Written by Adrienne Oldford

A version of this post originally appeared in the Telegraph-Journal on January 21st, 2024.

Frank McKenna’s vision for developing a digital economy that creates wealth and employment and makes the province self-sufficient goes back more than 25 years to when he was the province’s premier. In the last three years, the vehicle for that work has been the McKenna Institute at the University of New Brunswick.

All of our projects are grounded in digital adoption for our companies and communities and the diverse talent development that fuels their growth. And this is not limited to the traditional tech sector that most people are most familiar with. We’re also putting our efforts into digital advancements in a variety of sectors like agriculture, health technology, forestry and oceans, aligning ourselves with the industries that will be the bedrock of the economy for decades.

In the years since the founding of the Institute, our focus has been on the holistic approach that has evolved in the province in the 25 years since the province has been pursuing a digital vision for growth; that it’s not simply a matter of nurturing the companies that create the jobs and wealth. Our strategy for growing a digital economy and society has involved a three-pronged approach: education for all; innovative ecosystems; and economic catalysts. The Institute has several projects underway to address issues in all three pillars of the strategy.

Education for All

New Brunswickers need accessible, flexible digital education that ensures inclusivity and lifelong learning for those looking to recareer into technology-based roles. This is the right thing to do from a social perspective, of course, by offering education and opportunities for marginalized groups and communities. But there is an economic imperative as well. The province already has a shortage of senior-level workers for jobs in fields like computer science and one way of addressing that problem is deepening the pool of people with the right skills for existing and emerging jobs.

In a column last fall, we wrote about the N.B. pilot of the federal ICTC Cybersecurity Training and Work Integrated Learning Program, which will involve the Faculty of Computer Science at UNB and the New Brunswick Community College School of Information Technology. It will offer the opportunity for females and non-binary students to become Microsoft Certified in Cloud Security, Network Security, and a unique certification on Artificial Intelligence in cybersecurity.

There are many other projects funded through the Institute where diversity is a key objective. The UNB Faculty of Computer Science is piloting a leadership program in partnership with MESH/diversity, a Fredericton software company that provides AI-driven equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) training for workplaces and organizations. The training covers topics like the key differences between diversity, inclusion and belonging, the power of compassion, privilege and oppression, and effective communication.

The institute is also engaged in work with partners in the K-12 francophone and anglophone education systems, with a particular focus on rural areas. We’re bringing together students and parents with partners like Brilliant Labs and the universities. The goal is to help parents see what is happening in the schools, and how they can support digital education and the kinds of programs and tools that are available to the students. We also have done sessions with K-12 teachers at Innovate NB on preparing kids for digital jobs after they graduate.

Students from underrepresented groups will also benefit from a $1.25 million investment in computer science and engineering scholarship funding, and low-income areas will receive more digital education as part of a $1.45 million investment to expand the Promise Partnership program in priority neighbourhoods across the province.

Innovation Ecosystem

The Institute also believes in fostering innovation through research, development, and collaboration with universities and the private sector, driving technological advancements. The Institute is a catalyst to bring leaders together to celebrate innovation and create new partnerships to increase our understanding of technology, and what’s possible.

Through the McKenna Institute, UNB has partnered with Shoppers Drug Mart to develop new models of healthcare for communities and new digital tools to make healthcare more accessible in partnership with researchers at UNB and Université de Moncton.

We’ve established fellows and chairs at UNB to advance research critical to the development of the economy and society: the Barrett Chair in Entrepreneurship for Digital Transformation; the McKenna Fellow in Digital Education; and the Wilson-McKenna Fellow in Digital Sustainability and ESG.

There is also the newly formed Research Institute in Data Science and Artificial Intelligence at UNB to capitalize on a rapidly growing part of the global economy.

Economic Catalyst

The Institute is also stimulating economic growth by aligning education with industry demands, attracting investment and facilitating workforce development.

Thanks to an investment of $10 million from the province, the Institute has launched Boot Camps in partnership with TechImpact and the UNB’s College of Extended Learning to meet the demand for skilled IT workers. UNB is working with IBM Canada to provide free access to education and career readiness resources to students and businesses so people can learn the skills they need to fill digital jobs across the province.

The Institute has partnered with Thales, a global cybersecurity and defence company, to develop the Canadian National Digital Education Centre at UNB. The centre will develop K-12 cybersecurity programming in English and French. The centre will eventually employ more than 100 skilled workers in Fredericton.

This is a snapshot of what we’ve done so far. So, what’s next? What does the next 25-plus years look like? We spent the first year raising $55 million to fund the impactful projects. In the second year, we launched many programs, some of which I’ve highlighted here.

In year three, now we want to help lead a conversation about what’s possible for New Brunswick. Why is being digital important? What could being digital look like for all New Brunswickers? What have we learned about successful digital economies? What do we have in place today, what is under development and what are our gaps? AI is one area that represents a huge opportunity for growth in the economy and society; it can have the kind of transformational impact we’ve been working toward for more than 25 years. But we’ll only find out if we really collaborate as an ecosystem across academia, government and industry. The opportunity is certainly there for us to take our place on the national scale – we are well on our way!

Adrienne Oldford is the Executive Director of the McKenna Institute at the University of New Brunswick.