Canada’s Innovation Path Forward

Back to articles
December 9, 2019

Canada’s Innovation Path Forward

Originally published on the Sixth Estate by Dale Smith. Click here to read the original.

While innovation was a priority during the Trudeau government’s first mandate, it remains an open question as to whether the government will keep it at the policy forefront now that they are facing a hung parliament. Before the Bell brought together a panel of experts and stakeholders to discuss the future of Canadian innovation initiatives.

David Coletto, CEO of Abacus Data, cited polling that shows while 89 percent of respondents feel that technological change has been good for the world, 62 percent feel that same change will continue to disrupt the economy. Where the change feels most apparent is among lower- or working-class respondents, of whom 66 percent felt that technological change has been good for their own economic well-being, as compared with 87 percent of upper/middle class and 81 percent of middle class respondents. Coletto added that there is also a link between those who resist technological change and those who also resist immigration, because they don’t feel included.

During the Pulse segment, hosted by David AkinMary Anne Carter, senior consultant with Earnscliffe Strategy Group, said that in the previous Parliament, the government was trying to use innovation to bring investment to Canada.

“There’s been a stark shift, where the focus will be predominantly on privacy issues, cyber-security, and we can proof this by the Liberals’ platform, wherein there was virtually no mention of innovation leading into the election,” said Carter. “Now there’s a focus on how are we securing your privacy around things like AI, and a digital sales tax.”

Robin MacLachlan, vice-president of Summa Strategies, said that much of the innovation language the government was using in the previous Parliament didn’t connect with voters.

“Look at the Strategic Innovation Fundover four years — it started with big-picture innovation, and it ended up funding oil and gas, steel and aluminum – all the traditional industries that were hurt by trade disruptions, changes in the economy, and the environmental movement,” said MacLachlan. “I think that spoke volumes as to where the Liberals found the blind spot in their policy.”

Denise Siele, stakeholder engagement and public affairs consultant, said that it’s difficult to just broadly fund innovation because it has to come from a place of need.

“Out of desperation comes innovation,” said Siele. “When industries are facing economic crises, then you start to see scaling-up and figuring out how to do things better.”

During the Policy segment, with host and Sixth Estate President Andrew BeattieJill Schnarr, vice-president of corporate citizenship and communications with Telus, said that as a telecom provider, they are ensuring access to low-income individuals in order to enable equality of opportunity. Schnarr also noted that Telus is creating a new agricultural business unit.

“We are digitally transforming farming in Canada,” said Schnarr. “If you look at what’s coming by 2050 because of increases in population, food production will need to increase by something like 70 percent, and how are we going to do that without having a negative effect on the environment? The answer is technology. It’s enabling farmers to better utilize their lands, to ensure more efficiency and effectiveness in their crops.”

Teresa Marques, president and CEO of the Rideau Hall Foundation— the charity established by former Governor General David Johnston — said that part of the foundation’s mission is to help foster a culture of innovation in the country, and to celebrate innovators.

“Canada has a long and storied history of being a nation of innovation, and it’s something we should take pride in, from the canoe — which made Canada much more accessible and was one of the truly great innovations of our Indigenous peoples — to the Canadarm, making the globe and the universe more accessible,” said Marques. “We have medical innovations like insulin or the HIV cocktail, or the pacemaker — or even peanut butter, which is an important Canadian innovation.” Indeed, contrary to popular belief, peanut butter was not invented by George Washington Carver but was first patented in 1884 by Montreal chemist Marcellus Gilmore Edson.

Caroline Abela, director and chief product owner with Export Development Canada’s Knowledge Business, said that although the Canadian brand is strong globally and international

buyers say they love doing business with Canada, our innovation standing is slipping. “When you look at the macro data, it actually doesn’t look that hot,” Abela said. “There were a number of global indices that were just recently released that demonstrate that Canada is slipping in terms of global competitiveness, and we’re slipping specifically as it pertains to innovation.”

Abela added that the anecdotal evidence is more positive – there’s a lot of buzz around Canada. “The fact that Canada was able to attract the Conference Collision to Toronto was a huge sign of the fact that Canada is up and coming in the technology space,” she said.

Abela said that generationally, young entrepreneurs are leveraging innovation and technology across different industries to do a lot of social good. While there are trends, the tipping point won’t come until implementation of AI and data across all sectors.

Doug Wotherspoon, executive director of business development at Algonquin College, said that colleges and universities need to help people get prepared not only for their first career, but also their second and third. He added that education provides an economic point of entry for new immigrants.

“Education is not enough – what does the second, third and fourth career education and learning culture look like?” said Wotherspoon. “It goes to that mindset of creating safety and security for all Canadians.”