There is an old African proverb that says: ‘If you want to go quickly, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.’ When it comes to Alberta’s and Canada’s paradox of having strong environmental aspirations in a largely fossil fuels-driven economy, it’s a notion that rings true.

Shell’s Meera Nathwani-Crowe and Chris Fry are getting first-hand experience with a new approach to solving complex challenges through unconventional means. The two were selected along with 30 others to take part in Energy Futures Lab (EFL), a diverse group of experts and informed opinion leaders in energy, environment, policy, community and sustainability working to design a viable energy strategy for Alberta.

“It’s a huge opportunity to work among a broad group with diverse views, explore the challenges and opportunities we have in Alberta and design a strategy that serves our province’s needs economically and environmentally; not just for today, but for future,” said Meera, who manages environment and technology for Shell’s Heavy Oil business.

Chris, an External Relations Consultation Adviser for Unconventionals, says he applied initially not as a representative of Shell, but as a concerned citizen who felt he could add value to the initiative given his unique insights and experience.

“Energy Futures Lab brings together different, often opposing views and perspectives to engage in a rational, balanced discussion about the future,” Chris said. “We are exploring obstacles that need to be overcome and how we can work together to design a solid, credible strategy that everyone can support, regardless of where they sit on the ‘energy vs. environment’ spectrum,” Chris said.

Defining the problem

Convened by leading Canadian sustainability non-profit, the Natural Step, the group is using the concepts of social innovation and social labs to tackle the question: How can Alberta’s leadership position in today’s energy system serve as a platform for transitioning to the energy system the future needs?

The social lab creates a methodological process to achieve shared understanding of the problem before starting to create solutions. While such “change labs” have been around since the early 1990s, the EFL is unique in that it uses a science-based understanding of sustainability as its foundation.

Energy Futures Lab kicked off officially in 2015. The initial phase focused on finding commonalties and points of alignment to build from and defining the current state of the Alberta energy system. From there, the focus has been shifting to early strategy development and establishing narratives that help describe to others what EFL is working toward.

An experiment in social innovation

Meanwhile, prototype projects have a more entrepreneurial and dynamic feel and allow the Fellows to collaborate more closely on ideas they want to see advanced in the energy industry.

There are 10 prototypes underway, with the group determining collectively which ones float to the top and get attention based on their materiality and ability to create a shift. As Chris explains, “As an offshoot of the general strategy development, the prototype projects are an engaging way for the Fellows to advance the broader strategy through smaller initiatives that contribute to the goal.”

Prototype projects include everything from shifting the paradigm around bitumen recovery to engaging Albertans through music to establishing a renewable energy project in a First Nations community.

“The conventional approach to solving systemic problems is to do research, write papers and change policy, whereas a prototype approach is a more practical, hands-on approach using trial and error,” Meera said. “It’s a lab, so a bit of an experiment; we don’t know what the outcome will be. But it moves us beyond the divisiveness we have seen on this and further toward sustainable long-term solutions.”

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