Microsoft President Brad Smith is leading the vision of a connected Cascadia

Smith believes that by focusing on climate and clean energy, the Pacific Northwest can become an economic megaregion. Political leaders of B.C., Washington, and Oregon agree.

Microsoft President Brad Smith interviews the company’s founder, Bill Gates, at the Cascadia Innovation Corridor conference. Photo: Robert Ritchie Photography.

“If there's one thing that doesn't respect the border, it's carbon,” Brad Smith, president of Microsoft, tells me from across the boardroom table.

It’s mid-September, and the air is thick with smoke. Summer came late this year to the Pacific Northwest – a rainy spring lingered long into June – but a month-and-a-half of drought left forests tinder-dry. Today, particulates from out-of-control burns to the south and east filter the sun through the window of the conference room at the Semiahmoo Resort near Blaine, turning the sky a sickly yellow. It’s the third-straight morning that it’s been impossible to see the horizon.

The climate emergency is a difficult topic to address – or at least in a way that makes businesses, governments, and citizens care enough to make changes. Over the next two days, through a series of panels, meetings, dinners, and more, Microsoft hopes that its approach will produce a different result. It’s a big day for the company, and its executives.

“Moving to Climate Action” is the headline for the sixth Cascadia Innovation Corridor conference: the annual gathering, led by the computing giant, which aims to foster cross-border collaboration up and down the West Coast. Previous assemblies have seen leaders from British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon sign memoranda of understanding to create good jobs for citizens on both sides of the border, examine the feasibility of high-speed rail from Oregon to B.C., and double-down on the export relationships between the province and states. This year, however, the speakers are focused on how to use the Pacific Northwest’s tech and business specializations to halt environmental disasters. Looking outside the window, the timing feels darkly prophetic.

Building a united Cascadia

Since the conference’s inception, Smith has personally championed a unified Cascadia region. It already has a strong foundation. Washington, for instance, exports more to B.C. than it does to all other provinces combined, and if the state was a country, it would represent B.C.’s third-largest international export market. The area is a hotbed of tech innovation, with giants including Microsoft, Amazon, Nike, SAP, Intel, and Dapper Labs hosting their headquarters on the West Coast, with talent often leaving one organization to join another. Culturally, Pacific Northwesterners – linked by the Cascade Range that forms the region’s spine – share an affinity and appreciation of the outdoors. These facets and more, Smith hopes, will help citizens bond across borders.

“I think that both Vancouver and Seattle – as well as Portland – have this tremendous talent, all these enormous assets, and even more potential,” he says. “But they're all midsize cities, when you look at cities from the perspective of the planet. And we have such an opportunity, I think, to advance the region if we act as a region, and not as separate jurisdictions or cities. And we have so much in common. I think there's a lot of shared values, shared interests, a wonderful spirit of innovation, great universities. But I think that a lot of our future, if we really want to unlock it, requires that we do more together.”

In many ways, the Cascadia Innovation Corridor project is hamstrung by the size of its ambition. Bringing together two states and a province, after all, is a broad thesis, and its goal of a united Cascadia is a metric that is impossible to measure. Despite that, the conference and its proponents have celebrated several concrete wins over its six-year history.

The “nerd-bird” seaplane service between Seattle and Vancouver, for instance, has helped increase connectivity for business fliers since 2018, and, shortly after it was established, co-working giant WeWork set up a Cascadia passport to let workers use its services up and down the West Coast. Eight different committees have been created with specific portfolios to advance Cascadia, with half focusing on developing industries — life sciences, transformative technologies, retail innovation, and sustainable agriculture — and half helping solve challenges around assets and infrastructure. Funding resources, too, are now shared across the region through programs such as the Cascadia Venture Accelerator Network (CVAN), which was launched in 2017 to nurture entrepreneurship between private, non-profit, and research teams in B.C., Washington, and Oregon.

“I think we've made a lot of progress,” Smith says. “At the same time, I think that COVID took a bite out of our progress, because after all, Cascadia is about bringing people together across a border. And for almost two years, it was difficult to bring people together even in a single city outside their homes. But there is, I think, a real community spirit that spans the region. I think that people know each other. There's a commitment to a shared vision. I find when I talk to people at the universities and the businesses and the governments that there's a shared interest in the growth of technology, the importance of aerospace, life sciences' progress.

