Can Open Innovation Help Clean Up Oil Sands?

Clean 15 Series

On March 1, some of Canada’s largest oil sands producers formed Canada’s Oil Sand Innovation Alliance (COSIA), a new alliance that will focus on driving the pace of environmental performance and sustainable technological advancement.  COSIA’s goal is to establish structures and processes through which oil sands producers and other stakeholders can work together for the benefit of the environment. The alliance is setting out to identify, develop and apply solutions-oriented innovation around the most pressing oil sands environmental challenges, specifically water, land, greenhouse gases and tailings, and will work to communicate their efforts and successes in addressing those challenges.

Jean-Michel Gires, President and CEO of Total E&P Canada:

“COSIA is a reflection of how the oil sands have evolved into a global resource, with companies committing to foster continuous innovation and the development of new environmental solutions. We have seen what can be achieved when we work together and multiply our ideas and efforts. For example, work done by the Oil Sands Leadership Initiative (OSLI) and the Oil Sands Tailings Consortium (OSTC) are already delivering technology that promises to reduce our environmental footprint. We want to build on these previous successes across COSIA’s environmental priority areas and accelerate the improvement of our environmental performance.”

It is my belief this is a very significant opportunity for Canada and the oil sands. Not just because we have large players deciding to act in a very meaningful way toward sustainable technological advancement, but also because of the number of companies involved.

According to the Diffusion of Innovation Theory, a theory of the how, why and at what rate new ideas and technology spread through cultures, it takes approximately a 15 per cent adoption of an innovation (The Clean 15 concept name is based on this theory) to reach critical mass and start a shift towards the total uptake of the new innovation or model.

Innovation diffusion, however, is not just about technology. It is about technology placed in the right areas with the right opinion leaders.  Of the 62 largest companies in the oil sands, 12 companies are planning to work together through this alliance. This represents about 20 per cent of key large players, and should significantly increase the chances of faster adoption of cleaner technologies into the oil sands. This is good news for the environment, good news for innovators and good news for Canada.

While this progress is exciting, there are still some key challenges ahead. The formation of this organization will drive a significant open innovation approach and provide a focus point to field massive amounts of external innovations, technologies and inventions.

As the cost of communication continues to fall and information becomes more connected via the Internet, this deluge will only get larger as time goes on and will create a significant amount of information that will need to be placed into context and prioritized.

For success it will be critical for COSIA to differentiate between the signals and the noise to ensure that they are exposed to top cutting edge and emerging technologies and trends across a wide variety of industries that could have applicability to their objectives. Being able to create not just geography specific, but global innovation ecosystems and manage all of the entities within those ecosystems will also be important as they forge ahead.

Albert Einstein once said “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

Perhaps a focus on the critical mass of a 15 per cent adoption of new cleaner technologies and sustainable innovations in the oil sands with the right opinion leaders could develop enough momentum to create a shift and new opportunities for future sustainable prosperity.

Dwayne Matthews is the Managing Director of Clean 15, Canada’s leader in open innovation.