Catherine Warren blazed a trail in Vancouver. Now, she's been asked to lead a new, rebuilt innovation movement in Edmonton
By Michael Ganley | May 11, 2021
Innovation is often the product of strange bedfellows. When Catherine Warren was a graduate student at New York’s Columbia University in the mid-1980s, she wrote her thesis on the ways scientific innovations were influencing the arts and how the arts were, conversely, influencing science. In particular, she studied the burgeoning fields of computer music and digital holography.
Computer music went on to become iTunes, Spotify and much more, including, often, the very method used to make music. Digital holography, on the other hand, has not had the impact on film and TV that Warren expected (aside from a brief moment in 2008 when a holographic Will-I-Am appeared with CNN’s Anderson Cooper on the American election night).
“It went the way of medical imaging,” she says. “It goes to show that, at any given time, you don’t really know where an innovation will end up or who is going to capitalize on it and for what purpose.”
That university thesis began Warren’s deep dive into what she calls the “intersectional” world of innovation. In 2001, she founded FanTrust Entertainment Strategies, a business that focuses on the evolving ways fans engage with video games, esports, music, film and television, and the various ways media companies are developing business models and revenue streams and digital technology in response to interactive audiences.
She continues to run that business, but, in recent years, Warren also turned her attention to the public realm. “I wondered, if I could do this digital community building, could I also do it with offline communities?”
In 2017, she took on the role of president and CEO of the Centre for Digital Media on the Great Northern Way Campus. It’s a joint initiative between private sector interests and four Vancouver-area academic institutions to develop a district dedicated to digital media education, industry collaboration and urban transformation. It is in Vancouver’s Innovation District and includes game studios, art galleries, graduate degree programs, green spaces, tech workspaces and residences.
Most recently, Warren was the CEO of Vancouver Economic Commission, which, under her leadership, brought in $3 billion in investment over her two-year tenure. Her work focused on emerging sectors such as green and sustainable technology, high-tech infra-structure (AI, 5G and smartcity tech), entertainment and Impact businesses (that profess a social purpose). “There was a thematic focus at the commission on innovation,” she says, “in particular, digital innovation.”
Then, last December, the City of Edmonton carved its innovation-focused economic development agency, Innovate Edmonton, out of the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation and set it up as an independent agency, with a $5-million annual budget. A new board, chaired by Williams Engineering CEO Naseem Bashir, was assembled. Its first significant act was to hire Warren.
Ashlyn Bernier, the COO of Edmonton-based tech startup, samdesk, and an Innovate Edmonton board member, supported hiring Warren. “What really stuck out to me was her entrepreneurial experience and the fact that she has been involved in building innovative organizations from the ground up,” she says. “That is going to put her and this organization in a good position.”
Bernier says Edmonton has natural strengths that include the city’s post- secondary institutions and expertise in the fields of artificial intelligence, machine learning, biotech, health, agriculture and oil and gas, and that Innovate Edmonton needs to capitalize on them. “We can’t transplant what worked elsewhere,” she says. “We must ask what will work here? What does Edmonton need?”
Warren agrees. She sees herself as a bridge-builder and networker whose job it is to bring people together with existing innovation entities and businesses, and then “work to map that to some of the world’s biggest problems, so we’re operating in a space where innovation has meaning.” She identifies public health and pandemic response, the climate emergency and new forms of energy as some of those global problems, and social justice and impact businesses as part of the solution. “Triple bottom line companies that offer more to their shareholders than just profit,” she says. “They’re trying to deliver returns for people and the planet.”
Warren says her experience has prepared her well for the liaising work she needs to do with the various levels of government, other economic development organizations like Edmonton Global, the Edmonton Regional Innovation Network and Startup Edmonton, and the business community. “The heart and soul of my background as an entrepreneur has given me a good understanding of where the business community is,” she says, “and how to empathize and work with CEOs, investors and business leaders.”
“Innovation” is easily criticized as a well-worn buzzword which means nothing and everything all at once. Warren describes it as both a personal mindset and an institutional culture. She says it can be found in every child and nurtured through study of the humanities. She hearkens back to her own studies of the Renaissance, when the arts and sciences crashed together and cross-pollinated in Europe, leading to an economic, social and cultural rebirth.
“That’s why university campuses and downtown campuses are such important parts of innovation,” she says. “That’s where all these experts and students can rub shoulders.” She says innovation emerges from a culture that values the creative conflicts at the intersections of science and the humanities, of medicine and music, of industry and the data revolution. It’s not confined to tech and entrepreneurship but happens in the traditional resource sectors and in academia. “Having that big-tent philosophy will open the prospect for job creation, attracting and retaining talent and be a gateway to foreign direct investment and other things that are part of a thriving ecosystem,” she says.
Working in its favour, Edmonton is one of the youngest, most diverse and fastest growing cities in Canada. And as for its relative isolation from other major centres and its frigid winters? “From isolation comes great conversation and from that, great innovation,” Warren says hopefully.
This article appears in the May 2021 issue of Edify