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Bank towers at the four corners of King St. West and Bay St. are photographed on Oct 1, 2018. Clockwise from left are ScotiaBank, Bank of Montreal, TD and CIBC.

Fred Lum

Bilal Khan is the new managing partner and head of Deloitte Data

At every moment of every day, data courses through our lives. It is the lifeblood of the new economy.

The world is rapidly transforming. Cities are becoming smarter with sensor technologies, industry is becoming more productive with artificial intelligence (AI), we’re developing medical breakthroughs in cancer therapies and medical genetics, and our world is more connected than ever.

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But what many of us may not realize is that if we don’t find a way to enable our institutions to harness the enormous power of our collective and rapidly growing data assets, Canada risks being left behind in the world.

The recent uproar regarding Statistics Canada’s request for anonymized banking data shows that many of us are uncomfortable with and unaware of just how much of our data is already out there – and who has access to it. While the rights and protections of Canadian consumers are of paramount importance, in many ways we are having the wrong debate.

Responsible and ethical use of data is vital for our future.

The subject of debate should not be if we embrace and use the data our institutions and governments have collected – with our permission – but rather, how we will use data; how will we capitalize on the opportunity this information presents?

If we as Canadians want to be part of the new economy, if we want data to continue to shape our lives in positive ways, we need to solve the “how” – and fast.

Our ability to use data in the private and public sector is critical. We are in the earliest moments of this once-in-a-generation transformation and the reality is that first movers in the data economy will dominate the next century of economic growth. The gap between the leaders and laggards will continue to get wider with each passing year.

Early movers will set the rules, regulations and standards for the rest of us to follow – and likely to our detriment.

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It is a crisis of epic proportions when foreign multinationals – the biggest technology companies, online retailers and social networking sites – have a more accurate depiction of Canadians, and the Canadian economy, than Canadian institutions have. Often, we reflexively give permission to these companies to collect information about us without any understanding of how our data will be used. The Statscan debate shows we are more critical and suspicious of our own national institutions than we are of foreign entities.

This is a problem.

Those with the deepest and most sophisticated data sets will have a major social and business competitive advantage over everyone else. The earlier an organization starts collecting data and using it for advanced purposes, the more powerful this asset becomes.

Canada has made significant investments in deep learning and has positioned itself as a leader in AI. But the benefits of these investments are predominantly realized outside of our country. And we are losing ground.

Every major U.S. technology company has now built an AI lab in Canada, benefiting from the immense pool of talent our country develops. The intellectual property and wealth generated from these ideas goes back to headquarters, and boosts prosperity south of our border.

The challenge is to reorient ourselves such that we are pro-active, rather than reactive. We must become rule-setters and not rule-takers. If we continue on the defensive, we will give away the single biggest economic opportunity of our generation.

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We need to ensure data are used responsibly and we lead the world in the development of an ethical data framework. We must hold the private and public sector accountable should they go offside. That’s much easier to do with Canadian enterprises. When data sits beyond our borders, we have little transparency or recourse when there is abuse of our rules and regulations.

This is not a task for government or business alone. We need a collaborative strategy for prosperity. One that empowers both Canadian businesses and policy-makers to take action in pursuit of our common goals, and demonstrate global leadership in the face of the opportunities and challenges that the new economy presents.

We are all playing for team Canada. And we need to develop a public-private partnership model that has everyone working together with Canadian prosperity and national competitiveness central in our approach.

As Canadians, our largest employers are our financial institutions, retailers and telecommunication companies; they’re an integral part of our daily lives, at the heart of our economy, and we all benefit from their success.

We have a small window within which to position ourselves as leaders in the data revolution. If we get this right, we stand to reap enormous benefits for decades to come.

This is our chance; Canada, it’s time to lead.

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