“And of course, this shared commitment to the climate,” he continues, bringing our conversation back to the theme of the conference. “If there's one thing that doesn't respect the border, it's carbon. It goes into the air, and it's going to go back and forth across the U.S.-Canadian border without the least regard for any immigration system. So if there ever was a problem that will require that we come together, it's what's bringing us together this year.”

Microsoft President Brad Smith and founder Bill Gates shake hands at the close of their discussion. Photo: Robert Ritchie Photography.

A new industry for a new region

This summit isn’t the first time that the climate has been mentioned at a Cascadia Innovation Corridor conference. Back in 2018, the topic was a key part of the memorandum of understanding between B.C. Premier John Horgan and Washington State Governor Jay Inslee. But the locale is better-placed to become a key leader in climate innovation today than it was four years ago. Leaning forward, Smith recalls the numbers-heavy panel he led at the conference earlier that morning with Microsoft founder Bill Gates. On the banner-draped stage of the main room, the pair discussed clean energy pricing, business viability, and collaboration: a topic Smith is quick to bring up in our Semiahmoo boardroom. Gates suggested that the region has a unique opportunity to combine federal support from Joe Biden with private sector innovation. Smith agrees.

“To me, what really jumps out [...] is two things,” he says with enthusiasm. “One is the role of innovation. We are such a [great] region with innovation today, but [we have] even more innovation potential for the future, especially when you combine our businesses and our universities. And I think there are so many potential synergies for collaborating on innovation in the sustainability space, not only across borders, but with public-private partnerships. It's why I basically concluded with that as one of the topics I was talking to Bill about. I think he put it well. He didn't quite say it this way, but the way I would put it is that the climate issue is so big that it needs everybody's help. And governments will need to lead.”

As well as the humanitarian need, there’s a strong business case for politicians in Cascadia to invest in climate innovation strategies. Cleantech businesses are booming in the area, with companies in B.C., Washington, and Oregon amassing more than $2 billion in venture capital equity: more than half of which was raised since the start of 2020. Much of the region’s climate tech companies draw from the Pacific Northwest’s historic strengths, including the aviation and maritime fields, as well as its long-standing expertise in hydrogen innovation, software engineering, batteries, and agriculture. This innate expertise held by the region’s workers – as well as the new magnitude of cash on hand – is a boon to jobs in the area, and one that can reach across borders.

“The West Coast has demonstrated that if you want to have a robust, dynamic, and productive economy, get on the clean energy bandwagon,” Washington State Governor Jay Inslee reiterated via videolink on the conference’s closing day. “Because [some of] the number one economies in the world today are the West Coast, United States, and British Columbia. And one of the reasons is because we're growing jobs like crazy in the clean energy, high tech, and innovative economy. We have shown that this is not a hypothetical – it's not a marketing bumper sticker. It's an economy that is zooming.”

Exporting climate tech will only become more important as the years go on. It hardly bears repeating that in the last 10 years, North America alone has seen unprecedented damage to local economies, ecosystems, and social systems from extreme weather, including floods, storms, droughts, heatwaves, and – as today proves – wildfires. With disaster, though, comes business opportunities. The climate tech industry is predicted to reach a valuation surpassing USD $16 billion by the end of the year – one which, to an economy shored up by booming greentech businesses, could prove transformative. For a region that already possesses the historical expertise as well as the political bent for clean energy, investing in climate tech is both a future-proof and lucrative bet for Cascadian states and provinces.

Uniting the region

That collaboration, however, is easier said than done. As Smith himself notes, Microsoft’s analysis of connections on LinkedIn determined that people in Vancouver were more likely to connect with those in Toronto than Seattle, and that their U.S. compatriots had far more contacts to the south than across the 49th parallel. That’s not to mention the skyrocketing housing prices in the area – an affliction that B.C., Washington, and Oregon share – which requires the building of more homes and increasing transit options between towns, cities, and over borders to allow for free movement. Smith is confident, though, that the strengthening of cultural ties is the first step to building a region that encourages a flow of people, ideas, and innovation.

“I think that the more we can recognize that [...] we're neighbors in a common community, that we need to and can help each other in a common community – that to me is what it's about,” says Smith of a connected Cascadia. “And then you're going to see, I think, communities within the broader community. So you have a life sciences community, you have a transportation community, you have a tech community. I am excited, in part, about the community that can be fostered even more with the First Nations peoples in British Columbia, and the tribes in say, Washington State and Oregon. That's a common people that is divided by a line that came long after they came. And I think it's a powerful reminder of the fact that you shouldn't let these kinds of lines divide people.”

