Australia and France and to many other countries. 

My research focused on the efforts my communities (small cities for the most part; the mega-cities are doing fine on their own, in most cases) to adapt to the realities of the 21st century.  Fort McMurray lives with these same forces: global markets, rapid changes in price and demand for products and services, fast growth, technological change, foreign investment, innovative (and not so innovative) government policies, and the many influences of migration and multiculturalism.

Of the many lessons we gained from this experience, those associated with managing rapid growth and creating opportunity in remote regions are most germane.  In Norway, Sweden and Finland, national governments are committed to providing a national standard of living for northern residents. All three countries invest heavily in regional infrastructure.  There would be no two lane roads to Fort McMurray in these nations!  In Qatar, the government is using resource wealth to create "new economy" opportunities to sustain the society after the energy sector winds down.  Although the model is very different and rests on capitalizing on cheap labor from South Asia, Qatar keeps much of their workforce outside the mainstream, with movement of immigrants tied to the ebb and flow of the resource economy.  In China, which lacks resource wealth, the challenge of managing largely unchecked growth is foremost in the minds of citizens and government alike.  Around the huge Olympic Dam mining project in South Australia, companies and communities are wrestling with Fort McMurray-sized issues, including balancing permanent and temporary workers and building sustainable communities in a harsh environment. (I, for one, would take 30 below over 40 above any day!!)

If growth presents serious problems, it is better than the alternative. In many other countries -- Portugal, Spain, Japan, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, among many others - the real story is the rapid decline of rural and remote regions. In country after country, small towns and smaller cities are losing people, companies and jobs.  Without resource wealth close at hand, and often even then, they are struggling to create viable long-term economies and to produce social stability in environments where most of the young people have left, the population is aging rapidly and employment opportunities are few and far between.  

When folks in these communities hear of the challenges facing Fort McMurray - and we had a chance to share the story of Social Prosperity Wood Buffalo with many diverse audiences - they are impressed with the level of commitment, the forward-looking nature of the project and the refusal to succumb to geographic realities and the attending images and assumptions that go with living in a cold, remote location. 

We live in confusing and fast-changing times.  Cities and towns the world over are experiencing a wide variety of challenges and uncertainties.  In my very simple division of the world, based on visiting more than 20 countries last year, the communities can be divided into two main groups:  those that are passive about their fate, believing that broader social and economic forces cannot be overcome, and those that are proactive and positive about the future.  Fort McMurray is clearly in the second category, with Social Prosperity Wood Buffalo being an excellent manifestation of the spirit, optimism and determination of the citizens who will define their community's future.  So, well done, Fort McMurray.  Take satisfaction in knowing that the world is watching and is very keen about your efforts, plans and accomplishments.

Ken S. Coates, Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation, Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy and Co-Director of Research, International Centre for Northern Governance and Development, University of Saskatchewan

Social Prosperity Wood Buffalo
thanks the Suncor Energy
Foundation for its generous support.
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