Fessenden, Dr. Robert J.

2013 Outstanding Contribution to the Alberta Science and Technology Community, Honouree

Shaping Alberta into an Innovation Leader

Dr. Robert Fessenden’s 45-year career in science has helped shape the innovation landscape of Alberta and Canada.

He began his career as a research scientist and teacher, became a manager of applied science and technology in industry and government and then worked in science policy and economic development.

Simplicity on the other side of complexity – a phase attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes – is something that anyone who knows me will have heard me say.

Connecting to the Future

Dr. Fessenden has brought knowledge and experience from all of those perspectives to lead teams that explore innovative solutions, always focusing on the long term.

“It’s about connecting science and technical understanding to real-world application,” Dr. Fessenden says. “I’ve always wanted to contribute something relevant.” And he has been driven by his curiosity and a grand sense of adventure.

After a time as a lecturer followed by a successful stint in industry, Dr. Fessenden moved to his leadership positions within the Alberta Research Council (ARC) and then Alberta Science Research Authority (ASRA).

Global Presence

During that time he forged international relationships and advanced Alberta’s research and innovation position. He promoted Alberta as an attractive destination to conduct research, to invest and to commercialize products. And he led the charge to attract skilled people to Alberta. For the 12 years before his retirement in 2011, he was deputy minister in four departments in the Alberta government.

Dr. Fessenden says collaboration is a major element in everything he has done in his career.

“I can’t lay claim to being the sole person driving anything that I’ve accomplished in my career,” he says. “I feel honoured and privileged to have worked with amazing people. And I’m proud to have played a role in what we’ve done.”

Framework for Success

Among his numerous accomplishments, his leadership for the development in 1998 of Alberta’s ICT Strategy laid the groundwork for the creation in 1999 of the Ministry of Innovation and Science and the subsequent development of SuperNet and iCORE, two significant technology initiatives for Alberta.

Dr. Fessenden enjoys tackling complex issues and distilling them into simple and effective strategies.

“Simplicity on the other side of complexity – a phase attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes – is something that anyone who knows me will have heard me say,” he says. He says that concept played a key role in his work on the Premier’s Council for Economic Strategy that resulted in recommendations outlined in the Shaping Alberta’s Future report. As deputy minister of the Premier’s Council, Dr. Fessenden played a key role in attracting knowledgeable people to participate, facilitating their discussions and producing the report.

“Shaping Alberta’s Future provides a roadmap on several levels – strategic and tactical – about what Albertans can do now to sustain prosperity for the next three decades and beyond,” he says.

Two years after he officially retired Dr. Fessenden continues to be an outstanding ambassador for science and innovation in Alberta and Canada. He’s immersed in his work on several Expert Panels for the Council of Canadian Academies and hopeful that what he describes as “a new paradigm for innovation” will guide Alberta’s innovation agenda.

That is the essence of Dr. Fessenden’s life’s work – built on cornerstones of teamwork, collaboration, leadership and dedication.