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Business Commentary Canadians need to hear politicians’ plans for a resilient economy

Jim Dewald is dean of the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary. Adam Legge is president and CEO of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce.

The Globe and Mail is hosting a debate on the economy among the leaders of the three main political parties on Thursday at 8 pm (ET). Click here for more details.

We are more than halfway through the federal election campaign, and finally we have a debate focused exclusively on the economy. Although each of the leaders contend that the economy is a key issue, they have mostly so far just traded jabs on whether or not Canada is in a recession, and how broad it may be. With such an important decision ahead, the electorate needs more.

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Our hope is that when federal party leaders gather here in Calgary for The Globe and Mail leaders' debate on the economy, they will get into the real meat of addressing how Canada can position its economy to benefit – if not exploit – the long-term shifts in emerging fields such as automation, genomics, nanotechnology, machine learning and energy storage. How do we prepare for the opportunities ahead while also addressing the challenges that will shape the economic future of Canada, particularly when we are starting from a position of weakness?

This month, the Conference Board released its Innovation Report Card, which noted that Canada sits well back of peer countries when it comes to innovation, earning itself a "C" grade, with low marks in productivity and business enterprise research and development. This result is the culmination of decades of neglect, and Canadians deserve an honest and thoughtful explanation as to how our country will learn from its mistakes and make the right decisions and investments to earn us not only an "A" grade but finally move toward Canada being a far more diverse and resilient economy.

Our world has entered into a number of fundamental technology shifts that will change employment, investment, innovation and productivity outputs.

– Machine learning represents next-generation computing, where computers are able to learn and retain new knowledge independent of human programming. What does this mean to the work force and our economic growth potential?

– Advances in genomic research and development hold the promise of radically altered health care and extended life. Can our social systems accommodate another 20-plus years of life?

– Nanotechnology is altering the strength and resilience of materials, including food groups, that could drastically impact material replacement and manufacturing costs.

– The meteoric rise of 3-D printing applications and availability could have a significant impact on productivity and employment. The manufacturing industry may be totally turned on its head – what does that mean for the Canadian economy?

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– Alternative energy sources and demand-reduction strategies are combining to shift the long-term prospects for Canada's energy sector.

– Automated vehicles could shift infrastructure needs radically while reducing accidents. What are the ramifications for investment, construction jobs and health care?

Each of these general purpose technologies holds the potential for paradigmatic change in employment, wealth generation and economic drive. The leaders need to address how Canada will lead, exploit, adapt and prosper under these circumstances, especially when the pace of change is accelerating exponentially, rather than in a predictable, linear fashion.

As we prepare for this opportunity, however, they must also address two traditional Achilles heels for Canadian business: One, greater access to capital to start, grow and keep our companies in Canada. And, two, our need to have strong access to a diversity of foreign markets. How will the leaders work to ensure Canadian companies propel economic development and job growth through global market penetration?

We need to find ways that ensure we have the ability to finance growing and emerging companies, keep them in Canada and make them globally competitive.

At the leaders' debate, it is essential that leaders be challenged to explain how Canada can break free from our existing economic constraints and usher in a new era of prosperity. No doubt as developing regions of the world, such as Asia and the Middle East, gain more and more influence, our ability to compete and prosper will continue to slide downward without a bold and concrete plan for our economic future.

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No one can predict with certainty when technological or energy transitions will take hold, but whether it is near or not, Canadians deserve a true vision of the economic future of our country. What ideas do our leaders have of how they will each tap into the best minds and use this period of transition as a lever to ensure economic prosperity and leadership for generations to come?

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