Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

It’s Canada’s moment to become a global innovation leader

Robert Greenhill is Executive chairman of Global Canada Initiative and a former president of the Canadian International Development Agency.

Canada finds itself in a unique position at a distinct time in history. We are suddenly and auspiciously the nation with the greatest immediate capacity to make a positive difference and help solve some of the world's biggest challenges.

We may be the smallest G7 country, but we are positioned to punch well above our weight. Meanwhile, the United States and Britain are in the midst of political turmoil. France and Germany are engrossed in domestic challenges and European Union reform. Italy and Japan are lodged in a financial quagmire. We are the ones left standing, a kind of custodian of hope in a world adrift, stubbornly insisting on the values that have come to represent the "Canadian way": peace, order, and good government, diversity and equality, and the value of scientific research and technology.

Story continues below advertisement

As we advance Canada's prosperity in the new global economy, we may be well-served adding innovation to these core values, too. Canada is emerging as a leader in exponential technologies – rapidly accelerating areas such as artificial intelligence, robotics, quantum computing, and synthetic biology. We must leverage our potential and the elements of innovation Canada has become adept in: technological and scientific excellence and the capacity for collaborative problem solving.

When it comes to investing in research at postsecondary institutions, Canada ranks first among G7 countries and eighth among OECD countries. The Canadian government's intense focus on innovation, evidence-based policy and sound immigration strategy further propelled Canada into the spotlight at a time when the United States was making broad cuts to scientific research and closing its doors to international talent.

These moves are paying dividends. In the 2017 World Economic Forum's ranking, three Canadian cities have been named among the world's top 25 high-tech locales.

We've seen global technology firms follow that talent: JLABS chose Toronto for its first outpost outside the US, at MaRS. Cisco and Versant both launched major ventures here. Facebook opened FAIR in Montreal, its second AI intelligence lab outside of the US, and Singularity University has launched its pan-Canada community earlier this month.

Meanwhile, it's no coincidence that Canadian cities – including Vancouver, Toronto, Calgary and Waterloo, Ont. – are lining up as heavy hitters in the search for Amazon's second headquarters. Toronto has led the way with Toronto Global, tasked with bringing big business to the Greater Toronto Area.

Canada is increasingly positioned to win the global war for talent. At the university level, we already hear tales of the brain drain from the United States, this time with the goods flowing north.

"When tech giants like Facebook decide to invest in our cities, that is not only a testament to the world-class talent of our people, but also to Canada's enormous potential as an innovation and tech hub," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said at the opening of the Facebook's facility in Montreal.

Story continues below advertisement

Commitment to creating the environment and culture where innovation can flourish means collaboration among entrepreneurs, organizations, institutions and governments.

Here, Canada shines, too, as we begin to connect the innovation dots between cities, with the public and private sector working together to create high-tech corridors and superclusters that will supercharge technological growth.

Last but not least, we are good at diversity – a well-documented driver of innovation. Nurturing our own diversity here at home and opening our doors to global talent, through initiatives like the Start-up Visa Program, can only make us smarter and stronger. We must continue to attract and retain the best of the world's best minds, while incentivizing our successful companies to grow here at home.

Canada is the underdog no more. We must be cognizant that in today's world, innovations and improvements can be shared rapidly across boundaries.

Similarly, negative developments, whether infectious diseases, cybercrime or terrorism, can be shared with equal speed. Canadian innovation can extend to the public-policy sphere as well. Exponential technologies could result in exponential risk. Canada could play a lead role in developing flexible but effective governance systems to avoid a regulatory "Wild West" in emerging technologies.

We must not miss this opportunity to focus on the positive difference we can make and bring our values to the world under this new banner of Canadian innovation.

Story continues below advertisement

In the wake of Bombardier giving a controlling interest in the C Series aircraft to Airbus, Andrew Willis asks: What will it take for Canada to stop being a loser when it comes to high-tech industries.
Report an error
Tickers mentioned in this story
Unchecking box will stop auto data updates
We have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We expect to have our new commenting system, powered by Talk from the Coral Project, running on our site by the end of April, 2018. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.