B.C. Premier John Horgan, Washington State Governor Jay Inslee, Oregon State Governor Kate Brown, and California State Governor Gavin Newsom joined the conference via videolink. Photo: Robert Ritchie Photography.

The practicality of how to unify the three locales is something to which Oregon’s State Governor Kate Brown has given much thought. As the area’s leader since 2015, Brown has seen the rise in calls for regional connection over her seven years in office, including from the first Cascadia Innovation Corridor conference in 2016. While highlighting the cultural similarities between populations is a good first step to fortifying collaboration, she rates the importance of public-private partnerships that reach over state lines as vital to the regional mission.

“I think there's so many ways, obviously, [that the] West Coast states – along with our partners in B.C. – [can build public-private partnerships] through the Pacific Coast Collaborative,” she tells the audience during the closing panel of the conference. “That's a regional strategy. Governor Inslee – his team and my team on the ground – are working on the Pacific Northwest hydrogen hub. We're hoping to access federal dollars and build a green energy hydrogen hub here in the Pacific Northwest. But it's also, frankly, going to take partnerships with the private sector. I'm really pleased to see the work happening on the ground here in Oregon with PGE and Daimler Northwest. They built Electric Island. It is the first commercial, public, heavy-duty and medium-duty charging station, I believe on the entire West Coast. And maybe also as well, in the United States. That's the kind of work that only happens through strong public-private partnerships.”

Microsoft – as one of the largest private organizations – is no stranger to this approach. An anchor company in Seattle with a particularly strong presence in Vancouver, the computing giant has already played an important role in financing partnerships. As well as fronting the money for the Cascadia corridor’s high-speed rail feasibility study, it has been involved in forming a number of advisory committees to advance the region. Where the business excels though, Smith says, is in its capacity for community-building.

“If there's one thing that has been at the heart of what I've always hoped that Microsoft could do in Vancouver, it's to contribute not just to the growth in employment, but to the growth of a community spirit for the tech sector,” he says. “So we've been doing that since day one. I don't think we're today the largest tech employer, but I always hope we will be the most community-minded, at least of the American tech employers. And we'll use that community mindset to both foster community opportunity in Vancouver and B.C. as a whole, as we have done as a champion of the super-corridor from day one. But also, really champion this spirit of Cascadia, and foster – through our words and our deeds and our investments – real work to bring people together.”

Actions for the future

The last day of the Cascadia Innovation Corridor conference looks much like the first. The sky is still choked with smoke – Blaine has slipped into the bottom-10 locations in the world for air quality, according to my app – and when I head outside in the break between panels, my contact lenses feel gritty. Although White Rock is just two kilometers away, it’s too hazy to pick out its iconic pier.

A few minutes before, the leaders of the Cascadia region – British Columbia’s premier, Oregon and Washington’s state governors, and for the first time, California’s state governor – signed their latest memorandum of understanding. This one focused solely on climate justice. Each government, it said, would commit to continuing the work of the Pacific Coast Collaborative through ongoing dedication to advancing energy systems, buildings, transportation, food-waste management, low carbon construction, clean economic growth, climate resilience, and ocean acidification. In more concrete terms, it means that each has recommitted to share best practices and data, as well as build and connect physical, economic, and social infrastructure in the region that accelerates a transition to a clean energy future. For outgoing B.C. Premier John Horgan, that collaboration – as well as government leadership – is essential.

“Innovation requires intervention,” he said as the signed memorandum was unveiled. “And that's the four of us all working together with the innovators and the job-creators in our communities to get the job done. And never has there been [this] opportunity, as we've seen right now, for our four jurisdictions. I think together, we're the fifth largest economy [...] on the globe, with the most innovative economy anywhere, and we need to take advantage of that. We need to applaud and encourage that private sector innovation by putting in place government programs that will allow them to not just survive, but to thrive.”

Memoranda of understanding, however, should just be the beginning. Not a legally binding or enforceable document, the agreement represents a sentiment rather than a plan. In the past two years alone, the 2020 wildfires burned more than five million acres across the West Coast, destroying towns, homes, and businesses. In 2021, the flooding in B.C. was the most costly natural disaster in Canadian history. Right now, the West is facing a megadrought with some of the most dangerous rainfall conditions in history, and we are experiencing nearly a 25 percent reduction in the snowpack. Those concrete actions – the leaps forward in innovation and collaboration promised at the conference – need to come next. And they need to come soon.

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