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COSIA: Building a culture of collaboration

Chief executive Dan Wicklum reflects on six years of oil sands environmental innovation that began with a one-of-a-kind alliance.

As a scientist, I know that the path towards meaningful innovation is seldom linear. The concept of trial and error sits at the core of scientific discovery and technological progress. Success requires diligence, patience and a willingness to build on lessons learned.

Dan Wicklum, chief executive of Canada's Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) remarks on his organization's unique marriage of collaboration and innovation, and how it is driving environmental improvements across Canada's oil sands industry. Photo by Jason Dziver.

As we mark the sixth anniversary of the founding of COSIA, I’d like to share some reflections about our model and our collaboration journey.

Have there been obstacles or detours along the way? Absolutely. Like many things in life, collaboration and innovation get better with practice. You learn what works and what doesn’t. And, if you are smart and have the courage, you make adjustments to maximize your successes and minimize the potential for failure.

What are some of the adjustments the smart, courageous people at COSIA have made as our organization evolved? I think a better understanding of what I’d call the “culture of collaboration” is key — the insight that nurturing our culture is about much more than establishing and adhering to strict rules of engagement.

When we founded COSIA we spent a lot of time on structure, process and legal agreements. This was essential when we were new. After all, we were doing what no industry had done before – bringing together a group of fierce competitors and asking them to share knowledge and technologies that had traditionally been considered proprietary.

The true power of the COSIA model is that it is about true collaboration, rather than simple cooperation. There are many examples of companies coming together to cooperate in other sectors so long as it serves their individual corporate interests. But as far as we know, COSIA is the only example of former competitors agreeing to share hard-earned innovations and intellectual property to serve the common interests of an entire industry.

"Collaboration is a skill and, like any other skill, it can be taught and refined."

Although many of the rules of governance we established during COSIA’s early days remain critical, we’ve also learned the importance of fostering a culture of trust and respect, along with a recognition that we are strongest when we work together. We also continue to look for new ways to allow external voices to be part of the process. We’ve learned that if we aren’t being challenged by outside experts and stakeholders, then the conversation we’re having risks becoming too insular.

The fact is that collaboration is a skill and, like any other skill, it can be taught and refined. And because of that, COSIA can put in place incentives and training to ensure the quality of collaboration steadily improves at the individual, company and sector level.

Another key discovery is successful collaboration leads to an appetite for more. Member companies are more comfortable with sharing knowledge and research. Today, we can collaborate on the whole spectrum of technology development, both above ground and below surface. As we do so, we have never been better positioned to deliver on our core mission: accelerating the pace of improvement in environmental performance in Canada’s oil sands.

The past few years have been challenging for the oil sands, with “lower for longer” commodity prices, and all that entails for corporate balance sheets. But through it all, the commitment of our member companies to COSIA has not waned; if anything, it has strengthened.

Every year for the past five years, our project count has gone up, as has the dollar value of our project portfolio. By the end of 2017, COSIA had shared 981 distinct technologies and innovations that cost over $1.4 billion to develop.

One of the many ways COSIA is unique is the fact that the most senior executives of our member companies founded this organization and continue to provide visible and collective leadership when it comes to our vision and innovation priorities. In all that we do, we benefit from the guidance of Canada’s Oil Sands CEO Council, which meets every six weeks to discuss issues of mutual interest and collaboration.

Another good example of leadership is the identification of two new areas of activity by our member companies: in situ subsurface steam, and in situ waterless extraction.

"COSIA is the only example of former competitors agreeing to share hard-earned innovations and intellectual property to serve the common interests of an entire industry."

Why these two? Because that’s where, going forward, our companies told us they want to move the yardsticks on technology using collaboration, particularly in the critical area of greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction.

One of the paradigms we use at COSIA is to not only drive environmental performance improvement in our sector, but also to advance ideas and technologies that could have a positive global impact.

That’s what’s driving COSIA competition Challenges on a range of environmental performance improvement technologies (see COSIA.ca for more details). In the largest of these, the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE, we are mobilizing the best minds around the world to compete for a total of US$20 million for innovations that can take carbon and turn it into a valuable resource. That kind of innovation has application far beyond the oil sands industry; in fact, over time it could benefit any country, sector, company or individual producing carbon dioxide.

"That kind of innovation has application far beyond the oil sands industry; in fact, over time it could benefit any country, sector, company or individual producing carbon dioxide."

I recognize there are those who say we should be doing more and who express impatience that it can take several years or more for a potentially transformative oil sands technology to move from concept to implementation. I share their desire for faster outcomes. But my scientific background tells me that when you are developing and testing major changes in technology, the best way to accelerate progress is to tap into as much different experience and expertise as you can. This is what COSIA does. The teams within COSIA care deeply about the environmental future of our country, and we will continue to use our collaboration model to accelerate the pace of progress.

Going forward, we need to always think deeply about what we do well, and always have the courage to change things we could do better. Six years on, the unique marriage of collaboration and innovation that COSIA embodies is well beyond the newlywed stage. We are now well into the heavy lifting of making this relationship work over the long haul! As with any good marriage, it won’t always be easy – but it will always be worthwhile. And with experience and dedication, we will get better at realizing our shared aspirations, day after day.